Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: SPL

Director Wilson Yip seems to have fooled himself into thinking he’s made a serious crime movie along the lines of Infernal Affairs but beneath the films highly stylised look is a decidedly simple story. When Wong Po has the key witness in a case against him murdered, Detective Chan dedicates his remaining time on the force to bringing him down. With his time running out and Inspector Ma set to replace him he decides to frame Wong for murder. But how far will he go to make sure the case is airtight?

Simon Yam is good as Chan, although the story throws a little too much at the character (he’s got a brain tumour that’s killing him and a daughter he adopted from the witness Wong had murdered) instead of giving us a little more insight into what makes him tick. He clearly had a beef with Wong Po even before the witness is murdered but the script gives us no inkling as to why. Yam a great actor but he’s not given enough here to create a fully rounded character. His crack crime fighting team fair even worse, reduced to mere ciphers for the bad guys to pick off. Any attempts to make us care about them are so heavy handed that they almost have the opposite effect.

Yam is there to give the film some acting gravities while fellow headliners Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen dish out some action. Sammo Hung is excellent as the evil Wong Po, imagine a Chinese Kingpin and you’ll have some idea of the intimidating figure he presents. Yen on the other hand is the films most righteous character, as Ma he’s a man who takes responsibility for his actions and when he finds out about Chan’s plan to frame Wong he’s torn between two evils – letting a killer go or perverting justice. Apart from a brief brawl early on though, anyone wanting to see the two martial arts legends going at it will have to wait for the action filled climax. In fact the film is heavy going at times as it edges to that inevitable confrontation and you start to wonder if it will be worth the wait.

Thankfully when the action finally kicks in it really delivers the goods. Before Donnie takes on Sammo he has to take out his murderous assassin played by Jacky Wu and their fight is one of the best martial arts scraps I’ve ever seen in a Hong Kong movie. Yen was the action director on the film and credit goes to him rather than Yip for this memorable face off. The Ma, armed with a police baton, takes on the blade wielding assassin in a stunning display of fight choreography and clever direction.

With Wu out of the way it’s time for the films main event – Sammo vs. Donnie. I’ve seen several Donnie Yen films but I think he looks better here than ever before, not bad for a guy in his mid-forties. He’s got ten years on Sammo though but the big guy still has what it takes. The pair deliver a bone crunching, furniture shattering fight that rounds the film out nicely but it doesn’t quite overshadow the previous battle between Yen and Jacky Wu.

The film throws in a surprise ending that’s completely unexpected, yet not inappropriate. It’s that ending, along with the two fights at the end of the film that make this a must see. If Yip hadn’t been taking things too seriously we might have had a better film instead of just a great final act.

I Spy: Goldfinger

While I prefer From Russia with Love (more so with each viewing) there is no denying that this is quintessential Bond. Everything that would become a mainstay of the series is here – the pre-credit action sequence, the cool main titles, the evil mastermind (complete with henchman), a bevy of Bond girls (even though Bond fails to keep most of them alive), the bombastic score, and the big action packed finale (though it’s in Fort Knox rather than the evil masterminds secret base).

In fact I think it may be because From Russia with Love lacks some of those elements and doesn’t feel the need to be quite so BIG in scale that I’ve come to prefer it. Not that I don’t like Goldfinger, it’s great fun and finds Connery quite possibly at his peak as Bond, familiar enough to be comfortable in the role but not so familiar as to be bored with it. And in Gert Fröbe and Harold Sakata, as Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob respectively, the series has two of its most famous villains. Michael Collins deserves a mention too for providing the voice of Goldfinger, without him “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die” wouldn’t have quite the same delicious menace to it. It also makes a nice change to have a Bond girl who’s both voluptuous and can actually act, with Honar Blackman, fresh from TV’s The Avengers more than able to hold her own opposite Sean.

If you haven’t seen the film don’t read the next paragraph (don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

It has to be said though that 007 makes a bit of a bugger of this assignment. Two woman are killed, both because of him, he barely avoids some severe laser surgery, escapes but gets caught again, relies on the change of heart of one of the villains to save the day, and, bar the intervention of an American, would have set of the nuclear device he was trying to stop (of all his failings being saved by a Yank must top the list). It’s a wonder he didn’t have his licence revoked.

James Bond will return in Thunderball.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Zatoichi’s Cane-sword

Skipping number 14 in the series as it has yet to receive a DVD release with English subtitles (I’ve got an ‘unofficial’ DVD but decided to hold off reviewing it in the hopes that one day we’ll see a proper release) we reach Zatoichi’s Cane-sword. By now the series had established its formula and that formula has much in common with the American Western.

Zatoichi’s like the weary gunfighter who comes into town hoping he won’t have to use his gun again but, when he encounters a damsel in distress, he knows he’s going to have to take on the local cattle baron (or in this case Yakuza boss) . Of course gunfighters aren’t normally blind and they tend to leave fewer corpses behind than Master Ichi but you get the idea.

This time around Zatoichi’s got sword troubles. An ageing alcoholic swordsmith tells him that his cane-sword is on its last legs – one more fight and it will snap. What’s a blind swordsman to do? Hang up his gun sword of course. Ichi tries to live a normal life in a boarding house, taking a job as a live in masseur but when a Yakuza boss attempts to take over the town after murdering his rival, Zatoichi steps in to defend the murdered boss’s daughter.

There’s a little more blood this time around, but not much. Considering the amount of slicing and dicing that gets done you’d expect to see ketchup everywhere but the Zatoichi series is surprisingly bloodless (another thing it has in common with old westerns). This doesn’t stop the fights being exciting and this time out, with Ichi bereft of sword for much of the film, it saves most of the action for the finale when we get a seven minute showdown as Zatoichi takes down the Yakuza boss and ALL his men.

While all the performances are good it’s the wonderful Shintarô Katsu who shines brightest once again. He’ll make you laugh at times but there is a core of sadness and loneliness to Ichi that is never far beneath the surface and Katsu plays it with just the right balance. It’s testament to how good he is that, even after fifteen films, his performance doesn’t feel stale of clichéd.

The Friday Night Fright: Grindhouse

In a break from routine this week’s Friday Night Fright was seen on the big screen. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse project is on tour at selected cinemas around the UK in its original form, complete with fake trailers, and I caught it last night at the Vue in Leicester.

I’d previously seen Rodriguez’s Planet Terror segment, along with the fake trailer for Machete, at the FrightFest All-nighter back in November but it anything I enjoyed it more second time around. It’s an insanely gory and utterly demented homage to trashy zombie flicks that totally embraces the Grindhouse concept. Hilariously bad dialogue, over the top performances, a crazy and completely illogical plot and more gore than you’ll see in the rest of this year’s movies combined add up to a thrill ride that doesn’t pause for breath until THE END appears on screen and we hear the last notes of the greatest score John Carpenter never wrote.

High points? Josh Brolin’s mad doctor is a superb scenery (and thermometer) chewing performance. It’s also nice to see Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey in something other than the straight-to-DVD trash they’re normally wasted in these days. The films only weak performance comes from Naveen Andrews, maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing him as Sayid in Lost, but he seems out of place here and doesn’t really get into the real grindhouse spirit of things.

Next it was time for the three spoof trailer – Werewolf Women of the S.S, Don’t and Thanksgiving. All three are great fun, Rob Zombie almost made me forgive him for Halloween with his ‘tribute’ to the Ilsa films, while Thanksgiving is by far the best thing Eli Roth has done (yes I know that’s not saying much but it really is pretty good). My favourite though was Edgar Wright’s Don’t, a clever pastiche of all those‘70s/’80s movies with Don’t in the title that, at the same time, managed to look like it would be a fun to watch.

So could Mr T top Planet Terror? The answer is yes and no. No, he didn’t top Rodriguez for trashy grindhouse fun, nor does he top him for over-the-top gore or hammy performances. But he has made the better film, and the more enjoyable one. So while Death Proof doesn’t really adhere to the initial concept as well as Planet Terror, it is a thrilling ride.

It’s much slower than Planet Terror to get going, full of the usual Tarantino talkiness with the difference here being that, instead of his usual male interplay, we get to listen to a bunch of women. It’s occasionally amusing, though perhaps not as much as QT thinks it is, but only two of the characters come off as likable – Rose McGowan’s Pam and Vanessa Ferlito’s Arlene.

Things pick up when Stuntman Mike arrives. You know this is one mean badass because he’s got a nasty looking scar down one side of his face and he drives a scary looking black car (when he asks Arlene if his scar scares her, her response is “It’s your car”). Russell gets a lot of mileage out of a look and a few snippets of dialogue, managing to turn in a commendably menacing performance that dominates the film while getting much less screen time than the girls.

I won’t go into what happens next but the films second half introduces a second set of girls, and like the first set they get plenty of Tarantino dialogue, full of the usual pop culture references and punctuated with expletives. At this point I was starting to think “oh no, here we go again” but then, thanks to some very good acting from all four ladies, I started to like this bunch. Maybe it was Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe’s love of Vanishing Point but I started to connect with them, even with ditsy but cute Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) so when they are put in jeopardy I was rooting for them (whereas previously I’d probably had more sympathy for Stuntman Mike).

The last half hour is one long chase sequence that features some of the best car stunts I’ve seen for years, maybe ever. It also sees Tarantino doing away completely with the grindhouse look (damaged film, choppy dialogue) as he puts on film an action sequence that had my eyes glued to the screen and left me breathless and exhausted (although that could have been because the film finished at 2am). It really would have been a crime to mar this footage and Tarantino must have felt the same.

Special mention should go to Zoe Bell who plays a part that requires her to be both actress and stuntwoman.  Luckily she proves more than capable of both tasks and nearly steals the film from under Kurt Russell’s nose.

At the end of Death Proof I was left with the urge to watch Vanishing Point again (and had it not been so late/early I no doubt would have). So Grindhouse gets a big thumbs up. It may be self indulgent but it’s also great fun and it’s nice to see it on the big screen as it was originally envisaged.

Tarantino seems to be rebelling against the early critical acclaim he received for Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, steering clear of ‘serious ‘ films and instead paying tribute to the films that inspired him with both Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Inglorious Bastards looks likely to follow that trend (if it gets made) and after seeing this I can’t wait.

For a full list of where the film is showing look here 

Comic Tales: Daredevil – Theatrical Cut

Matt Murdock was blinded as a child in a freak accident that heightened his remaining senses and gave him a new one, a ‘radar’ sense that allowed him to ‘see’ what was going on around him. This, along with the murder of his father, a boxer who refused to throw a fight, sets the course of Matt’s future – by day he’s a lawyer, defending those no one else will, by night he’s the masked vigilante called Daredevil. Into his dual world comes the beautiful Elektra Natchios and Matt is smitten at first ‘sight’ of her. But Elektra’s father has links to Wilson Fisk the ‘Kingpin’ of crime and, when he attempts to sever his ties, Fisk hires Irish hitman Bullseye to eliminate both him and his daughter.

Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil gets so much right it’s easy to forgive its failings. The ‘origin’ section of the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original comic story, with David Keith playing Matt’s pugilist pop and Scott Terra doing a pretty good job as the young Murdock. He’s particularly good once he’s been blinded and starts learning to use his newfound abilities. The main problem with this section is it’s a little rushed but that’s to be expected – this isn’t a film about a child coming to terms with a disability, it’s a superhero action movie and the audience wants to see grownups beating each other up, not kids.

Cue Ben Affleck as the adult Matt, a man who, it’s fair to say, has issues. Dressing up in a red leather ‘Devil’ suit is bad enough but he also has an anger management problem. This isn’t Peter ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ Parker, Murdock’s credo would be more like ‘with power comes the ability to beat the crap out of bad guys the law failed to punish’. When he meets Elektra he finds more than just a girlfriend, he finds salvation and purpose. Affleck isn’t the greatest actor in the world but this is well within his range, emotions are writ large here, it is after all a comic book movie and they’re not exactly renowned for their subtlety. What helps his performance no end is the onscreen chemistry with Jennifer Garner, who plays Elektra. Their playground fight should be ridiculous (and really is) but the pair seem to be having so much fun that the audience are pulled in as well. It’s probably my favourite Elektra moment in the whole film.

It’s not just with the heroes that the film gets it right, the villains are pretty impressive too, perhaps surprising given how much they deviate from the source material. Colin Farrell’s Bullseye is Irish and doesn’t wear a costume (he just has a bullseye carved into his forehead) and yet he captures the spirit of character perfectly, utterly without conscience and totally demented, he gets all the best lines (and make sure you keep watching after the credits for a little more Bully, something I failed to do when I watched it at the cinema). The comic Kingpin is white and Michael Clarke Duncan clearly isn’t and much fuss was made about that by comic book geeks when the film was released. This ‘geek’ didn’t have a problem with him being black, I just didn’t think he had the range to pull off the part but I was wrong. Duncan does a great job, dominating the screen, not just with his size but his personality.

Rounding out the cast are another couple of inspired choices – Jon Favreau as ‘Foggy’ Nelson, Matt’s friend and partner (when he’s not wearing the DD suit that is) and Joe Pantoliano as reporter Ben Urich. Both manage to do more with what they’re given, which is almost nothing, than you’d think possible, but maybe that’s just me filling in the blanks because I know both characters so well from the comic.

By now you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get around to mentioning what those ‘failings’ that I alluded to earlier are, well the wait’s over. My main gripe is the CGI, Daredevil is a normal man with heightened senses, he’s not Spider-Man, so it shouldn’t really be necessary to have him depicted by a computer and what makes it worse is, it’s such bad CGI. My next moan is about the wirework. Some of it is excellent, fitting in seamlessly with the fights, but there are moments – DD’s fight with Bullseye in the church and Elektra’s confrontation with him on the rooftops – that take you completely out of the film. Daredevil’s showdown with both of the villains is also a bit of a letdown after some of the earlier action, with the barroom fight probably the films action highpoint.

Still, it gets more right than wrong and uses Frank Miller’s run on the comic as its inspiration, complete with religious imagery, Matt is a good Catholic boy at heart.

I’d love to see a sequel to this, which is what Johnson should have done instead of Ghost Rider. Actually he should have done anything instead of Ghost Rider. Affleck apparently isn’t interested in reprising the role and after the less than spectacular Elektra, Hollywood is probably a little wary, but you never know, if the Hulk and Punisher reboots go well we may yet see The Man Without Fear on the big screen again.  Until then I’ve still got the Director’s Cut to look forward too, which by all accounts is superior to this version.

I Spy: The Silencers

Dean Martin’s first outing as Matt Helm is less a movie and more an extended comedy sketch. I’ve never read Donald Hamilton’s Helm novels but I’d say it’s a fair bet that they bare little relation to what we have here.

Dean doesn’t so much play Helm as he does himself, or at least his Mr Smooth public persona, with an eye for the ladies or a bottle of booze, whichever comes first. It’s sporadically amusing, although time hasn’t been kind. What seemed cool to me as a kid doesn’t have the same charm now – a station wagon driving superspy? – but Dino oozes charisma and Stella Stevens shows off her ample charms as the comedy love interest. Add in some reworked Martin songs, a cameo by Cyd Charisse and the obligatory Frank Sinatra joke and you’ve got a painless way to spend a hundred minutes.

Like the superior spy spoof Our Man Flint that came out the same year, a trick gun has a major role to play in the climax (both films milk the idea a little too long) with Helm’s firing backwards while Flint’s had a time delay. On the music front Flint wins hands down, Elmer Bernstein’s score no match for Jerry Goldsmith‘s super cool Flint theme.

Producer Irving Allen, when partnered with ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, turned his nose up at Fleming’s Bond books but subsequently went in search of his own superspy franchise. The Helm series lasted four movies while Mr Bond is still going strong. Says it all really…

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter

No not the Van Damme movie but rather Sonny Chiba’s first outing as Takuma Tsurugi, the badest of bad asses. Bruce Lee’s characters may have been tough but they had a moral compass, so long as you stayed on the straight and narrow you’d be okay. Tsurugi would think no more of killing you than he would of stepping on a cockroach. And he won’t just kill you either, he’ll kill you in the nastiest way possible, throats are ripped out, balls are ripped off, skulls are cracked open…even by today’s standards this is one violent flick.

Tsurugi is basically a hired gun (just without the need of the gun) and early on we see what kind of guy he is. When he breaks a man out of prison and the man’s siblings are unable to pay he kills the male and sells the female as a prostitute to a crime lord. He’s a psycho with a black belt whose only interest is the money and the violence.

Chiba commands the film, sporting a perpetual sneer he’s super-cool. He may lack the grace and style of Bruce Lee but he makes up for it in brute force, and the fight scenes have a gritty, down to earth feel to them, with unfeasible gymnastics kept to a minimum. Sonny’s gurning during the fights is at times amusing but the bone crunching action and copious amounts of ketchup splashed about ensure that he’s never a figure of fun.

Watching the film in the original language (Japanese) for the first time makes a huge difference, as does seeing the full uncut version (I’m pretty sure the dubbed version I used to own missed out on some of the more extreme violence). I’m not sure I’d agree with Clarence (in True Romance) that it’s a perfect first date movie but it’s bloody good fun…and often just plain bloody.

Literally Speaking: Sahara

Twenty-five years after making his first cinematic appearance in the box office bomb Raise the Titanic, Dirk Pitt, hero of many a Clive Cussler novel, returned with this loud, derivative and frankly rather dull action movie.

Think Indiana Bond and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the producers were aiming for here. We go from Bond style boat chase, complete with Bondian score, to a desert action sequence that gives us a glimpse of what Indiana Jones might have been like if it had a talentless hack like Breck Eisner at the helm. I like Matthew McConaughey, in the right part he can be quite effective, but one thing he isn’t is an action hero. He’s not helped by a script that feels like it was put together by committee, which, given the number of writers who worked on it, is probably close to the truth.

It’s not just McConaughey who underperforms; Penélope Cruz looks like she’s just there to get a tan while Steve Zahn does the comedy-sidekick-by-numbers. William H. Macy has his eye on a potential cash cow with the ending setting him up as a Mr Waverly type in what could have been The Man from NUMA (that’s National Underwater and Marine Agency in case you were wondering).

Bad though this film is somehow director Breck Eisner has managed to get his name linked with two remakes that should have film fans blood running cold with terror – Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Crazies. It’s one think to allow him to mess with the works of Clive Cussler and his unintentionally amusingly monikered hero (I always hear the Scottish guy from Dad’s Army in my head saying “t’was a deep dirk pitt”) but you don’t fuck with the classics.

Comic Tales: Superman II

The problem with Superman is that he’s Superman. He’s almost omniscient and it’s hard to find a worthy challenge for him. Superman II manages it by pitting him against three Kryptonian villains, each with powers equal to his own.

When I first saw Superman II at the cinema I thought it a better film than the original. As a fifteen year old comic geek it had what the first film lacked, namely super villains. For the first time we got to see a real Superhero vs. Supervillain knock-down-drag-out fight. There were faults – the romance with Margot Kidder never really worked for me (and still doesn’t) and Superman’s mum lying to him that, after choosing to become human, he can never go back, was always a pretty big plot hole.

The forty-three year old comic geek who just watched the film still loves the fight scenes (although some of the effects seem a little less special than they used to) and Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas are still excellent bad guys (even if General Zod does go a bit Cockney at times, particularly the TV broadcast from the White House).

Now though I can also see the faults – sllly comedy moments and some ropy dubbing (how many characters does Shane Rimmer voice?), Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor completely superfluous to the plot, too little Ned Beatty, E.G. Marshall’s atrocious wig. Plus the whole Superman becoming human (for all of about five minutes) subplot isn’t really needed. The film runs over two hours, not as long as the first film, but then that had to tell the origin story, with Superman not making an appearance until an hour into the film. Superman II could have been trimmed by about thirty minutes and not lost anything of importance.

I’ve yet to see the Richard Donner cut of the film, I’ve got it lined up for a future “Comic Tales”, I’ll be interested to see if it improves on Richard Lester’s version. Hopefully it excises come of the more overt comedy elements.

I Spy: From Russia with Love

This, the second Bond film, one I never really liked that much when I was younger. It lacked the gadgets (unless you count 007′s attaché case, and I didn’t), the diabolical mastermind (unless you count Blofeld stroking his pussy, and, as we don’t even see his face, I didn’t) and said master criminal’s hidden lair (Bond’s final confrontation is with a small Russian woman in a hotel room!)

Yet it’s now one of my favourites and for many of the same reasons. Coming before the series found its formula (that would come with the next film, Goldfinger) it stands out from the rest. Things don’t really get moving until Bond boards the Orient Express in the films action packed second half. This section is one long chase, first in the claustrophobic environs of the train, then by truck, and. finally, in the first of the series spectacular boat sequences. The film has more in common here with North by Northwest than anything in the subsequent Bond films, but of course 007 is no innocent victim.

The film may lack a lead villain but it does have one of the all time great henchmen in the macho form of Robert Shaw’s SPECTRE agent Grant. With so much testosterone on display it’s hardly surprising Connery and Shaw wanted to do their own fight scene, and it gives the sequence a raw brutal quality, aided by the close confines of the confrontation, that’s never been equalled. Both stars no doubt nursed a few bruises (in private of course).

The film is a step up from Dr. No in almost every way. Director Terrance Young orchestrates some great action sequences, John Barry’s score is a big improvement on the first film (although it would get better still) and the opening credits are more in keeping with what we’d come to expect from a Bond film (they were produced, not by Robert Brownjohn not Maurice Binder).

Weak points? Well Daniela Bianchi clearly didn’t get the part Tatiana Romanova based on her acting ability (that’s nothing new), but I much prefer my Bond girls to be able to deliver their own lines as well as look pretty (Bianchi was dubbed by Barbara Jefford).

Their really isn’t much to complain about though. This is the Bond Casino Royale was aiming for, taking the character back to his roots and away from the over the top aspects of the series.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger.