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Posts Tagged ‘kung fu’

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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 1st 2003:

One of the ways in which Hollywood has been very forward-thinking in its approach to big business has been in its attitude to foreign (which, in Hollywood terms, means ‘non-English speaking’) actors and directors. For almost as long as there has been a film industry in America, the major studios have been keeping an eye out for talent that speaks a different tongue, with an eye to signing it up. Sometimes the results have been, if not creatively great, then massively lucrative – Bela Lugosi’s performances as Dracula, for example, or most of Paul Verhoeven’s American movies. Sometimes work of genuine quality has been produced – Akira Kurosawa’s last few, George Lucas sponsored movies probably qualify under this heading. But a lot of the time the result is an actor or director looking horribly uncomfortable and not really justifying the transfer fee.

Which brings us moderately neatly to Paul Hunter’s Bulletproof Monk. You have to admire a film with the cojones to go out into the world under a title like that, still more one which accompanies it with the tagline ‘A monk. A punk. A chick. In a kick-ass flick.’ I thought it sounded like the sort of parody The Fast Show used to specialise in, and after seeing it wasn’t quite sure if I’d not been right all along.

Tibet, 1943: Chow ‘Most people can’t spell my name right’ Yun-Fat plays a novice Buddhist monk just about to complete his training and become the guardian of the Magic Scroll of Ultimate Power. Chow looks a bit long in the tooth to still be a novice, but we will forgive him this because, hey, he’s Chow Yun-Fat. Chow’s receipt of this great responsibility coincides with some Nazi storm troopers attacking the monastery, led by the nasty Strucker (Karel Roden), who is intent on nabbing the Scroll for himself. Pausing only to go all Crouching Tiger on their collective asses, Chow scarpers. Sixty years later, Chow (who, we’re told, has been kept young by the Scroll) is in the US, still hunted by Strucker and his followers, and searching himself for the one who prophecy has said will succeed him as the Scroll’s protector. And who should he run into but small time crook Kar, played by Seann William ‘I can’t spell my own name right’ Scott, who has more important things on his mind – such as working down the local kung fu movie theatre and romancing the mysteriously well-deodorised street-fightin’ girly Jade (Jaime King). Will Kar get the girl? Will Strucker get the scroll? And will Chow ever get offered a sensible English-language script?

This is a movie with a rather cartoony style, which is mainly attributable to its origins as an obscure comic book. Thankfully, it doesn’t attempt to duck away from this, and the result is a film with considerable energy and charm, if not much plausibility. It’s an odd fusion of old-school kung fu with Indiana Jones-style action fantasy – pepped up by some not-quite-cutting-edge special effects.

In the last few years we’ve come to see a very odd new sub genre appear when it comes to martial arts films – namely, the kung fu movie starring people who don’t actually know kung fu. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, as the most famous film of this type is the fabulous Matrix. But it does mean the film is much more likely to be judged on the quality of its acting, direction, and special effects than on the action sequences themselves. Certainly, Bulletproof Monk falls down quite badly when it comes to the actual fights; they have nothing new to offer in terms of how they’re choreographed or directed.

But the film has several aces up its sleeve in the script and acting departments. Clearly aware that this is, to be generous, an incredibly silly story, scriptwriters Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have abandoned all pretence of seriousness and instead gone for a high-camp romp which treads the line between light-hearted fun and blatant self-parody with impressive skill. The staples of traditional martial arts come in for some good-natured ribbing, as do the acrobatic excesses of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. But this doesn’t just function as a spoof, in many places it’s genuinely funny on its own terms. The script is well-endowed with ridiculous, larger-than-life characters, and to their credit performers such as Mako, Marcus Pirae, and Roger Yuan all turn in appropriately fruity performances. Special mention must be made of Victoria Smurfit’s performance as the evil Nina, she-wolf of the SS: with long golden hair, a cut-glass accent, some frankly dodgy screen-acting technique and wires attached to every extremity (for those tricky mid-air flips and kicks) she appears to be auditioning for the role of Lady Penelope in the forthcoming Thunderbirds flick.

I must confess to being unfamiliar with the filmographies of both Seann William Scott and Jaime King, but they do pretty well here – Scott is likeably goofy, King looks nice, and they have good chemistry with both each other and the films’ unquestioned star and saving grace – ladies and gentlemen, Mr Chow Yun-Fat.

Fans of world cinema, particularly world cinema featuring people being repeatedly shot in the head, will already no doubt be aware of what a massively charismatic performer Chow is. In an ideal world he really shouldn’t be labouring away in this sort of film – one hopes he hasn’t become trapped in the martial arts ghetto – but to his enormous credit he gives total commitment to a part he could probably play in his sleep. It would be very easy for this kind of (literally) holier than thou, fortune cookie wisdom spouting character to rapidly become a pain in the arse, but Chow gives his eponymous character depth and warmth and humour. None of the battles he fights in the film are as protracted or as painful to watch as the one he engages in with the English language throughout, but his charm and intensity are the same no matter if he’s talking or not. (That said, throughout the film he looks most comfortable when speaking Chinese or posing with a gun in both hands.)

I didn’t have high expectations for this film, and was all set to put the boot into Hollywood for once again hiring a great talent and then squandering it in a terrible, unsuitable film. Well, Bulletproof Monk isn’t a terrible film. It’s not deep, or serious, or have an urgent message about the world, but as a piece of light-hearted escapism, with at least as many laughs as there are thrills, it’s a reasonably good bet for a fun night out. If Sir Ian McKellen can play a magnetic mutant, then I suppose Chow can get away with playing a magic monk – but just as McKellen will doubtless return to the legitimate theatre, so I hope Chow Yun-Fat will also get the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his talent before too long.

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