Feb 7, 2021

The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud [12A]

Dir: Martin Owen
Max Cloud (Scott Adkins) has crash-landed on an unfamiliar planet. His ship is in need of repair, but he’s also got to survive attacks from the inhabitants of an intergalactic prison that is also housed on the planet. That’s the plot of the videogame being played by Sarah (Isabelle Allen) in Brooklyn in 1990. One night, she finds herself sucked in to the world of the game and, with the help of her friend Cowboy (Franz Drameh), controlling her game character from the outside, she must complete the game in order to escape.

From the trailer, The Intergalactic Adventures Of Max Cloud looked like fun; a tongue in cheek action movie with Adkins poking fun at his persona in a cross between Last Action Hero and the recent Jumanji films. That’s definitely the idea here, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Where all of the aforementioned films work is in excluding the outside world. We assume that when the credits roll on Jack Slater IV in the real world, the world of the movie still exists, and the Jumanji films smartly excluded the idea of anyone outside the game world controlling the characters. This is one of the most fundamental ways in which Max Cloud fails to work at the most basic level. 

Having Cowboy at the controls throws all sorts of questions up as to how the mechanics of what is happening work. Sarah ends up in the body of an apparently useless character, Jake (Elliot James Langridge) a cook on Max’s ship, who we’re told nobody would choose to play as. We do see Cowboy control her avatar. A mildly amusing gag has ‘Jake’ uncontrollably walking into a wall because Cowboy has set the controller down to go to the bathroom, but there also long periods in which ‘Jake’ is either standing around talking with Max or one of the other NPCs (most often Rexy, played by co-writer Sally Collett) or just walking from place to place. By including Cowboy in the game, and sometimes showing him simply walking the characters through empty screens, we have to wonder how this game plays in the real world. Fights are so infrequent that it appears deathly dull. On screen, Max Cloud the game looks like a side scrolling beat ‘em up from an early 16-bit console, but those games were generally jam-packed with enemies, allowing you few opportunities to rest. They were also full of power-ups; health bonuses in whatever form, special moves for characters to execute and occasionally extra lives. None of these things appear to be available (but for in one sequence at the end) within the world of Max Cloud.

Only on a couple of occasions does the film find interesting ways to exploit the video game mechanics. A mid-film end of level boss battle works quite well, with Sarah figuring out the pattern of attack and exploiting it to beat the boss, just as she’d have to back home with the controller. Easily the film’s best sequence is Scott Adkins’ first fight (of far too few). It’s only in this fight that Adkins gets to have fun with the martial arts choreography. He deliberately makes his movements staccato, as if rendered in limited animation, and strikes the kinds of poses you’d expect to see from a sprite in a 90s game, but does so while also delivering a tremendously fun fight. 

On the whole, Adkins is clearly trying something here. He gives Max an over the top American accent and heroic bearing, the bearing shifts later in the film, as Sarah seems to make the game characters a little more human, and it might have been fun if he’d lost the accent too, as it feels like there’s some idea that even Max might, by the third act, have some awareness of how over the top his character is. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t dig into that idea, or any others really. Even Jumanji, in a comedic way, used the avatars to expand its human characters, Max Cloud never even appears to aspire to that and Isabelle Allen and Franz Drameh are saddled with dull characters who don’t achieve or change much during the film. Among the supporting cast, Sally Collett reserves many of her screenplay’s best lines for her own character, and the parade of underdeveloped characters continues with John Hannah’s bad guy, Revengor and Lashana Lynch, who is wasted as his sidekick Sheee.

Though the film is named for Max Cloud, Scott Adkins doesn’t have enough to do here, he’s a supporting character in his own movie and too much of what he does is off-screen, notably a couple of fights which could have been fun, but director Martin Owen leaves us stuck with ‘Jake’ and other characters while they hide and Max does the ass kicking (again, what does this suggest about the game mechanics? What is Cowboy doing at this point?) Some of this is surely down to a visibly low budget. The sets often appear cramped and the costume design, particularly that for Revengor, looks rather cheap. Disappointingly, there’s not much ingenuity on display to solve the budgetary problems, it would be easy enough to fold in gags about game design or limited graphics to paper over the cracks and provide some laughs, but this is just another way that neither the game world nor the situation that Sarah finds herself in really convince.

There is potential in The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud. The idea of Scott Adkins getting his own Last Action Hero is a fun one at heart but this, sadly, is another project that fails to use him, or the ideas surrounding him, to its best advantage. How is his comic timing? It works in that one fight scene, but otherwise, the screenplay doesn’t give him enough jokes to stretch his range much, so it’s hard to tell. Overall this is a disappointment; a couple of fun moments marooned in a film the central conceit of which is too glitchy to be functional.
★½

Dec 28, 2020

Martial Arts Monday: Armour of God 2: Operation Condor

Dir: Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan has never shied away from using other filmmakers work as inspiration, indeed his entire persona is heavily influenced by silent comedians, to the degree that he has paid direct homage to stunts by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, among others. The Armour of God series is his riff on Indiana Jones. This second entry (confusingly released in the US simply as Operation Condor, with Armour of God later released as Operation Condor 2), whether by design or accident, sticks most closely to the template laid out by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

In typical Indy fashion, the film begins with what feels like the end of an adventure we didn’t see. In this case, Jackie (as the character is called in the restored extended version I watched for this) is taking gems from a cave but is attacked by the tribe that lives there when he drinks the holy water. It’s all a lot of nonsense to lead into a pretty spectacular sequence of the character zorbing down a cliff and sets the tone pretty well.

At 117 minutes in this cut (extended from 107 in the original Hong Kong release, and just 80 minutes in its US version), Operation Condor takes a while to set up its story, which eventually finds Jackie sent to locate Nazi gold buried in the Sahara desert with three women (Eva Cobo, Carol ‘DoDo’ Cheng and Shôko Ikeda) in tow, who all have some connection either to the hunt or to the people who stole the gold. Aside from the set pieces (an exceptional car and bike chase and a slapstick break in and fight at Cobo’s house), the first hour of the film is a slog, especially because Chan and co-writer Edward Tang, in their cribbing from Spielberg, have decided to give all three of the female co-stars the Willie Scott role. This means that rather than just one perma-screaming damsel in endless distress we have an entire chorus of them. Along with the several times that their (mostly implied) nudity is used as a distraction in fights and the amount of times each of them gets hit, it all feels pretty retrograde, as do the racial politics, with a bunch of white stuntmen playing mujahideen fighters (better that though than putting them in brownface).

What keeps the whole thing afloat during the first two acts is twofold. First, there are just about enough setpieces to paper over the cracks and secondly, when those moments come, Chan attacks them with all his customary energy and precision. Operation Condor took 18 months to make and was the most expensive film made in Hong Kong up to that time and Jackie and co-director Frankie Chan put it all up on screen. The mid-film set piece that ranges all across the desert hotel where Jackie and the women are staying is a highlight, with agile and funny martial arts mixing with stunt work and an epic amount of squibs laying waste to the set when Eva Cobo fires a machine gun she can’t control.

As a fan of martial arts cinema, I always know broadly that what we’re waiting for is the last act of the movie. The action beats up until then are all well and good, but it’s all prologue. This being a long film, Jackie and his stunt team have a lot saved up for what is a roughly half-hour finale that moves from fight to fight, from overblown set to overblown set, and from stunt to stunt with breathless energy. Once we get to the base where the gold is held, the film is on rails (much like Temple of Doom when it finally gets to its own underground finale). Happily, he finally throws his leading ladies (all of whom, annoying though their characters can be, are very game and look like they’re having a great time), allowing them some inventiveness in a great little comic action beat. 

Operation Condor came in the middle of an all but unprecedented 18 year run between The Young Master and Who Am I in which, at least in the Hong Kong films he was top-billed in, Jackie barely put a foot wrong—figuratively speaking. It’s in this last half hour that this film finally kicks fully into gear to stand alongside exalted company like the Police Story and Project A films. The fight that runs through the first room in the base, with Jackie winding his way through railings and into and out of vents as he fights, is reminiscent, at a time when they had fallen out, of Sammo Hung’s masterful Eastern Condors. Jackie, if never as hard-hitting as his bigger brother, inevitably goes bigger. First there is a fight across two massive seesawing platforms, and then the grand finale in a wind tunnel. This sequence is everything Jackie Chan does well: it is grandiose in its silliness, but also allows him to play to all of his physical comedy strengths as well as achieve some unique action beats. 

This sequence, along with the end of first act chase and the last half hour as a whole, are where Operation Condor best captures the sheer joy of watching Jackie Chan work at his best. The film as a whole may be inconsistent, but in its best moments it soars like Jackie as he uses the turbine to fly at an opponent, gleefully yelling “Superman”.
★★★½

Dec 8, 2020

2020 Catch Up: Vol 2

Madness in the Method
Dir: Jason Mewes
It’s probably fair to say that Jason Mewes largely lucked into his 25-year career as an actor. When Kevin Smith made
Clerks, he cast his friend as Jay simply because Mewes made him laugh. While Mewes has done plenty of other acting work, he’s never really escaped the character of Jay (playing him again in the upcoming Twilight of the Mallrats) and that is the jumping-off point for this, his feature directorial debut.

The screenplay, by Dominic Burns and Chris Anastasi has Mewes playing himself as an actor who wants to break out of playing Jay and other assorted stoner roles by landing the lead role in The Odyssey, an Oscar-tipped production that will be the directorial debut of Clerks actor Brian O’Halloran (just go with it). To that end, he’s introduced to a book on method acting, but as he goes ever more method he descends into madness.

The idea of an actor getting too into a part has been mined for chills before, but Mewes tries to lean into the comedy of the idea. To be fair, he finds a handful of laughs. A scene with former TV Superman Dean Cain is pretty funny; Cain is portrayed as always fearful of fans coming up to him and being disappointed that he’s not actually Superman, there are a few amusing lines here and Cain seems to be on board with poking fun at himself. Unfortunately, the funny moments are few and far between, otherwise largely confined to scenes of loose, possibly improvised, banter between Mewes and Kevin Smith (also playing a version of himself).

The problem is largely that Mewes doesn’t exactly have the A list to choose from in his casting. Vinnie Jones is as charisma-free as ever, even when playing himself; Gina Carano is wasted, not even getting to fight as Mewes’ girlfriend, despite the fact that there’s a scene late on where her doing so could be pretty funny and Blake Harrison is woefully unfunny as a stereotypically gay entertainment reporter. Most of the rest of the cast are restricted to cameos, clearly working just a day or two and seemingly putting in all the effort that would suggest, Teri Hatcher’s scene, for instance, looks like it could have been tossed off in a few minutes in her home office.

Mewes’ direction and performance are both perfunctory. It’s ironic that by playing an actor desperate to break character he ends up showing that he’s a bland presence outside that character. He doesn’t convince in the scenes where he’s going mad. This might have played if he was able to start out that way and then evolve to become more convincing as his character kept reading about the method, but Mewes simply doesn’t appear versatile enough for this. Directorially the film is largely flat looking, with daytime scenes like the Hollywood party he finds Smith at being especially televisual. When Mewes gets more ambitious things hardly improve, with a couple of nonsensical musical fantasy interludes (happily Mewes doesn’t sing) being the nadir, at least until Danny Trejo shows up in a feather boa, perpetrating another awful gay stereotype because he too has gone method. 

Madness in the Method isn’t a terrible idea, but sadly it doesn’t reveal any untapped potential in Jason Mewes and without doing that it should lean much harder into the essential ludicrousness of its central premise for most of its gags to land. As it is, this hits neither humour nor chills and fails to point to an interesting directorial career for its star.

Mulan [2020]
Dir: Niki Caro
The Disney renaissance started at the right time for me, I was 8 when The Little Mermaid came out, 10 for Beauty and the Beast, but by the time Mulan rolled around in 1998 I was 17 and probably thought I was too much of a sophisticated cinephile for another Disney princess movie, and I still haven't got around to filling that gap in my viewing. 
Coincidentally, right around the time the animated Mulan was coming out, I was just starting to discover martial arts movies, which remain one of my great loves. It was this that drew me to this live action take on the material, not only because of the trailer, which suggested a definite leaning in to the action side of the story, but also the casting, including legends of martial arts cinema like Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Cheng Pei-pei.

I've not been a great lover of Disney's recent run of live-action versions of their animated classics. Up until now only Pete's Dragon has struck me as much more than a very expensive form of karaoke. For the most part, Mulan squares the circle of being both a traditional Disney fairytale and a martial arts action film well. The first act is focused on building the themes of family, self-belief and exceeding the expectations set out for you. We see Mulan as a little girl being mischevious, energetic and showing promise in martial arts, but her father (Tzi Ma) and Mother (Rosalind Chao) make it clear to her that, as a girl, she is not meant to fight and her role is to find a suitable match (facilitated by a matchmaker played by Cheng Pei-pei). When, years later, the Emperor's army comes looking for recruits, Mulan (now played by Yifei Liu) sneaks away to take the place of her father, disgusing herself as a boy so that she can join the regiment led by Commander Tung (Yen) and fight against the rebellion led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his sorceress Xianniang (Gong Li)

The sections with Mulan training and bonding with her fellow recruits are fun, combining a playful sense of growing camaraderie, especially with Chen Honghui (Yoson An) with a real sense of them being prepared for battle in martial arts training montages led by Yen. However, it's when the war starts that the film takes off. Caro and her stunt team marshall some great battle scenes. The large scale sequences are an excellent synthesis of real stunts and high quality CGI, with a strong enough sense of space and flow that we never lose the detail of what's going on. When we zoom in on individual moments, fight coordinators Nuo Sun and Heidi Moneymaker deliver action that can stand comparison with pure martial arts films. The fights may not be as hard-hitting as some, and clearly there is never any blood, but neither do they come off as cartoony. This Mulan, with animal sidekicks and songs stricken from the adaptation, definitely has a somewhat harder edge than I might have expected.

This also comes through in the villains, with Jason Scott Lee forceful as Bori Khan. His story is fairly one-dimensional; he's the bad guy out for revenge on Jet Li's Emperor. A version of this film from another studio might have dug more effectively into the moral ambiguity of the history between the two, but Disney does like its morals painted in black and white. A more effective villain storyline comes from Gong Li and how her attack on Mulan brings out the courage in her to reveal her identity to Tung and the other recruits and step up as a leader in the film's third act. The scenes between Gong Li and Yifei Liu bring out the most nuance we see in Liu's leading performance, which can be a bit flat, as she seems to be the only member of main cast who struggles with her English. These sequences are also some of the most visually impressive, thanks both to the settings and to the striking design of Li's makeup. The message delivered in their last scene together is a little rushed and rather predictable, but it does knit the film's themes together well.

On the whole, Mulan delivers. It serves up some simple but effective morals for the family audience, but it's also visually interesting, with beautiful scenery and design throughout. The action is what marks the film out as different from many other Disney efforts, it wears its influences on its sleeve, nodding especially at the martial arts films of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. It may never hit those heights, but Niki Caro and the stunt and fight teams deliver consistently thrilling, good looking, action that flows well both narratively and visually. Along with Pete's Dragon this is, flaws and all, one of the high watermarks of Disney's live action remake era.
★★★½