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There aren’t many films in which the discovery of a severed and putrescent human toe in a tube of Smarties constitutes a significant plot development, but then there have been regrettably few films from the Thai director Prachya Pinkaew. I first discovered the great man’s work through the 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong, distinguished by its combination of full-on sentimentality, bone-crunching martial arts violence, and bizarre peripheral plot details. A beautiful mutant of a film, I thought, but unlikely to prosper as the start of a new lineage. Then I saw Pinkaew’s follow-up, from 2008: Chocolate. This makes Tom-Yum-Goong look very humdrum indeed.

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The film opens in a style bordering on the impressionistic as it recounts the first flowering of love between two beautiful young people, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) and Zin (Ammara Siripong). Their romance is somewhat impeded by the fact that they work for opposing criminal gangs – Masashi is in the Yakuza, she is in whatever the Thai equivalent is. Their affair reaches a bittersweet conclusion when Zin insists that Masashi clear off back to Japan for his own safety. She herself gives up her affluent gangster lifestyle and retires to the Thai equivalent of suburbia to raise the daughter Masashi has inadvertantly left her with. This itself would be the basis for an interesting drama, but Pinkaew and his writers have other things in mind.

Unfortunately, Zin’s daughter is born with autism and needs a lot of looking after. Zin’s life in this regard is not made easier when an attempt to contact Masashi results in her former employer (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) popping round and chopping off one of her toes (he has the foresight to retain the digit for the purposes of the coming plot). However, as is well-known, when a character in a movie is autistic, it is extremely likely to be the kind of autism which also provides them with superhuman faculties in some other respect. And so it proves here, for Zin’s daughter Zen (Yanin Vismitananda) turns out to have uncanny reflexes and the ability to copy any movement she sees – which is fortuitous, seeing as their flat overlooks the local Muay Thai school’s yard.

You may be thinking that Zin has had a hard life so far. But things get even worse when she develops non-specified movie cancer and requires a lot of expensive medicine. The act that Zen has been performing with her friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee, basically playing a junior version of the Petchtai Wongkamlao character from Tony Jaa movies), where she catches things the audience throws at her, is not making enough, and things look bleak. But then Moom discovers a book detailing outstanding debts owed to Zin from her days as a top gangster. All he and Zen have to do is go round to all these minor gangland figures and persuade them to cough up the money for Zin’s drugs. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and there’s no chance at all that Zen could be called upon to display her astoundingly precocious martial arts skills…

When I first heard about ‘the autistic teenage girl debt collector martial arts movie’ I have to admit my first response was ‘You can’t possibly be serious.’ And part of me still wonders if, perhaps, Chocolate isn’t on some level an extraordinary spoof not just of the genre but of foreign attitudes towards Thailand. Zen picks up some of her chop-socky wizardry from watching movies on TV, and they are, of course, other films Pinkaew has directed – either this is a wink to the audience or a cost-cutting measure. Perhaps making the protagonist full-on autistic is a sly comment on the depth of characterisation usually to be found in the heroes of martial arts films. And this is the second film from this director (following Tom-Yum-Goong) to feature an evil ladyboy: in fact, at one point a gang of gun-toting evil trannies turn up in the service of the bad guy. I’d’ve said that the automatic association of ladyboys with Thailand was nothing more than gross cultural stereotyping, but either I was wrong, or Pinkaew is playing games with the way his country is perceived. I honestly don’t know.

If Chocolate is on some level a spoof, it is a mightily deadpan one, opening with an apparently-heartfelt dedication to the special children who inspired it and the transcendent power of human movement – I’m not quite sure what gets transcended when you kick someone repeatedly in the head and then throw them off the roof of a building, but no matter. Certainly, Zen’s autism is played very straight – or at least as straight as possible, given the kind of movie this is – and there’s something very, and probably intentionally, disturbing about the moments where she reverts from being an unstoppable dispenser of brutality and becomes an awkward, inarticulate figure demanding ‘Money for Mummy’. No punches are being pulled in either sense.

Yanin is a revelation in this movie, both as an actress and a martial arts performer. Though apparently in her mid- twenties when the film was made, she can easily pass for a girl a decade younger, which makes the lengthy sequences in which she beats the living daylights out of gangs of men much older and bigger than her even more startling. Once the debt-collection plotline got going properly, I found myself in two minds – on the one hand this is a brilliant plot device for a martial arts film, allowing lots of fight scenes without the need for too much exposition, but on the other the film seemed to be squandering this potential ever so slightly – the first three big set pieces all involve Zen wandering into somewhere vaguely industrial (a factory, a warehouse, an abattoir) and having to fend off all the employees in the place: basically, just gang fights. But good gang fights – inventive and funny, with Yanin fast and fluid and surprisingly plausible. Nevertheless, I need not have worried, for as the climax arrives the film becomes much more ambitious.

Not content with a two-on-one all-girl fight on a rooftop and a mass battle with katana, Pinkaew throws in one of the weirdest, most remarkable expert fights I’ve ever seen, as it is revealed that the villain’s own household conceals another teenage combat prodigy. The film itself doesn’t quite make clear what’s going on with the lad in question, but either he is also autistic or – and I think this may in fact be the case – he is epileptic. Yes, taste barriers are shattered like the collarbones of stuntmen as the autistic girl and the epileptic boy engage in ferocious, acrobatic hand-to-hand combat. It is the jaw-droppy-open moment to crown all jaw-droppy-open moments and no mistake. Even here the film isn’t quite finished, concluding with an exuberantly original final battle up and down the side of a four storey building.

I suppose it is possible that Chocolate is the phenomenally bad taste spoof that I’ve been suggesting – but the earnestness of the thing, together with the apparent seriousness of the performances and the script, really make me doubt it: in between the fight scenes, the stuff about Zen and her mum and her mum’s illness seems heartfelt and is actually quite moving, as if a serious social drama has had some tae kwondo action spliced in just to draw the crowds. Any way you cut it, this is probably one of the weirdest martial arts films ever made (and I’m saying that as a connoisseur of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) – but it’s also an extremely accomplished and highly enjoyable one. I am excited to learn that 2013 promises the release of Tom-Yum-Goong 2, in which Pinkaew and Yanin will team up with Tony Jaa. I literally cannot imagine just what realms of strangeness that film will doubtless take us to, but I am eager to find out.

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One of the issues you get into as soon as you start offering your opinion about films in any kind of measured and thoughtful way (quiet at the back) is that of what your criteria are – and, moreover, whether you use the same ones all the time. Should you base your judgement on a low-budget British film on the same factors as that on a massive international blockbuster? The films are showing in the same theatres, runs one argument, and it’s the same ticket price for both – so the same standards should apply.

Well, hmmm. I’m not convinced, particularly when it comes to genre movies – there’s a set of tropes and expectations involved here which is not consistent. Terrible acting and a ludicrous excuse for a plot would be unforgivable in anything attempting to be a serious drama, but they are much less of an issue – and even perhaps to be expected in some of the more specialised types of film. (And, no, I’m not necessarily talking about porno.)

Of course, if you can meet all the genre requirements and include an interesting story and decent performances and direction, that’s great – even qualified failure can still result in a notable movie. I was thinking about all of these things while watching Prachya Pinkaew’s 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong. This is a movie from Thailand which has emerged in international territories under a variety of different titles: The Protector, Ong-Bak 2, Warrior King, Thai Dragon, Revenge of the Warrior, and so on. Personally, I always think of it as Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant, as this is what the plot to a large degree is about.

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Tony Jaa plays a fine young upstanding Thai fellow from a long line of warriors and elephant-lovers. He and his dad have an elephant which they are terribly fond of, and when the elephant has a baby their joy is very nearly unconfined. Protracted, bucolic, and rather sentimental scenes of elephant-related Thai life make up the first part of the film. However, when they enter their senior pachyderm in the Royal Elephant Display, traumatic events result. Chinese gangsters kidnap both Tony’s elephants and put a bullet in his dad (whether his dad dies or not depends on which version of the film you are watching) – it’s a bit unclear which upsets Tony Jaa more, but the overall upshot is that he is as cross as two sticks.

After administering the first of several spectacular collective beatings to the gangsters when he catches up with them, and then participating in a slightly sub-James Bond-ish boat chase, Tony heads off to Sydney, Australia, which is where his beloved elephants have been sent.

But there is trouble brewing in Sydney. On one level this is fairly typical martial arts movie stuff, involving police corruption and gangland internal politics, where the women are presented in almost wholly passive and sexualised terms, and all normal logic seems to have been suspended (along with most of the standard laws of physics). But in other terms it is rather different, and this is what makes Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant such a distinctively weird movie to watch. Partly because it is, on some levels, quite ludicrously primitive – some of the TV newsreaders working in Sydney very obviously don’t speak English as their first language, and the same can be said of Tony’s regular sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao, who in this film plays a rather preposterous sergeant in the Sydney PD.

In other areas it is just silly – some of this is just down to the genre rules of a martial arts film, as in the sequence where Tony is called upon to fight a capoeira expert, a wushu swordsman and a giant wrestler in a temple which somehow manages to be both flooded and on fire at the same time – the three bad guys form an orderly queue to take Tony on one at a time, which is gallant of them, and one can’t help but picture the other two hanging around outside waiting for their go while Tony sorts out the first one.  Even so, the film seems to be stretching these rules to the limit – the first really major action sequence sees Tony wandering into a drug deal, at which point the bad guy on the scene summons the dreaded in-line skaters of doom and BMX bikers of the apocalypse to sort him out. Er, what?

But mostly this film just comes across as incredibly offbeat. A repeated moment has Tony Jaa appearing in all sorts of unlikely settings, looking extremely angry, and yelling ‘Where are my elephants?’ (At one point you get to see a gang of wrestlers throw a baby elephant through a plate-glass window, which doesn’t even happen in Jason Statham movies.) Towards the end of the movie Tony Jaa is being hunted by the cops, but is able to walk around the city in broad daylight in the company of said juvenile pachyderm without anyone seeming to notice it. Part of the plot revolves around a secret Thai restaurant where people pay top dollar to eat endangered species. The main villain is a psychotic whip-cracking ladyboy gangster (played by Xing Jin). I mean, what? What?!?

Oh well – you don’t really watch this kind of film for the plot anyway (the one here bears a vague similarity to some parts of Kiss of the Dragon), but it’s nice that they have tried to give it its own very weird identity and flavour. What you’re really here for is to see Tony Jaa in full-on knees-in-the-face action, and the film does not disappoint – the fight sequences take a while to arrive, but when they do they are lengthy and frequent. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the biggest fan of Muay Thai as a movie martial art – whenever Tony Jaa ties someone’s arm or leg in a knot, it’s accompanied by a damp crackling noise that really drives home the fact that he’s doing severe physical damage to someone. At least with Jet Li or Mr Statham kicking someone in the head you can imagine them just waking up with a bit of a headache and a resolution to live a better life, whereas anyone who gets on the wrong side of Tony is clearly looking at surgery and a long stint in rehab.

But the movie does all the standards – mob fights, expert fights, boss fights – and does them rather well. Johnny Tri Nguyen, Jon Foo and Lateef Crowder all have featured spots as guest bad guys and their fights are fun and well-choreographed. That said, at a couple of points the fights are distinctive not for the actual choreography but the direction.

The direction of this movie is quite a bit better than the script probably deserves – it’s certainly highly ambitious. The slightly-annoying genre staple of a big stunt being replayed several times from different angles barely features, while in a couple of places Pinkaew goes for insanely long takes during the fight sequences – at one point Tony Jaa runs amok through four or five floors of a building, proceeding to beat up practically every man-jack in the joint, and it appears to take place in a single shot lasting about five minutes (I suspect they may have cheated, of course). Elsewhere he isn’t afraid to go for wacky dream sequences or strange impressionistic effects, although when called upon to do the boat chase, for example, he gets a bit carried away.

In the end it all boils down to a very fit and dangerous young man taking off his shirt and beating dozens of people up, but because it’s so interestingly directed, and the stuff draped over the basic requirements of the plot is so bizarre, Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant comes across as a bit of a departure for the genre. I don’t think it will convert anyone to either martial arts films in general or Tony Jaa in particular, but it’s strangely enjoyable, and enjoyably strange.

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It’s nice to have a varied diet, and here in the UK we are lucky in that the fare of many nations is widely available. In some cases this sort of thing has become an accepted part of the culture – pop out for an Italian, an Indian, a Chinese, or even lately a Thai, and eyelids will go unbatted. Beyond this, however, things do get a little bit niche and specialist, despite the fact that what’s on offer isn’t necessarily that different from what we’re used to – it’s more a case of unusual seasoning than anything else, I suspect.

Indonesia is currently mounting an assault on the mainstream of a slightly different kind (the metaphor is an appropriate one), although if this was an Indonesian restaurant things would be slightly odd, in that the head chef was formerly based in Pontypridd. However, he is not a chef, he is a film-maker: his name is Gareth Huw Evans and his new film, The Raid, does more to further the cause of astounding, relentless, brutal, insane violence than any I can recall for as long as I’ve been writing about movies.

Our hero is Rama (Iko Uwais), an inexperienced young cop. We first find him about his prayers, then see him working out. Finally he kisses his heavily pregnant wife goodbye and sets off to work. All this, of course, is basically leading us to expect that Rama is about to have an utterly hellish day at the office, and so it proves.

Rama is part of a police assault team attempting to penetrate the headquarters of vicious crime boss Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) and capture him. Riyadi has based himself at the top of a tower block, the rooms of which he has thoughtfully leased out to every headcase criminal in Jakarta. Riyadi’s own deputy (Yayan Ruhian) has the somewhat-ominous nickname of Mad Dog, but prides himself on having the personal touch and being a tactile sort of person. This is because he doesn’t really enjoy shooting people and enjoys murdering them with his bare hands much more.

The strike team enters the building and gets as far as the fifth floor undetected – but as the tension mounts, mistakes are made and the gangsters realise the police are in their midst. Riyadi gets on the tannoy and announces that everyone in the building who assists in exterminating the unwanted judicial presence will be able to live rent-free in perpetuity.

This is bad news for the cops, who find themselves trapped, rapidly taking casualties and forced onto the defensive. Even worse news is the revelation that this operation has not been officially sanctioned and there is no hope of backup coming to their rescue. Separated from his comrades and responsible for an injured friend, Rama realises that if he wants to survive he has only one option – to fight his way out to freedom, bare-handed if need be…

As you may have gathered, the script is not by Sir Tom Stoppard, but this is not really a problem as it is really just there to facilitate the carnage and mayhem which makes up the meat of this film (and pretty raw meat it is too). It’s not quite as straightforward as I may have made it sound – but the police corruption and intrigue angle which is fairly key didn’t quite hang together for me, while there’s some soapy family melodrama involved too – which while a bit of a staple of the martial arts genre, still felt a bit hackneyed.

However, this is all basically immaterial compared to The Raid‘s action sequences, which are like a syringe of epinephrine driven straight into the heart – compared to anything I’ve seen at the movies in years, anyway. There’s some pretty impressive full-auto gunplay early on, but it boils down to Rama and Mad Dog displaying their mastery of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. Now, this doesn’t look all that different from many of the other martial arts styles people have been making films about for decades – the rawness of it, together with practitioners’ fondness for making use of knees and elbows, reminded me a bit of the sort of thing Tony Jaa gets up to, but I digress. And the script certainly does not shy away from such genre staples as the hero taking on mobs of people in vaguely industrial settings, or the chief bad guy in a slightly more mano-a-mano fashion.

So it’s not dazzlingly fresh or surprising – but the real achievement of The Raid, which is stunning, is to make it all feel like it is something genuinely new and different.  The credit must go to Evans, for whom this is an astonishingly confident major debut. He really knows how to shoot a fight sequence, keeping the camera moving without indulging himself in eight cuts a second. Even more impressively, he understands the value of stillness and silence when building up to a piece of major action: there are a couple of really electric moments where people are being completely reasonable and civil – but you know this is just because they’re preparing to go utterly berserk at each other. Evans himself has said that Die Hard was a major inspiration, but I can see much more of John Carpenter’s early movies here, to be honest (something else he’s acknowledged). He also shows something of Carpenter’s mastery of music, adding cues to the fight scenes that really add to their impact (the fact that the soundtrack includes tracks with names like ‘Quaking Old F*ck’ and ‘Machete Standoff’ should tell you the sort of thing to expect).

The Raid is one of those films that comes out of nowhere and isn’t released so much as detonated. Yes, it’s raw around the edges; yes, the story isn’t fantastic; and yes, the actual performances are unlikely to trouble the Oscars (having said that, the main villains are properly terrifying) – but none of this matters. I went in to see The Raid in a fairly good humour, comfortable in myself and with the world – I emerged two hours later as a trembling, staggering, exhausted piece of human wreckage. If I’d been to a restaurant, this would not constitute a recommendation – but The Raid is not a restaurant (stick that on the DVD cover as a quote), it’s an action movie – and it’s an absolute blitz of one.

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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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It was with some dismay that I learned of the plans to disband the collective of film-makers who operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (it surely being impossible for any single individual to direct so many films as diverse and accomplished as the ones with Soderbergh’s name on them). More than in most cases, the presence of the Soderbergh name on a production is as close to a guarantee of quality as one can realistically expect, regardless of the tone or subject matter involved. The new Soderbergh movie, Haywire, continues this tradition – although, having effortlessly reinvented genres as disparate as the caper movie (Ocean’s Eleven), the true-life drama (Erin Brockovitch), the arty SF movie (Solaris), and the all-star disaster movie (Contagion), the Soderberghs have now effectively invented a unique genre of their own: the pro-celebrity cage-fighting movie.

Gina Carano (a former mixed martial arts fighter, ex-American Gladiator, and pretty much the textbook definition of a strapping lass) plays Mallory, a delicate young flower of womanhood who we first meet going into a diner in upstate New York. Here she meets Aaron (Channing Tatum), a young man of her acquaintance. After Aaron is ungallant enough to smash a cup of coffee over her head and pull a gun on her, Mallory wastes no time in beating him half to death and leaving in the car of another patron, to whom she explains The Story So Far.

Mallory is, of course, an ex-marine specialising in high-risk covert operations – a mercenary, on the books of Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her ex-lover. After returning from a mission in Barcelona, and on the verge of quitting the company, Kenneth persuades Mallory to take on – oh ho ho! – one last job. She is to masquerade as the wife of MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) while he investigates a dubious chap in Dublin. However, it becomes apparent that Mallory has been told a pack of lies, and somebody wants her dead…

When I first saw the trailer for Haywire – tough but comely female lead, heavy action and martial arts content, dubiously twisty-looking plot, lashings of style – my reaction was ‘Crikey, Luc Besson’s really rushed his new movie out,’ so similar to the likes of Nikita, Leon, and Colombiana did it appear. The appearance of Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end rather discombobulated me. But why shouldn’t Soderbergh give us his take on an action movie? He’s done practically everything else.

And yet, there’s a sense in which the highest compliment I can pay Haywire is that it’s exactly like a Besson movie, stylish and exciting, but stripped of all the usual excess and with a startling infusion of taste and restraint added to the mix. Not to mention a very distinguished cast – in addition to McGregor, Tatum, and Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton also show up and do their usual reliable work.

One gets the sense that this gallimaufrey of talent may have been recruited to make up for a perceived weakness in Carano as a leading lady. Given that she was allegedly recruited after one of the Soderberghs saw her fighting on TV, this would not come as a surprise – I’m reminded of the bet one Hollywood producer made his golf partner that he could make the world’s least likely person a major star, with the result being the career of Steven Seagal – but to be fair to her Gina Carano acquits herself perfectly acceptably.

That said, the script is carefully written so that Carano has the minimum to do acting-wise – Mallory’s not the most demonstrative of individuals – and gets the maximum chance to let rip in the action sequences. Just running down the street Carano looks unstoppable, but in the fight scenes she is simply astounding. Haywire almost completely avoids the martial arts movie cliches – hero takes on twelve people in a garage, hero fights giant, hero fights lead henchman – in favour of a series of one-on-one fights between its lead and proper Hollywood A-listers. In terms of realistic action, these are exemplary in every way: the sequence in which Carano and Fassbender kick the living crap out of each other at some length in a Dublin hotel room is one of the most visceral, exciting movie fights I’ve ever seen.

I suppose one could make the criticism that Mallory Kane falls victim to the usual problem afflicting action heroines, in that her characterisation doesn’t extend much beyond ‘man with breasts’ in any positive sense. Certainly, working with a less talented director, Carano as a screen presence could become as clunky a cipher as Van Damme or Seagal, which may be an issue if her career has any longevity.

To be honest the film does a good job of walking the tightrope between working on a cinematic level and simply staying realistic. One friend of mine didn’t like it, saying it was boring, for this reason. And the action is a little thinner on the ground than in some movies of this ilk. You really have to stay with the plot and trust that everything will be explained come the end, which it is – but on the other hand, just when most action movies would start building to a riotously implausible climax, Haywire resolves its story in a much simpler and unexpectedly low-key (but still satisfying) way.

This really didn’t bother me – Haywire is an immaculately made and pleasingly bare-boned action movie. It’s the kind of thing Soderbergh knocks out on a lazy afternoon, managing to surpass genre specialists in the process. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although this was largely due to the Gina Carano-beats-up-famous-actors schtick. My literary advisor and I thought this was a brilliant idea and within five minutes of leaving the theatre had drawn up our own list of people we wanted to see her pound into the earth in the sequel: Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Ryan Reynolds… There’s a lot of potential here. Notable careers have been built on considerably less, and I’ll be very interested to see if Gina Carano can live up to the promise she shows so devastatingly here.

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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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