Category Archives: Action

SIFF 2017: God of War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Hong Kong action maestro Gordon Chan’s war epic stars Sammo Hung as a general with an under-trained “people’s army” desperately trying to get the upper hand on a sizable coterie of seasoned Japanese pirates who have been wreaking havoc up and down the coast. Chan has his Japanese cast members speak in-language; it’s unique for a Chinese film, and enhances the verisimilitude. Sections of the story line get murky and confusing, but colorful, rousing (and frequent) battle scenes make up for occasional lulls.

SIFF 2017: Bad Black ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

Blu-ray reissue: To Live and Die in L.A. ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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To Live and Die in L.A. Collector’s Edition Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), this fast-moving, tough-as-nails neo noir from director William Friedkin ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral.

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Fueled by an outstanding soundtrack by Wang Chung, Friedkin’s vision of L.A. is painted in contrasts of dusky orange and strikingly vivid reds and blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by ace DP Robby Muller (who has worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray sports a print sourced from a new 4K scan that is a noticeable improvement over MGM’s from a couple years back, as well as new and archival interviews with cast, crew and composers.

SIFF 2016: The Final Master **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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This is a fairly boilerplate Hong Kong action flick; and indeed the well-choreographed action sequences are the main attraction. In other words…don’t strain yourself attempting to follow the needlessly complex plot, nor keeping track of myriad characters; it will just make your brain hurt. Director Xu Haofeng is a martial arts practitioner himself, so I’m sure hardcore genre fans will appreciate the authenticity of the Wing Chun style fighting. And I do have to give props to an action hero dressed in a white smock and a black bowler, taking out bad guys John Steed style with his umbrella!

SIFF 2016: Dragon Inn ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Full disclosure: I only recently caught this influential 1967 wuxia adventure for the first time; my excuse being that it is rarely screened and was previously tough to find on home video, until last fall’s (Region “B” only) Blu-ray reissue from Masters of Cinema (which I was able to order from Amazon UK). Judging from the absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, it looks like SIFF attendees are in for a treat, with a big screen film presentation struck from (I’m assuming) the same recent 4K restoration. King Hu’s film is not your typical Kung-Fu epic; in fact it has more in common with Yojimbo, Rio Bravo and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly than, say,  Enter the Dragon. It’s colorful, exciting, suspenseful…and unpredictable, with a jaw-dropping finale. I know that I’m running the chalk backwards, but the biggest surprise for me was realizing how huge of an influence this film was on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

The Zen of Yen: Ip Man 3 **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 23, 2016)

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You know what they say-everybody has to start somewhere. Bruce Lee was no exception; he had a mentor, a gentleman known as Ip Man, who was a master in a Shaolin martial arts discipline called Wing Chun. Hong Kong director Wilson Yip’s new film, Ip Man 3, marks his third installment in a franchise dramatizing specific periods of Master Ip’s life.

Donnie Yen (Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey) returns in the eponymous role. The story is set in 1959, which was the year (at least as dramatized in the film…Wiki begs to differ) a young and cocky Bruce Lee (Danny Chan) first approaches Master Ip and expresses his desire to become his disciple. But apparently, he’s just not “fast” enough yet (like I said-everybody has to start somewhere). After this brief interaction in the opening scene, the Bruce Lee character drops from the story (unless I wasn’t paying close enough attention).

Keeping Bruce Lee in the story might have propped things up; otherwise you’re left with a standard genre pic, with Ip Man taking on an ambitious, mobbed-up property developer (Mike Tyson…yes, that Mike Tyson) who has built up a network of surly youth gangs to intimidate, terrorize, and generally soften up the locals so that they will become more pliant. Thankfully, Tyson doesn’t have too many lines; although his call-out challenging Ip Man to go mano a mano (“Lethee who hath the fascist fifths!”) is eminently quotable.

The ensuing vignettes of explosive street violence are interlaced with family melodrama, as Ip Man deals with his wife’s terminal illness. To the director and cast’s credit, these scenes are sensitively handled and genuinely touching at times; but unfortunately the juxtaposition with the action sequences (well-choreographed and entertaining as they are) is jarring. In the end, the soap could render the film as too slippery a slope for action fans.

Spy vs. acronym: Spectre **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2015)

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In my review of Sam Mendes’ 2012 James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year […] you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. […] Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

Mendes set the bar pretty high with his first stab at the venerable legacy; in fact I was impressed enough with his Bond installment to include it in my top 10 films of 2012 list. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mendes may have set the bar too high; or perhaps by saying “yes” to Spectre (Bond #24, if you’re counting) he baited the sophomore curse. Whatever the reason, I found 007’s new outing to be a bit shaky, and not quite so stirring.

Unless you live in a cave, I’m sure you’re aware that Daniel Craig is back on board, as are Skyfall screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time out by Jez Butterworth, who co-scripted the 2010 political thriller Fair Game (my review). The story picks up with Bond still grieving the loss of his mentor, M (Judi Dench). As foreshadowed in the previous installment, 007 now answers to a freshly anointed “M” (Ray Fiennes), with whom he is already at loggerheads (as we know, he’s a great agent in the field, but has “issues” with authority figures). An enigmatic “last request” from the late M sends Bond gallivanting off to Mexico City for an unauthorized hit job. This sets up the traditional jaw-dropping action sequence opener, which doesn’t disappoint (…yet).

The plot gets a little murky from here; Bond next heads for Rome, long enough to, erm, pump the lovely widow (Monica Bellucci) of a nefarious hit man for information regarding a shadowy international cabal of assassins, spies, terrorists, extortionists, gypsies, tramps and thieves who generally engage in Very Bad Things, and crash one of their board meetings…where he is recognized and called out by its CEO (Christoph Waltz) and subsequently run out of town and dogged all over Europe and North Africa by a hulking henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista). He is soon joined on his escapade by the lovely daughter (Lea Seydoux) of yet another recently departed nefarious hit man.

Back in London, M is embroiled in an interagency scuffle with (to my recollection) a new character in the Bond canon, “C” (Andrew Scott). “C” is the type that our friends across the pond might refer to as a “smug git”. He views M and his agents as anachronisms; much too “analog” in an age where there are so many high-tech surveillance/operational alternatives (you get the impression that this guy would feel right at home with the NSA).

One of the main problems with the film is that it never quite gels for either of these two distinct narratives; when Bond’s exploits in the field and M’s political woes back at the home office do finally converge, it feels tricksy and false in a curiously rushed third act.

It frequently seems as if this film wasn’t being directed by a “person”, but rather by an evenly divided focus group of Bond fans; half of them the adrenaline junkies who really dig the gadgets and the babes and the chase scenes and the shit blowing up, and the other half (like yours truly) who have applauded Bond 2.0’s sense of grittiness, intrigue, and character development that (arguably) flirts more with John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

But by trying too hard to please everyone, you end up with both sides getting short shrift. The action fans will probably start looking at their watches every time the story moves back to HQ (I couldn’t help noticing that many people at the full house promo screening I attended chose those moments to take their restroom breaks), and those longing for a bit more complexity may view the action pieces as distracting and perfunctory this time out.

Ultimately, Spectre plays more like a “greatest hits” collection than a brand new album.

Speaking of which…Sam Smith is obviously a talented fellow and has some great pipes, but “Writing’s on the Wall” has got to be, hands down, the most ponderous and overwrought Bond theme of all time. It goes on longer than the Old Testament. Seriously:

If you managed to make it through that entire video, please accept my condolences. You deserve a palette cleanser now, so here are my picks for the Top 5 Bond movie themes:

“A View to a Kill”performed by Duran Duran

“For Your Eyes Only”performed by Sheena Easton

“Goldfinger”performed by Shirley Bassey

“Live and Let Die”performed by Paul McCartney

“You Only Live Twice”performed by Nancy Sinatra

One froggy evening: Yakuza Apocalypse **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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If you were to put Van Helsing, Highlander, Forbidden Zone, Godzilla and Youth of the Beast into a blender, and then splash the puree onto a blank movie screen Jackson Pollack style, you would end up with something resembling Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.

Near as I could figure, the “story” centers on a yakuza boss who is magnanimous toward, and beloved by, the “civilians” of the (Neighborhood? City?) he lords over; as for his rivals in the criminal underworld…not so much. Oh, did I mention that he’s also a vampire? As this can give one an enormous advantage over one’s enemies (being already dead tends to make you immune to assassination), he’s been the top dog for a long time.

However, this dog’s about to have his day. I mean, any vampire yakuza boss with half a brain will tell you that you’re in deep shit when a guy who dresses like a pilgrim blows into town with a mini-coffin strapped to his back and a blunderbuss in his sash, announcing himself as an emissary of the actual underworld and cryptically warning anyone who will listen that “he” is coming. And so the boss finally meets his doom (don’t ask), but not before biting his most trusted lieutenant on the neck, thereby passing on his awesome vampire powers. The freshly anointed boss has his work cut out for him; according to a “kappa goblin” (a guy with a beak, chronic halitosis, and a turtle shell growing out of his back), his town is about to have a visitation from the “world’s toughest terrorist”, a badass dude with an agenda that is “…so chilling, you gotta laugh.”

Are you following all of this so far? Shall I go on?

Fret not; for I shan’t, because from this point onward, it gets sort of hazy. There’s something about the end of the world, and a magic ring, but otherwise it’s just yelling, shape-shifting and martial arts shenanigans. There’s also too many superfluous characters jamming up an already needlessly busy storyline. I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles watching the “world’s toughest terrorist” deliver roundhouse kicks in his Teletubbie suit (that can’t be easy), and “Gander all you want at my kappa-ness,” may turn out to be my favorite movie line of the year. And someday, some way, I will fully understand the significance of the knitting class in the basement, with all the students in leg irons. And on that glorious day, I will know that I have finally found the path to true enlightenment.

I bling the body electric: Chappie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2015)

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The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

While the “A-I gone awry” prototype dates as far back as the metallic “Maria” in the 1927 silent Metropolis, it was “HAL 9000” that took techno-phobia to a new level, spawning a sci-fi film sub-genre that includes The Demon Seed, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop, I, Robot, and (of course) A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

There are echoes of all the aforementioned (plus a large orange soda) in Chappie, the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a near-future dystopia  (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme).

Johannesburg is a crime-riddled hellhole, ruled by ultra-violent drug lords and roving gangs of thugs. The streets are so dangerous that the police department is reticent to put officers on the front lines. So they do what any self-respecting police department of a near-future dystopia does…they send droids out to apprehend criminals.

The popularity of these programmable robocops has created lucrative contracts for Tetravaal, the company which employs mild-mannered designer Deon (Dev Patel). In his spare time, Deon has been working on an A.I. chip that approximates “consciousness”.

Jacked on Red Bull, Deon pulls an all-niter and makes his breakthrough. Excited, Deon approaches Tetravaal’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver) with a proposal to work up a prototype. Unfortunately, she doesn’t share his vision, and Deon is laughed out of her office. Who needs a police droid with “feelings”, right?

Determined to carry out his experiment, he re-appropriates a damaged droid scheduled for destruction. Before he can make it safely home,  he is carjacked and abducted by a trio of inept gang bangers (Ninja, Yolandi Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) who figure they can coerce Deon into securing them a remote control that shuts down police droids (they are only speculating such a device exists).

What they do end up with is a droid with self-awareness, and the ability to absorb and mimic human behavior. Will he “grow up” as the enlightened being that his Gepetto-like creator intended, or will he turn into the “gangsta” that his thug “Daddy” wants him to be?

Through their creation of the character “Chappie”, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell have managed to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. When you cut through all the obligatory action tropes, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, timeless appeal. The film has more in common with Oliver Twist than with Robocop.  Chappie is, by definition of his inception, an “orphan”; innocent and pure of heart. The child-like droid is shuffled by fate into the thug life, where he is tutored in street smarts and criminal behavior by “Ninja”, who plays Fagin to his Oliver (on one level, Blomkamp and Tatchell are exploring the “nature vs nurture” theme).

This is a return to form for the director, especially after his slightly disappointing sophomore effort Elysium. I really got a kick out of the performances, especially the scene-stealing Ninja and Visser, who are slumming from their day job as rap outfit Die Antwoord (apparently popular with the “zef” crowd…I’ll let you look that up, like grandpa had to prepping this review). Hugh Jackman hams it up as a heavy, and Blomkamp’s favorite leading man Sharlto Copley does a marvelous job breathing “life” and personality into Chappie (move over, Andy Serkis). BTW, despite my references to Pinocchio and David Copperfield, this one is definitely not for the kids; it’s rated ‘R’ .