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Posts Tagged ‘Ronny Yu’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 21st 2003:

[Following a review of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.]

Of course, great screen performers often begin their careers in what would normally be considered quite unpromising places, and Johnny Depp is no different. His screen debut was, of course, in Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street back in 1984… and just as Depp is still working, so the Nightmare franchise is still with us, in a manner of speaking: the latest development being Ronny Yu’s long-promised Freddy Vs Jason – and just as one man could be both James I of England and James VI of Scotland, so this unpretentious little movie carries the burden of not only being A Nightmare on Elm Street 8, but also Friday the 13th Part Eleven.

Here’s how it works: molten-faced dream-warping psychopath Freddy Krueger (as ever, a gleefully manic Robert Englund) is trapped in Hell, having lost his powers since everyone on Elm Street ‘forgot’ to be afraid of him (the police have engaged in some pretty Draconian information management – don’t worry too much about the plausibility of this, it’s not that kind of movie). However, he hits upon a cunning plan to restore his reputation after he encounters the indestructible machete-wielding juggernaut of bloody mayhem, Jason Voorhees (a mute stuntman), in a backwater of the Underworld. Impersonating Jason’s beloved mum, Freddy packs the big guy off to Elm Street to put some scare back into the pert young teens of the neighbourhood (as one might have guessed from his appearances in nine other films, Jason is forever coming back from the dead).

What Freddy hasn’t reckoned on is Jason’s diligent single-mindedness: even after Freddy’s powers have been restored, Jason just keeps on hacking apart those youngsters, cutting into Freddy’s supply of victims. One of them has clearly got to go. So the stage is set for a truly epoch-defining clash of the horror icons – they’re both evil, but who’s the baddest of the bad?

I must confess to being a sucker for nearly any film with Vs in the title, and so I was rather looking forward to this even though I’m no particular fan of either the Nightmare or Friday franchises (next summer’s Aliens Vs Predator will be much more my cup of tea, even if it is going to be directed by Paul ‘Mr Turkey’ Anderson). There are, of course, rules to this sort of thing, as established by many previous similar films and comic books – both combatants get to do their schtick individually for a while, thus showing off exactly what they can do before the actual bout gets underway. Back-story must be explained. The fight itself must be appropriately protracted and spectacular. And, as often as not, there’ll be an indecisive ending where no-one actually wins.

Freddy Vs Jason mostly sticks to these rules, although most of the film takes place on Freddy’s territory and refers to his continuity, only shifting to Jason’s old Crystal Lake stomping ground near the end. For all this, though, it’s Jason who’s on more impressive form in the early part of the film, slicing and dicing in an old school style when he’s not lurching out of a cornfield in full human torch mode to rip apart some unsuspecting ravers. Freddy doesn’t really get to do much except mouth off (but then again, this is a plot point).

Obviously, everyone seeing this film has come for one reason only – to watch the two of them go head to head. Equally obviously, this can’t happen until the climax. This gives the script some problems in terms of how to pass the time until then, and this is where Freddy Vs Jason falls down a bit. For some reason the writers have decided to include a couple of half-baked subplots, one about whether or not the mother of the heroine (Monica Keena, surprisingly good) was murdered by her father, and another about some teenagers escaping from a mental institution to warn their friends (including popstrel Kelly Rowland, surprisingly foul mouthed) about Freddy. At first I thought they were carrying on plot threads from the last Nightmare movie – but it seems they’re not, they’re just really badly written. Apart from this, continuity is kept, so far as I can tell – but it’s not explained nearly enough. I suspect that, age-wise, I’m towards the top end of the target audience for this movie – yet I’m too young to have seen most of the Nightmare and Friday movies on their original releases, so this kind of assumption of knowledge by the writers is a mistake.

But all becomes a bit immaterial as soon as the two stars get to it. Now, being a taciturn, no-frills kinda guy myself, my sympathies were naturally with Jason (we have similar taste in clothes too): Freddy Krueger’s homicidal tendencies don’t rankle with me nearly as much as his total inability to keep his mouth shut. Above all, though, I wanted a good, dirty fight. And the film more or less delivers when it comes to the showdown (just as well, seeing as it’s the movie’s raison d’etre!) – it’s not great, but it’s good fun in a campy WWF sort of way. The film goes into comic strip action mode and what horror there is is of the gory rather than scary variety. Rather pleasingly, there is a proper victor at the end instead of the cop-out score draw I was half expecting – but then again, both these guys have come back from the dead so often that a rematch is entirely possible if the box office of this film is up to scratch. Presumably the next step will be monster tag wrestling – Freddy & Michael Myers Vs Jason & Candyman, anyone?

This isn’t, let’s be honest, a particularly good film – it’s weakly scripted in all sorts of way, most of the teenage cast is never better than adequate, and it gets very dull and confused when Freddy and Jason aren’t on the screen. But it does perk up when they’re around, Yu’s direction is lively and atmospheric, there’s some inventive goriness, and it does score heavily on the novelty value front. Not up to the stratospherically high standard of Mothra Vs Godzilla (or even Godzilla Vs Mothra, for that matter), but a worthwhile addition to the Vs genre – like the rest of them, though, only really worth a look if you’re already familiar with at least one of the characters.

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From the Hootoo archive.  Originally published December 13th 2001:

Back in the mid-70s there was a not-very-good John Wayne movie called Brannigan, wherein the Duke played a clearly geriatric cop who comes to London and duffs up all the local villains. The pitch was clearly ‘John Wayne in London’ and the culture clash between him and the local police was one of the main elements of the film. Well, plus ca change and all that, because much the same is true of the new Liverpool-set comedy thriller The 51st State, starring an inexplicably-kilted Samuel L Jackson. Times have moved on, of course, which means we now cheer drug dealers rather than cops – the morality of which rather eludes me – but it’s pretty much the same story.

51st State has hit our screens wreathed in the worst critical notices for a very long time. Like the recent Kiss of the Dragon, it’s something of a fusion movie – director Ronny Yu is Hong Kong Chinese, the star is American, the supporting cast largely British. It’s the story of LA-based ‘master chemist’ Elmo McElroy (Jackson, trading heavily on his Pulp Fiction persona) who’s invented a revolutionary new designer drug. Elmo blows up his nasty employer, Lizard (Meat Loaf, who appears to have some sort of unexplained skin condition), and heads for Liverpool to sell the formula to local villain Durrant (Ricky Tomlinson). His guide to the city is American-hating, soccer-loving lowlife Felix (Robert Carlyle). Little does Elmo suspect that Lizard survived the explosion and has despatched expat hitgirl Dakota Dawn (Emily Mortimer) to retrieve him…

Jackson is the central figure in this movie. Without his financial clout it probably wouldn’t have been made at all (probably because of this he gets named as Executive Producer), and without his superfly charisma it would be almost entirely unwatchable. He cruises through the movie like a barracuda in a fishbowl and the film relies heavily on his presence (‘Look,’ it seems to be saying, ‘it’s Samuel L Jackson next to Denzil from Only Fools and Horses! And now look, it’s Samuel L Jackson sitting in a Mini Cooper! Isn’t that the wackiest and most entertaining thing you’ve ever seen?’ And so on).

He certainly puts everyone else in the shade. Robert Carlyle is off-form, possibly due to the very ropey material he’s saddled with much of the time, and looks about thirteen next to his hulking co-star. Emily Mortimer is actually rather good in a one-dimensional part. The rest of the cast, most of whom you’ll know best from TV if at all, are strictly comic relief and not very comical comic relief at that. Tomlinson’s undoubted talents are criminally wasted, Sean Pertwee – veteran of many a dodgy Britflick – pops up gratuitously, doing a frenetic Gary Oldman impersonation, and the only person who regularly gets laughs is Rhys Ifans as a yoga-obsessed drugs baron.

For all this though, the film does have the odd moment where it realises its potential. Most of this is down to Ronny Yu’s flashy but stylish direction. He stages some impressive action sequences and generally brings the film to life, even though he does go a bit over the top here and there. And I could well have done without yet another British movie where the lead characters are introduced via little captions explaining who they are – a trick done to death since Trainspotting.

So, good cast, good director, what went wrong? Well, it’s the script, I’m afraid, which has little to commend it. The plot hinges on a couple of huge coincidences and too many jokes either fall flat or turn out to be unpleasant rather than funny. One gag, about idiot sidekicks accidentally violently murdering people, is repeated twice to little effect. And – this isn’t necessarily a criticism – this is probably the most foul-mouthed film I’ve ever seen, with entire scenes seeming to consist of characters shouting ****, ****, ****, and ******** at each other1. This is not as funny as the producers think it is. Weakest of all is the stagey, implausible, and uncinematic climax.

If I could make one wish to help the British movie industry it’d be to stop them from trying to hedge their bets and mix genres. This is a comedy thriller, allegedly, but as far as I can tell this is just a matter of labelling so they’ve got an excuse in case the comedy or the thrills aren’t there. Which they’re mostly not. I wish they’d had the guts to go for either a proper, hard-edged thriller or an all-out caper-style comedy rather than this confused film, where the two styles co-mingle. The result is a sloppy film set in an unrecognisable fantasyland, where there’s no real sense of threat or menace and decent jokes stand out like oases in the desert. The 51st State isn’t as bad as you’ve probably heard it is – Jackson, Mortimer and Yu salvage what they can – but it’s not far off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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