Chamber music for fists, feet, and fluorescent lights. It’s as if Gaspar Noe were a genre director on contract with Menahem Golan in the late 1980s. The story owes royalty payments to the estate of Philip K. Dick, but it’s enhanced by enthralling NC-17 action beats, a seamy and fully staffed R-rated titty bar, and an overall sense of existential despair thick enough to choke on. Watching it feels a little like smelling a T-shirt soaked in blood, sweat, and testosterone. Recommended.
Haywire opens with a scene in which Mallory Kane (the retired mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano), an erstwhile member of a private contractor’s elite, government-sponsored fighting force, has a tense meeting with Aaron (Channing Tatum), a beefy colleague who’s come to retrieve her from the field. Before the inevitable beatdown ensues — she’s gone rogue after being double-crossed by her boss, so she’s obviously not going anywhere without a fight — it becomes apparent that this isn’t your typical action programmer. The tip-off isn’t in what you see, but what you hear. Or, rather, what you don’t hear. The two leads converse in near-complete silence, as if they’re floating in space instead of sitting in an upstate diner. The waitress says a few words, meekly, but the expected sound bed of dishes clanking and walla FX is conspicuously absent.
This 1971 Shaw Brothers martial-arts flick is definitely full of action — energetic camerawork, gallons of stage blood, and a widescreen frame full of gracefully choreographed movement on the part of dozens of performers wielding an impressive variety of weapons all contribute to the film’s sense of urgent forward motion.
The 70s exploitation-film spoof Black Dynamite sounds like a fun idea on paper, and it starts to look like a can’t-miss proposition when you see the theatrical trailer, which showcases the technical qualities of this loving pastiche. Director Scott Sanders certainly gets the look right, thanks partly to no-frills era-aware photography by DP Shawn Maurer and partly to some digital tweaking that brings the colors in line with that ruddy aesthetic specific to some film prints of the period, and that’s crucial to the joke. As the titular bad-ass, a former CIA agent with a reinstated license to kill out to avenge the death of his brother, Michael Jai White combines a deadpan-comic screen presence with enough martial artistry to make a fight scenes work on a more visceral level than pure parody. But something about the execution is flat.
District 13: Ultimatum is at its best and silliest in the opening reels, which place French supercop Damien Tomaso (the lanky, bald Cyril Raffaelli, who’s also the film’s stunt coordinator) in a chaotic undercover assignment — he’s in the back room of a nightclub, decked out in a dress with a peekaboo ass and masquerading as a kind of courtesan to a Chinese drug kingpin. When his backup arrives, all hell breaks loose. The sequence is staged with tongue tucked firmly in cheek — the contrast between Raffaelli’s muscular, manly frame and that of his obvious female body-double is faintly hilarious — but it more or less brings the goods, staging an extended martial-arts fight that plays as an affectionate tribute to Jackie Chan in his prime. In other words, props matter, from the stepladder that brings the pain when villains are slammed into it to the priceless Van Gogh painting that Tomaso employs as a delicate weapon at his disposal. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince. It’s a good time.
Released in 1984, this widescreen actionfest/drug-addiction drama was the final film of only three directed by longtime action choreographer Tang Chia — and one of the last films ever released by the legendary Shaw Brothers movie studio, which in its heyday made dozens of movies every year but by this time was struggling to keep up with the popular trends ushered in by Bruce Lee and expanded upon by Jackie Chan and friends.
Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film’s beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.
It pains me to note that The Forbidden
Kingdom has the feeling of a valedictory about it. The film is a
generally westernized recitation of archetypal martial-arts legends
and themes that uses an alternate-realities hook to palm off its main
character arc on Michael Angarano, a good-looking kid who comes off as a variation on a theme by Shia
LaBeouf, in a bid to give a generation of teenaged American
moviegoers a point of emotional entrée to the story of the
Asian other. That director Rob Minkoff had the sense to retain the
great Asian martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and lyrical
cinematographer Peter Pau is to his credit – they give the
film notes of beauty and authenticity that play against the inevitable Hollywood gloss slathered across the story (think
Karate Kid: The Next Generation) and characters.