Kate


“That’s why I became an actress…for the glamour!”

(2021) Action (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Martineau, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Michel Huisman, Miyavi, Mari Yamamoto, Hirotaka Renge, Kazuya Tanabe, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Amelia Crouch, Ava Caryofyllis, Gemma Brooke Allen, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Koji Nishiyama, Kazuhiro Muroyama, Shinji Uchiyama, Miku Kobato. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

=Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a badass super-competent assassin yearns to leave the business of turning people into worm food behind them, only to find out that their employers are unwilling to let them retire. Said badass super-competent assassin goes ballistic in an attempt to take revenge on those who have done them wrong. I noticed you haven’t stopped me.

Kate (Winstead) is a badass super-competent assassin, and has been raised to be such by her handler Varrick (Harrelson) since she was an orphaned child. But she wants out and a chance to live a relatively normal life and maybe even start a family. When her last assignment doesn’t work out as planned, she discovers that she’s been poisoned and has 24 agonizing hours to live.

As you might imagine, Kate doesn’t intend to go gently into that good night. Instead, she intends to rage, rage against the dying of the light and, more specifically, against those who poisoned her. Her investigation – which is done with guns and blades to cut down on time – leads her to a Yakuza clan chief named Kijima (Kunimura), but he is too well-guarded to go after directly. The way in is through his teenage niece Ani (Martineau) who at first is a kidnap victim but eventually begins to realize that she and Kate have a lot in common, and begins to access her own inner badass super-competent assassin.

This Japan-set Netflix extravaganza benefits from having the good folks at 87North, the production team responsible for the John Wick series, working with them and that particular franchise heavily influences the proceedings here. One of the things that is positive here is that the badass super-competent assassin here is female and that she develops a protégé relationship with a young woman, which is a nice gender-switch for this type of movie.

Winstead has done some decent action heroine work in the past, but she’s never been better than she is here. While the character of Kate doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional baggage – she’s been trained since childhood that way – Winstead still manages to imbue the character with humanity. Even as Kate’s body begins to betray her and the poison begins to reduce her reactions and bodily functionality into obstacles for her to overcome, Kate still carries herself with a lethal presence that is all Winstead. It’s a compelling action lead portrayal.

Martineau makes Ani much less annoying than the character might have been in less capable hands. A lot of time the teen protégé role tends to be a means for a younger audience to relate to the film and often most writers portray them as quipping, arrogant jerks who end up knowing more than the lead and saving the day. That kind of thing tends to make me want to gag.

Not that teens can’t be heroic; there are a whole lot of them out there who are, but there are plenty who are not. That’s true of all age groups, by the way. But I digress.

The Japanese-setting is neon-drenched, stylistically reminding of films like John Wick and Black Rain. I do think though that the movie missed an opportunity by making Japanese culture somewhat stereotypical; I would have preferred a deeper dive into the richness of it, a well waiting to be tapped, but alas, the filmmakers preferred to go the safer, easier route. Kate seems to be a modern samurai, or more accurately in this instance a ronin, but they don’t really explore that aspect at all, really. They should have.

Still, the movie is an entertaining if somewhat overly-familiar action movie that is executed reasonably well. With a little more care and love, this could have been something truly special rather than the decent diversion that it is.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really terrific action sequences, and Winstead makes a solid action heroine.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is going to feel a little bit familiar (a lot familiar, actually).
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of profanity, and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth occasion (and counting) that Winstead has portrayed a character named Kate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/28/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.=
COMPARISON SHOPPING: D.O.A.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Soga: Salvation

Stoker Hills


All tied up on a Saturday night.

(2020) Found Footage (Screen Media) Tony Todd, Steffani Brass, David Gridley, Vince Hill-Bedford, William Lee Scott, Tyler Clark, Eric Etebari, Danny Nucci, John Beasley, Thomas R. Martin, Maya Nucci, Joy McElveen, Jason Sweat, Michael Faulkner, Vinny O’Brien, Atticus Nations, Sara Friedman. Directed by Benjamin Louis

It wasn’t that long ago when found footage films were the bee’s knees in the horror genre. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without smacking a found footage film. But eventually, they fell out of favor – and to be truthful, the subgenre has always been kind of limiting (more on that in a minute), and these days, they tend to be pretty rare.

Ryan (Gridley), Jake (Hill-Bedford) and Erica (Brass) are film students in Professor Smith’s (Todd) class. The students are getting ready to begin work on their film projects for the class, and Jake is already filming everything he can – including Professor Smith’s class. Ryan and Jake are excited about the movie they are about to shoot – it’s called Streetwalkers and it’s about zombie hookers and tars Erica as a prostitute who becomes a zombie. Jake’s ex-girlfriend, Dani (Clark), who won the previous year’s student film of the year award, is skeptical about the project, adding fuel to the fire.

But on the first night of shooting, something unexpected occurs. A car pulls up alongside Erica, the bemused filmmakers believing that the driver thinks she’s an actual hooker…then without warning, grabs the screaming girl and throws her in the car, roaring away before the boys can catch up. Of course Jake continues filming as the boys give chase.

Sometime later, the camera is found along with a dead body, and police detectives Adams (Etebari) and Stafford (Scott) who watch the footage and realize that at least two of the three kids are still missing. A race against time ensues to find them, with only the clues in the camera to guide them. Given that there have been a number of unexplained disappearances lately, this could be the sign that something much more terrible is going on than a couple of kids making a movie that got out of hand.

One of the things (and there are many) that essentially derailed the found footage explosion is that the movies tend to be pretty much the same, generally but Stoker Hills twists that on its ear, by ot only using found footage but more conventional storyteliing techniques as well, utilizing the detectives watching the footage and taking the clues from it to find the missing kids. That much is innovative.

But one of the things that made found footage less viable than other horror subgenres is that you have to create a reason for the footage to exist and while in some cases it works (the Paranormal Activity films largely rely on security camera footage), that doesn’t always work as in this case; most people, chasing after someone who is in mortal peril, aren’t likely to keep filming. Their concentration is going to be on rescuing the person who is in trouble.

Tony Todd is the headliner here, but sadly he’s only on for a couple of scenes (including the very first) and doesn’t really play much of a role here, but he still command the screen in any case. The three young leads do pretty good work (and Brass does a fine job looking uncomfortable in the hyper-sexual outfit she’s forced to wear). The characters of the detectives are poorly written though; they look like a couple of guys who have watched way too many noir movies (one of them even wears a fedora and a trenchcoat) and they don’t act like any sort of competent police detective.

This movie is a bit of a contradiction. There are quite a few basic flaws here, but there’s also some real creativity. The two kind of counterbalance each other, leaving a fairly enjoyable horror-thriller with a fair amount of gore and enough interest in the plot to keep one watching until the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is just compelling enough to be worthwhile.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much formula, too much exposition, too many missteps in plot points.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, violence, gore and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the third feature directed by the Haiti-born Louis, it is the first film he has directed since 2004.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creep
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mr. Birthday

Infinite


Mark Wahlberg threatens to get all samurai on your ass.

(2021) Science Fiction (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Cookson, Jason Mantzoukas, Rupert Friend, Toby Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Liz Carr, Kae Alexander, Tom Hughes, Joana Ribeiro, Wallis Day, Alicia Charles, Mark Fleischmann, Lloyd Griffith, Jack Roth, Leon Annor, Nabil Elouahabi, Jumayn Hunter, Melissa Neal. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The movie industry has for a very long time now been franchise-oriented. That’s the bread and butter of the major studios; that’s where they sink the bulk of their investments. The negative aspect is that franchises often can be overly repetitive, and so the need to add new, fresh franchises becomes paramount (no pun intended). The problem with that is that franchises rely on a first film that not only sets the stage for future films, but kicks butt at the box office or ratings.

The makers of Infinite (based on a novel by D. Eric Maikranz) were dealt bad cards from the beginning. The pandemic took what was envisioned to be a summer blockbuster and left it to debut on the Paramount Plus network, which was at the time freshly re-christened from CBS All-Access and had yet to make Netflix-like subscriber numbers (it still hasn’t). I think they were hoping to use the film as an enticement to get subscribers, but it didn’t really happen in the kind of numbers I think they were hoping for. Part of the problem is because not many knew much about the film.

The film (and book) posits that there are a group of people who are reincarnated retaining all the knowledge and skills from their past lives; these are called Infinites. The Infinites are at war; the bad guys, the Nihilists led by Bathurst (Ejiofor) want nothing more than to die and be at peace. Since dying only means they’ll get reincarnated once again, the only way to ensure that they’ll Rest in Peace is to wipe out all life on Earth, which seems a little extreme. Opposing them are the Believers who are led by Garrick (Carr), a wheelchair-bound strategist.

The Nihilists had developed a device called the Egg that would destroy all life on Earth, which seems to be redundant since the McRib is capable of doing the very same thing. An agent of the Believers named Treadway (O’Brien) has managed to steal the Egg and hide it away, but he is killed before he can reveal the location to his fellow Believers.

Years later, Evan (Wahlberg) has been diagnosed with schizophrenia due to the voices he hears. He often has vivid dreams that when he wakes up, leave him with a skill he didn’t know he had – like forging samurai swords, for example. The Believers think he might be the reincarnation of Treadway; so, unfortunately, does Bathurst (Treadway and Bathurst sounds like it should be the name of a legal firm that represents corporate polluters), and both want Evan very badly because locked in his memory is the location of the Egg One of the Believers, Nora (Cookson), has a very personal connection to Evan; she believes that the Egg can restore Treadway, who was her lover.

The movie reunites Wahlberg and Fuqua, who was his director on The Shooter. Fuqua has helmed some very good films, including Training Day. This, sadly, won’t be remembered as one of his best. While the original concept is pretty compelling, the execution here is faulty, largely because of the convoluted plot and minimal character development. Like many action films that have many working parts, the characters here are given short shrift, often reduced to a single personality trait (one has a bad temper, one is confined to a wheelchair, one is a smart alec and so on and so forth).

I get the sense that much of the backstory was left for future installments and indeed there is a lot of world building going on here. I would have preferred a smaller team with fewer characters, but better developed ones. There is a lot of CGI as you might expect – for the most part it is better than average, although there are a few exceptions. The fight scenes and action set pieces are uneven; some are absolutely mind-blowing, while others are merely okay.

Wahlberg, at fifty, is a bit long in the tooth to be starting a potential franchise like this, but then again that would leave the door open for a surprise death and reincarnation, much like Doctor Who. He is in spectacular shape (and gets shirtless to let us know just how spectacular that is) and I like his casting here; he is very much a working class Joe and reacts to things as a working class Joe.

This is a movie that got a lot of bad breaks. The pandemic led to multiple delays which eventually led to it not getting a shot at a theatrical release. It became a tentpole release for the fledgling Paramount Plus network, but didn’t generate the kind of response that got people enthusiastic about subscribing, nor is there any enthusiasm for a potential sequel. It’s just another would-be franchise film that didn’t connect with a wide audience.

REASONS TO SEE: Better-than-average SFX and action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really pushes believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence (occasionally bloody and disturbing) and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan gets the same reincarnation test that is given the Dalai Llama.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Paramount Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/01/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews; Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Old Guard
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Off the Rails

The Fatal Raid


Happiness is a warm gun.

(2019) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Jade Leung, Hidy Yu, Min Chen Lin Andrew Kam Yeung-Wa, Kristy Yeung, Aaron Boggs, Jeana Ho, Michael Tong, Patrick Tam, Sin-Hang Chiu, Elaine Tang, Man-kit Yuan, Jadie Lin. Directed by Jacky Lee

 

The “girls with guns” Hong Kong action film subgenre is pretty much what it sounds like; equal parts action and titillation, sort of like Charlie’s Angels with a bit of an edge and a little more cheesecake. For the most part, that subgenre has fallen by the wayside as the mainland Chinese government, which tends to be a little less lenient towards sexuality in cinema, has essentially become overseers of the thriving Hong Kong moviemaking scene. This movie, directed by veteran Jacky Lee, looks to if not resurrect the subgenre, at least pay tribute to it.

An elite Hong Kong police unit, trying to apprehend a criminal gang in Macau, is ambushed leading to a bloody gunfight that leaves numerous members of the team dead. The police brass, as is often the case, hushed up their own role in botching the raid. Now, 20 years after the event, the surviving participants are haunted by the events of that day. Heading back to Macau for a celebration honoring the heroes of the police force, they are led into an ambush with the same gang. Will history repeat itself, or will justice finally prevail?

The plot here is pretty generic and it isn’t terribly well-developed. Most of the emphasis is on the extended gun battles (there are three of them that take place in the film) and less so on developing the characters. The focus seems to be, strangely enough, on Detective Tam (P. Tam) who despite being the lone male on the team becomes the point of focus here – I imagine the #MeToo movement hasn’t made much headway in China just yet. Tam is a fine actor – don’t get me wrong – but if you’re going to cast someone like Jade Leung, who was one of the mainstays of the genre and a terrific actress in her own right – you should damn well make better use of her. As it is, her presence is so commanding as the police inspector that she still manages to steal the film anyway.

Now, I’m not trying to kid myself – most people are going to see this movie for the action sequences and they aren’t that bad. The problem is, they aren’t that memorable either, which is surprising. I have actually seen the movie that this is a sequel to, and there is far more connection between the films than is usual for sequels in the Chinese movie business, which is also surprising. However, the sequel isn’t going to inspire anyone to run right out and rent the film that preceded it which is a shame, because it’s a much better (and much more fun) movie than this one is. The tone here is grim and a bit of a downer, rather than lighthearted and brain-melting, which is normally what you want out of a Hong Kong action movie. See it for the opportunity to watch Jade Leung at work, but there’s not much other reason to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Jade Leung is a compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The unmemorable plot really drags in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some sex and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a sequel to Special Female Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iron Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kipchoge: The Last Milestone

Raging Fire (Nou fo)


Shots fired!

(2021) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Lan Qin, Angus Yeung, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Henry Prince Mak, Tak-Bun Wong, Jeana Ho, Ken Lo, Simon Yam, Tony Tsz-Tung Wu, Kwok-Keung Cheung, Jing-hung Kwok, Ray Lui, Chris Collins, Fung Kwok, Singh Hartihan Bitto, Inderjeet Singh, Cheung-Ching Mak, Yee Tong Directed by Benny Chan

 

When Hong Kong was the action movie capitol of the world, Donnie Yen was one of its principal stars and Benny Chan one of its most talented directors. After the handoff from the UK to mainland China, the Hong Kong film industry, which at its peak produced 200 films per year, was absorbed into the Chinese film industry and became subject to pre-approval by Communist film censors. The by-the-seat-of-the-pants take-no-prisoners action that made it beloved by those who had picked up on just how special those films were became a thing of the past.

But this latest film, starring Yen and fellow HK action star Tse, is a throwback to the style before Chinese action movies became indistinguishable from low-budget American ones. An elite team of Hong Kong police officers, led by Cheung Chung-Bong (Yen) who is as incorruptible as it gets, are after a mysterious band of thieves whose ruthlessness and willingness to spill blood have made them a priority. To Cheung’s shock, he discovers that the thieves are ex-cops led by his ex-partner Yau Kong-Ngo (Tse). Ngo had been sent to prison after a riverside interrogation went sideways. Bong had put him there, and essentially their superiors through Ngo under an entire fleet of busses. He emerged from prison with thoughts of deadly revenge and a moral compass that had turned pitch black.

The two are headed for an inevitable confrontation and while getting there, Chan gives us plenty of amazing action sequences, including a car chase that you’ll have to see to believe, and all sorts of fights, mayhem and gun battles. Yen, at 60, still has plenty of action chops left in him (he was recently cast in the upcoming John Wick sequel) and Tse is one of the most charismatic stars in Asia. Having both of them in the same film is a little bit like Christmas in August.
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The plot leaves a lot to be desired; we’ve seen it before, not just in big budget American action movies (think Michael Mann) but also in a plethora of Hong Kong crime movies which have made detailing the line between cops and criminals something of a trademark. Also, for a movie that’s roughly two hours long, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than the two leads, which is a disadvantage the film never really overcomes.

But then another action sequence comes along and all is forgiven (there is an interrogation room sequence in which Ngo and Bong have a quiet moment that is the best non-action moment of the film; the movie could have used more scenes like it). One is reminded that at its peak, the Hong Kong film industry was one of the most innovative and imaginative in the world, at times rivaling Hollywood for clever action sequences. For anyone who remembers those Hong Kong action movies of the 80s and 90s with fondness, this one is going to be right up your alley.

REASONS TO SEE: Hyper-kinetic action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is mighty pedestrian.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much violence, profanity and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This would be Chan’s final feature as a director as he passed away from cancer August 23, 2020. He was able to complete shooting and supervise the majority of post-production before his illness prevented any further involvement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Sell Me a Dog

Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

The Rookies (Su Ren Te Gong)


Toto, we’re not in Racoon City anymore.

(2019) Action Comedy (Shout!) Talu Wang, Sandrine Pinna, Milla Jovovich, David Lee McInnis, Meitong Liu, Timmy Xu, Suet Lam, Kwok-Kwan Chan, Zhan Xiao, Nuo Lu, Kathy Chow, Paul Allica, Bernadett Ostorhazi, David Rayden, Mekael Turner, Kyle Paul, Pierre Bourdaud, Barret Coates, Temur Mahrnisavilli, Isaac Fernandez, Franz Rugamer, Bjorn Freiberg, Timea Saghy. Directed by Alan Yuen

 

You’ve probably seen this one before; a billionaire decides to unleash a world-ending catastrophe being opposed by a dedicated spy of undeniable physical skills. Then again, saving the world isn’t what it used to be.

In this hot mess by veteran Hong Kong action director Alan Yuen, social media extreme sports star Zhao Feng (Wang) literally drops in on a meeting of criminal gangs who are delivering the gas to the billionaire in exchange for the (wait for it…you guessed it…(wait for it)…Holy Grail. Indiana Jones would be rolling in his grave if he had one. Graham Chapman certainly is.

Feng is rescued from the gun-toting baddies by Bruce (Jovovich), a stone-faced agent for the Order of the Phantom Knighthood (I’m not making this up) and who now recruits Feng into the Order to help them steal the Grail from its current resting place in the collection of a Hungarian squidillionaire and keep it safe while protecting the world from the crazed Iron Fist (McInnis) who frequently talks to his dead wife’s eyeball, which he keeps preserved in a jar. Doesn’t everybody?

Feng is joined in his quest by a ragtag team of other novices; Miao Yan (Pinna), a cop with anger management issues, Ding Shan (Xu), a somewhat eccentric genius and crackpot inventor, and LV (Liu), an unemployed doctor who worships Ding and cheerfully tests his dangerous inventions. Feng’s own exaggerated ego may come back to haunt the team as they race against time and the odds to save the planet. Can these rookies succeed where seasoned pros have failed?

Like many Hong Kong action films dating back to the 80s and 90s, there is an absurdist streak that is rampant in the film, something that Hong Kong audiences tend to accept a bit better than their American counterparts. However, Yuen takes it to new heights (or depths) in this case with sight gags that fall flat and quips that lose something in translation. And speaking of translation, the distributors elected to dub this rather than subtitle it which is not always a good idea. Unfortunately, some of the signs and titles go untranslated which is frustrating to those who don’t read Mandarin, and we get the sense that the translation may not be all its cracked up to be.

But most folks watch these sorts of films for the action sequences and those are in general right on the money. Feng may be an insufferable boob whose face you may want to punch ten minutes into the movie, but Wang (or his stunt double) is a pretty able action star which does take some of the sting out. Jovovoich, ever the consummate pro, does what she can here until her character is sidelined way too early in the movie and she is more or less out of the picture from then on.

The CGI tends to be pretty weak here, but from what I can tell Chinese audiences tend to be a lot less discriminating in that regard, so take that for what it’s worth. There is some entertainment value here, but American big-budget action fans are likely to find this primitive, dumb and unsatisfying, but those who have already embraced Hong Kong action films for the delights that they are may find this a worthwhile investment of their time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lowbrow humor wears on you as the film goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released in China in 2019, but did mediocre business which may account for it not getting a Stateside release until now.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Slalom

Boss Level


Reliving the future.

(2021) Action (Hulu) Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rio Grillo, Armida Lopez, Buster Reeves, Eric Etebari, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans, Joe Knezevich, Adam Simon, Rob Gronkowski, Melanie Kiran. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

It goes without saying that an action movie should have thrilling action sequences. But it is equally important that an action movie be fun. So many of them take themselves so seriously that we end up wondering when Scorsese started making mindless action flicks. Well, he hasn’t yet but he might just approve of this one. Or, he might not. You be the judge.

Roy Pulver (F. Grillo) wakes up with a machete whistling towards his head. Being an ex-Delta Force commando who has a particular set of skills, he is able to dodge his would-be killer, and also avoid the chain gun being fired at his apartment from a hovering helicopter. As the final wreckage of his place becomes explosive (no damage deposit return for Roy), he leaps out into a passing dump truck, rolls gracefully into the street with his upswept coif neatly in place, and commandeers a sports car from a screaming, whining civilian and roars off, to be chased by a legion of assassins. Roy has no idea who wants him dead, or why. All he knows is that in the end, they kill him and always by 12:47pm. Then he wakes up and starts the whole process all over again.

Now, this concept has been used in a variety of genres with results that vary in quality. I have news for you, though – this one is better than most. It has an incredible cast, including Gibson as the well-meaning but out of his mind military-corporate bad guy (Gibson is getting a second career as a heavy after he self-sabotaged his A-list career as the kind of action hero that might well have had the lead heroic role in the movie had it been made in 1987), Watts as Roy’s scientist ex-wife who works for Gibson, Sasso as Gibson’s major-domo, Jeong as a wise-cracking bartender, Yeoh as a legendary sword master and so on. Roy is beset by a group of assassins each with their own gimmick, from the guy who looks suspiciously like him (whom he calls “Roy #2”) to a pair of Teutonic twins of African descent and grumpy disposition as well as a smug self-aggrandizing Asian swordswoman who announces her name every time she dispatches poor old Roy and confirming that she, in fact, is the one responsible for the carnage. She probably needs to talk to a legal expert.

If you think of this as an action-packed videogame, you will likely come as close as you’re going to in understanding what this movie is about. My advice is not to think too hard about it; best to just go with the flow and mow down baddies while your perfectly coifed hair remains uncannily in place. The movie plays a lot like a videogame (the title gives it away) and gamers will likely find this of slight interest but would probably prefer to play a game over seeing a movie. Gamers are natural-born control freaks, don’t you know?

As for the fun quotient, it’s through the roof. This isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; it moves at a pace equivalent to the chain gun fire that punctuates every morning in Roy’s apartment. You’re not really given a whole lot of time to think, although if you do you’re apt to get a headache so I would advise against it. It’s big, loud and dumb with a sick soundtrack that will keep your grin fixed as immovably in place as Grillo’s hair, and it requires no investment whatsoever other than the hour and a quarter of the movie’s compact running time. It’s a wise investment, though; action movies are rapidly morphing into big budget eye candy that requires the entire population of China to buy a ticket in order to almost break even at the box office. While there are some pretty nifty special effects (and Grillo’s hair is clearly either green screened, or a product of alien technology), it doesn’t appear they broke the bank with their budget and Grillo, it turns out, is a companionable action star who you will have no problem rooting for. If there are a few too many side quests (such as Roy trying to get to know his son, who isn’t aware that Roy is his dad – now that’s kind of messed up) it can be forgiven because Carnahan, already one of the best at action in the business, packs so much into it’s short running time you don’t begrudge a little padding. This one is worth getting a subscription to Hulu for all by itself and when you throw in the upcoming animated M.O.D.O.K. series with Patton Oswald waiting in the wings, you probably should seriously consider it.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the charm of a side-scrolling shooter game. Frenetic and funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: As with most pictures with this gimmick, it does eventually start to get old.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s all sorts of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roy’s son Joe is played by Frank Grillo’w real-life son Rio.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Say Your Prayers

Destroyer


Here’s a face that’s seen a lot of miles down a hard road.

(2018) Crime Drama (Annapurna) Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Colby French, Kelvin Han Yee, Joseph Fatu, Cuete Yeska, Doug Simpson, Kate Clauson, Jan Hoag, Cecily Breaux. Directed by Karyn Kusama

 

One of the first things we see in this gritty L.A.-set crime drama is the face of Nicole Kidman, but it’s not the glamorous beauty that we have come to know; her face is aging, careworn and dead-eyed, the face of someone who has had the shit kicked out of her by life and is just going through the motions until she dies.

This is L.A.P.D.’s finest Erin Bell, and she is damaged goods. An incident back in the 90s when she and her partner Chris (Stan) had infiltrated the gang of a charismatic bank robber named Silas (Kebbell) has changed her forever. Now, Silas is back and Erin knows that there can be no justice for one such as he unless she metes it out herself, and this is what she intends to do.

This is not the Nicole Kidman you’ve ever seen before. Erin Bell is a piece of work, as they like to say in cop shows. She bends the system until it breaks, has not a single relationship with anyone that can be termed even remotely healthy. She walks with a shuffle like an old lady going to the corner store to buy latkes but it is her eyes that generate the most hideous visage of all, the eyes of a woman who has seen Hell and understands that’s where she belongs. You won’t like Erin Bell much, but you’ll love the job Kidman does playing her.

You’ll also like the rest of the impressive cast, all of whom do sterling work. This is a sun-drenched film which is fitting; most noir films are more comfortable in nighttime settings, but this one demands the lurid, unflinching light of day. This is one of Kidman’s best performances ever and it ill serve as one of the talented Kusama’s better films.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman is an absolute force. The supporting cast is pretty strong, too.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is a little bit diffuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole mess o’ profanity, a lot of violence, some sexual material and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sebastian Stan originally auditioned for the role of Silas, but Kusama felt he’d make a better love interest for Kidman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brick Mansions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Social Ones