Aug 15, 2010

From the Archives: Martial Arts Month Special

DIR: Raymond Lee

A highly entertaining, if pretty silly, remake of King Hu's 1967 film. The plot is a tad confusing but let me try. Maggie Cheung (sigh) owns the Dragon Gate inn, in the middle of the desert. For some reason both bandits (led by Tony Leung Ka Fai and Brigitte Lin) and government agents who are hunting them end up there. There's lots of fighting. At the end Donnie Yen shows up (as a eunuch, of course) and the big final fight ensues. So, yes, it's all a bit mystifying and it's certainly not for newcomers to the wuxia genre but there's plenty to recommend here.

Maggie Cheung's performance is infectious, she overplays the comedy to the hilt but the sillier she is the more fun her performance (and, I know I say this whenever I review one of her films but, she's SO beautiful that just watching her is a joy). Brigitte Lin is also terrific in a much more steely and more action oriented part than I’m used to seeing her in and Donnie Yen, sadly not in the film enough, shows up and struts his stuff impeccably.

As far as the fighting goes it's all well worth watching but there's a couple of sequences that really stand out. First a fight between Lin and (a heavily doubled) Cheung in which Lin, having just had a bath, strips Cheung of her clothing one item at a time as they fight. Neither is ever exposed but it's hugely sexy as well as being a solid fight. The final fight is also magnificent with some stunning shots of the cast fighting in what is almost a sandstorm and some awe inspiring physicality from Donnie Yen. It ends in a touch so ludicrous that it's laugh out loud funny but that's the tone of the movie and doesn't hurt a great sequence.

Sadly there's not quite enough action as the tension at the inn seldom boils over and another downside is that Tony Leung Ka Fai is rather bland (perhaps if he and Donnie Yen had traded roles there'd have been a better film here). At the end of the day, as is the case with most wuxia films, if you like the genre you'll find things to enjoy here and if you don't, well, you aren't reading this are you?

DIR: David Mamet

When I first heard about Redbelt I did a double take. It seemed like such an odd fit: David Mamet’s martial arts movie, really? While it’s neither the best martial arts movie I’ve seen, nor the best David Mamet movie I’ve seen it is an interesting, and occasionally outstanding, example of each.

Mamet’s name, and his reputation and history as a writer, is enough to attract a stellar cast to play alongside members of his stock company whenever he makes a film, and Redbelt has a truly outstanding cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor impresses in the leading role of Mike Terry, a Jiu-Jitsu instructor who, for reasons I won’t reveal, finds himself having to break his cardinal rule as a fighter, and fight in a competition. Ejiofor seems to be doing the vast majority of the fighting himself and while moves seem quite basic the choreography is well put together and the length of the takes and the combinations of moves are pretty impressive, but Ejiofor’s strength is the drama and he plays it flawlessly, from an American accent so good that you’d barely believe he’s British to hitting every beat of Mamet’s always intricate dialogue just right. Another British actor, again playing an American, also impresses in a smaller role. Emily Mortimer is quickly growing into one of the most reliable character actresses around and here she plays a complex role, with a lot of different facets and an extreme arc absolutely convincingly with only a few rather brief scenes to do it.

Among the rest of the supporting cast there are (too) small parts for Mamet regulars Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay and David Paymer and excellent turns from Brazillian actress Alice Braga as Ejiofor’s wife and Max Martini as his star pupil. The real surprise, though, is Tim Allen. Allen is usually found slumming, but has previously shown that with a good script (the Toy Story films, Galaxy Quest) he’s an effective comic lead. Here, though, he’s got an entirely dramatic role as action movie star Chet Frank, and he absolutely eats it up, grabbing it with a zeal that suggests he knows exactly how good a chance this is to prove that he really can act. Now if he’d only stop making crap like The Santa Clause and seek out more roles like this.

Mamet’s screenplay is talkier than you’d expect for a martial arts movie, but truly it’s the talk that is the film’s most compelling aspect. As ever with Mamet it overflows with quotable dialogue (“We got a deal”. “What good's a deal if no one's making any money”?) and in typical fashion things that seem incidental end up paying off in ways you don’t expect, as in a beautiful second act sequence here, which draws a morass of dangling threads together to set up the final conflict.

It is, sadly, that final conflict that ends up making Redbelt somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The last act is very familiar, and it’s done with little panache, particularly when Mamet, the master of dialogue, wraps proceedings up with a (hopelessly cliché) silent sequence. Worse is that the final fight isn’t very dynamic or exciting and that several moments that promise rather more drama are thrown away, never to be seen.
Still, for three quarters of its running time Redbelt is vintage Mamet, with a nice side order of kicking.

DIR: Sammo Hung

Fung Tat (Jackie Chan) is a cop. He's always wanted to get a job on a ship and sail round the world but can't as he has to care for his elder brother Dodo (Sammo Hung) who is mentally handicapped. Tat is in the process of trying to marry his girlfriend (Emily Chu) so he can leave Dodo in her care and go off sailing but when his brother falls in with a gang of thieves he must save him and clear his name with the police.

Heart of the Dragon is far removed from a typical Sammo Hung / Jackie Chan film. The first thing that audiences will notice is that Sammo doesn't fight, though he does a couple of stunts, the other most notable thing is that Heart of the Dragon is overwhelmingly a drama, allowing Jackie and Sammo both to play far against type for perhaps the first time in their careers.

As Dodo Sammo really gets to create a character and he shows that actually he's a pretty versatile and talented actor, given the chance to stretch. We never get specifics on what is wrong with Dodo but Sammo's childlike performance is charming and never condescends to the audience or becomes so broad as to be insulting to the mentally handicapped as so many films have.

Jackie is also effective as Tat. In one particularly excellent scene he rails against his uncomprehending brother about how he's not been able to go away because he's had to devote his life to caring for him. Jackie always gets to be more adult when Sammo is directing him (perhaps it's because, as his big brother, he trusts Sammo to stretch him) and that's certainly true here. Even outside of the dramatic scenes his fighting is more brutal, more outwardly violent and his relationship with Emily Chu both cynical and suggestive of a more adult side to the character, particularly in a couple of kissing scenes which from anyone else would be mild but are probably as sexual as Jackie has ever allowed himself to be on screen.

This is very much a drama. After an opening action beat (which includes a rare and sadly brief smackdown between Jackie and the late, great Lam Ching Ying) it settles down into being a very serious piece which lets the acting rather than fists and feet do the work and it works better than you'd ever expect because Sammo and Jackie hold it together (though supporting cast members like Mang Hoi are sometimes found wanting). So committed was Sammo to this tone that he actually cut action scenes from the main body f the film, holding off on the action until the traditional end fight which, it has to be said, is a beautiful thing. I love Jackie Chan's films and he's created some of the greatest action ever put on film but he never looks better, or more dangerous, than when he's directed by Sammo and this is no exception, fast, furious and violent it's a great release after a long wait for some action.

Heart of the Dragon is not a film for people new to Hong Kong martial arts movies as it's far from a traditional entry in the CVs of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan but it's well executed in all respects and a recommended watch for fans who want to see Sammo and Jackie trying something new and doing well at it.

DIR: Jackie Chan

Asian Hawk (Jackie Chan) used to be a pop singer along with friend Alan (Alan Tam) but now he's an Indiana Jones style fortune hunter. When Alan's girlfriend (Rosamund Kwan), also Hawk's ex, is kidnapped he and Alan must retrieve all three pieces of the Armour of God as a ransom for the corrupt group of monks who hold her.

Every time he does a film Jackie Chan does things that could quite easily kill him. He fell off a clocktower in Project A (actually he did three takes of that one), he slid down a long pole lined with lightbulbs in Police Story and he's been injured countless times, dislocating bones you never thought you could dislocate (the sternum). He's only come close to dying in one stunt though, a rather simple one on this film. Jumping out of a tree from about 15 feet up Chan missed his target, the cameraman rolled out of the way to avoid being landed on and Chan landed on a rock, cracking his skull. Fortunately he was able to get emergency brain surgery, though he still has a plastic plug stopping the hole in his head.

Armour of God did get finished though and there's little in it to suggest that its star and director had nearly lost his life early in the schedule as Chan still executes some truly breathtaking stunts. It's not, sadly, one of Chan's best but Armour of God does have some real standout sequences. The opening sequence isn't so much inspired by Indiana Jones as it is a direct lift but it's strong with some great stunts and the same exuberant action feel as the Indy films captured. Sadly after this the film settles into a largely action free midsection which throws too much focus on a bland Alan Tam (whose introduction, with an entire canto-pop song, is truly a test of endurance). The ending set piece does, as ever, liven things up with Jackie fighting four female opponents as well as some monks before diving off a cliff onto a hot air balloon and sliding down the balloon into the basket (something he did for real, mere months after his operation).

Aside from the action this isn't a great film but there's enough decent action and endearing performances from Jackie and Spanish model Lola Forner to recommend it.

DIR: Kevin Donovan

Jimmy Tong (Jackie Chan) works as a cab driver until one day a passenger offers him a job as driver to super spy Clark Devlin (Jason Isaccs). When Devlin is injured in a bombing Jimmy takes his place, using a tuxedo of Devlin's that confers superpowers on the wearer.

Suited up Jimmy and partner Del Blaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt) (who, being on her first assignment, thinks he's Devlin) go up against an eeevil bottled water manufacturer (Ritchie Coster) who is planning to poison the world's water supply, leaving only his mineral water safe to drink (muahahahaha).

It's not an easy time to be a Jackie Chan fan. His Hong Kong output has been slipping in quality (he's been trying to act, God help us) and his Hollywood films lurch from one embarrassment to the next. This might be the best of his US work to date, I realise of course that that's like saying 'Whaddya know, this sewage smells better than that sewage', but still, small mercies.

The Tuxedo is certainly beset with problems. First among them is the prevalence of wire work (not great wire work at that) in the action and stunt sequences. Time was Jackie lived by the words: I am the special effect. But time marches on and this can be put down to age and injury rather than laziness or a lack of ideas on the part of Jackie and his stunt team. The smaller moments are the best, true they've been slightly aided by effects but still the displays of agility, particularly when Jackie has to fight while trying to put his tux back on, are as amazing as ever.

Debuting Director Donovan isn't the man for the job. Too often he botches the action particularly in a sequence with the most obvious fake leg ever put to film and his leering fascination with Hewitt's cleavage, magnificent as it may be, makes you wonder if it was an adult or a 13 year old boy behind the camera. However there are bright spots. Chan's having fun, which often seems not to be the case lately, clearly he enjoys the slapstick comedy and, for all the frustrations of working in English, his comic timing and screen presence still win through. Hewitt may be utterly miscast but she makes the best of things and actually puts in a sparky performance that serves the film perfectly well.

So it's dumber than you can possibly imagine but there's also fun to be had. There's some hammy cameos from Whose Line Is It Anyway's Colin Mochorie and from Peter Stormare as a mad scientist and just enough of Jackie's trademark action to make it fun. Clearly no masterpiece then, but hardly as mortifying as Shanghai Noon or The Medallion

DIR: Sammo Hung

Jackie Lung (Jackie Chan) is a lawyer hired by a chemical processing factory to make opposition to their polluting ways, which are threatening the fish farm run by Miss Yip (Deannie Yip), disappear. However Lung discovers he is working for gangsters (led by Yuen Wah) and with the help of friends Fei-Hung (Sammo Hung) and Tung (Yuen Biao) sets out to destroy the drug refining and smuggling operation really operating through the factory.

The legendary 'Seven Little Fortunes' opera troupe of Sifu Yu Jim Yuen included many of the great stars of Hong Kong martial arts cinema but the three that made the greatest impression on the industry were Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The three made numerous films together but only in three of those did they all have starring roles. Project A, Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever. Being a Sammo Hung film it is darker than Project A and lacks the exuberant fun of that film but Dragons Forever, like many of Sammo's films, not only shows off his cast's astonishing abilities to their best effect but allows them to stretch them selves in areas they usually wouldn't.

All three of the stars play against type. Jackie, normally the moral underdog hero, is cast as a shyster, skirt chasing lawyer and when we first see him is defending a rapist in court (though he does give him a hell of a punch after the acquittal). Sammo gets to be a bit of a ladies man, something that his build would usually preclude and Yuen Biao plays a very odd character, an old friend who appears to have gone mad. It is perhaps this deviation from their usual personas that meant Dragons Forever was something of a box office disappointment on its release. For me though the changes to the familiar personas are a welcome way of providing some variety in a genre that too often only distinguishes itself in the choreography of the fighting.

There's quite a lot of plot in Dragons Forever and that allows for not just a lot of fighting but quite a bit of comedy and even a few more dramatic interludes. These vary in their success. For example there's a charming sequence with Sammo and Deanie Yip night fishing while sharing some food (this, apparently, is based on how Sammo and his first wife passed the time when he was broke) which works beautifully but a broader scene when he pursues Yip down the street with a megaphone trying to get her to go on a date with him pushes the boat out a bit far.

A lot of the comedy involves physicality and never is this better executed than in a scene at Jackie's apartment as first Yuen Biao and then Sammo gatecrash as he tries to woo Pauline Yeung and the tries to hide their presence from her. If the Three Stooges did kung fu it would probably look like this ludicrously entertaining sequence.

Though the comedic action is hugely entertaining it really has nothing on the true action beats. There's an excellent early scene for Jackie, which takes place on a boat (the venue for his second date with Pauline Yeung) and again shows off his absolute mastery of fighting with props. The three brothers all fight together in a stunning scene in a club, which uses a real disco as a standing set in ways that look astoundingly painful. There's a one time only occurrence for fans too, as Dragons Forever is the only film in which you can see a three way fight between Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao.

The plot wraps up (with, sadly, just about the worst scene in the movie) at the end of act two to set up the final few reels for the traditional showdown. It's here that Yuen Wah, reprising the robotic bad guy he played to such effect in Eastern Condors, comes into force and Benny Urquidez arrives in the film. Urquidez (who Bey Logan, who should know, describes as pound for pound the greatest martial artist alive) fought Jackie in Wheels on Meals (and it's that fight that Jackie named his favourite he's ever taken part in) and was brought back as the formidable last reel opponent here.

Their confrontation is quite simply one of the finest ever filmed. It starts out slow and over about ten minutes amps up to a frenzy of punches and kicks, all of it executed brilliantly. The timing is spot on, the use of props inventive, adding to the scene and Sammo even lets the action pause for a quick comic beat and let the audience catch a breath. Even if it's not the best martial arts sequence ever filmed (for me that's the Sammo directed duel between Frankie Chan and Lam Ching Ying in The Prodigal Son) it's still right up there and a truly fitting finale to the last of the three brothers films together.

DIR: Tom Dey

China 1881: When the Princess Pei-Pei (Lucy Liu) is kidnapped from the Forbidden City and held for ransom Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) begs to be included in the party sent to rescue her. When the train they are travelling on is robbed by Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson) and his gang and his uncle is killed Chon Wang goes after Roy. Eventually they team up and ride off to save the princess.

When even the outtakes at the end of a Jackie Chan film are less entertaining than spending the same amount of time slapping yourself in the face you know it's been a really bad day at the office for the clown prince of Kung Fu movies. Shanghai Noon is an embarrassment. The comedy, from both Chan and sidekick Owen Wilson is thuddingly unfunny (and, in one extended sequence with some indians, more than a little bit racist). The physical comedy for which Chan is justly famous is here reduced to such tired gags as him getting off his horse the wrong way and then walking funny; oh my sides, how they ache.

The most serious crime though is that the action is not only rather dull (shocking, what with Jackie, his stunt team and Yuen Biao working on the film) but ineptly shot. Dey forgets to let us see Jackie in several of the big sequences, including a long fall which is the best stunt in the film (an embarrassing standard).

Chan, Wilson and Liu are fine, doing what little is asked of them perfectly well but there's little to love here. There are no moments to rewind gasping 'how'd he do THAT?' None of the fights really get the blood pumping and the comedy is a laugh desert the fact it's not the worst of Jackie's American films speaks only to how catastrophically awful The Medallion really was.

DIR: David Dobkin

Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) and Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson) are reunited after Chon enlists Roy's help in avenging his Father's murder and getting back the imperial seal that he was killed for. This involves going to England to meet up with Chon's insanely hot sister (Fann Wong) and pursue the killer; evil Lord Rathbone (Aiden Gillen)

I hated Shanghai Noon but clearly I'm a glutton for punishment so here we are. There's good news and bad: the good news; this sequel is better than Shanghai Noon, the bad news; barely, and by default.

Alfred Gough and Miles Millar clearly decided that they'd run out of cliché jokes about Native Americans and how out of place Jackie Chan was in the wild west so they've moved the story to England. What that results in is some of the worst xenophobic English jokes and clichés since the despicably unfunny Three Men and a Baby. There are only two accents in this England; an incredibly overplayed 'aristocratic' one, which reaches its most ludicrous point with the monumentally terrible performance of Aidan Gillen and the world's most cliché 'apples and pears' cockernee, which contributes to the mortifyingly dreadful performance of young Aaron Johnson.

A constant annoyance is that the film has absolutely no regard for historical context. Set in 1887 it takes place in a London where Jack the Ripper is already terrorising the streets (those murders took place in 1888), motion pictures (first demonstrated in the 1890's) exist and Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) is already 10 or so. Obviously we don't come to films like this looking for historical accuracy but when these jokes are such a big part of the script shouldn't they at least have a basis in fact?

At least the cast is game. Chan and Wilson work hard but they can't mine laughs from the mirthless abomination that is the screenplay and Gillen certainly puts forth effort (even doing some creditable sword fighting) but has been misdirected; his cliché villain lacking only a moustache to twirl. Fann Wong lights up the screen with her beauty but her character is so thin as to be anorexic and few of her actions have any motivation (notably her character's attraction to Roy). However, untrained as a martial artist though she may be, she looks great in her action sequences.

The action sequences are better than last time out. Unlike Tom Dey, Dobkin makes sure we can see Jackie in the action set pieces, makes sure we know it's him, the choreography is better too, a sequence involving a ladder recalls some of Jackie's best work and harks back to the mastery of props he showed in films like Project A. Sadly the fight between Jackie and Donnie Yen, long awaited by fans, is something of a letdown. The tussle is grounded for much of the time and lacks any real drama (though the pay off, provided by Wong, is good).

For the action, the outtakes (always a highlight of Jackie's films) and for Fann Wong this is worth a look but what surrounds it is, at times, torturously poor.

Here are some clips for you to enjoy

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