Posts Tagged ‘Mark Dacascos’

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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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 April 3rd 2003:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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