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Posts Tagged ‘Donnie Yen’

Cinema is an international art form, of course, and as such most of its forms are, generally speaking, much of a muchness all around the world. Given that we currently live in a world which is dominated by western and especially American culture, it’s not really surprising that it’s Hollywood movies that influence those from elsewhere in the world, rather than vice versa, and that those rare genres which originated outside the Anglophone world tend not to translate well into the English-speaking idiom. No-one makes giant monster movies in quite the same way they do in Japan, for example (although to be fair this genre had its roots in American B-movies).

I’ve written in the past about the difference between American and Asian martial arts movies, too – although the key difference is really that in American cinema, the martial arts action movie is a (usually fairly disreputable) genre in its own right, largely comprising undistinguished movies starring bad actors. Not all of the Asian action stars are necessarily much better, of course, but what seems to me to be the case is that in Asian movies the martial arts content is just one element of the production – they make martial arts comedies, or martial arts thrillers, or martial arts romances, and so on. Even the martial arts historical bio-pic, as in Ip Man, directed by Wilson Yip, and starring Donnie Yen.

Everyone knows of ‘I liked this band before they were famous’ syndrome, and with Donnie Yen recently coming to prominence to a mass international audience for the first time following his winning turn in the last stellar conflict franchise film (the first man to bring kung fu to a galaxy far, far away), it would obviously be a bit pompous of me to point out that I’ve been singing Donnie Yen’s praises for over ten years – I would’ve sworn I said something nice about his fight choreography and cameo in Blade 2, but apparently not. Needless to say, Yen’s star seems to be waxing at present, and this movie shows why.

Here I suppose we are in the realm of the bio-pic based on the life of someone who is very obscure as far as most people are concerned. Ip Man’s fame rests on his role in the history of martial arts, in particular the Wing Chun style of kung fu. Perhaps more prosaically, he is also notable as the martial arts teacher of Bruce Lee, a fact which the movie draws attention to (even on its own poster). Quite how close to reality the film actually gets is another matter, of course.

The first act of the film is set in Foshan, a noted centre of martial arts culture, in the mid 1930s. Ip Man (Yen) doesn’t run his own school as the story starts, largely (one surmises) because Mrs Ip (Lynn Hung) is rather disapproving, and so he is content to live the life of a relatively affluent gentleman. Needless to say, he is a phenomenally gifted and skilled fighter, and events do keep transpiring that force him to fight. (Other masters insist on sparring with him, something he’s much too polite to refuse, rough out-of-towners must be taught a lesson for the honour of Foshan’s kung fu heritage, and so on.) This is all fairly genteel, as kung fu movies go, and actually genuinely funny in places – ‘Just try not to break anything,’ pouts Mrs Ip, as her husband prepares to do battle with a troublemaking ruffian (Fan Siu-wong) in the front parlour of their lovely home.

Then the story turns darker, as the Japanese invade China and Foshan is occupied by enemy forces. The Ips are forced out of their home and Ip Man has to seek work as a labourer. The general of the occupying Japanese army, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), is a dedicated karate expert and determined to show the superiority of Japanese martial arts over the local kind. Brutal matches between local kung fu fighters and karate experts from the Japanese army ensue, with bags of rice for any Chinese who win, and a beating (frequently unto death) for any who lose. Needless to say this is not Ip Man’s kind of scene at all, but soon enough he realises that the honour of his city, not to mention China itself, requires he stand up and be counted…

The film is somewhat more thoughtful and less schlocky than it probably sounds, not least because this isn’t just another exercise in hyperkinetic butt-whupping but a film which seems to have things to say about Chinese national identity. I’m not a particular expert on the Chinese kung fu movie, but this isn’t the first film I’ve seen which touches on the subject of a foreign-occupied China in the early part of the 20th century, nor the first which equates the mastery of kung fu with the indomitable Chinese spirit. (Here, perhaps, is the key difference between American and Chinese kung fu movies – in a US film, martial arts are always inevitably something slightly foreign and exotic, whereas in a Chinese movie, they’re an expression of an intrinsic part of the local culture.)

Perhaps as a result, the film has that solemn and slightly over-reverent tone that is usually the enemy of good drama: you just know that Ip Man is going to be portrayed as a paragon of virtue throughout, and the struggle of the Chinese against the occupying Japanese is likewise not much afflicted by shades of grey (that said, Miura is a generally honourable guy – enemy scumbag duties are hived off to his sadistic second-in-command). You would think this wouldn’t leave Yen a lot to work with as an actor, but he actually does a pretty decent job of suggesting Ip Man, the man – always assuming he really was as decent, modest, unassuming, and patriotically honourable as the film suggests.

(To be perfectly honest, it does seem like this movie casts loose of the anchor of historical accuracy fairly early on and sails off into some highly fictitious waters for most of its duration – but if I’m going to watch a kung fu movie, I’d much rather watch one where Donnie Yen takes on ten karate experts simultaneously than one which strictly adheres to what actually happened.)

Needless to say, Yen is stunning in the fight sequences which regularly punctuate the film. Apparently he had to work hard to brush up on his Wing Chun for this particular movie (I understand his background is in Tai Chi and Tae Kwon Do), but – obviously – I can’t possibly comment as to how authentic the fight choreography in the film is (the choreography is courtesy of Sammo Hung). Yen makes it all look very easy, of course –  perhaps a bit too easy, for Ip Man’s legendary status means that he’s never going to be seriously challenged at any point in the story.

As a result the movie is less effective as a drama than it could be, but the fight sequences are superb and there are some decent performances too. I suspect the film-makers’ desire to say something rousing and patriotic about Chinese national identity and the responsibilities of being a good citizen are going to leave most international viewers quite cold, but Ip Man is a well-mounted, reasonably well-written movie, and well worth a look if you like people being kicked in against a vaguely historical backdrop – especially if it’s Donnie Yen doing the kicking.

 

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Well, what a year it’s been so far at the cinema, and it’s still only the third week of January – A Monster Calls, Silence, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea all went on release in the space of a relatively few days, any of which individually would have been a great harbinger for the year to come. Collectively, it’s looking like an anno mirabilis, twelve months in which every movie proves to be a rewarding, sophisticated, intelligent work of art. But how long can this kind of quality continue?

xxx

Who knows, but let’s take a moment to look at D. J. Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, starring the great Vin Diesel. Now, you know me, I like Vin Diesel, broadly speaking, and will give anything he does a fair hearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that Vin has a dark secret known to only a select few with access to an obscure website known as ‘Wikipedia’.

Once upon a time there was a sincere young artist called Mark Sinclair. Mark was a screenwriter, director and actor who spent his time working on heartfelt, serious films about what it was like to be of ambiguous ethnicity in the modern USA, breakdancing, and playing a lot of purist Dungeons & Dragons. And then something happened. Just as the virtuous and heroic Anakin Skywalker was consumed and obliterated by the dark animus of Darth Vader, so no-one ever seems to hear from Mark Sinclair any more, but we do get regular offerings from Mark’s alter ego Vin Diesel, who seems unlikely to make a heartfelt, serious film about anything, but seems very comfortable playing a tree in various Marvel Comics movies.

So it is with the utterly mind-boggling xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Now, for anyone not following along (wise souls), the xXx series was launched in 2002 as a tough-guy vehicle for Vin Diesel, then riding high after the first Fast and Furious movie, but – somewhat bizarrely – continued in his absence when he dropped out of 2005’s xXx: State of the Union to make the eminently forgettable comedy The Pacifier. Roll on over ten years and we still find Diesel there or thereabouts when it comes to movie stardom, but still one of those people whose ability to open a movie is severely limited: people will go to see him in droves for Fast and Furious sequels, and to a lesser extent in films about his Riddick character, but anything else with him on-screen struggles to get a wide release (here in the UK anyway). One might even suggest that this very belated return to the xXx series puts one in mind of a dog returning to his own… you know what, let’s not even complete that image, as things are going to get unsavoury enough, I suspect.

The first scene sets the tone quite well, as Samuel L Jackson (barely appearing) delivers a bafflegab lecture about the need for the xXx programme, wherein people with minimal actual skills but bags of kewl attitude are recruited to save the world. The gag is that he is talking to Neymar Junior, who I understand is a football player, and the lad almost at once gets to show his potential by using his ace keepy-uppy skills to subdue an armed robber. No, honestly.

Well, anyway. The CIA have got their hands on a evil Maguffin widget capable of blowing lots of things up, and no-nonsense CIA dominatrix Toni Collette (really slumming it) is not best pleased when a bunch of scallywags led by Donnie Yen break into the building, cause all kinds of mayhem, and run off with it to their top-secret lair, which is a beach resort in the Philippines.

The CIA decide to disregard the fact that former top agent Xander Cage (Mark Sincl – sorry, Vin Diesel) died in the previous sequel and ask him to come back and get the evil widget out of Donnie Yen’s hands. Naturally he says yes, or this would be a very short film. Up to this point proceedings have been rather vacuous, but once Vin gets going… well, calling this film empty-headed would be a profound insult to Barbie dolls everywhere.

See Vin ski through the jungle. See Vin skateboard down a road against the flow of traffic. See Vin get his end away with someone half his age. See the CIA try to recruit Vin. See him scorn and mock them but agree to help out anyway. See Vin lech at more young women. See him track down the incredibly hard-to-find bad guys in about eight seconds flat. See him get his end away again. See the CIA assign Vin a backup squad of uptight soldiers who sneer at his rebel ways. See Vin throw them all out the back of a plane in flight. See Vin juggle grenades at a beach party. See Vin flirt laboriously with imported Bollywood star Deepika Padukone. See Vin ride a motorcycle, underwater. And so on (this is just the first act of the movie, more or less).

I mean, I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It is admittedly never completely dull, although this is in the same sense that it’s not dull being inside an oil drum being repeatedly struck by baseball bats, and there are at least a couple of sequences in which we get to see Donnie Yen in full flow, which is always a cherishable experience (Tony Jaa, who also features, is much less well-served), and there is at least one laugh-out-loud in-joke about this series’ somewhat peculiar production history.

If I were a young person I think I would feel profoundly insulted by this movie, as it seems to operate according to the belief that all young people are congenital morons capable only of involvement on the most superficial of levels – that, or the film is intended to be enjoyed with the dreaded ironic sensibility (but I really doubt this as it would require a subtlety utterly lacking in all other departments of the movie). Vin dismisses the trained soldiers originally assigned to back him up, instead plumping for a tattooed lesbian sharpshooter (I suppose she does have some utility for the mission), an unhinged stunt driver whose hobby is crashing into things, and a kid whose main talent is that he is a really good DJ. I mean, what? What? Being young and edgy can only take you so far in life.

Nor does it last, of course: and perhaps it might be worthwhile for someone to have a quiet word in Vin Diesel’s shell-like, to the effect that having extensive inks and wearing cargo pants all the time only go so far in disguising the fact that you are a grown man pushing fifty but still really acting like a teenager. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a grown man who appears to be having a mid-life crisis of some kind. One scene has Vin, who has chosen to turn up in an extraordinary fur coat which even a mid-1970s football manager would quail at wearing, being descended upon by half-a-dozen young lingerie models – the next we see, they are all in a happy, stupefied heap, with our hero standing nearby looking as smug as only a highly-paid actor-producer can.

And it just radiates a kind of lazy contempt for its target audience – these kids are stupid! Just stick in a load of overblown stunt sequences and hot young women in swimsuits and they won’t care if the plot is just an absurd assembly of set pieces! Let’s keep on about what a rebel Vin’s character is even though he hardly ever does anything especially rebellious that isn’t also ridiculously stupid! Let’s keep on with those cool and edgy credentials – anyone in a suit is the Man and evil (except for Sam Jackson, he’s cool) and anyone into extreme sports is great!

I still like Vin Diesel a lot. I’m looking forward to Fast and Furious 8 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 very much. But this is like the dark, twisted, idiot brother of a Fast and Furious film: sexist, soulless, and calculating in a particularly thick-headed way. I like an absurd action movie as much as the next person (probably), but this film works much too hard at being actively stupid. Return of Xander Cage sets the bar for this year’s crop of thicko movies impressively low. I wouldn’t be surprised if xXx turned out to be the xXXxiest film of 2017.

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