Category Archives: Traditional

Controversial Criticism

The Raid 2 (2014) 3.57/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 63.4
Genre: Crime, Action, Martial Arts
Duration: 150  mins
Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra

After escaping the infamous apartment block of The Raid: Redemption, police officer Rama is manipulated into a deep cover assignment designed to expose corruption at the highest level of the Indonesian underworld. But as he gets close to the son of a powerful gangster he finds himself fending largely for himself amid a gang war. The Raid 2 counts as a mildly enjoyable sequel to the surprise Indonesian hit of 2011 that in the absence of a similarly neat premise suffers under some pretentious efforts at compensation.

It’s a familiar problem:- failing to replicate the priceless energy of the first film, the director invests greater attention on the technical side to the production. Thus, The Raid 2 looks wonderfully polished, and individually there are some striking scenes but, overall, it doesn’t work as a package. The lavish production design and overly self conscious cinematography begin to smack of pretension as they intrude repeatedly on the plot’s rational progression which, on a whole other level, struggles to facilitate the same level of action that it’s predecessor dished out. With The Raid: Redemption, there was a streamlined plot which didn’t simply allow carnage to happen naturally, it demanded it! Under pressure to up the ante but without that same bespoke pretext, The Raid 2 contrives one sequence after another until we’re left with a complicated story that lacks the integrity of one solid motivation. This is borne out most clearly in how Rama drifts in and out of the movie despite being the principle character not to mention the only one who links the two films. The other side to this issue is that the action fails to hit the critical momentum of the first film which was a veritable masterclass in that respect.

That said, Iko Uwais makes for a solid lead yet again finding that perfect balance between fresh faced charm and a flurry of fists and feet. The movie always picks up with his presence and the fight sequences are at their most balletic when he’s at their centre. So it’s more the pity they didn’t build the entire show around him. More often than not it seems, we traipsing after the gangsters and their enforcers of which there are just too many littered about. The “colourful bad guy” is a staple of the great action film and the one or two that tend to populate them should be pillars of the movie’s personality. With so many popping up and disappearing through the course of this movie, they fade into nondescript references of the script’s confusing allegiances.

Though letting himself down on his script writing duties, Gareth Evans still manages to prove himself an able director with an eye for scene composition. But he needs to learn discipline so he can tell when to hold back with the visuals and when to deliver them with punch. With too many striking set ups and bold colour contrasts, it all just whites out after a while. He’s shown he can handle action, and then some, and he’s given us glimpses of more but he didn’t properly deliver it with The Raid 2.

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Warrior (2011) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.3
Genre: Sport, Drama
Duration: 131 mins
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte

One might expect a movie set in the world of mixed martial arts to be nothing more than another vehicle in the sport’s locomotive-like publicity convoy. That it’s not, is only the first surprise Gavin O’Connor’s fight drama servers up. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play Brendan and Tommy, two estranged brothers who were separated when the latter took off with his mother to escape their physically abusive father (played by Nick Nolte) years earlier. The older Brendan stayed with his father only to shun him at a later date and settle down as a physics teacher and family man while Tommy lost his mother, escaped poverty by joining the Marines, and served in Iraq.

The story begins with a ferociously volatile Tommy showing up at his father’s door 14 years later to throw insults at the now recovered alcoholic – not to mention his former wrestling trainer. However, it’s not long before he asks the desperate old man to train him for a blockbuster MMA event in which the winner takes home $5 million – so long as only training is discussed. Unbeknownst to them, over in Philadelphia, Brendan’s family are in danger of losing their home and so he too decides to return to fighting, eyeing the same prize as his brother. With the second half of the film dedicated to the all out carnage of the cage, the fraternal dynamic is only alluded to (in a standout night time scene that was shot on the Atlantic City waterfront) but it seems that the bluntly manic Tommy has never forgiven Brendan for not leaving with him and his mother and so their inevitable collision in the ring promises to erupt into a grudge match of biblical proportions.

There’s obviously lots going on here and that’s not the half of it. The film is beset with two or three needless subplots mostly concerning Tommy but given the tendency for these types of films to pay mere lip-service to back stories, the attempt to do more as opposed to less should be somewhat respected. It does come together thanks to some contrived character dynamics, some less than believable plot development, and O’Connor’s cleverly manipulative direction but so hair-raising is the end product that most will forgive the heavy handedness. Moreover, if you are content not to dwell on the negatives, the film can whisk you forward in a wave of unsubtle emotion right into the frenzied grinder of the tournament battles.

They’re a rousing bunch of set pieces connected with an adrenaline charged yet elegant montage of highlights from those fights we don’t see in full. And MMA fans won’t be disappointed either given the quality of the fight choreography. Yes, some of the physical untidiness of real-life fighting is filtered out in favour of more flowing moves but the hard edged savagery is represented clearly and authentically. The climax is a little on the nose and unashamedly gives the audience what they want but it undeniably works.

On the acting front, Edgerton shows once again what an interesting talent he is and Nolte does his best to battle the pathos with which his character is overflowing (a ridiculously overwrought drunken-relapse scene notwithstanding) but in truth everyone is overshadowed by Tom Hardy’s monstrous turn. As an unstable brute, it’s a commanding piece of acting that makes quality use of the writers’ best ideas for Tommy and avoids the pitfalls of their worst. Furthermore, not only does he maintain a deep and necessary vulnerability but he funnels it into his character’s personality so completely that it only juices his formidable energy all the more. Movie fans will get much from this film regardless of whether their preference is drama or action, but what will stay with everyone the longest is Hardy.

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Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer) (1972) 2.86/5 (12)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.4
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 104  mins
Director: Chang-hwa Jeong
Stars: Lieh Lo, Ping Wang, Hsiung Chao

Two rival Kung Fu schools prepare for a tournament of champions but one is willing to stop at nothing to ensure victory even if it means killing the rivals off. Five Fingers of Death or “King Boxer” as it is also known was one of the earliest martial arts films to come out of the Shaw Brothers’ stable – although you’d never know it from the choreography of the fight scenes or their beautiful remastering by Dragon Dynasty (in collaboration with The Weinstein Company). The story follows one fighter in particular (played by the always interesting Lo Lieh) who, after a difficult induction, is given the secrets to his master’s “Iron Palm” technique in order to defend his school. In a world where every master has his own gimmick, this technique, and the glowing hand that comes with it, is the one that settles all arguments. The technique is brought to life through an audacious and hilarious yet supremely effective “borrowing” of the Ironside theme tune (that Quentin Tarantino himself used in Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2) and emerges only infrequently amid some wonderfully choreographed action sequences.  The fights are plentiful, varied, imaginative and really quite ferocious given the era in which the movie was made. Eye gouging, flying kicks, and head butts galore are all tied together with balletic blood spatter and crunching sound effects to satisfy any hardened action fan. These are only some of the treats you’re in for when you watch The Five Fingers of Death.

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Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) 4.47/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.3
Genre: Action
Duration: 137 mins
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen

The second installment in the story of the Bride’s quest for revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who left her for dead four years earlier is a very different animal to the first film in pace, style, focus, and even the genres it reinvents. And these are only four of many reasons why Quentin Tarantino was right to tell the story over two volumes. Much more dialogue driven than Vol. 1, we learn a lot more about the primary characters that feature in this volume including the Bride and we also get to see Bill himself (in a career best performance by David Carradine). Thus, the acting comes to the fore here and Carradine, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen don’t disappoint as they give us some of the most unique action villains that have ever graced the silver screen. As in Vol. 1, there is an array of fascinating secondary characters populating the background to this story who together with the actors who play them (e.g., Gordon Lui, Michael Parks, and Carradine himself) represent a knowing and sometimes audacious nod to the genres that Kill Bill is exploring. For example, the old Shaw Bros. super villain (quite possibly the best in the genre’s illustrious history), Pai Mei emerges in stupendous fashion with a show stealing performance by Lui. These characters are largely responsible for the funnier moments (of which their are plenty) with Bud’s boss Larry (Larry Bishop) being a particular highlight. Although, the action takes a back seat to the dialogue in Kill Bill Vol. 2, there are no fewer than three sublime action sequences, the first being the best martial arts training sequence since The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and the last (the ultimate showdown between the Bride and Bill) being the swiftest and most explosive duel since Sanjuro. File under cinematic masterclass.

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The Prodigal Son (1981) 4.22/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.7
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Sammo Hung
Stars: Biao Yuen, Ching-Ying Lam, Sammo Hung

The best old school martial arts film bar none, Sammo Hung’s ode to Wing Chun Kung Fu features the most awe inspiring fight sequences ever filmed. The film tells the story of Leung Chang (played brilliantly by the multi-talented Yuen Biao), the son of a wealthy merchant who wins fights around Canton because his overprotective parents pay people to lose to him. When an opera troop comes to town he gets involved in a fight with an effeminate actor Leung Yee-tai (the mesmerising Ching-Ling Yam) who in a blistering display of soft power destroys Leung Chang’s illusions about his own abilities. Determined to learn Kung Fu for real, he has his father purchase the opera troop and signs up as Yee-tai’s assistant much to the annoyance of his new master.

The Prodigal Son (or “Bai ga jai”/”The Spoiled Child”) is a truly wonderful film on every single level, and perhaps some martial arts fans are turned off it because it’s as much a comedy as it is an action film. Proper film fans, however, will appreciate this discipline and understand that it only augments the power of the fight sequences once they do begin. In addition, the humorous scenes are so truly funny that you’ll be entertained in a way that typical martial arts pictures don’t normally entertain. There’s also some real emotion in this film and the actors (who were all classically trained opera performers) balance the emotion and humour with expertise.

However, it is Sammo Hung’s directing of the fight scenes which turns this film into a mesmerising homage to Wing Chun. Opting to shoot the scenes from wide angels with deep staging and few cuts was a brave move (as a common cheat in action films is to shoot close up with fast edits in order to make the fighters look quicker) but Hung knew that he had some special actors on hand and a seriously impressive martial art that was very different to the Shaolin kung fu that most Hong Kong films portrayed. Specialising as Wing Chun does in close-quarter combat techniques, the characters utilise the tight space with a series of sharp turns and simultaneous strikes, or square with low strikes, and very few high kicks (that said, most of the bad guys represent the more famous styles so fans of the high kick won’t be necessarily disappointed). Making the most of these fighting principles, Hung’s choreography presents us with a lightning fast martial art charged with intelligence. But his actors play a critical role too. In particular, the dancing skills they acquired during their classical opera training gave them a keen sense of positioning which elevated Hung’s searing choreography to a level not seen before or since on film. Where this comes together most impressively is about half way through the film where Yee-tai and a rich prince (also a Prodigal Son – from the Cantonese point of view) do battle on a small bridge between a barge and the street. In this two minute sequence, the audience is quite simply treated to the greatest combat spectacle ever committed to celluloid. Utterly sublime.

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The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

 

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Rating: The Good – 62.3
Genre: Action
Duration: 142 mins
Director: Christopher Gans
Stars: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, Vincent Cassel

An action-packed French film set in the late 1700′s about a naturalist and his Native American companion who are sent by the King to investigate rumours of a beast that is terrorising a remote province. Brotherhood of the Wolf tells a highly original story and it’s shot beautifully throughout and, although there is an irksome overuse of matrix-esque slow-motion and freeze-framing during the action scenes, the fighting is brilliantly choreographed and there’s plenty of it. It does run about 45 minutes too long however and the resolution at the end is somewhat unsatisfying.

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The Raid: Redemption (2011) 2.63/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.5
Genre: Crime, Martial Arts
Duration: 150  mins
Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy

A SWAT team enters the tenement fortress of a feared Jakarta criminal kingpin with the intention of clearing it out one floor at a time. But all is not as it seems and before they know it, they’re retreating one floor a time in a maelstrom of high octane psycho criminal martial arts carnage. The Raid: Redemption is an action movie that is utterly defined by its commitment to the fundamentals of the genre. The fight choreography and action direction is amongst the most viscerally balletic and hard-hitting the genre has offered up while every set piece is a work of pure innovation that like the best action flicks is organic to the concept. Think Die Hard and you’re on the right track! Yes, many a liberty is taken with the physics and biology of the whole thing but Gareth Evans (who also edited the film) is clever enough to deny the audience the time to realise this as they cling on by their fingernails just in a bid to keep up.

For such a visual film, it’s important that the look complements the action and Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono’s stark photography and flat lighting and the overall production design do just that. With regard to the sound, no less than four composers help Evans maintain his thunderous momentum with a thrilling soundtrack while the sound designers do their bit to make the fights sound painfully real. On the acting front, Silat champion Iko Uwais shows a surprising amount of presence in the lead given there’s not much in the way of dialogue nor character development but we’re more than happy to hitch our star to his battle-wagon for the 100 minutes. However, the lack of a scintillating screenplay full of colourful characters and character dynamics is what will always keep a film like The Raid a bracket or two below the greats of the genre no matter how much the hype train wants to push its case. It’s a ferocious action bonanza and thoroughly enjoyable but not as broadly engaging as the seminal action flicks that gave us the verbal sparring of McClane versus Grüber or Utah versus Bodhi.

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The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) 2.47/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.1
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 115 mins
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Stars: Chia-Hui Liu, Lieh Lo, Chia Yung Liu

Gordon Liu’s crowning moment came as San Te, a young dissident who finds shelter from the Manchu forces in a Shaolin monastery. He promptly makes his way through the 35 Chambers of the Shaolin’s Kung Fu school only to create the 36th himself in an attempt to bring his skills to the aid of the people of Canton. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a hugely impressive and at the times innovative martial arts film from the Shaw Brothers’ stable. Unlike most martial arts films, it spends the majority of its time focusing on the unique training regime of the Shaolin and the different skills and strengths which San Te has to work on to progress through each chamber. The fighting is sensational with Lui proving he had the grace and presence to command such a picture on his own. His boyish impishness gives the film a real charm and ironically makes him all the more intimidating when he starts dishing out the punishment. Dragon Dynasty in collaboration with the Weinstein Company has in recent years remastered this and a number of other titles and the result has been sensational. The quality of the visuals and sound makes it look like it was made today and showcases the class of the film-making like never before.

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Fist of the White Lotus (1980) 2/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.8
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 95 mins
Director: Lo Lieh
Stars: Chia-Hui Liu, Lieh Lo, Lung Wei Wang

The film that gave us one of the great kung-fu villains, Bak Mei aka “White Eyebrows” (a character whose resurgence in Kill Bill Vol. 2 as “Pai Mei” was one of that film’s high points) and some of the best training sequences in the history of this illustrious genre is a wholly engaging yet intelligent fight fest from start to finish. Fist of the White Lotus begins with Gordon Liu and his brother battling Bai Mei (Bak’s twin) in a fascinating duel wherein they find that their orthodox skills are unable to penetrate his unusual abilities which allow him to withstand punches and even levitate. This is Liu’s first introduction to the White Lotus’ technique and later in the film he must adapt his own style with the help of his “Auntie” so that he can counteract the even more powerful Bak Mei. This film is a must for martial arts fans with an interest in the principles underlying Kung Fu but action fans in general will adore the choreography of the fighting and training sequences – which counts amongst the best from any era. There is much humour in the way those sequences unfold which adds another dimension to this richly layered film and keeps it in line with the Hong Kong classics of the 1970’s. Interestingly, it was Gordon Liu who went on to play Pai Mei in Tarantino’s later film adding yet another delicious link between two of martial arts’ landmark films.

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Redbelt (2008) 4/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.4
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 99 mins
Director: David Mamet
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga

Redbelt stands as an unusual take on a film built around martial arts. Rather than dishing out a string of unrealistic fights, David Mamet’s film is a pensive drama that follows the fortunes of a deeply principled Brazilian Jui Jitsu instructor as he struggles to keep his business afloat. Chiwetel Ejiofor quietly excels in the lead role and in truth much depended on him getting his part right. He achieves a believable balance between focus and softness which helps to set the tone for the film as a whole. Alice Braga puts in an interesting turn as his ambitious wife whose familial connection to the Jui Jitsu world is only circumspectly pointed to. Tim Allen scores well against type as a famous actor who halfheartedly attempts to pay a debt to the former after he is rescued from a bar room brawl. It is this incident which sets the story in motion but it takes its time in getting there and indeed moving beyond that point. However, the slow build-up pays off well in the end because the final showdown is breath of fresh air for those of us fed up with the highly repetitive “buffy-the-vampire” style fight sequences in which fighters merely go through the motions one high kick at a time (and the obligatory throwing of opponents across a room!). Be warned before you see it though because fans of straight beat-em-ups might be disappointed. That said, true fans of martial arts will cherish this one because while Redbelt may not be an action movie it’s every bit a martial arts movie.

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Haywire (2011) 3.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.7
Genre: Action
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Gina Carano, Bill PaxtonMichael Douglas

Steven Soderbergh turns his hand to the action genre and combines the staples of that genre (fights, chases, guns, and lots of colourful bad guys) with his arty style of desynchronised dialogue, angled shots, delayed cuts, and general polished production. Think Oceans Eleven with knuckledusters! The good news is it works like a charm and given this entire project is a critique of the brainless modern action movie template, it’s all the more satisfying to hear the popcorn brigade deride it for having the temerity to interrupt action sequences with something a little more pensive.

Muay Thai champ Gina Carano headlines as an elite black ops mercenary fighting, kicking, and running for her life through Europe and the US while trying to piece together the clues to who in her agency has set her up. The plot is well developed and populated with terrific characters, each one tougher than the next. Furthermore, shot as it was on location in Dublin and Barcelona where the actual backstreets of those cities are used to splendid effect, Haywire counts as a hugely authentic and grittier action bonanza than anything we’ve seen since the Bourne trilogy (purposefully not counting the fourth film). The plot is explicated with a technocratic dialogue even more opaque than in those films but this gives it a Kuleshov-like functionality allowing the audience to project all sorts of intrigue onto it and the wider plot. There are also some genuinely funny and unique moments of physical comedy lightly sprinkled throughout the film and acting as well timed breathers from the ass-kicking roller coaster.

Of course, set up as an alternative to your more typical 21st century mind numbing actioneer, Haywire was always going to stand or fall on its action sequences. To simply say it does the former would be to vastly understate the case because the action choreography and execution is jaw dropping. Carano is outstanding with the physical stuff but it’s the design, pretext, and shooting of those sequences that’s so special. Soderbergh intrigues the audience with a disciplined and ultra composed build up to each fight with the various spies sent to work with and/or kill Carano and the actors who play them, enriching the drama no end. These amount to a series of tasty cameos with Michael Fassbender’s blistering appearance as Carano’s Dublin contact being the show stopper. Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Aragano do very well given their even more limited time though Channing Tatum’s endless muttering makes hard work of his speaking scenes. Ewen McGregor returns to form as Carano’s slimy boss and counts as the only other cast member with a significant amount of screen time.

Haywire isn’t perfect. Soderbergh tends to over-edit some of the Barcelona and New Mexico segments so as to unnecessarily truncate them. This ironically makes them feel longer, dragging as they do in a similar fashion to the director’s earlier feature The Limey. These annoyances are brief in the context of the overall film though and that same directorial patience when channeled in less ponderous ways during the Dublin and New York segments gives us some thrilling set-pieces including one of the most inspired chase sequences we’ve seen in years.

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