Posts Tagged ‘Jet Li’

Good God, did I really ask my rental company to send me The Expendables? I fear it must be so. Quite possibly a textbook example of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ (at least, I assume it did: I have no memory of actually requesting this film). I saw this at the cinema back in 2010 and was not particularly impressed, but it’s got two of my favourite performers in it – so I can only presume I decided to give it a second chance for their sake.


Sylvester Stallone’s movie concerns itself with the doings of a biker gang/mercenary team. On said team are Stallone himself as the grizzled leader, Mr Jason Statham as an ex-SAS knife thrower (no-one seems to have told J about the ex-SAS bit as he deploys his standard it’s-supposed-to-be-American accent regardless), Jet Li as (surprise, surprise) a martial arts expert, Dolph Lundgren as a giant crazy dude, and a couple of wrestlers I’d never heard of.

After cheerfully executing some Somali pirates at the top of the film, the Expendables head home to wait for their next mission. This comes courtesy of Bruce Willis, playing a shadowy intelligence operator, but to get the job Stallone has to fend off rival mercenary Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger). You would think that any scene with these three acting together would be memorable simply because it’s so iconic: but you would be wrong, mainly because they don’t seem to be acting together, just vaguely in the same vicinity. There is no chemistry between them, most of the jokes fall painfully flat, and you’re actually quite relieved when Arnie and Willis quickly bugger off.

In the end Stallone accepts the job of knocking over the president of a banana republic in Central America – he has teamed up with a renegade CIA agent to sell drugs, or something. Stallone and Statham pop over there to do a spot of reconnaissance, disguised as the world’s least plausible birdwatchers, not realising that their embittered former colleague Lundgren has got in touch with the opposition and is negotiating to sell them out…

Now, as action movies go, it’s pretty much inarguable that The Expendables has an all-star cast, even if some of those stars haven’t got quite the degree of fame they had a couple of decades ago. However, it seems pretty clear that a pre-existing action movie script has been savagely cobbled about to find roles for them all, because with the exceptions of Stallone and Statham hardly anyone gets the amount of screen time or action that you might expect. Okay, Arnie and Willis are just in one very short scene, and appear uncredited, but Jet Li’s hardly in the film either, and most of the wrestlers don’t get much to do outside of the third act.

One of the advantages that Expendables 2 had over the original was that the writers seemed much more aware of who was actually on the cast list and were able to tailor the script to suit them. Things seem much more hit and miss here, and the story barely seems to acknowledge the nature of the cast – for this film really to work as ‘action legends together at last’ you might expect the various lead cast members to reprise the various schticks they are best known for – in the course of the story, Li would fight twelve people at once, Statham would fight a giant in a garage, and so on. But there’s nothing really like this going on – the one point where the film shows signs of being what you’re hoping for is when Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren take each other on, and even this is so incoherently edited it loses most of its excitement.

And so we are left with a very ordinary, very unreconstructed, entirely subtext-free action movie full of big muscly men who can’t act (also Li and Statham, of course) running around shooting machine guns and slaughtering stuntmen by the dozen. It’s all so earnest and straightforward (not to mention hackneyed) that one almost wonders if it’s in fact a deadpan spoof of the genre. It can’t be a spoof; a spoof would have more charm and probably be a lot more fun.

This is the weird thing about The Expendables: for a film about red-blooded guys doing manly things (riding motorbikes, drinking beer, getting tattooed, shooting guns, hitting each other, deposing Central American dictators) the tone of the thing is actually rather mournful. Mickey Rourke pops up and delivers a monologue about failing to prevent a suicide, at the end of which he actually starts crying. Statham gets his own subplot in which it turns out his girl has been straying with one of the local basketball players – this at least means Statham gets an individual fight where he beats up the team and delivers the line ‘Next time I’ll deflate all your balls!’, but it doesn’t look like he and his young lady are likely to get back together any time soon.

In short, this film is not jolly or cheesy; it is – quite inappropriately – dark and brooding. (I never knew how to waterboard someone until I first watched The Expendables, because it happens to the leading lady at some length.) Possibly Stallone the director was aware of what a piece of ridiculous fluff this could have turned out to be, and the gloominess of the film is his way of ensuring that people will still take The Expendables seriously as a drama.

Except there’s no way that was ever going to happen, with a cast-list stuffed with ex-wrestlers, knowing in-jokey cameos from famous faces, and a ludicrous plot development at the end: a character who went bad and was apparently mortally wounded after trying to kill his former friends shows up, forgiven, back on the team and with only a dab of sticking plaster to show he was ever hurt in the first place.

It’s almost as if the creators of The Expendables intentionally set out to produce a film which avoided making the best use of its considerable assets. Instead of a knowingly cheesy action romp – a sort of testosterone-drizzled equivalent of Mamma Mia – stuffed with big names, what this film actually appears to want to be is a thoughtful drama about the existential crisis affecting modern masculinity. With explosions. Let’s be clear: neither The Expendables nor Expendables 2 is anything approaching a good movie (and heaven knows what Expendables 3 is going to turn out like), but at least the sequel is silly and fun. This one is just silly.

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(Contains plot spoilers. And a misrepresentation, for hopefully comic effect, of the Belgian accent.)

Time for yet another edition of our regular strand, Oh God, Not Another One. And perhaps never was that title so well-deserved, as we turn our attention to Simon West’s unfathomable The Expendables 2. A friend of mine knows someone who’s a proper film critic, and managed to wangle a free ticket to the press screening. ‘Ambivalent’ is perhaps not the word to describe his response: ‘The worst film ever made,’ he declared. ‘Must be better than the first one, surely,’ I protested. ‘Oh yes,’ he agreed, leaving me a bit confused, but unshaken in my keenness to see it.

Anyone who is not a fairly hard-core Trekkie may be surprised to learn that plans were at one point afoot for Eddie Murphy, then at the height of his popularity, to play a major role in Star Trek IV (he was pencilled in to play the character who ended up as Captain Kirk’s love interest – there’s an image that’ll stick with you). However, the suits at Paramount vetoed the idea – why release a Star Trek movie with Eddie Murphy in it, when they could release a Star Trek movie and an Eddie Murphy movie and thus double their potential success? I suppose the Expendables films deserve some credit for doing a similar thing, only in reverse – with Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Norris and the rest of them all appearing in one film at the same time, it makes them much easier to avoid than if they were all in separate individual projects. The only flaw in the logic of this is that many of these people don’t actually have viable theatrical careers anymore, having long since moved on to the great DTDVD bin in the sky.

Hey ho. After some jolly opening slaughter, which at least includes Jet Li fighting half a dozen people in a kitchen (pretty much his only contribution to the film), our mercenary heroes head home. The slaughter itself is well-staged, even if it includes the first of many groansome in-jokes, and went on so long I began to wonder if the film was going to have any kind of plot or character development at all. It does, and we are presented with the sight of half-a-dozen extremely burly men crammed into the same frame trying to exchange wisecracks in the basso-profundo growl which is the vocal register of nearly everyone in the movie. (Ooh, tell a lie: Charisma Carpenter’s in this bit, too, but she only has about three lines.) This bit is mainly to introduce us to Billy, the youngest and freshest-faced of the Expendables. He is played by Liam Hemsworth (yes, one of the Thor triplets). It is made quite clear that everyone else loves Billy (in a very platonic way, of course), and lead Expendable Barney (Stallone) applauds his decision to quit the soldier-of-fortune line to spend more time with his lovely girlfriend. But even for mercenaries, contractual obligations apply and Billy is happy to work out his notice period.

Yes, the film stresses, the youngest and most popular guy on the team, who wasn’t even in the first one, is going to leave to be with his sweetheart – all he has to do is survive to the end of the month. The film-makers don’t actually superimpose a bullseye on Hemsworth’s chest at this point, or have him followed around by someone dressed in a robe and carrying a scythe, but the effect is very much the same. Anyway, at this point Bruce Willis pops up as employer/irritant Church and gives the guys a mission – to retrieve an important McGuffin that’s been lost in a plane crash in Albania. ‘It will be a piece of cake,’ he assures Stallone, which is of course Action Movie-ese for ‘difficult, time-consuming and protractedly violent’.

Off they fly to Albania where they indeed retrieve the McGuffin with the help of a new Expendable, Maggie (Yu Nan). But wait! Who is this emerging through the fog to menace our heroes but the villain? The villain’s name is Jean Vilain (thoughtful writing here, I think you’ll agree), and he is portrayed by – oh dear Lord – Jean-Claude Van Damme. He admires Stallone’s fixation with skull-themed ornaments, then reveals he himself has a tattoo of a goat. ‘Ze gert is mah symburl,’ Mr Vilain explains. ‘It eez the pet of Satarn.’ While Stallone and his boys are digesting that, van Damme clears off with the McGuffin, pausing only to – and you’ll never believe this – gratuitously murder Hemsworth. Bwahahahaha!

Well, our heroes tenderly lay their fallen comrade to rest (technically they just bung a load of rocks on top of him, but hey), and Stallone lets rip with some philosophical breast-beating. ‘Why is that that we, who don’t wanna live, who don’t deserve to live, are alive, while that young guy, the only one of us who wanted to live, who deserved to live, is dead?’ he howls – actually I don’t think Stallone’s mouth opens wide enough to allow him to howl, but he has a good try. The rest of the Expendables look on in silence, quite possibly thinking that, actually, they do want and deserve to live, but not wanting to spoil their boss’ big moment.

Anyway, they swear vengeance on Vilain for murdering their friend, which to me only suggests that they haven’t thought this whole ‘Expendable’ concept through properly, and things continue in a roughly similar vein until the climax finally arrives. Just to give you a taste, it features Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis driving a smart car through an airport terminal shooting machine-guns out of the doors and snapping each others’ catch-phrases, while elsewhere Stallone and Van Damme prepare to do battle in a manner that seems oddly suggestive. ‘Air yuh goeeng to man urp?’ taunts Van Damme. ‘I’ll man you up,’ ripostes Stallone, delivering this frankly dubious threat with an impressively straight face. Soon they are up close and personal, grappling sweatily.

Okay, okay. On one level The Expendables 2 is nothing but a knuckle-dragging, generic action movie, with very little to distinguish it in terms of plot and characterisation. There is nothing new in either of these areas, and what it does have to offer here is barely competent – it is at least more coherent than the average direct-to-DVD action movie, and the bigger budget is apparent, but that’s all. It’s also notable for a queasy sentimentality of a kind I’ve noticed in some of Simon West’s other films – Stallone’s speech over Hemsworth’s grave is the most notable instance, but this film is all about the camaraderie and machismo of guys hanging out, expressing their feelings by basically insulting each other all the time. Front and centre is a peculiar bromance between Stallone and Jason Statham, which the two performers can’t quite make convincing, but the movie’s riddled with this stuff. It clashes enormously with the hey-you’ll-like-this-one cheesiness of the jokes which also occur throughout.

But then again, whether an action movie gets a theatrical release or goes DTDVD depends more on the stature of the leading man than the actual quality of the narrative, and the sine qua non of an Expendables movie has nothing to do with the story but the gimmicky assemblage of as many superannuated Certified Action Legends as Stallone can find the phone numbers of. Mickey Rourke hasn’t come back, and Jet Li bails out early on (literally), but replacing them are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris (who doesn’t appear to even be attempting to act) – Willis and Schwarzenegger have (oh dear) beefed up parts this time around as well.

Now, I’ve nothing against the idea of making a film which is effectively Destroy All Monsters with ageing action movie heroes, because it has the potential to be fun. My main problem with the first Expendables was that hardly any of that potential got realised – with all these guys in the same film, I want to see them doing their personal schticks – or, even better, taking each other on – not just ploughing through dozens of stuntmen in mass fight scenes. The fight between Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li excepted, there was nothing like that in the first one – this one is a little bit better. Lundgren, bizarrely, makes an impression as the comic relief, Jason Statham gets a couple of good individual fights (including one where, dressed as a priest, he gets to say ‘I now pronounce you man and knife’ and then crack someone in the nuts with his thurible), and the final boss battle between Stallone and Van Damme is, truth be told, really quite good, especially for a fight between two men with a combined age of 117. The guys behind me in the theatre were cheering, in an only partially-ironic manner, every time Van Damme did his trademark mid-air-spinny-kick thing.

I suspect this may explain the success of the Expendables films – the crowd at the showing I attended was mostly made up of Men Of A Certain Age, specifically that age which meant they would have been teenagers (or a little bit older) when most of the stars of this film were in their prime, and as close to being credible as they ever got (the big exception is, of course, Statham, who’s still at the top of his game and bankability). They (and I) didn’t go to see The Expendables 2 wanting to see a clever plot, or subtlety, or innovation – we went to see all these iconic faces up on the screen together! Cheesy jokes! Ridiculous dialogue and action! Big-name rumbles! It’s an exercise in paying homage as much as it is going to see a movie. Certainly I can’t imagine any other movie daring to get away with some of the plotting in this one – it seems to be okay for characters to appear and disappear almost at random, provided they’re played by someone who was popular in 1987.

By any conventional standard, The Expendables 2 is an atrocious farrago: absurd, tonally all over the place, with a ridiculous, half-baked plot, and with an ensemble of many of the worst actors ever to appear before a movie camera (and, before you say anything, Jason Statham’s in it too). But the sheer presence of those particular non-thespians, en masse, transports it into a strange new dimension where all the usual critical criteria don’t seem to be in effect. It still isn’t any good, but at the same time it manages to be rather entertaining, and I suspect it’s going to make serious money. The only question is who on Earth they’re going to get to appear in the third installment. Apparently, Nicolas Cage, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Steven Seagal and Clint Eastwood are all in talks. Seagal and Eastwood? In the same movie? I’m sorry, I think I have to go and lie down.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

[Originally following a review of Wanted.]

Moving on, we come to Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, a much less disreputable beast, but also a lot less fun. A lot of people, myself included, got very excited upon hearing that this film co-stars Jackie Chan and perennial 24LAS favourite Jet Li for the first time. If you don’t enjoy kung fu movies – well, then, this one isn’t for you – but these two performers have effectively dominated the genre for decades and the prospect of seeing them together is going to be The Forbidden Kingdom‘s main attraction for a lot of people.

And sure enough, the movie opens with Jet Li on top of some badly-CGI’ed mountain-tops fighting some extras. Li wears a wig that makes him look alarmingly like Shakira on a bad hair day, but never mind. From here we jump cut to the bedroom of rather irritating American teenager Jason (Michael Angarano), one of those people who’s watched dozens of kung fu movies but has no idea how to do it (nothing like me, obviously…). The opening titles properly start at this point and pastiche a lot of old movie posters, which if nothing else gives the slightly startling impression that in addition to Li and Chan, Bruce Lee will be appearing in the movie!

Anyway, while hanging out in the local pawn shop with the elderly Chinese owner (Jackie Chan, mugging away even more than normal), Jason lays his hands on a flash golden fighting staff. Following some rather painfully contrived and unconvincing plot machinations with the local street gang, the staff ends up spiriting Jason back to mythic China (where, after the first five minutes, everyone starts speaking English for no apparent reason).

Jason hooks up with permanently-trolleyed kung fu master Lu Yan (Chan again) who tells him the staff belongs to the Monkey King (Li in the wig), a legendary figure from Chinese folklore probably best known in the west from the cult TV shows Monkey and Dragonball Z. The wicked Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), renowned for his love for alarming evil deeds and even more alarming levels of eyeshadow, has turned the Monkey King to stone and is terrorising the country in his absence. So, it’s up to our hero, Lu Yan, a slightly grumpy Monk (Li again, without the wig this time), and an itinerant minstrel girl (Yifei Lu) to get the magic staff back to him so the appropriate posteriors can be panelled and everyone can go home.

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, you don’t really go to an English-language Jet Li or Jackie Chan movie with sky-high expectations, not least because they’re both knocking on a bit (Li is in his mid-40s, Chan a decade older). That said, this is a rather effective showcase for them both, contrasting their respective styles and personae quite well – Li is all brooding intensity, speed, power, and athleticism, while Chan is giving much more of a crowd-pleasing performance even in his fights. The big set-piece where they take each other on is undoubtedly the highlight of the movie, but it takes place rather early, after which the story turns into a fairly routine CGI-heavy fantasy quest movie with nice art direction but no new ideas.

As action team-up vehicles go this is quite acceptable, and certainly a lot more satisfying than last year’s War (a movie that didn’t seem quite big enough to allow either Jet Li or Jason Statham room to comfortably do their thing), but the main problem with The Forbidden Kingdom (other than the fact that there isn’t actually a forbidden kingdom in it) is that both the big stars are essentially playing supporting roles to Angarano. The main character is really Jason, who isn’t that engaging, and Michael Angarano just doesn’t have the charisma to compete with the rest of the cast. Every now and then the plot grinds to a shuddering halt so he can make a whiny speech about his lack of self-confidence or his father issues and you just wish he would shut up and clear off and let Jet and Jackie do their thing. (Though his presence does justify that of Yifei Lu as his love interest – she doesn’t really have any other reason to be there – which is a point in his favour, I suppose.)

Jason inevitably learns to do kung fu in the time it takes to stick together a montage of him posing under a waterfall, but in the climax he is largely left to hassle stuntmen while Chan fights the chief henchperson (the splendidly named Bing Bing Li) and Li takes on Chou (Li doesn’t shout ‘You stole my part in The Matrix sequels, you…!!!’ but it’s fun to imagine him doing it). These are okay, but this is the kind of movie which is more about special effects than actual martial arts skill.

The Forbidden Kingdom has a strong message about responsibility and honour and all that sort of thing, but it’s still a lot less entertaining than Wanted (not that the two movies are really competing for the same audience anyway). It’s okay, pleasantly entertaining stuff, but the fact remains that many people going to see this will be expecting to get undiluted Jet and Jackie, and when they instead end up with an unwelcome load of Jason they’re probably going to be rather hacked off – and I can’t say I really blame them.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

Why can’t American studios find a decent movie for the magnificent Jet Li to appear in? His work in Asian cinema is legend, and last year’s French-produced Kiss of the Dragon was pretty good too. But James Wong’s The One is the third American picture (after Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die) that’s featured Li and not been terribly good.

This is a science fiction action movie based around the idea of multiple universes running in near-parallel lines. The conveniently-named Lawless (Jet Li) has been popping around them all and bumping off 120-odd of his duplicate selves, as this means their life-force is redistributed amongst the remaining versions. Now there’s only nasty Lawless and nice Gabe (unsurprisingly, also Jet Li) left, and the last Li standing could gain god-like powers…

Well, don’t think too hard about the plot (Wong and his co-writer Glen Morgan, X-files alumni both, certainly haven’t), because it’s complete tosh, lacking in the wit and imagination of – for example – the TV show Sliders, existing only to move the various different Lis from one set-piece ruck to another. The overall impression that this is a kung-fu rip-off of Highlander isn’t helped by dialogue like ‘After this, there will be only one!’, either.

It’s normally a bad idea for martial arts stars to attempt to play more than one role in the same movie, mainly because most of them have trouble playing more than one role in their whole career. Li isn’t too bad, to be fair, but he’s helped by the fact that everyone else (with the exception of Delroy Lindo – another Romeo Must Die veteran, here playing one of Li’s pursuers) is worse. Most of the time Li is fighting himself, which inevitably entails large amounts of special effects wizardry and moves The One from being a straight chopsocky thriller into the same digitally-enhanced arena as The Matrix. To be blunt, modern special effects and choreographers could make Woody Allen look like a black belt and Li’s own remarkable physicality is largely under-utilised.

There’s the odd good moment – the closing shot in particular hints at what Li is truly capable of – but on the whole this is a huge waste of the talents involved on both sides of the camera. It’s more disappointing than bad (but it is that too). I suspect the producers of The One will be spared the thorny problem of what to call the sequel.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 1st 2005: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s slightly rippled with a flat underside. Brain cells are strictly optional this week as we examine the latest offering from two of cinema’s premier knuckleheads, Jet Li and Luc Besson. Well, that’s probably a bit unfair, as both have been involved in making some rather good movies in the past – but then again they’ve both also been involved in some frightful yappers in their time. So, is their new film Unleashed (directed by Louis Leterrier) a triumphant fusion of Hero and Leon, or an appalling mixture of Lethal Weapon 4 and The Fifth Element?

This being a Besson-scripted movie it is of course a stylised and extremely violent thriller without, it must be said, much of a stranglehold on reality. The alternative title Danny the Dog sums up the premise rather well: Jet plays a guy called Danny who has been raised as a dog by gor-blimey Cockney gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins, slumming it). Bart has trained Danny to attack on command, which he appears to have to do rather a lot in the course of Bart’s protection-racketeering lifestyle – this seems a bit contrived seeing as Bart is supposed to have been a senior crook for about thirty years, has he only just started the racket as a new thing? Anyway, eventually Bart and his other cronies get very seriously shot up by an ambitious rival low-life, leaving Danny to wander off on his own. And who should he fall in with but blind piano-tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman, slumming it too) and his perky stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) – look, I’m really not making this up. Sam rehabilitates Danny, and soon it looks like only a hugely implausible reappearance by Bart and his crew can stop Danny from forging a new life and leaving the way of regular and protracted brutality behind. And you’ll never guess what happens then.

(All this supposedly takes place in Glasgow, by the way. All the Scots must be away while it’s happening as everyone in it’s either Cockney, American, Chinese, or Emma Thompson’s mum.)

It has to be said that this is a very silly thriller-cum-kung fu movie redeemed by the presence in it of two formidably talented actors. Having said that, neither Freeman nor Hoskins is especially well-served, as both their roles are rather two-dimensional. Morgan Freeman can probably get away with doing a piece of fluff like this as he’s already contributed to several impressive films this year alone, but Bob Hoskins hasn’t had a good meaty role in a high-profile movie for absolutely ages, which is a crying shame. However even here he does a terrific job of investing Bart with what humour, pathos and reality he can, and ends up probably sneaking the acting honours. Then again, this is the kind of movie where the actors are cast just to recycle their standard screen personae – so Morgan Freeman’s character is a font of undiluted wisdom and decency, Hoskins does his snarling Cockney brute from The Long Good Friday yet again, and Jet Li kicks everyone’s head in. It’s not so much a distillation of their best-known traits as a puree.

But it’s a film that sits easily in the Besson canon, as several of his better movies revolve around loners who are forced by events to rediscover their human sides – it’s the theme at the heart of Leon and The Transporter. Unleashed is this story taken one step further, arguably into the realms of the bizarre. I’m tempted to say that any film which makes a major scene out of Morgan Freeman and Jet Li going on a shopping trip to their local branch of Spar (Morgan spends his time sweet-talking the checkout girls while Jet happily drums on their melons) is worth seeing just for novelty value alone. The long and violence-free middle section is full of this sort of thing, it is incredibly and unashamedly sentimental and jars considerably with the extended fight scenes which essentially bookend the movie.

That said, there are few things in the cinema as reliably exhilarating as watching Jet Li whirl into action and the action sequences here are no exception. A daft subplot about pit fighting permits Besson and Leterrier to sneak in a set-piece ruck as good as anything in Li’s English-language movies, but all the rest are top stuff, particularly the climactic encounter between Li and Michael Lambert (which culminates in possibly the world’s first kung fu fight to the death in a toilet cubicle). The fights are what this film is ultimately all about and they don’t disappoint. The rest of it is admittedly extremely unconvincing, but Freeman and Hoskins always keep it watchable and it’s very difficult to actually dislike. Louis Leterrier does a very competent job with both the action and the dialogue scenes. He’s clearly a cut above the usual minions Besson gets in to direct his movies lately, which makes me particularly happy that his next project is not only a Jason Statham movie, but – could it be true? – an actual sequel to 2002’s The Transporter. Yes, there is a God! As for Unleashed – well, it probably won’t win many awards, but it will probably make its intended audience very happy.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 16th 2001:

All this waffle leads me into talking about Chris Nahon’s Kiss of the Dragon, a good example of a case in point [vaguely risible pontificating on the martial arts movie genre has been snipped – A]. It’s a movie with American backing and an American co-star (Bridget Fonda), a Chinese star (Li) and expertise, and a French location, director, and villain. It was co-produced and written by Luc Besson, director of action fantasies like Leon, La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, and his fingerprints are all over this movie.

Li plays Liu Jian, a Chinese cop sent to Paris to help the local police deal with an expat gangster. Unfortunately his contact, Inspector Richard (the hard-to-pronounce Besson regular Tcheky Karyo) is as bent as a corkscrew and murders the Chinese crime lord, framing Li in the process. Of course Li is forced to go on the run from the police until he can clear his name, and of course this requires a quite stupendous amount of ass-kicking.

I enjoyed this movie more than was probably decent, and for some dubious reasons. For example Li’s only friend in Paris is an aging Chinese ‘sleeper’ agent played by none other than Burt ‘Hey Little Hen’ Kwouk. (Jet Li and Burt Kwouk in the same movie! In the same scene! Surely cinema can get no better!) And Karyo’s performance as the villain is so spectacularly over-the-top that it makes Gary Oldman’s very similar turn in Leon look catatonically underplayed. The set-piece fights are inventive, witty, and well-choreographed, with very little wire-work so far as I could tell.

Thankfully (and unlike Li’s last starring role, in Romeo Must Die) this film doesn’t try to turn him into Jackie Chan – there’s no shortage of gore, shootings, people getting blown in half by grenades, or anything else a really good family film requires. Li’s a better actor, and has a much more intense and physical screen presence, too. (We’re also spared the cheerful closing sequence, de rigeur in Chan movies, of cast members being rushed to first aid/casualty/the morgue after stunts don’t quite go as planned.)

I must point out a few flaws, however – the plot is reliant on one huge coincidence to function, and it’s never really made clear why Karyo wants to frame Li in the first place. Fonda’s character is a prostitute from the same grittily realistic tradition as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and some of her early scenes with Li do seem to drag on interminably. And there’s the usual Hollywood wussiness that chickens out of presenting a full-on mixed-race romance (one of Romeo Must Die‘s flaws, too) – is America really still so uptight about this sort of thing?

But on the whole, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably have a whale of a time in Kiss of the Dragon. Outrageously entertaining.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 3rd 2003:

When embarking upon a major undertaking, such as the making of a movie, it is generally a good idea for everyone to know what their role is, and for those roles to have been assigned by someone who knows what the participants’ individual strengths are.

For example, in 1974 Hammer Films teamed up with the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers to make Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, in which Peter Cushing and some contracted martial arts experts set off into the Chinese interior to sort out some unconvincing zombies. Crucially for our thesis, Cushing was excused almost all kung fu duties, while the Chinese actors were called upon to say ‘Transylvania’ no more frequently than was absolutely necessary.

A similar careful allocation of duties seems to have been employed by Joel Silver and Andrzej Bartkowiak, producer and director of the new thriller Cradle 2 The Grave. This film features martial arts champion Jet Li (assignment: ass-whuppin’), rapper DMX (assignment: shouting m****f***** a lot and being down with da street), model Gabrielle Union (assignment: filling cleavage and booty quotas), and comedian Tom Arnold (assignment: being Roseanne’s unfunny ex-husband). A shame they forgot to include any actors, but then again this is a Hollywood action movie. Also stirred into the mix, although to be honest providing not much more than extended cameos, are Mark Dacascos and Kelly Hu as the villains (Hu is obviously getting in practice ahead of her scrap with Wolverine in X-Men 2).

Why is this film called Cradle 2 The Grave? I haven’t a clue. It’s all about Taiwanese spy Su (Li), who’s in LA on the trail of secret ‘black diamonds’ stolen from his government by ex-colleague Ling (Dacascos), who plans to auction them off to arms dealers. But the diamonds have fallen into the hands of improbably virtuous gangster Tony Fait (DMX), who gives them to his fence Archie (Arnold) to check out. This annoys Ling who… oh, good grief, I really can’t go on with this. It’s got a rapper and a kung fu star in the lead roles! Do you honestly think the plot is remotely important?!?

The script, as usual with this sort of thing, is mainly there to propel the stars from one (usually violent) set-piece to another, and to be fair the film racks up an impressive quotient of carnage as it goes along, building up a sort of deafening, juggernautish momentum in the process. By the climax it’s all degenerated into absurd cartoon mayhem, but by this point you’ll have either walked out of the theatre or given in and put your brain in neutral. Li does his regular thing of looking impassive and laid back (with admirable sang-froid, he performs one fight sequence without removing hands from pockets) and gets his signature beat-the-crap-out-of-twenty-people-simultaneously fight as well. Possibly not one of the world’s greatest actors, but who is in this line of work?

Well… having said that, as martial arts stars go Mark Dacascos is virtually unique in being charismatic and articulate and actually able to emote convincingly (he’s a fair singer and dancer too). He’s deserved a lucky break for many years now and I hoped this movie would be it. So it’s a shame that he gets so little to do here. His closing showdown with Li is everything one might have hoped for, but its impact is diluted by being intercut with two rather less impressive fights, Hu vs Union and DMX vs Woon Young Park.

Cradle 2 The Grave‘s action movie credentials are respectable but those who see cinema as an instrument of social change will probably be more concerned by the frankly dodgy message this film is putting out. It’s racist (Chinese people know kung fu, black people are criminals, and white people are overweight and smug) and homophobic (there’s a terrible scene in which one of the DMX bandits tries to distract a gay security guard by coming on to him rather like John Inman in Are You Being Served?), and this is before we even get to the film’s treatment of women. The script’s attempts to make a hero out of a robber are risible: in just one of the film’s unintentionally funny moments we see DMX hurrying home from a diamond heist to tuck his little daughter in and say her prayers with her. He also has a ‘no guns’ policy (at the start of the film, anyway), not that this stops him using a bazooka to blow the door off a bank vault.

And, yes, the film’s attitude to women is clearly derived from gangsta rap culture. That, or the early 70s Carry On films (not that there’s much to choose between the two), because the sense of humour on display is, ahem, obvious. Gabrielle Union is the butt of most of the jokes (the norks too, if we’re honest). She also gets lumbered with one of the most outrageously contrived and gratuitous lapdance/striptease scenes in recent memory. This is not redeemed in any way by the director’s belated attack of coy tastefulness halfway through (guys, if you’re going to make films which exploit women and their bodies in such a leeringly prurient way, you could at least do a decent job of it!).

I imagine following Jet Li’s American film career is rather like being a fan of Preston North End football club. I regularly trot along to each new film he stars in, ever hopeful that this will be the one that showcases his talent to good effect, and regularly I’m in for bitter disappointment. While Cradle 2 The Grave is better than Lethal Weapon 4, The One, and Romeo Must Die, this really isn’t saying much. (Jet, pride is all very well but you shouldn’t have turned down that part in The Matrix!) It’s noisy and fairly engaging but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth and is, in the end, dramatically and morally ridiculous. Undemanding trash entertainment – not the worst film ever made, but you really should be able to find something better to do instead of watching this.

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Five Colours Jet

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

Long-term readers of this column have had to put up with a lot, but they may recall my increasing despair at the inability of Jet Li to find himself a decent English-language vehicle. I’m inclined to suggest he gives up and sticks to working in China if all his movies there are as classy as Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Now apparently this is a wu shu movie, as opposed to the kung fu movies we’re all familiar with. Far be it from me to prevent anyone else from making a pretentious arse of themselves, but – please.

Anyway, Jet plays a fearsome warrior named Nameless (something Bertrand Russell would doubtless have approved of) living in what is now China during the third century BC. At the time the country was divided into several warring states. One of these is Qin, whose king plans to conquer all the rest and unify the land. The other states aren’t quite so keen on this idea, particularly Zhao, whose population appears to consist entirely of calligraphers and supernaturally gifted assassins. But Nameless turns up at the King’s palace claiming to have done him a big favour by eliminating his three most dangerous enemies, warriors named Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. Nameless tells the tale of how he achieved this momentous feat, but the King is unconvinced and proposes an alternate version of what went on…

Hero is being touted as mainland China’s retort to the American-backed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for all that it claims to be 100% authentically Chinese, to me it seems rather influenced by foreign cinema of a different kind. The central story, built around the conceit of the characters taking it in turns to tell alternate versions of the same events, strikes me as distinctly reminiscent of the very famous Japanese film Rashomon – and the suspicion that Akira Kurosawa’s movies were a big influence is only intensified by Hero‘s fondness for big scenes of armies sweeping across plains, banners flapping in the wind.

But for all of this, Hero is a movie with its own very distinct style. This is largely due to the way that each iteration of the story is told, with a different colour dominating the sets and costumes. There doesn’t seem to me to be any explicit symbolism going on here, but the impression is still striking and it only adds to the stylisation of the picture. This is a story told in a very formal, almost rigid way, and as a result it occasionally feels a little stifled and artificial. This is partly made up for by the action, which is always impressive and in places astonishing, mixing genuine martial arts prowess with wirework and visual effects wizardry.

Even so, it’s mainly to the credit of the actors that it does grow increasingly involving as the story progresses and the true nature of the characters emerges. Li gives a cleverly neutral performance as a man whose true motives and agenda remain unclear until almost the very end of the film, and he’s supported by what’s effectively an all-star cast: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. Some of these people have, like Li, made movies in the west, but even the best of these had a faintly trashy whiff about them, while the worst (Romeo Must Die, Highlander 4) were genuinely wretched fiascos. Hero, by comparison, is a classy and clever movie, and (to western eyes at least) an exotic curiosity.

However this extends to the subtext and moral of the film, which is one that will probably seem very strange and unfamiliar to most western audiences. Exactly how much its presence is due to fact that this is a film made technically under the auspices of the Chinese government I don’t know – but it’s a message I suspect they would enthusiastically endorse. It’s probably stretching a point to describe Hero as out-and-out totalitarian propaganda, but there are elements of that there. Not enough to make the film unpalatable to watch, but a definite reminder that there are other perspectives to be had – and so, rather appropriate for a film of such moral and narrative complexity.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 19th 2006:

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that brings a new meaning to the phrase ‘semi-regular’. Tempting and oddly appropriate though it might be to have a look at Tokyo Drift this week, let’s stick to what we know and check out the latest offering from perennial 24LAS favourite Jet Li – Ronny Yu’s Fearless.

Encouragingly, this is a subtitled Chinese movie which has managed to get itself a proper Western release with a minimum of studio interference – someone must have noticed how well Hero and House of Flying Daggers did a year or two ago. It purports to be a biographical drama about the near-legendary Chinese folk hero Huo Yuanjia (played, as if you need telling, by the pint-sized powerhouse from Beijing), who lived round about the turn of the 19th century. Quite how historically accurate this movie is I don’t know, but let’s just say I have my doubts.

Anyway, the thing kicks off with some audience-reassuring brutality – China is under the thumb of nasty foreigners and, in an attempt to break the will of the people, they have arranged a demonstration of their superiority as the top fighters from France, Germany and Britain take on China’s greatest kung fu master, Huo. Yes, the contest is blatantly unfair, but that doesn’t stop Jet putting the smackdown on them in spectacular style and fairly short order. The concluding bout against the predictably ferocious-but-honourable Japanese champion (an eyecatching performance in a small role from Shido Nakamura) is saved for the climax as the movie jumps back thirty years to show the formative years of our boy.

To be honest the childhood years stuff is fairly sickly, mainly because Huo himself was apparently a sickly boy prone to asthma and thus banned from martial arts training by his father (played by Collin Chou from the Matrix sequels). It’s also quite unfortunate that while this is a fairly violent movie, none of the violence is quite as cringe-inducing as the quality of the child acting. But things pick up soon enough as Huo grows up into Jet, becomes a kung fu master and – driven by his memories of his father’s shameful weaknesses, like mercy and humility, that sort of thing – sets about making a name for himself as a proper Five Fingers of Death merchant. Yes, he’s arrogant and self-centred, a bad son to his dear old mum and a bad father to his cute little daughter.

Well obviously this is bad news for them, but it’s good news for the audience as it means Jet is nearly constantly in fights that are as good as any from his recent movies: inventive and convincing ones that are thankfully not obviously reliant on CGI or everyone involved constantly dangling on the end of wires. However he picks one fight too many which leads to disaster for those closest to him and a chastened Huo wanders off a broken, penitent figure. There is, of course, only one solution to this sort of personal trauma in action movies and that’s a lengthy sojourn in a remote village learning to be happy again, accompanied by a hint of romance with a cute blind village chick (I can’t track down for certain the name of the actress here, but rest assured she is very cute). As ever, one can only be grateful to those metropolitan and extremely rich film creative-types for revealing that the true secret of happiness and success actually lies in extreme poverty and constant back-breaking labour…

Jet’s bucolic sabbatical eventually concludes and he wanders off back home to pay his respects to his family, only to find the place in bad shape – foreign devils everywhere, looking down on the Chinese and their culture! Harnessing his still-honed fighting skills to his newfound inner serenity, Jet resolves to strike a blow for Chinese self-esteem! Well, several blows, truth be told. And quite a few kicks. And a hell of a whack with a lump of metal on a chain at one point. But who’s counting…?

Long-term readers of this column (come on, it’s not impossible…) may recall my frequent exasperation in the past where the English-language films of Jet Li have been concerned, simply because – with the exceptions of his work for Luc Besson – they’ve usually been rubbish in every department but the fight choreography. Fearless is a long way from being rubbish, but then again it’s not English-language either. This brings a number of instant advantages – the most obvious one being that we’re spared Jet Li putting the smackdown on his dialogue, which is never easy on the ear.

Another is that, being made in China, the makers of this film don’t seem to think that just because it has a high martial arts content, it doesn’t mean it can’t also have characterisation and style and the occasional moment of thoughtfulness. That’s not to say that Fearless is The Seventh Seal with added fisticuffs, but it’s a vast improvement over most of the genre. For one thing, here it actually looks like Jet Li is a pretty good actor, which one would never have guessed from watching Cradle 2 The Grave or The One. He does a very respectable job of portraying the change in outlook Huo Yuanjia goes through, and isn’t afraid to look unsympathetic in the early part of the film.

This is a handsomely mounted movie, with great production values and a genuine sense of time and place. Ronny Yu directs fluidly and inventively – but this shouldn’t really be a surprise, as he has an English-language track record as well. Admittedly, these movies were dire and/or cheesy (The 51st State, Freddy Vs Jason), but this was mainly down to the scripts – but they both contained very effective action sequences. Here he gets a rather better script and the resulting movie is miles better. This isn’t to say that the script is perfect, as there are irritating gaps in the story – Huo’s father relenting and allowing him to train happens offscreen and is barely even referred to, along with his marriage – and the ‘selfish warrior finds redemption’ story of the first two thirds doesn’t really seem, thematically or tonally, to have anything to do with the ‘Huo takes on the gweilos and the guizi’ plot that forms the climax of the movie. (It is a pretty good climax though…)

Rumours have abounded that Fearless will, in fact, be the last martial arts movie to be made by Jet Li. If so, then he’s finished on something of a high, as this is the classiest and most accessible thing he’s done in absolutely ages. Even if you don’t usually like kung fu movies, this may be worth a look.

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