Tag Archives: Martial Arts

Cinema-Maniac: Merantau (2009)

I have a spot for Merantau since it was one of the first movies I’ve ever reviewed. It’s an odd feeling for me to check out some of my old stuff from seven years ago, and seeing what changed over the years. In some areas I felt I got better, like better explaining positives, and drawbacks when it comes to a film’s writing. Other areas I can see what part of myself got lost over the years. The biggest one to me easily being how my offline activities affected my personality in my writing. Rarely doing the offshoot reviews where I simply poke fun of something while providing actual criticism in a entertaining manner. Reviews which actually got me to know some readers on a more personal level. What has remained through seven years of writing about movies on, and off again is my admiration for martial art movies has not changed.

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Impressive. Four kicks in four seconds

Merantau centers around a young idealistic man named Yuda (Iko Uwais) from the countryside trying to survive in a big city. The opening sequence further provides details on the importance of Yuda’s journey called Merantau; essentially a rite of passage where a young man leaves one’s place of origin, and find their place in the world. Trying to be like a coming of age story Merantau sounds like a guaranteed great story until you see the actual film. Very little is talked about on the philosophy of silat making the spiritual journey of Yuda get lost in translation. This is sloppily elaborated on through the character of Eric (Yayan Ruhian) implying his merantau changed him into a worse person. Eric hardly appears on screen, added with the absent of philosophy discussed in silat teachings all you have left is making ambiguous connection on Yuda not using silat to kill people.

Paired up with the simplistic storyline, and character arcs you’ll have the groundwork of a great story that never comes into fullizitation. Usually having three type of scenes for its heroes; the introduction, the conflict, and the eventual resolution they’ve worked for. Opting to incorporate as many fight sequences as possible you’ll get the bare minimum require for a story like this to work fine. The good guys are good guys, and the bad guys are bad guys. Streamlined to the point where even if you’re not paying attention you’ll know everything that’s going on. On the downside, the movie does try to generate some sympathy for it heroes. Little time is spend on fleshing them out beyond one scene so that part of the story’s writing falls flat.

One element I can be positive about is the film’s ending. Building on the opening scene the significance of merantau to Yuda’s homeland is also established early on. Spending a brief time touching on Yuda’s brother who failed merantau, and the social impact it had on him in the community. By getting across these simple things the ending actually provides something worth reflecting on. Being conflicting in a positive way since Yuda is doing his best to uphold his tradition while the environment endangers his life. Overcoming Yuda lack of depth as a character by inadvertently adding meaning to the journey makes a story that works fine end on a good note.

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To be honest, this movie is a good excuse for me to show some fighting gifs.

Iko Uwais in his first leading role has a natural screen presence about him. Before the movie gets to any fighting, Iko holds himself decently in the acting department. The role doesn’t require Iko Uwais to speak for long stretches cleverly hiding Iko lack of acting experience. Requiring for half of the movie for Iko to simply provide the appropriate facial expressions in a given scene before getting into fighting. Once Iko does get into the fighting he impresses with his athleticism, and graceful skill in performing his fight sequences. Another plus to Iko is him doing his own stunts, even if they aren’t that dangerous compare to other martial art movies.

Iko other co-stars despite having more experience than himself they do fine. Actors like Christine Hakim, and Donny Alamsyah only appear in the beginning of the movie, and than are gone until they appear again in the ending. There’s also Chika Jessica, and Yusuf Aulia simply acting as the poor child later gets written out of the movie for a large portion of it. Chika is simply in the movie to appear as sympathetic as possible. She only gets one scene to deliver a dramatically heavy scene, and after that just becomes a damsel in distress. There’s also Alex Abbad (who surprisingly plays the main villain in The Raid 2) essentially playing a punching bag. His line delivery in English is really slow, but when speaking in his native language he sounds natural, though doesn’t do anything to stand out in his portrayal.

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Their acting won’t impress, but their fighting skills will.

With the actors getting shoved in the background brings us to the martial artists. One of them being Yayan Ruhian who yes has a fight with Iko Uwais in a elevator. Luckily the little dialogue Yayan has is delivered well, but doesn’t have much screen time in the movie. Then we get to the villains Mads Koudal, and Laurent Buson whom are the weakest actors in the movie. Despite Laurent being French, and Koudal being Danish both sound come off stilted everytime they talk. Thankfully both Koudal, and Buson perform in a 2 on 1 fight against Iko that makes putting up with their bad acting worth it to some degree.

Gareth H. Evans in first martial art movie showed a lot potential to help craft great action sequences. Something that’s apparent throughout the movie in spite of it budgetary shortcomings Evans tries to add some visual flairs. Some of these are simple like a tracking shot following Iko from a telephone booth; the camera goes over the telephone booth, and then proceeds to follow Iko into an alley. To more complex shots like multiple single takes during fight sequences almost all requiring Iko to fight against multiple people. A nice touch in the movie is Evan usage of music to help elevate sequences to make them more exciting. Knowing exactly when music should start, and stop playing in creating a mood. Something he would later on perfect in The Raid.

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Of course, one last awesome fight gif

The fight sequences are nicely choreographed, well shot, and edited to flow nicely. With as minimum cuts as possible Evan fight scenes never feel overly edited. With this being Gareth Evans, and Iko Uwais first martial art film the fight sequences performance varies with some parts of a fight being performed more slowly than others. There’s also spots within the fight scenes where an actor has to stay, or go in place before the fight could progress. An example of this is when Iko throws a bottle at a fighter face, the fighter has his face cover for seconds, and stays like that before Iko gets close enough to pick him up, and toss him through a table. Instances like this are thankfully rare throughout. Offering plenty of good fight scenes also helps alleviate the problem.

Merantau is simplistic on the story front, but decides to make up for its shortcoming by including as many fight sequences as it possibly can. Once you get the first serious fight scene in the movie you’ll never have to wait too long for the next one to pop on. It’s missed the opportunity to make it’s story feel grander than it actually is, but any fan of martial arts movies will definitely leave entertained.

Rating: 8/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Brink (2017)

Jin Zhang, or Max Zhang as he’s sometime is credited shares career similarities with director Jonathan Li. Both of these men before The Brink have worked their way up in the Hong Kong film industry. Jonathan Li starting out behind the camera as a third assistant director on Infernal Affairs 3 (2003), and Max Zhang starting out as a stunt double in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Over a decade later of work both managed to garner some level of recognition. Max Zhang is easily more prolific with supporting roles in The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man 3 (2015), and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015). Garnering Max Zhang a well earned fanbase for not just his incredible athleticism in his fight sequences, but his on screen presence displaying good acting abilities. Surprisingly, The Brink doesn’t just mark Max Zhang first time headlining a major movie as the lead star, and also marks the first time Jonathan Li take the helm as a director after over a decade working mostly as a assistant director. Both have something to prove in this film that is steps away from greatness, but accomplish the feat of proving they can handle bigger roles.

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A snippet of Max Zhang impressive skills in his fight sequences

On the story front The Brink is above average. Telling the classic story of a reckless Hong Kong officer, in this case being Sai Gau (Max Zhang), attempting to put an end on a criminal gold smuggling scheme. Anyone with experience in Hong Kong cinema will know what to expect from the story, minus the goods this time not being drugs. Some of the characters are also what you would expect them to be; best friend Zhi-Di (Wu Yue) so close to retiring getting pulled back into action, the chief coming down Sai Gau neck for operations gone wrong, a low ranked criminal villain in Jiang (Shawn Yue) with big ambitions, the daughter of a criminal reminding Sai Gau of his sense of duty, Jiang boss who plans to give his business to his son seeks to get rid of him, and that basically covers it. There are other minor characters, but they don’t contribute much in the grand scheme of things. It’s lacking in creativity, but when it comes execution writer Li Chun Fai knows how to play around with these familiar characters, and plot point in a successful way.

For starter, the pacing of the film is just right never lingering too much on unnecessary details, and evolving the main storyline in a organic way. Being able to escalate stakes within a reasonable scope. It has a certain number of main characters, and knows their influence with those around them. Hardly going overboard in favors of anyone to show more, or less an even playing field. Another positive in the writing is the whole cat, and mouse writing it takes for it central conflict. Both Sai Gau, and Jiang come face to face several times throughout the  movie. With Jiang just barely being able to get the advantage over Sai Gau in his attempts to arrest him. Further adding to the intrigue is Jiang seeking vengeance on those who betrayed him making proceeding events for him more difficult to come out on top. Seeing the many ways Jiang gets out of his situations is quite fun to witness.

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Prison changed me man. I’m a blonde now. Don’t ask.

Other area of the writing comes with mixed results. Characters are simplistic, and clear cut in their motivations. In its effort to be more than a good cop capturing evil doer it leaves many aspects half baked. The most prominent one being a insignificant plot point on Zhi-Di owing an off screen gang money. This clumsily justifies Zhi-Di motives in the later half of the movie, but with it being the only mention it just goes nowhere. While the writing attempts to make things different shades of grey it ultimately just boils down to good guy versus bad guy. Characters are defined, but they switch motivation, or personality at a moment notice to serve the writers needs since Li Chun Fai couldn’t figure out how its character would get from point a to point b with how they were established. If Li Chun Fai didn’t rewrite established characters consistently he would have been able to create more complex characters in favor of the film.

Where the writing falter plenty is with the character of Ke-Yan (Cecilia So) whose name I don’t believe is actually ever said in the movie itself. The only way I was able to find out her name was looking for it in the closing credits. If that alone doesn’t get across how this character is just put into the movie for no narrative reason than maybe the fact she contributes nothing in the overarching story will. Her scenes amount to nothing, but just providing a little characterization for Sai Gau, and even less for Ke-Yan. Her subplot of being a daughter tied to a criminal Sai Gau accidentally killed isn’t explored. It’s brushed aside quickly, and feels like Ke-Yan is only here to provide a pro-life message that is shoehorned in. If Ke-Yan was going to be in the last shot of the movie than you know, doing something significant storywise with her would have made it more impactful. Lastly, why does Sai Gau go into prison for a couple a months with dark hair, but then when released has blonde hair. Not that it’s of any importance, but it’s a noticeable change that comes out of nowhere.

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Shawn Yue (left) has the look of a trustworthy person.

Max Zhang for the first time in his career carries the mantle of a leading man, and he does quite well for himself. He doesn’t attempt to oversell his character through his acting, but rather tries to keep his portrayal restraint when not fighting. Providing more subtle delivery in some of his sentimental scenes preventing them from being sappy. There are glimmer of range within him that the film sadly doesn’t utilize more frequently. Of course, when it comes to Max Zhang in the fight sequences he’s still just as impressive, and quick as he ever been.

Opposite of Max Zhang is Shawn Yue playing the cold hearted villain. Nailing the portrayal of his character personality, but unable to overcome the occasional stoic delivery of dialogue. Sounding disinterested half the time, and the other half sounding detached like he should. Yue acting won’t impress, but one where he’s meant to mourn over a lost is handle well by Yue without him breaking character. Wu Yue whenever on screen typically takes the spotlight from Zhang. Giving life to a archetype character being capable to generate sympathy for his character in spite of the above average writing. When it comes to his fight sequences he’s just as impressive as Max Zhang. There’s some noteworthy name in the supporting cast like Janice Man, Derek Tsang, Gordon Lam, and Tai Po, but the supporting cast tends to be one note. Eventually being indistinguishable from one another performances.

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My favorite fight in The Brink.

First time director Jonathan Li with the helps of cinematographer Kenny Tse captures a aquatic, moody feel to the film. Showing a more grimy side of Hong Kong through his usage of location. If it’s related to the ocean he’ll use from a crowded indoor fish market, to a fishing trawler in the middle of a storm, gloomy ports, and even going underwater to film a action sequence which in spite of being performed slowly is still entertaining to witness. His directing of action sequences stands out more than his narrative storytelling. Mostly because when it comes to action he allows for long takes, and if needed will get inventive with his shots to make his fight scenes pop out. Being able to avoid the pitfall of showing background actors doing nothing in his fight sequences. With tight editing, and great composition his eye for action sequences raises the film quality whenever onscreen. Heck, he’s able to make an action sequence underwater feel eventful. There might be only a handful of them spread throughout, but they are worth waiting for. His music choices are mixed. Some of it works like during the action sequences to add excitement, but sometime it comes off overblown like towards the end of the movie using choir like music.

Action choreography is handle by Chung Chi Li, and much like his action choreography in Extraordinary Mission (2017), Li goes for a more grounded approach. Having very limited usage of wires, most of which are sprinkle in the climax. Chi Li emphasizes Max Zhang speed in the only one versus many brawl that has Max Zhang fighting in a alley. Alongside Wu Yue who also participate in the one versus many brawl on his own, Max Zhang is able to make it look convincing he’s able to beat up a dozen men rapid swings of his flashlights. However, my personal favorite fight in a parking lot with Max Zhang going one on one with a masked assailant. Creatively using the parked cars environment to have its actors use to avoid hits from the other fighter. Both men are able to keep up with each other performing their moves quickly resulting in some impressive long takes in the fight. Lastly, the climax which involve Max Zhang fighting against Wu Yue, and Shawn Yue on a fishing ship during a storm is the centerpiece action sequence. It’s an exciting climatic fight with plenty happening in the background as it shakes throwing all participants off. The choreography here in particular takes into account the rocking ship putting the advantage of the fight to whoever it wants. It’s quite a sight to witness, and what’s also vastly enjoyable to witness is how epicly presented the final punch between Max Zhang, and Wu Yue is filmed.

The Brink doesn’t break any grounds in any area of filmmaking, but is overall a success thanks to it crew overcoming several weaknesses. In particular, the wonderfully done action sequences elevating above everything else to be the one area it shines the best. Jonathan Li proves he can handle his own in the forefront as a director thanks largely to his strong direction which is felt throughout the movie. Of course, Max Zhang himself continues to prove why his raise to fame isn’t a fluke. Being just capable in his acting as he is in his fight scenes will eventually garner him more leading roles in his career. Regardless of your familiarity with anyone in the film, or Hong Kong action cinema The Brink is a good way to spend your time.

Rating 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)

Expectations of Martial Art films have changed significantly over the decades. The days of getting cheesy English dubs for live action Martial Art movies are gone now with most home video releases of offering people to see them in their original language. Even when the films do receives English dub they are not as silly as what was release in the 70s. Another thing that also changed over time was the fight choreography implementing the environment as part in the fight during the 70s, and then pushing martial artists body limits during the 80s. An era which created plentiful of Martial Art classic films giving rise to legends Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Then came the 90s where some Chinese talent went oversea to find success in Hollywood. While the quantity of great martial films wasn’t as high as in the 80s the quality of them improved with some offering more complex plot lines. However, while there is more to the history of the subgenre than my broad generalization there’s no mistaking during the 2000s that China dominance over the Martial Arts subgenre dwindle as legendary talents were aging, and therefore not perform like they use too. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai wants to be a one of those classics from the subgenre heydays in a time where characters were kept simple, and emphasis on fight choreography was the norm. While it is an homage to those kind of films martial art films of the past. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai doesn’t ignite the same kind of feelings of those earlier films it loves.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai tells the story of a laborer who moves to Shanghai in the hope of becoming rich. From that synopsis, if you’re familiar with crime films that contain an immigrant as the protagonist there’s no need tell readers what to expect. While it is a classic story to tell in the crime genre of immigrant hoping to make it big in foreign land it’s also been told countless of times. It’s telegraphed from the overly strong, naive country-bumpkin protagonist Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng), the young ambitious new criminal on the block Long Qi (Andy On), the father whose disapprove of the criminal lifestyle Master Tie (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), the young woman who eventually falls in love for the naive protagonist Tie Mei (Luxia Jiang), and a few singular purpose background characters. Making these characters arcs more predictable is adding martial arts replacing gun wielding gangsters for fists, and axes. Instead of touching on the subject of family there are few discussions about honor, and fighting. Retaining the classic story of beat of crime families uniting to eliminate a great threat that could overthrow them in power. So forth is the nature of the film to ooze old fashion cinema on everything. What this ends up creating is a typical story that aims to pay homage without changing anything. If you’re not familiar with these kind of stories the undercooked plot beats won’t make it engaging. Containing the moments you would expect from hero Ma Yongzhen becoming good friends with Long Qi after a fight, the two new friends talking about dreams on a bridge at night looking at the stars, and Ma Yongzhen given the option to run away when things become chaotic. The scenes are in place for creating good material, but the rush nature of a script that had too many ideas don’t allow time to develop them to their fullest effect.

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The silent fart. Philip Ng deadliest technique.

The first signs of trouble in the script appears before the title card does. There’s text that (paraphrasing) says that Shanghai is a city of dreams for the people of China, and hard work can get you the life you want, but the thousand of youths coming into Shanghai are tempted to take the easy way out to by becoming gangsters. This text is delivered while dramatic music plays in the background, the film grayish color filter to show some harshness in the situation, and showing the viewers a crowded deck filled with immigrants with their head held down. This sets up the idea it’ll be touching on the realistic issues dealt with achieving the “American Dream” (well, in this case the “Shanghai Dream”) with martial arts as a bonus. Then it shows a grown man taking away a Potato from a starving girl which naturally makes one wonder how the immediate harsh tone will be followed up with. PUNCH! Out of nowhere a single punch is all it take to conflict with the tone established leading into a heavily edited fight scene. A fight scene where our main character kicks two baddies several feet from the ground is an odd contrast after seeing a deck of depressing looking immigrants. Now there was a better way to transition into the fight scene. Some simple dialogue of the grown man rudely stating he’s still hungry with our hero telling him to give it back to the little girl. When the grown man says no giving the signal to his buddy to prepare for a fight would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the fight scene, and transition into fight scene more smoothly. However, this opening never bothers bringing up why the grown man stole the Potato simply assuming the viewer will make assumption this immigrant is bad for stealing food from a little girl. Though, without context given in the scenario it could easily be interpreted as a grown man getting back food stolen from him.

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I’m guessing Andy On paycheck is the reason the film has a grayish color filter.

The rest of the film follows a similar pattern of issues. There’s a scene early in the film where our hero helps an old man who stole opium from a gang, but the old man the protagonist helps goes nowhere. Then, there’s the romance aspect of the film which is underdeveloped. Our protagonist spends more time with his boss than he does his love interest. Also, there’s a subplot of our hero meeting up with his brother which disappears as it goes on. If a plot point is not underdeveloped it’s either forgotten about. The only aspect of the writing that works to any degree is Ma Yongzhen bracelet. His bracelet was given to him by his mother, and was given words of wisdom that would remind of Ma Yongzhen not to kill. It’s a simple motive where the outcome of the bracelet is telegraphed, but it was executed just fine. It’s just a shame there’s not much depth in it usage. A simple solution to the writing would have been to make the story longer, though given it wanted to be an homage script writer Jing Wong probably felt being derivative was the best bet. To his credit, the movie does progress naturally, and knows the classical story beats of old fashioned cinema to mirror classic martial art films from the era. However, by simply placing those classical story beats into the film his lack of understanding shows when he has no idea what made them work in the first place. While the film is superficially reminiscent of some classic martial art films with similar stories like Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), and Shaw Brother’s Boxer from Shantung (1972) it doesn’t build on its inspiration. It just ends up being typical in how it unfolds, and average as an homage that doesn’t illustrate what made its source of inspiration classic films in the sub genre.

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Philip Ng seen here channeling his inner Bruce Lee.

Philip Ng takes center stage portraying Ma Yongzhen in a role that is more demanding of his looks than his acting skills. Appearances wise, Philip Ng nails the expressions of a country bumpkin in his naivete optimism. Switching between badass martial artist, and your average joe seamlessly. Another aspect of his look that works to his advantage is fitting the bill of coming across the average joe. Sporting a look that is reminiscent of Bruce Lee from The Big Boss, and Jackie Chan from Battle Creek Brawl. When he performs in the fight scenes he’s convincing, though not impressive for his lack of speed in performing the fights. What Ng doesn’t share among the likes of Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan are the charisma of those actors. Try as he might, but Ng simply comes across as trying to hard to look cool, especially in the end of the film. In terms of line delivery he’s okay. He doesn’t have the timing to be funny, nor the lack of understanding to ruin a joke. Ng doesn’t come across as someone threatening when he fights, but is alright in the moments he’s not need in combat. For the role Ng is in it’s adequate, even if lacking star power.

Next up is Andy On who plays Long Qi. His performance is also adequate. On doesn’t demonstrate very difficult emotions as scenes don’t linger much on complex emotions. However, he has style, and doesn’t phone in his acting. Much like Ng, Andy On fighting is convincing in the few times he fights. He also has good chemistry with Philip Ng making what scenes they share together the film best offering in terms of acting. It’s where the best moments come from as the two really sell their friendship, even if the writing is not up to par. Both actress Michelle Hu, and Luxia Jiang don’t get much to do in the film beside looking pretty. They’re both the love interests to perspective characters caring for their lover, and showing concerns. Not much to discuss. There’s also no well known legends in the west martial art film stars Kuan Tai Chen, and Hark-On Fung whom presence in the film are not noticeable unless you know your martial art films. Now if you’re exciting to see well known martial art legend Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who gets top billing, he is barely in the film. Hung Kam-Bo doesn’t get to show much of his acting, and fighting prowess’s in the film as he fights only briefly in one scene. Unless you’re a fan of martial art films the lack of screen presence from Tai Chen, Hark-On, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo will seem insignificant, but for those who do know them will make their inclusion in film lackluster of wasted talent.

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I used to be a magnificent butcher, but now I just cook food. 

The fight choreography is done by Yuen Woo-Ping whom name would be selling a point to fans of martial art films. Unfortunately in this instance a master of fight choreography isn’t at his best. A reason for this being with the exception for two, all the fight scenes are one sighted leaving no opportunity for counter moves, or complex maneuver to perform for the actors. Another aspects of the fights that take away from the fight choreography is them being overly edited. All the fight scenes have tempered speed which tends to ruin the flow of a fight scene when switching between fast, slow, and back to regular motion frequently. Applied with quick editing that changes up shots the editing doesn’t play to the fight scenes strength. If the speed of the fights weren’t tampered with Philip Ng (who performs in most of them) isn’t a quick a performer. Usage of wires are noticeable in some instances as one might take notice that defying physics, and taking yourself seriously don’t go hand in hand.

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Noticed I didn’t put any stills of fighting. Here’s one.

There’s a fight in the film that is done in one take which sounds impressive until I tell you the post production work that ruined it. The one take fight scene is sped up while typical for the film is more noticeable in this sequence. If performed well, and on time than the sequence wouldn’t need alteration. Then, there’s not framing half of the sequence correctly as there is moment where it does not show Philip Ng fighting against actors. The camera gets to close barely capturing some of Philip Ng blows as it continuously spins around until the fight scene ends. Before the fight scene occurs there are only three people visible ready to fight, but as soon as Philip Ng attacks, and the camera spins around more actors are suddenly in frame. This also creates a continuity error, though that isn’t anything unexpected for action scenes. Everything else in the film is adequate. For a film paying homage you’ll get the shots you expect, and the same applies to the music. Not much to be surprised by as director Ching Po Wong made generally safe choices. His only truly questionable is making the entire film gray instead of black & white. In few scenes there’s some semblance of color so it’s jarring why Po Wong simply didn’t choose to filter the film in black & white.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai is wholly average as a movie, an average showcase of martial arts, and average anything you could think off. It takes the classic ideas associated with the “American Dream” in a crime a story along with the classic imagery one would expect from this kind of story. All without throwing its own flare to familiar ideas. As an homage it doesn’t disrespect old fashion cinema, but at the same time does nothing to represent the best elements of old fashioned cinema. Having too much on its plate, and not enough time to make all the ideas it has be put to good use. If you only want to see it for the action the fight scenes are edited heavily with motion of speed being played with in all of them, and virtually every fight being one sided in the favor of what the story demands. Choreography wise it’s okay with a few making little use of what’s in the environment, but the actors performing them aren’t as skillful as the stars they pay homage to. This movie doesn’t falter seriously, but neither excel in anything at the same time either.

5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Ninja Apocalypse (2014) Review

In every rare viewing of a bad film there are things you never expected to see and ponder thoughts you never believe would come to mind. For me it’s perhaps the first time I actually wished a film would fully commit to ripping off another film because of how unsalvageable the original material was. “Ninja Apocalypse” takes ninja with superpowers, an apocalypse setting, an underground military bunker, and zombies committing the unimaginable sin combining all of those elements into a boring film.

Ninja Apocalypse follows The Lost Clan gang from…it’s never clarified where the movie takes place so lets us pretend New York. So a charismatic leader summons several gangs in a post apocalyptic world in a bid to overtake their rivals. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down to kill them. My mistake I meant The Lost Clan not The Warriors. It’s hard to believe even though it rips off the basic premise it manages to make whatever material it steals from “The Warriors” come across as the most competent components in its script. Except this time the context and the setting are extremely nonsensical. Then again should one really judge the logic of “Ninja Apocalypse”. Yes it should be judged because if there’s one thing it lacks is a working brain cell. Now aside from the basic premise and three plot devices (the sacrifice, seduced by women wanting to kill males characters, the ending) calling it a ripoff of “The Warriors” would be praising it instead of criticizing it. Yes, the fact it didn’t ripoff “The Warriors” successfully is a negative. Especially in regards when it comes to the film “plot twist” in the end finally revealing who shot Cyrus, I mean Fumitaka. It’s a failure of twist because the character doesn’t appear for a majority of the film and whatever recurring characters do reappear in the film don’t get enough characterization to make audience guess who the culprit is. Part of the fun of a “who done it” is guessing who actually committed the crime which you can’t do if you aren’t provided anything that’ll allow that.

I’ll buy the utter nonsense premise like anyone who likes seeing B-movies, but stocked characters, plot exposition upon plot exposition filled dialogue, attempts to add humor only to discard it within ten minutes, and bereft of a story can’t be overlooked. Our cast of heroes consist of two brothers, a woman, a deaf mute blackman, and a ninja with questionable loyalty. From that selection of characters their background are simply mentioned. It never elaborates on Cage having a family or ever goes into detail in how he became the leader of “The Lost Clan”. The same applies to all of its characters where it simply mentions moments or characteristic than moving on without elaboration. Another area it lacking is logic. Now with a title like “Ninja Apocalypse” of course it shouldn’t be taken seriously, but radiation doesn’t work the way this film believes it does. In this film ninja have powers so it would safe to assume it’s a result of radiation. Except later on in the film it is said by our heroes that radiation basically turned people into zombies. Not just any zombies, the kind that if cut in half can duplicate. So if the radiation turns people hundred of feet in an underground facility into zombies how in the world are people not below the earth not zombies! Radiation does not work like that! If it was just this oversight I would have not given it another thought. Than it claims the lowest level of the underground facility contains radiation. Hmm….so the inside of an underground facility consisting of hundreds of level below the surface of earth contains radiation yet the surface doesn’t. These writers can’t seriously be this stupid…oh yeah they probably are given they were to lazy to fully commit to ripping off “The Warriors”.

On a technical level everything about it will come across as low budget not for the reasons you expect. Yes everything looks cheap from the convenient store bought costumes, the fake weapon props, and the very shoddy CGI effects. It’s the tinier details that also display the lack of funds that even with it budget wasn’t enough to make such a simple movie. For instance there’s a fight scene consisting of several gangs against “The Lost Clan” and in the background it’s visible the performers are standing still. Only to be moving when they see some sort of signal off screen. Issues like these are always present in the action scenes despite taking place in the same location bodies will sometime disappear in a cut. Details like blood spatter on a wall will disappear immediately in the next cut in the same fight scenes. Adding to the problem are the slow performance of the action scenes that make these issues noticeable. Fight choreography is below average and these fight scenes instead of diverting your attention from the inconsistencies is build around that to reuse as much as resources as possible. In context the characters power aren’t used to diverse the kind of fight scenes you see all usually resulting in a fist fight or sword fight. The most visually annoying about how it shot are the dozen of lens flares and few instances of white flash effects. If the story or acting was any good the lens flares wouldn’t have been much of an issue since there’s something to divert from that issue. However, like everything else the lens flares are a results of visible light posts in every scene. Intentional or not they get distracting.

Late in the film there’s a scene that can causes seizure if seen in the dark because of how much white flash effect are onscreen in less than ten seconds. Set design, much like the performers in costumes, reused the same textures, material, and structures. Actors have to go around in circles to give off the illusion the set is actually a lot bigger than it actually is. The acting is no better. All of the performances are stiffed and wooden. Christian Oliver is incapable of selling himself as the film heroes. Even when he’s angry there’s no ferocity in his delivery. If anything Isaac C. Singleton Jr. does the best among the hero cast given he can’t speak or listen to sound. Not to forget Ernie Reyes Jr. who plays the villain is weak. If “The Rundown” could make Ernie Reyes Jr. beating up Dwayne Johnson look convincing with less screen time what’s this film excuse. Even Reyes Jr. fights against Christian Oliver whose physically same size as him never comes across as a threat. Just everything in this film is poorly assemble together.

Ninja Apocalypse fails as a ripoffs not coming close to duplicating anything with success from the source its copying from and fails as a b-movie due to it’s failing in every area without entertainment to be found. It could have been a ripoff, it could have been a entertaining b-movie, but in the end is devoid of anything positive from a filmmaking and entertaining perspective.

0/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Raid 2 (2014) Review

After finishing finishing a film called “Merantau” I saw concept footage for a filmed called “Berandal”, in 2010. It was a simple scene; a prisoner is in a graffiti filled prison restroom stalled contemplating some inner thought, there’s a crowd of angry prisoners attempting to break the door down, and the camera zooms in on the door lock before it eventually breaks forcing a single a prisoner to defend himself against a mob. That concept footage despite barely being over a minute showed promised it could carry a movie. However, a little known film called “The Raid: Redemption” came out in 2012 (nationwide that is) and due to its popularity “Berandal” was made possible. Sadly it became a victim of a forced tie-in to a film that not only had a completed script (hence concept footage to fund said film), but had no connection to “The Raid: Redemption” in any way. A trait that is made apparent with shallow characters and hollow emotional resonance that prevents it from being the grand sequel it tries so hard to be.

The Raid 2: Berandal follows Rama going undercover with the thugs of Jakarta and plans to bring down the syndicate and uncover the corruption within his police force. As the synopsis hinted the story aimed to cover more ground which it does to various degrees of success. When it succeeds the film does an excellent job displaying the honor among criminals and the dividing factor between ideology of power. In particular the hinted complex father and son dynamic between Uco and Bangun. Both characters are in the same line of work, but the methods to achieve a goal and maintain power keeps them at arms length. It’s their ideology and positioned that puts into perspective why both prefer to operate the way they do. The film could have focused on these two characters since they receive the most characterization, but sadly are a fraction of the whole picture. Another positive is the choice of pacing. Early on in the film there is small doses of violence, but as the film progresses how often it occurs is more frequent. Allowing plenty of breathing room to set all the plot devices in place that slowly escalate to more violence occurring. Sure the first thirty minutes of the film are the least captivating because it’s slow to set up the pieces, but once it gets closer to reaching the finish line the more engaging it becomes. Giving a sense how vastly small the danger is where we started is no where near life threatening as where we ended up.

Early on in the film it’s established how corrupt the police force is and how very few of them are are in the operation to take them down. Aside from that, there’s really no other connection between the task force and Rama that ties it with the original. Occasionally it brought back to serve no greater purpose than to reiterate the hero motivation. Though given how by the number the rocky relationship between Rama and his superior officer plays it’s no surprise the direction Rama takes in his investigation. It could have easily been about (and originally was) about a former prisoner finding a family in the criminal world. Instead it comes across as tacked on since the only time the task force is brought up is whenever Rama needs information or complicate the plot with a device that won’t come into play in the story. Certain elements in the film just didn’t click as they should have. For starter, there wasn’t a sense that scenes were always serving a purpose in some form. Say what you will about “The Raid: Redemption” screenplay, but it was a competent one because of it premise every scene felt as if the characters were making progress within the story. In the sequel it stalls around with scenes that are only created for the sake of action. Mad Dog, nope wrong movie. Prakoso is a device solely created for action with only a single scene dedicated to display his more human side. Every other time you see him Prakoso he’s going all Mad Dog, except this time with criminals.

Two of the most memorable character of the film are Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl. They have their signature weapons whenever they fight and every scene they’re in never fails to deliver on their awesome characteristics. I especially loved the aspect of the story taking time to explore the back story of these two characters. Being raised by abusive parents is a touchy subjects to discuss and in an action movie no less where violence can be a selling point. Who can also forget the symbolic meaning of the spinning coin once receiving the back story. Adding an extra dimension to the pair relationship…huh…oh you got to be f…[one profanity filled temper tantrum later]. Sad that interesting material and character development didn’t make it into the film. Way to go force tie in. Other superficial elements includes Rama wife who might as well been written off from the story. She’s just the “token wife” to pretend that Rama life is at risk even though the series of events make him superhuman. Sure the every man hero type is the most captivating, but not when the film pretends he’s human when performing superhuman feats. It’s fine to give the every man hero some moments of badassery, but not when its constantly out of character. Making Rama more human works against the film since he’s not developed much as a character to be engaging and the final thirty minutes guarantees to remove all “every man” trait until it’s dead.

The repetitive action scenes is where creativity suffers. Simply put the action scenes lack variety especially when the same setup is used eight out of fourteen times. Meaning fifty-seven percent of the action scenes are nearly identical in setup; one expert fighter slowly overcoming large number of opponents until all the opponents are killed. It wouldn’t be an issue if the outcome was changed, but nope the same setup plays out the same eight times. It certainly doesn’t help that a majority of these repeated action scenes have larger room for marginal errors. For example, in the film there’s an action scene involving Iko and company trying to collect money at a so call “porn den”. During that action scene three things are made apparent. The bad placement of the camera, the scene should have been re edited, and the staging of the action scene should have taken into account the amount of actors actually required in it. In this particular action scene in the background there are actor visibly waiting failing their arms around until it’s their cue to attack. Before it shows actors Epy Kusnandar (Topan) crawling on the floor to avoid a barrage of bullets (without any noticeable bullet piercing near him or in the environment) it shows Oka Antara (Eka) and a couple of his men shooting all of Topan men who all fall to the floor. Since the cut made it explicitly clear Topan men were dead and Epy Kusnandar just recently began started crawling towards a safe to retrieve a weapon there’s a disconnect of tension. Resulting in an eleven second window where the action scene should have ended since there’s no known obstacle given the visible context of the scene. Within this same scene there’s even greater room when the scene should have ended. When Epy Kusnandar gun runs out of bullets he attempts to make escape by running towards an exsist and Iko Uwais is seen in the background getting up waiting around to be tackle by an actor off screen. Given that there was no one made visibly alive during the short burst of gunfire the actor that tackles Iko to continue the action scene kills any sense of escapism. Although, the scene is slightly salvageable in it technical aspect once Iko catches up to Kusnandar and gives him a creative beating. It’s just a shame the action scene as a whole is bad.

I should make it clear this is the third time I’ve ever seen the martial style of Silat in a film, and it’s pretty sad that I recognized a crucial element in the choreography this film applies to it action scenes. In previous films that utilize Silat (Merantau, The Raid: Redemption) there were certain moves that were reused, but never took away because of the varied fighting setup were. Within the context of a fight it’s essential for the camera to not to show the audience any blind spot when a fight begins. Even if not all the blind spot can be cover this can be fixed by the combatant quick movements, elaborate choreography, or a good editor. In this film that’s not the case since the choreography relies on the viewer missing its actors going back to the starting point whenever there is a cut to the combatant fighting up close. By reusing the same setup the same mistakes won’t be easily missed especially since the same outcome applies to eight of them. The best action scenes in the film are the ones that are the most confined and in a small area. Since the size of where the action is occurring is smaller there’s less margin for error in the background for the star or fighter to stall in place until it’s their cue to strike. For example, there’s a scene of actress Julie Estelle (Hammer Girl) taking out a couple guys in a subway cart with a pairs of hammer. Forget the part every time it cuts to Estelle killing someone the rest of the goons are reset to the back of the of the subway cart because the technique to pull off the scene doesn’t break the scene illusion. Every time Estelle strikes someone with a hammer it shows when it makes contact to the opponent.

In general the action scenes have blind spots that makes it painfully visible when an actor is stalling until it is his cue to perform an action. So the least amount of actors required the better the action scene will be if removed of the one expert vs. many setup. The film best and most under appreciated action scene is a single car chase. It is surprisingly great given it combines the huge number of actors required and big scale that usually handicaps the action scenes. This car chase is creative in choreography and constantly inventive fight using every inch of the vehicle to keep the fight fresh in such a tight space. On a technical level it’s the film best action scene and done so successfully with good editing, fluid camera movement, and staging. The final two fight scenes in the film are easily the best since it puts together the film best fighters against one another. Allowing the choreography to be performed faster and show an array of complicated fighting techniques. However, the best fight scene in the film pits Iko Uwais against Cecep Arif Rahman. Of course, it’s well choreographed and easily the best fight scene in the film because the sheer velocity in it actors performance. That alone is worth showering it with praised, but what will make it rank up against some the most memorable fight scenes in Martial Art films is how subverted the staging is. Usually in Martial Art films it’s common to slowly have the hero overcome his final opponent, but that is not in this case breaking away from that traditional format. Instead the role is reverse with the hero being shown to have the upper hand getting sloppier against his greatest foe creating doubt among the viewer if the hero will actually come out on top despite early on having the upper hand. That subversive staging serves the same function as a traditional final fight and is what will make it rank among some of the genre greatest fight scenes.

When it comes to acting the less you speak the more memorable the performances are. Very Tru Yulisman and Julie Estelle have very few speaking parts, but embodied the cold nature of their characters persona they immediately sell them. In spite of the lack characterization the chemistry between Yulisman and Estelle gets across the characters more defining characteristics. Another memorable performance is Cecep Arif Rahman whose only job is look awesome which he clearly is. Like the other two mention actors, Cecep Arif Rahman doesn’t have much lines. However, his performance is more reliant on his physical appearance expression to display a man of overconfident and seemingly invincible ego. Leading man Iko Uwais is okay in his role. His fight scene are without an issue showing his talent with his fighting abilities. The acting side of Iko suffers from a lack of variation between the scene he’s given. Not allowing him the opportunity to show the more human side of his character which desperately the material wants to him to do. Being overshadow by co-star Arifin Putra whose given similar scene, but more opportunity to display more emotion than simply putting up an act. Gareth Evans direction is what saves the film in its presentation bringing an autership to his visuals. Though, the decision to bring back Yayan Ruhian will cause confusion and consistency issues given his role in the original.

The Raid: Berendal is a force tie in to a film that clearly had no correlation to its predecessor. As a sequel it’s questionable given how little attention is given for a proper continuation. In its own right it’s a decent action movie that doesn’t offer engaging characters nor are all of it set pieces equally impressive. However, when the film succeeds in what it does best both in story and action provides glimpses of a great film that unfortunately is lost being a sequel.

7/10

Fan’s Regard:
Dear Gareth H. Evans, speaking as a fan of the action genre and a fan of your work. You have the potential to be a master of the action genre like John Woo, but not if you’re going to treat your characters and story elements as a superficial component to the action scenes. An action movie will not stand and survive on action sequences alone. Remember how stellar the final fight sequence in Flash Point was, how well staged the extensive gunfight in El Gringo was, or how every single fight scene in BKO: Bangkok Knockout contain some of the best action scenes Thailand has ever done? No because they all had terrible stories among other issues that a short burst of violence won’t make better. For that, this sequel will be seen as a disappointment for squandering its own potential. You have the privilege of making action films in an age where expectations are drastically low. In particular to set pieces if something like “Thor: The Dark World” is consider to have good set pieces. Therefore it is consider quite sad from this genre fan that action sequences as poor as those are compared to what you’ve Evans. I’m only saying these things because as a fan I will honestly tell you when you mess up and when you succeed in a certain area. Unlike a majority of your new found fans that pretend to share the same passion for the genre, high standards, and understanding of the genre. I’ll leave you with three essential words to keep in mind when continuing on with your career no matter the kind of films you make; think, feel, and connect. Sincerely, the sometime cynical Cinema-Maniac.

Cinema-Maniac: Chinese Zodiac (2013) Review

Chinese Zodiac follows JC search for the twelve bronze heads of the animals from the Chinese Zodiac. Aside from the protagonist name being JC (probably Jackie Chan does this kind of activity in his spare time) the story will not register a pulse. Literally the first action scene written into the film is just for the sake of it. What occurred in that action scene involving JC as a human rollerblade is never mentioned again. Speaking of which, it does attempt to developed it cast of characters albeit clumsily. At random characters will reveal bits of themselve when talking to each other during an operation which gets interrupted by contrivances or convenience. Development feels force as every plot device it uses to move forward makes it difficult to care when nothing is earned and resolved by luck. The dialogue ranges from steal this artifact, I hate your ancestors for stealing from us, we’re procrastinating doing anything evil to you for a comedic routine variety. All the while JC reiterates at several points during the movie the “great injustice and disrespect” the Western countries have shown to the Chinese in the past. This message is heavy-handed because of how often it’s brought up. One could look past the only Western representation is a stereotypical dumb blonde, but to solely act as if only one nation wronged China people does not help with it message of great injustice. I don’t know much about China history, but, um, remember Unit 731 screenwriters? I do and in case you do that’s because no one beats it over your head with how wrong it was.

For two acts the film goes for a lighthearted and comedic tone until the final arc which gears the tone to be more serious. Characters we follow that had no problem stealing rare artifacts for money developed a contrive code of honor towards the end. Yeah, because the same guy who has no problem stealing artifacts from the rich should really send the message that stealing is wrong. Chinese Zodiac takes a couple narrative inspiration from “Mission Impossible” globe trotting with some implausible gadgets (like the replica printer), the “Ocean’s Trilogy” team dynamics, and inability to balance action and comedy like “Once A Thief”. Failing to make the most of it settings to make it feel like a grand scale adventure, a bland team whose planning process before an operation is never seen, and succeeding in being unable to balance a tone. Writing is all over the place attempting to be many things failing to be a single good thing. As for which version you see really doesn’t matter. In the first cut I’ve seen that was fourteen minute shorter had rush pacing putting emphasizes on comedy with very little breathing to naturally develop the story. All the problems in the Chinese cut of the film are made more apparent, though it ends quicker.

Jackie Chan is the center of attention rendering the whole team dynamic a bit redundant. Chan carries the movie on his weight being the enjoyable goofball for two acts and going for serious in the final act. This role doesn’t challenge Chan to balance the comedy and drama like he master in previous films, but does a good job none the less. Supporting cast is decent, though mostly forgettable as comic reliefs to prolong one particular comedic action piece on an ancient ship. Action wise two of the film biggest set pieces are underwhelming at best. On paper Chan as a human rollerblade sounds exciting, but not so much in execution as in the way it was shot makes as if it was performed slowly. Another is a long set piece on ancient ship that is in favor to show comedic antics than actual fighting. Lasting allot longer than it needed too with added slapstick. The only worthwhile action sequences appear in the final forty minutes of the film. Allowing Chan use his environment against his opponent and fight against fighters that actually hit him. These fight scenes are reminiscent of Chan golden days since they stripped Chan of all his contraptions and unnecessary embellishment. Improvising with what’s ever around him with fast choreography combined with unique ways to take down his opponents. If these were the film final action sequences it would have ended on a high note in the action department. Sadly, there’s one in the uneventful climax involving four skydivers, and a volcano. On paper doesn’t that sound awesome, but in execution poor CG, slowly performed action, and no decent setup dooms it.

Chinese Zodiac comes across as a knock off of a good Jackie Chan film that just so happen to have the actual star in it. It’s story is uninteresting simply tossing an action sequence for the sake of it and sprinkling muddle characterization with little breathing room until the next plot devices rears itself in. On the action side the first half of the film is unimpressive or get interrupted by an overlong slapstick comedy routine. It has three good fight scenes two of which that serves to remind viewers of Chan’s skill as a fighter, but the climax leaves plenty to be desired. On a technical level there’s nothing much wrong with the film with the exception of few instances of bad CG. When there’s only three scene in a two hours movie that highlight it star true talent it’s stop being merely a bad movie and more a disappointment for fans.

4/10

Cinema-Maniac:Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Lik wong) (1991)

Riki-Oh is a Japanese manga that obtain minor success being adapted into two OVA (Original Video Animation) and a live action film, though trying to find any information on the manga series itself is rather difficult. This is a strange case in cinema where a live action adaptation of a manga surpasses it source in material in popularity and overall success. Reason for this being “Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” is an material art film unlike any other; campy, driven with plot holes, poorly dubbed, bloody, gory, over the top nature gives the film its own identity that stands out like no other in its genre.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricki follows a young man with superhuman strength who’s incarcerated at a prison run by corrupt officials and seeks to use his martial arts to clean up the system. Most difficult part of adapting a 12 act manga onto a film is making its story logical. Undergoing major changes (Riki, the protagonist, motivation is slightly altered with a newly created character) from it source material the film has a disjointed and surreal feel. Things don’t come across as clearly as they should through silly explanations, though it does fit the tone of the film. Everything said and done in the story is nonsensical not once taking itself seriously. In a film where the protagonist can literally punch a hole through a criminal stomach (of course it occurs in the showers) a serious tone wouldn’t fit the nature of the characters action. It’s protagonist just like all the characters are simple minded playing a singular define role. Riki is clearly the hero, the warden clearly the villain, the “Gang of Four” are clearly the henchman, and the prisoners (often used to move the plot) are the onlooker of the events. These characters remain simplistic in order to mix a prison film with an anime story. Our protagonist stands up against the man, the hero faces the warden’s equally powerful henchman, the prison dealing in drugs, the torture to break down the hero spirit, and so forth combine elements of two different narratives working wondrously with one another. If anything could be taken as a negative in the writing would be Riki was made too powerful making scenes where Riki could easily overcome an obstacles all the less believable. While the film as a whole lacks any sense of logic at least aspects however goofy were explained as oppose to Riki weakness which is simply passed off in a single sentence.

The English dub of the film is awful in good way adding to the film cheesy nature. It bodes well with the acting as expressions are over the top and there’s nothing subtle about the actors performances down to their appearances. Uttering deadpan dialogue blending with the amount excess on screen. Su-Wong Fan performance while average looks like person who punch a hole through someone stomach and a welcoming presence that carries the film with ease. Mei Sheng Fan regardless if viewing the dub or not is wonderfully cartoonish. His over the top expressions and lack of any sense of subtle line delivery perfectly fits into the whole nonsensical world. As for other actors they’re simply here to either play a good guy or bad buy; either acting tough or acting weak. Choreography is performed very slowly and the fights themselves are very basic. Fight scenes won’t impress with their complex choreography, but they are cleverly designed to contain moments only this film can offer. Lets face it how many other martial art films can you name where a fighter literally uses his own intestines in a attempt to strangle his opponent to death. Perfectly framed like its source material every gory moment is a memorable one that shows the best mixture of low budget particle effects. Every gore filled moment has an excessive amount of blood and body pieces flying or hanging from what’s left from the person body. All the blood effects soaked effects admirably provides a sense a fun and intrigue. Especially in the film climax where Riki faces off against a paper mache monster ending in what’s to date the bloodiest climax in the martial art genre.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is campy, over the top, nonsensical fun that goes for sheer entertainment value. Its framed violence replicates the manga it’s adapting, the practical gory effects are impressive and every one of them offers something memorable, and is the best mixture of what viewers enjoy from bad movies without actually being a bad movie.

9/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Protector 2 (Tom yum goong 2) (2013) Movie Review

Back in 2003 Tony Jaa (or Panom Yeerum in Thailand) starred in the bone breaking martial film “Ong Bak” becoming an international sensation. Drawing comparisons to many legendary martial artists such as Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and most evidently Jackie Chan. Unlike those he was compared to Tony Jaa success didn’t lead him in the right direction. Every new film Tony Jaa starred in he failed to recapture the quality of “Ong Bak”. His films gradually kept getting worse and dull with the occasional out of place goofy moment (in “Ong Bak 3” Tony Jaa magically gains the power to reverse time). Now with a resume of mostly forgettable films Jaa only guarantee for success is to turn his only original film into a franchise. Copy and pasting have never been so wrong before in a sequel serving as a “Best of Moments” from Jaa previous films.

The Protector 2 sees Kham’s pet elephant has being abducted (again) and he must fight anyone in his way to find him (again). Usually it would take longer for a film plot to not give a damn about the story, but the premise spoils that since it’s the same exact premise from its predecessor. Although unlike its predecessor where there was some essence of story if sloppy had a complete narrative. Not here as quickly as Kham elephant is kidnapped it goes in a hurry to get to the action. Attempting to justify having even less plot this time it throws politics between two warring countries in the beginning of the film which has little relevance in the plot. Around reaching the twenty minute mark you’ll have to endure one giant set piece that last around twelve minutes. This single action scene has Kham fighting motorcycles hooligans on top of a roof and eventually getting chased across the city surviving one over the top scenario after another. If it sounds like I’m skipping on plot details it’s because there is barely any sufficient material for a story. It’s basically a series of excuses for action scenes even if the context is not strong enough to support it. As for characters they remain the same not evolving in any noticeable way. There’s no story to be found here. Just nonstop action in the worst way possible.

Plot has never been a strong point in most of Tony Jaa films (or Thailand action films in general) and the action fares no better either. The main problem being dodgy CG and green screen that stick out. Doggy effects lessen the impact of fight scenes that would have been cooler to seen done in a practical manner. What could have been a highlight seeing Tony Jaa fight in a burning building ends looking like unfinished test footage for a video game. Fight choreography is so so. None of the fight scenes contain a sense of brutality. As oppose to the original where Tony Jaa impressively performed a four minute fight scene in one take in this film there’s no effort to out do that accomplishment. All the fights scenes require the actors to jump around their location like rabbits. Often times resembling a cartoon (there’s a fight scene in a subway in which Jaa’s opponent gets the power to conduct electricity after dipping his shoes in water).

Tony Jaa performance is so so. Not really having to rely much on his acting chops he serves his main purpose of doing stunts and fighting. While it is unnecessary to see him perform a stunt in first person view Jaa certainly knows how to stage a stunt. As for his fighting it remains simple though he moves quickly as always has showcasing impressive physical abilities. JeeJa Yanin suffers the same fate as Jaa. Although Yanin has proven she can act her role here only requires her to fight, fight, shout, and fight. Actually she spends most of the film getting beaten up by baddies until the finale. Petchtai Wongkamlao (who seriously has appeared in most of Jaa films) serves the same purpose in comedy relief. Once again due to the nature of the script Wongkamlao doesn’t get many moments to do comedy, but at least he has plenty of dramatic scenes which are wasted too. Marrese Crump only job is to look mad and fight not requiring to do much. RZA on the other hand attempts to act though he never sells a single line. He never gets into his character nor is the allusion of him being an actor disappears.

The Protector 2 provides more of the same thin plot rushing to get to its many overabundant action scenes. Unlike the original it doesn’t contain anything as memorable leaving you with an action film if seen even with no brain cells is difficult to enjoy the absurdity that occurs. Tony Jaa is a talented man who knows how to fight and no doubt his fans will continue to see him regardless what the quality of the film is. However, Tony Jaa should be taking more risk and attempting something new because if not he’ll end up in the same place as Steven Seagal who to this day uses his same old tired formula.

1/10

Cinema-Maniac: Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) Movie Review

Two years ago I saw the original film simply titled “Ninja” (2009) which had solid action scenes for a low budget film, but that’s where the compliments end. Nearly any film with the titled “Ninja” is guaranteed to be awful. Either being ninjas are difficult to modernized or most of the ninja titled films tend to go in a downward spiral in their writing. “Ninja: Shadow of A Tear” is one of the better ninja movies while its simple plot won’t amaze a good pacing prevents the action from becoming tiresome and a better direction elevates the production sides.

Ninja: Shadow of A Tear tells a basic story about Ninjitsu master Casey out for revenge when his pregnant wife is murdered. As action movies goes it’s as straightforward as it could be. Wasting little time on character development, building up the villain (an evil drug lord no less), or challenging the character’s morals. All of which is done in a hasty matter to advance the familiar plot threads if spend too much time on would have lead to boredom. Benefiting it’s clear rehashing of plot points is good pacing. Being simple enough to follow spacing the action enough for it not to become tiresome. Allowing enough room to setup the many action scenes it has in a somewhat justifiable manner the serves the plot some purpose. In terms of characters it’s filled with stock characters from the lone wolf hero, Indian accent taxi driver, the former rival, and the classical last minute villain switcheroo. The same rule also applies to the scenarios the hero is put in. You’ll know the hero will fight behind a bar, get tortured, escape from a prison, go looking for hidden military base in a forest, eventually kill drug lord soldiers, and the rest action genre veteran or not can predict what’ll happen next. Resembling a setup more fitting for a video game the plot won’t stick to mind in any form, but if it does anything correctly aside from pacing is working towards the production team strength.

Scott Adkins as an actor has little range, but thanks to the script he’s mostly required to be angry, focused, and leave his martial art do the talking. Adkins just like in the previous film is a solid fighter who knows how to perform a good fight. He’s agile that his fight scenes are fast performing elaborate moves that shows his skills even while wearing a Ninja suit. This being a Adkins film vehicle he’s merely here to show off his fighting abilities. The cast are adequate to not ruin the film. Being aware of what roles they’re playing the cast do what is required in them. Director Isaac Florentine knows how to frame an action scene and puts a bigger budget to better use. Unlike it’s predecessor this sequel has night scenes that actually look like they take place at night. Also a plus is the non use of shaking cam during action scenes. Everything on the production side is as solid as it could be delivery the goods in satisfying results. Much like the story nothing will inherently stand out, but the commitment from the production team to strive for better is clear.

Ninja: Shadow of A Tear is an enjoyable brainless action film and not as bad as it could have been for a film that went straight to DVD. The plot is typical and simple, but is a complemented by good pacing, solid action scenes on a low budget, and solid production values. For a film with “Ninja” in the title they’re certainly worst out there, but few ninja films are as watchable even with your brain turned off.

6/10

Cinema-Maniac: Special ID (2014)

Much in the same reign as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, Donnie Yen action roles are arguably his most popular. Although when compare to the previous three most of Yen earlier starring efforts don’t pack the same punch. Yen’s latest sadly falls in that category whenever having to endure a muddle story before getting to the goods.

Special ID is about a cop and his team of comrades going undercover in one of China’s most ruthless underworld organizations to stop a gang leader. The premise and narrative beats are standard action film affairs without a change in formula; you have the undercover cop who’s been on the inside for too long, undercover cop running the risk of criminals discovering his identity, protagonist not getting along with his partners, the superior officers who uses protagonist life for his own means, and by the end protagonist attempting to fulfill a personal vendetta. For a film that hardly strays away from familiar territory making sense of it all is more difficult than needed to be. Its plot is easy to understand, but distorted plot points never connected with one another in a seamless flow. A love interest for example is hardly touched upon even though scenes are entirely dedicated to hinting at it. Nothing ever becomes at the hinted romance providing moments of character development with the interaction contributing little. Another noticeable issue comes in the directionless writing. Tones drastically change on the spot from becoming a gritty action film to feeling like a rom-com at a moments notice. Characters like the plot itself are easy to understand, but the muddle story makes it needlessly difficult decipher. You’ll have an understanding of the relationships, the characters, motivations, but even with a clear understanding muddle storytelling prevents any worthwhile investment to be made. This film never manages to find its own identity at the end coming off as a collection of several scripts each being drastically different each in their own muddle way.

Donnie Yen is comical and naughty rascal-like acting in the film is passable, but for the emotional side of his character he doesn’t cut it. A weak script is blame as Yen does his best with heartless dramatic scenes. When it comes to Yen fight choreography it appears brutal, but doesn’t get across that feel of brutality. Every fight is restricted to being in a close a quarter and even when the action is taken outside of a building it plays strictly by the rules. Yen is the only actor who uses MMA techniques while the rest of his cast are kickboxers. This eliminates the tensity in fight scenes as Yen opponents have no idea how to counter his MMA and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu techniques. Even in the first few minutes of the film even though Donnie Yen literally fights crawling around the floor his opponent does not know how to counter Yen moves. The only time it mixes fighting techniques is during Yen fight with Andy On. Andy On using primarily Muay Thai and variation of several others fighting styles offered more elaborate choreography. Only when On fights against Donnie Yen do the fight scenes deliver on its brutality. Action scenes don’t have the wow factor though they are well staged that provide the film the much needed energy. As for Andy On acting it’s solid selling the idea he could go toe to toe with Donnie Yen. Jing Tian provides a pretty face and impresses with her agility and flexibility. Tian might be small, but her move set makes her believable and the film climactic action scene sells her in the action role. Her acting is good genuinely the often corny and cheesy dialogue sound as good as it can.

Special ID delivers solid performances and solid action scenes, but in order to get to see those you have to endure the deadweight of a muddle and standard story. It plays by the rules in terms of narrative and action unable to find an identity of its own.

5/10