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Posts Tagged ‘kung fu’

One of the nice things about Marvel Comics, back in the days of my youth, was how diverse they were. I mean this not in the slightly reductionist modern sense, where it is often just a question of ticking boxes during the scripting and casting stages, but in terms of the tone and subject matter of the comics themselves. When I was about seven my mother bought me a discounted three-pack of different Marvel titles as a holiday treat. One of them was about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider fighting an evil magician in an amusement park; the next was a grandiose underwater piece of high fantasy with Namor the Sub-Mariner; and the third was something rather unexpected, a book entitled (in full) The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which seemed to be some sort of spy adventure with a lot of pulp influences and Asian cultural references.

Master of Kung Fu seemed to be happening in its own little world, completely separate to the other Marvel books (though the character ended up fighting the Thing, amongst other superhero characters), but it seems we have now reached the point where Marvel Studios have already made movies about every other character with any kind of traction, and so even outliers like Master of Kung Fu are now getting the big-screen treatment – Eternals, due out in a couple of months, is likewise based on a book not originally intended to share a universe with Spider-Man and all the others. (I once made a joke about Marvel doing movies based on characters like Squirrel-Girl and Brother Voodoo; it now just feels like it’s only a matter of time.)

And so I found myself in the foyer of a bijou cinema in the depths of Somerset, asking for a ticket for the evening showing of Shang-Chi – and until a few years ago I would have never expected to ever be typing that sentence. The full title of the film is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the director is Destin Daniel Cretton, who got the job off the back of the (rather good) legal drama Just Mercy.

Our hero is played by Simo Liu, who is an amiable screen presence, and when we first meet him he is living in San Francisco and working as a parking valet along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who is there to do the ironic comedy relief. Neither of them have figured out what to do with their lives yet, but destiny (not to mention Destin) gives them a little push when they are menaced on the bus by a gang of toughs led by a chap named Razor Fist (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu). ‘I don’t want any trouble!’ cries Shang-Chi in the time-honoured chop-socky manner, but the bad guys do want trouble, and so it behoves our lad to break out his invincible kung fu skills.

Yes, it seems he is a parking valet with a past: son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who is possessor of the ten rings of the title: as well as letting him live for a thousand years, they also make him unstoppable in battle (except when the plot requires it to be otherwise). Shang-Chi was raised by his father’s criminal empire to become the perfect warrior and assassin, but he threw a bit of a teenage strop and ran away to America instead.

But now it seems his dad wants a reunion. Wenwu is seeking to gain access to Ta Ro, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastic sights and mythical creatures (not to be confused with K’Un-Lun from the Iron Fist TV show, a magical realm in another dimension filled with fantastical sights and mythical creatures, of course, or indeed any of the vaguely similar locales in the other movies), from whence his wife (and our hero’s mum) came from. Wenwu’s children have a role to play in this scheme, but what is it? And why is Wenwu so determined to reach Ta Ro? Could the survival of the universe be in peril, again?

Master of Kung Fu’s nature as a book only tangentially linked to the rest of Marvel’s output was exemplified by the fact it featured characters heavily implied to be the descendants of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, while Shang-Chi’s original father (dear me, only when writing about comic book universes to you end up using formulations like ‘original father’) was the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s diabolical mastermind and racist stereotype as featured in many novels and movies. Then again, at various points Marvel’s sprawling cosmology has included such improbable inhabitants (mostly licensed from other sources) as Godzilla, Dracula, the Transformers, and the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolith’s own comic book series was not a big seller for some reason).

These days, of course, you can’t really do a movie with Fu Manchu as the bad guy, to save nothing of the rights issues involved, and so Shang-Chi’s parentage has been tweaked. This has been quite inventively done: the Ten Rings have been a story element in these films since the very beginning, and Tony Leung’s character seems to be at least in part an attempt to placate that small segment of the Marvel audience annoyed with the presentation of the Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. This is done deftly enough that it shouldn’t feel too weird or fussy to normal people in the audience, but I have to say that some of the links and cameos connecting this movie to the wider Marvel enterprise feel rather gratuitous and contrived this time around.

Nevertheless, it eventually becomes very clear that a Marvel movie is what this is – if I were to be reductionist myself, I would say that it’s clearly trying to emulate the success of Black Panther, although using Chinese culture rather than Afro-futurism as its starting point. I thought this was rather a shame – the first act or so of the film, which actually resembles a genuine kung fu movie, is superbly entertaining, with good jokes and inventive action choreography. However, it slowly transforms into what’s basically just another CGI-based fantasy spectacle, becoming slightly bland and heftless along the way. The issue with traditional Chinese culture is that it’s a real thing, and everyone involved seems to have been very wary of doing anything that might cause offence (they likely had one eye on the potentially vast Asian box office returns too), and the film loses a lot of its wit and pop as a result.

Still, a great deal of goodwill has been built up by this point, and Michelle Yeoh pops up to do some exposition as Shang-Chi’s auntie, so the film remains very watchable till the end. But you can see why the film’s not called Master of Kung Fu – there’s not much sign of that in the closing stages of the film, which I was a bit disappointed by. Master of the CGI Special Effects Budget is a less engaging proposition.

This is a fun film and unlikely to disappoint the legions of devotees Marvel have gathered to their banner over the last decade-and-a-bit; the action and humour are all present and correct, and Tony Leung in particular manages to give the film a bit of gravitas and depth (on one level this is another saga of a dysfunctional Asian family) But on the other hand, one of the main alleged weaknesses of the Marvel films, the fact that they are all ultimately a bit samey, is also arguably on display: no matter how quirkily and originally they start out, everything always concludes with a slightly bloated climax slathered in visual effects. But as long as these films continue to make such immense piles of money, this is unlikely to change. Shang-Chi isn’t as distinctive as it promised to be, but it’s still an engaging piece of entertainment.

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Sometimes you find yourself basically on your own in a holiday cottage in Hampshire, pondering the fact that the movie from the House of Mouse you caught five interesting minutes of a couple of nights before is not available to watch on the BBC catch-up service, due to them pushing their own streaming service with the usual ruthless implacability. And at moments like this, you ponder the essentially venal and unsatisfactory nature of much of western civilisation, before perhaps turning to the ancient cultures of the east in search of deeper wisdom and insight. In my case this usually translates into watching an obscure kung fu movie on a different streaming site.

On the most recent occasion, the film I wound up watching was My Beloved Bodyguard, a 2016 film starring and directed by the legendary Sammo Hung (the movie is also known simply as The Bodyguard, but that just puts me in mind of the 1993 Costner-Houston movie). The film eschews the usual glittering locales common to martial arts films for a small town in that obscure corner of the world where the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders practically rub together. It is here that Ding (Hung), also known as Fat Ding or Old Ding for reasons you may be able to guess, has chosen to retire following a distinguished career as a civil servant in Beijing. Happy for many years, he is now estranged from his daughter (his only living relative) and leads a quiet and perhaps quite lonely life.

The only excitement comes when some gangsters carry out a brutal stabbing outside Ding’s humble home. Being a good citizen, Ding calls the cops and attempts to identify the guilty party – but at the ID parade he is suddenly hesitant and uncertain. His memory is starting to go! A trip to the doctor (whose name Ding struggles to remember) confirms that he is showing symptoms of early-stage senile dementia.

We then get quite a lot of Ding trying to come to terms with this, not to mention fending off the romantic attentions of his busybody neighbour (Li Qinqin). But for most of the next forty minutes or so it is mainly about his friendship with Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), the young and endearing (if she isn’t, it’s not for want of the movie trying) daughter of local lowlife Ji (Andy Lau). She keeps clambering in through his window. They go fishing together. She puts on his old bemedalled uniform jacket. It is clearly meant to be quite charming.

Meanwhile Ji has gotten into debt with Choi, the gangster whom Ding failed to recognise at the ID parade (he is played by Feng Jiayi) and is packed off over the border to steal some jewellry from the Russian Mafia in Vladivostok. Ji double-crosses Choi and runs off with the loot, however, thus putting Cherry in the firing line of not one but two sets of vengeful gangsters, with only a morbidly obese old man with incipient senility to defend her. She’s in trouble, right?

Well, maybe not, considering this is Sammo Hung, a martial arts legend (he plays Bruce Lee’s opponent in the opening scene of Enter the Dragon, and the rest of his career is equally distinguished) for whom morbid obesity has been a selling point for decades (you may recall his US TV show Martial Law, which one reviewer summarised as ‘fat Eskimo cop somersaulting onto bad guys in Los Angeles’, only partly inaccurately). My Beloved Bodyguard may well be sincerely trying to highlight the issue of the plight of elderly people suffering from dementia in China, but I suspect what most of the audience is waiting for is the moment when swaggering bad guys push Ding too far and he cuts loose with the kung fu (he wasn’t just a civil servant, he was a decorated member of an elite security agency and a martial arts champion). To this extent the film is essentially the Chinese equivalent of one of those ‘bus pass badass’ movies that have started to appear over here, starring people like Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger – although Jackie Chan’s The Foreigner is perhaps a more pertinent example.

Well, the moment eventually arrives, and not before time, no doubt causing a cry of ‘Hurray!’ from many viewers. Possibly followed very shortly by cries of ‘Eeeegh!’ and ‘Oooh!’ from watchers lulled by the slow-motion gentleness of the plot with Ding and Cherry and not expecting the hair-raisingly graphic violence which ensues. Here’s the thing: Hung was in his early sixties when he made the film and clearly can’t move the way he used to, and so the fight scenes have to get their impact in some other way. So Ding doesn’t just slap people about and kick them in the head until they fall over: serious, important bones and joints are snapped, crunched, and shattered, with a helpful CGI effect highlighting just which bits of the skeleton just broke (at one point Hung flops onto a major bad guy paunch-first, pulverising his spine). Coupled to this are numerous stabbings and throat-slittings.

I mean, this would probably all be par for the course in a Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais film, but it’s tonally wildly at odds with all the preceding business with Fat Old Ding befriending the little girl almost despite himself. It’s as if there are two totally different sensibilities at work in this film – one trying to make a gentle, family-oriented drama, the other a brutal gangland action film. Either of these would have been fine, but they just don’t work together. Late on, the film experiments with what looks very much like a third style, of more tongue-in-cheek action-comedy – an injured bad guy tries to hobble away to freedom, with Ding shuffling implacably after him, resulting in possibly the lowest-speed foot chase in action movie history – which feels much more like the kind of film this perhaps should have been. But it’s not much and it comes very late.

The tonal mismatch is probably My Beloved Bodyguard‘s biggest problem, but the film is oddly plotted overall – major characters disappear without explanation for long stretches of the film, the way the story is set up and the principals introduced likewise somehow feels a little incorrect, and so on. No matter how good the acting is – and Hung, Lau, Chan and the others generally give decent performances, while there are cameos from a plethora of big name martial arts stars and directors, mostly knocking on a bit – the story remains slow and a bit underpowered, with most of the action confined to the last half hour. I sat down to watch this film mostly because of my fondness for Sammo Hung as a director and performer, and he does enough to carry the film – as both a drama and an action piece – for me not to regret that choice. Others may find they have a different feeling come the end of a movie which is many things, just not the ones you’re probably hoping for, nor ones which naturally go together.

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One of the great what-ifs of cinema history is the question of what kind of career Bruce Lee would have enjoyed had he not passed away, aged only 32, a month before the release of his first major American movie in 1973. Certainly one gets a sense that big things were planned for Lee (perhaps not least by himself): the title of Enter the Dragon doesn’t really mean anything in the context of the film itself, but does make some sort of sense if you think of the film as Lee’s calling card for mainstream cinema. As it is, the card marked a departure rather than an arrival, but what a card it is.

Directed by Robert Clouse, the film opens with a mysterious British chap turning up to watch Lee (whose body appears to consist of something in the region of 90% sinew) put the smackdown on a rather less athletic member of his own temple (the proof that a successful career is not just the preserve of people who work out is that this actor, Sammo Hung, went on to become a martial arts superstar in a series of films with titles like Enter the Fat Dragon).

The spectator turns out to be Mr Braithwaite, a representative of British intelligence. Braithwaite wants Lee to attend a martial arts tournament to be held on the private island of the reclusive Mr Han (Shih Kien), and try to turn up evidence that Han is a drug-dealing white slaver. Lee’s own tutor takes him to one side and reveals that Han is actually a corrupted renegade member of Lee’s own Shaolin temple. On a quick trip home before heading off to the tournament, Lee’s dad reveals that it was Han’s men who drove his little sister to commit suicide some years earlier. It is fair to say he heads off on his mission feeling very well-motivated.

Other people on the boat are less burdened with back-story, but then this isn’t a vehicle for them. Chief amongst these are charmingly roguish (or possibly roguishly charming) American gambler Roper, (John Saxon), and his mightily-Afro’d old ‘Nam buddy Williams (Jim Kelly).  (This isn’t a particularly forgiving script for the various Asian actors: the Enter the Dragon drinking game includes taking a sip every time someone refers to the mysterious ‘Loper’ or ‘Wirriams’, two characters who are occasionally mentioned but never seen.)

Well, soon enough everyone arrives on Han’s island and gets down to the business of kicking great lumps out of one another. Will Han succeed in luring Roper and Williams (or even Loper and Wirriams) into joining his nefarious organisation? Will Lee succeed in his mission? Will everything come to a peaceful conclusion? (Clue: of course it won’t.)

Enter the Dragon has a bit of an image problem amongst my immediate family: when my father came across me watching it, he was moved to start leaving me slightly sarcastic notes around the house suggesting I might want to reconsider my choice of recreational viewing. My sister refused to stay in the room during a subsequent viewing some years later. The case that the movie is essentially just schlock, a kind of soft-core pornography of violence (and perhaps not just violence) is, at first glance anyway, a difficult one to answer. My answer would probably be: yes, but what schlock! What violence!

It is the case that this is not a film aspiring to heights of erudition and a sophisticated insight into the human condition. It is emotional, kinetic, superficial and visceral. ‘Man, you come right out of a comic book,’ says Williams to Han at one point, scornfully, but he overlooks the fact that he himself and every other character and plot element has been derived from comics and pulp fiction. The Bond series seems to have been a particular donor: at one point Han gives Roper a tour of his secret base (he keeps his own skeletal severed hand in a display case, or so it is implied), and of course he is carrying a white cat around with him as he does so.

There is something bizarrely reductionist about the plot: the film establishes characters and setting in the most minimal way. Lee, driven martial arts guru, is playing Lee, a driven martial arts guru; Han, it is made absolutely clear, is a very naughty man; and there is a kung fu tournament which will provide many opportunities for violence. Perfunctory doesn’t begin to cover it, but then the film is primarily a vehicle for Bruce Lee and his martial arts choreography.

You do get a strong sense that the producers of the film are playing it very safe and don’t fully appreciate what a talent they had on their hands in Lee – this is not the most demanding of acting roles for him, but he still manages to find places to play scenes against expectation and find comedy in unlikely moments. Given his natural charisma, it’s easy to imagine him carrying off a much more sophisticated role very successfully. He certainly doesn’t need to be teamed up with John Saxon, who is presumably here to do the heavy lifting in the acting department and present a Caucasian face for audiences resistant to a Chinese lead actor. Saxon gives a decent performance considering he is essentially supernumerary to the film. I only found out recently that the actor is in real life a karate black belt; nevertheless, his fight scenes in this film have a distinct whiff of dressage about them as he hops about somewhat inelegantly.

Any action involving Lee is on a different level, however, whether it’s an individual fight or the sequences in which he takes on armies of opponents singlehandedly (Jackie Chan is somewhere in the crowd, as well as doubling for Lee in a few stunt sequences). You can almost sense that the grammar of the American martial arts movie is being written as you watch, but few other stars have had Lee’s intensity and virtuosity. The fight in the maze of mirrors is one of those sequences which has been endlessly ripped off ever since. Pretty much the only complaint you can make about the fight sequences is that Clouse’s direction is often not up to scratch, filming Lee in mid-shot where the full extent of his speed and skill is often unclear (too much is going on beyond the edges of the frame).

It’s hard to imagine where an eighty-something Bruce Lee would be now; possibly still producing and directing movies, but most likely having moved on to something else – politics, perhaps, or spirituality. We shall never know. This is, of course, his most famous film for western audiences, and one designed for him. He dominates it completely, and yet for all the irresistible entertainment it provides, it somehow doesn’t do him justice. But this much is obvious even while you’re enjoying it as an irresistible piece of genre cinema, and I imagine it does a great job of inspiring people to learn more about him.

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The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

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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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When you write something for public consumption, one of the more important decisions you have to make is what to call it – it’s all too easy to get this wrong and end up with something unengaging or downright silly (a brief scan back through previous posts to this blog should provide you with more than enough evidence of this). There’s nothing quite like a good title, but even bearing this in mind there doesn’t seem to have been much history of writers and film-makers recycling in this area. Probably for good reason: you want a good title, but you also want to be distinctive.

There’s a bit of an exception when you come to one-word titles, however. Let the person who orders the DVD of Twilight make very sure they are indeed requesting Robert Benton’s 1998 thriller starring Paul Newman and Gene Hackman, and not some fluff about hormonal vampires. It’s just about possible someone might sit down expecting to partake of Steve Zahn’s undemanding 2001 youth-horror Road Kill only to find themselves watching Bruce McDonald’s considerably weirder 1989 production, Roadkill. And God help anyone who gets Paul Haggis’ meditation on modern-day urban prejudice mixed up with David Cronenberg’s examination of technophiliac sexual fetishes.

I doubt many people are going to get Nicolas Winding Refn’s version of Drive from last year mixed up with Steve Wang’s version of Drive from 1998, but this is mainly because Wang’s film is not well known outside of the DTV martial arts ghetto. I think this is a shame, as this is a superior example of this kind of film, for reasons I will elucidate.

It all kicks off on the docks of San Francisco, some time in the near future, where black-clad stranger Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos) is hiding on board a recently-arrived ship. He is a renegade assassin from Hong Kong who’s come to the US to do a deal: courtesy of a corporation working with the Chinese government (hmm, there’s no stopping these public/private partnerships, is there?) he has been surgically fitted with a ‘bio-engine’ which enhances his speed and reaction time, and he’s here to sell the device to a rival American corporation. But in order to do that he has to evade the agents of his disgruntled former employers.

After some initial tone-settin’ ass-whuppin’, Toby finds his way to a bar which is the favourite hang-out of unemployed songwriter Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison). Pursued by both the bad guys and the police, Toby reluctantly takes Malik hostage in order to secure his escape. Needing to reach his contact in Los Angeles in  a hurry, Toby offers Malik half the money if he’ll help him get there. There’s only one thing to do: drive!

So, yeah, another one of those cyborg-former-assassin-teams-up-with-unemployed-songwriter-for-a-kung-fu-road-trip movies… Drive seems to me to occupy an interesting place in the history of the action genre. On the one hand, it’s clearly part of a whole slew of culture-clash buddy martial arts movies and TV shows that were briefly popular in the late 90s (see also Rush Hour and Martial Law, both of which Drive actually preceded), albeit with a rather harder edge to it than most of those.

But it also rather reminds me of the kind of low budget SF exploitation movies that were coming out of California in the 80s – films like Trancers, Cherry 2000 and Teenage Comet Zombies, all notable for inventive scripts, offbeat humour and better-than-you’d-expect performances, which Drive also possesses. Is Drive, then, also a proper SF movie? Well – it depends on which version of the film you see. There are a number of different ones knocking about – the shorter, TV version has had most of the futuristic material snipped. Even in the director’s cut the SF elements aren’t much more than plot devices, but not objectionable ones.

Drive‘s influences are, of course, secondary to whether or not it works as an action movie. And it does – there are plenty of fights, and they’re inventively and wittily choreographed. Some of these are, let’s face it, new takes on old chestnuts of the genre – hero fights a bunch of people in a garage, hero fights people on motorbikes, hero has to fight while handcuffed to useless sidekick – but even so they are well performed and sensibly photographed. Dacasco’s final acrobatic duel with Masaya Kato is as good as any ‘final boss’ fight that I’ve seen.

I was sitting in one of Oxford’s more characterful pubs the other day, enjoying a beer, some crisps, and a fiercely-fought game of Carcassonne, when much to my surprise I noticed the TV appeared to be showing The Crow at five o’clock in the afternoon. It turned out to be the Crow TV show, but my surprise was not yet complete, as starring in the show was Mark Dacascos (I had forgotten he was in it). I like Mark Dacascos a lot, and I’m a bit perplexed that he hasn’t had a higher-profile career. As a martial arts performer he moves well and convincingly – he has the same kind of speed and precision as  Jet Li, but a certain gracefulness as well. On top of that he has considerably more range as an actor than most other people in this field – as a scene in Drive demonstrates, he can also sing and dance reasonably well. And yet he seems to have spent his career playing the lead in little-seen movies or supporting roles in bigger ones. Possibly his highest-profile performance in the genre came when he played the villain in Cradle 2 The Grave, a valiant effort in an undistinguished movie.

Needless to say, he’s very good in Drive, but then most of the performances here are well-pitched. This is quite impressive, as Drive opts for a rather light-footed, tongue-in-cheek tone outside of the actual fight sequences. Much of it is genuinely funny, without the whole thing toppling over into being a comedy or spoof. Possibly the most distinguished member of the supporting cast is Brittany Murphy, who pops up as an unhinged teenager the guys encounter en route (though Sanaa Lathan is in there in a tiny part as well).

I would be the first to admit that one is generally on a hiding to nothing looking for profundity or insight in the martial arts genre – these are fun movies, not great works of art. But, as a fun movie, with good jokes and inventive fights throughout, Drive is virtually flawless. Not the highest-profile production, but well worth tracking down if you like that sort of thing.

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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 November 6th 2003:

Deadlines are unforgiving beasts, and can occasionally force one to thrust an opinion out into the world without, perhaps, giving it the due consideration it deserves. Certainly I have experienced the odd qualm over the past five-and-a-bit months about my declaration that the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded was a contender for film of the year. [And that’s understating it a bit – A] But even so I will happily maintain that it’s a very solid, ambitious and thoughtful blockbuster, with far more substance to it than almost any of the summer’s other big movies.

And the tradition is maintained, in a way, by the concluding instalment of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, which has just hit cinemas. Things looked rough for our cassock-clad crusader and his cyber spatial chums when last we saw them: a machine armada was mere hours away from breaking into the human city of Zion, and Neo had just learned his power as the One was simply another element of the machines’ control systems – but also discovered a hitherto-unsuspected ability to influence the (so-called) real world…

Well, it turns out that while his body’s in a coma, Neo’s mind has been banished to a realm beyond the Matrix under the control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence, soon to be seen in Return of the King, and not-quite-so-soon to be seen in the final Star Wars movie – do you sense a pattern developing?), an employee of the Merovingian. After seeking help from a regenerated Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster – a piece of forced recasting the film just about accommodates), Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph (Collin Chou) set off to rescue him, with the twin threats of the machine strike force and the insane Agent Smiths still looming over them…

Fans of the series will – well, they’ll all have seen it already, so I’m wasting my breath – will have been glad to learn that this is a much pacier, grittier and more straightforward movie than its immediate predecessor, having a bit more in common with the original. Even so, the start of Revolutions suggests we’re in for another mixture of computer-enhanced kung fu and an NVQ in philosophy, the Big Theme this time around – notebooks out, everyone – being Love (Richard Curtis may well sue for demarcation). But after a while the film changes both gear and tone, becoming a much more straightforward SF action-adventure, with very few scenes actually set within the Matrix itself.

This is one of a number of laudably brave choices from the Wachowski’s and one which, for me at least, pays dividends. There are still many eye-popping moments and action sequences, the standouts being a gravity-warping sequel to the original’s lobby scene and a crunchingly unballetic real-world brawl to the death. But the film’s big set piece is the assault on Zion’s docking bay by hundreds of thousands of Sentinels, and the desperate defence by the city’s people. It’s a lengthy, dazzling, special-effects blow-out that bears comparison with similar sequences in both Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the original Star Wars trilogy – and those who know me will know I can think of no higher praise than that.

The cast work wonders in managing to be more than just cyphers standing in front of bluescreen with all this going on around them. The four leads are as solid as ever, even if there’s once again relatively little Hugo Weaving this time round (though we are treated to a sly impersonation by Ian Bliss, the actor playing his human host). Collin Chou gets a beefed-up part, but alas Lambert Wilson and especially Monica Belluci may as well have not turned up for all the material they get. Mary Alice, in a very tough role, performs rather creditably, recalling Gloria Foster without being an outright copy.

With all this good stuff going on, then, I’m sorry to have to say that the bottom line is that The Matrix Revolutions is actually quite disappointing. This is solely because the script skimps unforgivably when it comes to the final stages of the story, which seem underdeveloped and unclear. There are quite simply too many unanswered questions at the end, which rob the climax of much of the power it deserves. (And, depressingly, the door is subtly but clearly left ajar for another instalment should the principals’ finances dictate it at some point in the future). I’m loath to say more, because this is still a breathlessly enjoyable adventure and a conclusion, of sorts, to the story. But the fact remains that it’s only as a visual-effects spectacle that The Matrix Revolutions is truly satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 22nd 2003: 

It has become something of a cliché, but nevertheless a true one, that no-one saw the original Matrix coming. In the summer of 1999 the imagination of the cinema going world had been seduced with the promise of duelling Jedi, droid armies on the march, and the rebirth of the Star Wars legend – and so the impact of the Wachowski brothers’ vision was only accentuated, coming out of nowhere as it did.

This time round things are different. Only a select few films of recent years have been so keenly anticipated as the follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded. This time everyone is watching (the most dedicated through ray-bans). We’ve been here before, of course, and while sometimes our hopes have been transcended, more often we have known the taste of bitter disappointment. So, what’s it to be this time – another breathtaking Two Towers, or a grim revisitation of Attack of the Clones?

Well, readers, cutting to the chase, and adopting the Keanu Reeves idiom, the answer is this: Whoah. In every way, and in the best possible way, The Matrix Reloaded is a mind-boggling experience, and a near-total success.

Six months have passed since Neo (Reeves) discovered his powers as the One, in which time he and the other human warriors have freed many more minds from slavery in the Matrix. But all he, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have achieved is threatened when it is discovered that the machines have launched a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the free city of Zion, which will be destroyed in a matter of days if the assault is not stopped. Their quest takes them in search of the Keymaker, the only being who can give Neo access to the machine mainframe. Unfortunately, Neo’s old adversary Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has acquired unusual new abilities of his own and is determined to get his revenge…

The success of the original Matrix rested upon several things: its unique visual style and startling innovations in effects technology, its wholesale appropriation of the energy and grace of Hong Kong cinema, and its willingness to couple both these things to a script that wasn’t afraid to be cerebral and explore quite complex philosophical concepts.

Well, this potent mixture of pizzazz, pistols, and epistemology is once again at the heart of the film. But there are new elements, too – after a few appetising pieces of action, the Wachowski’s unexpectedly – and probably wisely – take some time to explore new areas of their story and add texture to the existing ones, while establishing’s Reloaded’s themes – control, destiny, choice, and belief. So we see Zion, and the effect Neo’s omnipotence has had both on him and on the people around him. (Several plot elements that will only really come to fruition in Revolutions are also established ). The true nature of the Oracle (the late Gloria Roberts) is also revealed, something which in itself opens up new possibilities.

With things thus set up, the film proceeds to let rip with a succession of the most dazzling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid. The Office Lobby scene from the original Matrix is already legendary – very soon it will be joined by an astonishing sequence in which Neo does battle with a hundred clones of Agent Smith, plus the freeway chase, the fight in the Chateau – the list goes on and on. The special effects throughout are immaculate, but your jaw will sag open only momentarily before you are caught up again in the action.

And when the adrenaline ceases to pump, your brow will furrow as the second part of Reloaded’s formidable one-two punch hits home. If the original was a crash-course in philosophy, this is the Master’s Degree. It doesn’t detract from the story, but the ideas and concepts inherent within it are, well, challenging. Is there such a thing as true freedom? Can we ever really have a choice? Are our lives ruled by fate? Reloaded steps up to tackle all these issues and does so pretty well (although the film can be obtuse and portentous in places). It all builds up to the truly startling revelation of the source of Neo’s powers and the true history of both the Matrix and the real world.

Just so things don’t get too heavy, though, there’s a lot more humour here than there was first time round. Of course, much of this comes from Hugo Weaving’s performance as the increasingly exasperated Smith and the interaction between his various clones (that said, he doesn’t have that much screen time this time round). But there’s also a crowd-pleasing turn from Harold Perrineau as the new Operator, Link, and a very ripe and arch performance by Lambert Wilson, playing a bizarre French computer program Neo and his friends must contend with.

If Reloaded has a flaw it’s that it suffers a little from middle-episode syndrome, plunging into an ongoing story so rapidly that it takes the viewer a short while to get up to speed on what’s happening. This may have something to do with the way the film links into the animated prequel Flight of the Osiris – but then again, even Lord of the Rings has had a touch of this complaint. The end is also not entirely satisfying, opting to conclude not with any sense of closure but a giant cliff-hanger for November’s The Matrix Revolutions (a trailer for which follows the film, and it’s well worth a look unless you have to dash off to catch a bus or something).

What The Matrix Reloaded lacks in novelty value and mystery it more than makes up for in depth, diversity, energy, and sheer gob smack value (both visually and intellectually). Whether this standard can be maintained for the concluding instalment is something we’ll have to wait and see, but for now one thing is certain: we have a strong contender here for film of the year.

[Is it worth mentioning I wrote this thing only a couple of hours after watching the movie? In any case I hope readers appreciate my resisting the temptation to judiciously rewrite this to make myself sound less stupid. Hey ho. – A]

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