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Martial Arts

The Man With the Iron Fists

Man with the Iron Fists

Y'all terrible, just terrible. You should be working in
soup kitchens instead

dir: RZA

We like to think that, with enough love, time money and knowledge, we can make great things happen. The disinterested universe, however, just doesn’t work that way.

It would come as no surprise to anyone that knows anything about rap music, The RZA, or the Wu Tang Clan and its many offshoots, that he has a deep love and knowledge of classic Hong Kong martial arts flicks. Almost every Wu Tang (et al) song I can think of has a sample from an old kung fu movie, replete with poorly overdubbed dialogue and the sounds of people fighting.

A natural next step, you could argue, would be that a man who so wished he could insert himself into the past, into the movies he loves, the movies that consume his vision, his hopes and dreams, would try to make such a movie. And so we have The Man With the Iron Fists, starring RZA in a lead role.

In this he has endeavoured to make a movie like the movies he loves. Unfortunately, he is in the same position I am in.

Let me clarify: I love those movies too. I’d love to make one of those movies. I’d be terrible at it, though, because I have no idea how to direct a martial arts movie, let alone any movie. I don’t possess the skills necessary, or the hard-won experience required, and I wouldn’t magically possess them just because I’ve watched like a thousand of those flicks over the last 30 years.

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The Raid: Redemption

The Raid: Redemption

Burn it all down, then salt the earth afterwards

dir: Gareth Huw Evans

How bizarre. A Welsh director travels to Indonesia to make a brutal action flick that seems like it’s from Hong Kong in the 1980s.

For his next flick maybe he should make a movie where a one-legged ballerina swordfights with narwhals on Pluto as Gary Numan plays maracas in the background, set during the Victorian era.

Maybe it’s not that bizarre. I guess it’s just a straight-ahead very violent action flick coming from a place I wouldn’t expect to produce such things.

It’s enjoyable if you like brutal flicks where a guy, or a couple of guys, fight against a horde of enemies with the thin sliver of hope of ever surviving. Even though a lot of people get shot, that’s just the hors d’oeuvre. The reason people’s arses are in those theatre seats is, presumably, to watch fist and foot mercilessly meet with face and groin, many, many times.

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Warrior

Warrior

Brothers beating themselves and each other up all to get back at their fathers
- a story as old as the Bible

dir: Gavin O’Connor

Men. Manly Men. Beating the crap out of each other.

This is easily the most masculine film I’ve seen this year, in a lot of ways. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact it’s a very good thing.

This is also one of the best flicks I’ve seen this year. At the very least it’s one of the flicks I’ve enjoyed the most this year. There are only a few aspects that squandered the tremendous amount of goodwill and positive feelings I had about the film, and none of them have anything to do with the phenomenal performances put in by nearly all the actors involved.

And yet, it’s still a flick about a bunch of guys beating the absolute shit out of each other.

Soldiers fight for king, queen or country because they have to. Mercenaries fight for coin. Warriors fight because they live to fight. Warrior doesn’t really sit well as a good title for this flick, because the people fighting don’t necessarily want to fight.

But they have to.

There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to fight flicks. It’s a genre of sports film so well-trodden that it’s virtually impossible to say anything new. It can be said in a more contemporary way, but the themes are ancient, as are the beats and rhythms of the screenplays.

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

dir: Tsui Hark
[img_assist|nid=1350|title=Dig our funky facial hair: my eyebrows, your moustache|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=431|height=600]
Some directors win their way back into our good graces by making a transformative leap in their filmmaking in order to deliver a great film after decades of slumming. Other directors delight or depress us by consistently putting out the same kind of film, year after year, Woody, decade after decade.

Other directors win us over again by going way back in style and intent, and delivering the kind of flick they delivered way back when they were still making good flicks.

Tsui Hark’s great claim to fame is, in my opinion, being part of that new wave of Hong Kong film in the late 80s – early 90s which reminded the rest of the world that Hong Kong was still making some awesome action flicks. Along with the John Woo flicks The Killer and Hard Boiled, Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China flicks were part of that vanguard reinvading the West with hyperactive action and a complete disregard for the safety of stuntpeople that blew the tender sensibilities of audiences away all over again.

Of course, with success comes money, hookers and moving to Hollywood to make horrible flicks with Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, which will kill your career if there’s any justice in the universe.

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Reign of Assassins (Jianyu)

dir: Chao-Bin Su, John Woo
[img_assist|nid=1344|title=Yes, lovely swords, but are you going to do anything interesting with them?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=320|height=480]
It’s strange, and a little bit embarrassing that I am still as gullible as I am at the age that I am. I saw a clip for this flick during Potato-Head Pomeranz and Old Farmer Stratton’s Movie Show a few weeks ago, mentioned as getting a lot of people excited at some festival, possibly this year’s Venice festival.

A few seconds of people fighting, and a few excitable words from Margaret, and I was somehow convinced that this was the flick of the year, a continuation of the good work John Woo was currently doing (after the success of Red Cliff), and all around another in the exciting high-end line of wuxia (martial arts) flicks that started with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and resulted in other dazzling entries like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

And so I bought into all this meaningless hype, as if I was some teenage girl buying Twilight merchandise, or some object Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga might have touched with some part of their anatomy as some point in time.

And what did I get for this emotional and financial investment, in getting excited about this flick and going out of my way to see it? What’s my recompense, my due, my pay back?

Rating:

Ninja Assassin

Ninja Assassin

This Assassin will Ninja you! No, wait, the ninja will assassin you?
Could be it's a tad tautological

dir: James McTeigue

Wow. I haven’t seen a flick with as many meaty chunks flying around since the last time I took a trip to a slaughterhouse, or perhaps Easter Sunday lunch at my parent’s place. There’s substantially less mooing going on here, but all the same, the majority of the people who appear onscreen are here only to end up as chunks of meat on the floor for our entertainment.

That is what we are, after all. Maybe there’s something depressing about seeing visual (and entirely computer generated) representations of the essential meatiness of our bodies. Rendered down into our component parts, everything we were and ever will be, annihilated like that, well, it’s pretty confronting.

At least for a while. This decidedly substandard action movie opens with a bunch of yakuza thugs exploding into discrete piles o’chunks, at the hands, blades and shurikens of unseen, shadowy assassins. In other words, there must be murderous ninjas afoot!

The heyday of the ninja flick was definitely the 80s. At no other time has there been as much of a market for the endless permutations of the magically murderous character, which is why we had, for an all too brief, halcyon period, a stream of ninja related action flicks. For reasons I haven’t expended and won’t expend brain power on, the ninja sub-genre appealed to American audiences, leading to this procession of flicks starring obviously non-Japanese people as experts in ninjitsu, and the art of assassination and deception. Not for nothing did men like Franco Nero and Michael Dudikoff become household names.

What do you mean, they didn’t? Surely almost everyone in Christendom and Buddhisdom, for that matter, watched everything from Enter the Ninja to Silent Assassin to American Ninja 5: The Re-ninja-ing? They didn’t? Well, what were they busy doing, building treehouses, setting off bottle rockets or building crystal meth labs instead?

I don’t know if I’m at all glad that they’re bringing this genre back again. Like Michael Jackson, it had its time and place, and probably doesn’t merit resurrection. It feels uncomfortably like coming home and finding your significant other in flagrante delicto which Chuck Norris. Tell me seeing him on his hands and knees with someone else in deep up to their elbow wouldn’t be the most retro yet disturbing thing you ever saw in your life.

Rating:

Storm Warriors (Fung Wan II)

Fung Wan II

Big hair, big swords and nothing else

dir: The Pang Brothers

This either is or isn’t a sequel to a Hong Kong flick called The Storm Riders that I remember from the late 90s. I remember it well, and fondly. It was probably one of the last flicks I ever bought on VHS video tape.

Ah, video tape, how quaint and retro you seem now, which juxtaposes nicely with the fact that what made The Storm Riders stand out way back then was that it was the first of the martial arts flicks to use the new CGI effects well in the scope of telling one of their usual, incomprehensible sword based melodramas.

Whether Storm Warriors is actually the sequel, or whether its title is supposed to be Storm Riders II, or whether it’s Storm Warriors II, I can’t figure out. In fact, there’s very little I can figure about after watching this flick twice. Admittedly, Storm Riders was hard to follow as well, because of a multiplicity of characters and bad subtitles. But it was fun, and I still basically understood what was going on, and I very much enjoyed it, regardless of whether a Mud Buddha was chasing a fire monkey or when someone steals the power to freeze a body in order to ensure that his dead beloved’s body doesn’t ever decompose.

I can relate to you ever single thing that happens in Storm Warriors, but I can't explain how or why any of it happens or what any of it could possibly mean. It’s not just because of a virtually indecipherable script. It has some of the worst editing of any expensive movie I’ve ever seen since the last time Guy Ritchie or Tony Scott made movies.

On top of that there are lousy performances and an incredible abundance of effects and techniques meant to ape such blockbusters as 300, Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man, with none of the attendant ability required to put any of it together in a coherent way.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t pretend to be an authority on any of the things that seem to occur in terms of the plot, because the plot is borderline insane and it’s been poorly filtered through into subtitles that read like they were written by an acid-tripping fortune cookie writer, but when you can’t ever figure out what the fuck is supposed to be happening when there’s no dialogue involved, then it’s simply the most incompetent storytelling you’ll see all year that Michael Bay has had nothing to do with.

Rating:

Hero

dir: Zhang Yimou
[img_assist|nid=1043|title=You could believe, if but for a moment, that grown men can fly|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=306]
Yes, yes, a beautiful film. You know that, I know that, but does that mean it’s a decent film as well? Surely a film needs more than stunning visuals to make it worthwhile? I mean there are a tonne of pornos that have stunning visuals and amazing views of that which one rarely sees in their own lifetime, but that doesn’t make them Oscar quality films to show the whole family over Christmas dinner, does it?

Rating:

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

Ong Bak 2

This poster barely captures the insanity involved

dir: Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa

2009

You could be forgiven for thinking that this movie was a sequel or even a prequel to Tony Jaa’s debut Ong Bak. I mean, that’s what 2 usually stands for in these circumstances. Having watched both flicks, I can’t really see any point of intersection except in the fact that Tony Jaa kicks several shades of fuck out of a hell of a lot of people.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as the fights are as jawdropping as this, I don’t care if he calls every movie he makes Ong Bak with some numerical designation following, with no more connective a story-based tissue than: ‘Some guy, for some reason, beating a lot of people up in incredibly elaborate ways.”

For all I know, that’s what Ong Bak actually means in Thai. For all I care though, I eagerly look forward whenever I hear that Tony Jaa’s stepping up and putting out another movie.

Sure, he’s not much of an actor, and spends most of this flick glaring and not saying any dialogue. That’s good, though. We don’t want him talking. Talking’s not his forte. I hear he’s not good at math or doing the dishes, either. And he’s not very considerate in bed.

It doesn’t matter, because he is an amazing cinematic fighter. I say this with some knowledge only of what people look like fighting on the big and small screens. I have no idea if people like Tony Jaa, or Donnie Yen, or Jet Li for that matter are actually formidable opponents away from the cameras. They are skilled and trained in a certain kind of choreographed performance that exists for the camera, not for actually beating up legions of people with. I guess if we ever hear about any of those guys, or even Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris, staging a bloody coup, and taking over some nation, we’d know for sure that they actually do possess the skills to pay the bills, conquer nations and crush dissent, and that this movie stuff was just an elaborate ruse to lull the world into a false sense of popcorn-fuelled security.

Thing is, Tony, when his blood is up, actually looks like he could take on an entire nation of fighters (who don’t possess firearms) and win. I pity the poor stuntmen and co-stars in these films, because sometimes it doesn’t look like he’s pulling his numerous kicks, punches or multiple knees to the head and throat. They earn their pay, that’s all I’ll say, and then some.

Rating:

Myth, The

dir: Stanley Tong
[img_assist|nid=1129|title=It's not as good as it looks. No, wait, it's exactly as good as it looks|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=336|height=480]
Jackie Chan films are, by and large, pretty silly. The Myth is even sillier than most, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely unentertaining. Is there such a word? That’s it, I’m copywriting it.

Who cares, either way. The Myth is a silly but not unentertaining film about two guys in two different time periods played by Jackie. Let’s fact it, even Jackie’s best films are pretty silly. And here, paired with the same director who made Rumble in the Bronx and the appalling First Strike, this flick happily resides somewhere in the middle.

I love Jackie Chan. It’s impossible not to love him. Anyone who doesn’t love him barely retain the tattered remnants of a soul that makes them human. He’s just so lovable, like puppies, like cute little babies, like panda cubs.

That’s not the same thing as saying that a) he’s a great actor, or b) most of his films are good. Most of his films are crap. Really, really crap. So crap that they make you want to gouge your eyes out and those of the people sitting next to you. And the longer his career has gone on, the more crap his films have generally become. Of course, he’s been in 97 movies, so it’s not surprising that most of them are shite.

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