The Man With the Iron Fists


How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

(2012) Martial Arts (Universal) RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu, Zhu Zhu, Gordon Liu, Andrew Ng, Kuan Tai Chen, Xue Jing Yao, Telly Liu, Wen-Jun Dong, Zhan De Re, Lu Kai, Jin Auyeung (MC Jin), Ka-Yan Leung, Liu Chang Jiang, Brian Yang, Hu Minnow, Eli Roth, Pam Grier, Grace Huang. Directed by RZA

Most film buffs have a soft spot for a particular era or style of movie, be it the film noir of the 40s, the psychedelic cinema of the 60s, the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s, the slasher horror films of the 80s – or something completely different. All of us have movies that we grew up with that appealed to us in some way and helped mold who we are.

For rapper RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, that would be the chop sockey films of Run Run Shaw and other producers from Hong Kong in the 70s. He wouldn’t be alone in that regard; folks like Quentin Tarantino (who is credited as a “presenter” here and helped produce), Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth (who co-wrote, produced, and appeared in a small role) all are fans of the style. Those who know RZA say he is a walking encyclopedia on the subject and certainly his music bears that out. Some thought it might only be a matter of time, ever since he got into acting, that he would create a film of his own.

Well, here it is. Like many of the original chop sockey films of the 70s, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. A nameless blacksmith (RZA) – who happens to be black – creates weapons for the various rival clans of a small village. The village is a powderkeg waiting to explode and the arrival of a stranger named Jack Knife (Crowe) from England is all it takes. Soon the clans are at war and the Blacksmith will be drawn in not just as a maker of weapons, but as a fighter.

And that’s really it. And to be honest, the plot isn’t the most important thing about a movie like this, although I wouldn’t have minded a little more flesh on those bare bones. This is clearly a labor of love for RZA and reportedly he and co-writer Roth went into great detail into the mythology of the village, the types of weapons that he would create and the people who inhabited them. We don’t see much of the background except in dribs and drabs and I suppose that if he did go into detail, the movie would have ended up being a two-parter, or at least a single movie four hours long.

And to be fair, most folks who like the Wuxia movies and chop sockey films are all about the fights, and RZA recruited one of the best choreographers in the world – Corey Yuen – to work his film. And yes, those fights are pretty spectacular. However, the quick-cut editing and sumptuous visuals make it hard to follow those fights.

And the visuals are sumptuous, from the pink-hued cathouse where a good portion of the action takes place in, to the village streets and smithy which are period-friendly. It’s a great looking film but the editing again gives it a more modern feel than I think RZA was originally going for; or at least, he should have been.

RZA as a director shows promise; as an actor though, he should have stuck to directing. I’m not saying he’s a bad actor necessarily but he was wrong for the part. His personality onscreen is laidback and almost comatose; there’s just no excitement being generated by the lead character and that’s damn near fatal for any movie. If your audience isn’t connecting with your lead character, chances are they are changing the channel, walking out or otherwise finding something else to do with their time.

The characters have interesting names, weapons and personalities and some of the actors who inhabit them go over-the-top as well they should. Crowe and Lucy Liu as a conniving madam both seem to be having a good ol’ time with this; appearances by the legendary Gordon Liu, the equally legendary Pam Grier and Daniel Wu don’t hurt either. Rick Yune was also getting some heat but seemed to disappear way too early without explanation. Or at least, if there was one I wasn’t paying much attention by that time.

At an hour and a half this felt much longer than it really was and it’s a shame; there are a lot of elements here that are worthwhile had they been put together better. A direct-to-home video sequel was released earlier this year but I can’t say I have any desire whatsoever to see it and likely I won’t. I hope RZA continues to make movies; I just hope they’re better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A demented and occasionally entertaining cross between a spaghetti Western and a Hong Kong chop sockey.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A godawful mess. RZA doesn’t have the presence or the energy to be a lead.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it extreme) and sexuality (some of it extreme), a bit of foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first cut of the movie ran over four hours long and RZA at one point considering splitting the film into two parts but producer Eli Roth disagreed and thus the movie was edited down to its current 95 minute length.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains both the R-rated theatrical release and an unrated version that is about 12 minutes longer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warrior’s Way
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

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True Legend (Su Qi-Er)


This armor is for the birds.

This armor is for the birds.

(2010) Martial Arts (Indomina) Vincent Zhao, Xun Zhou, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Cung Le, Xiaogang Feng, Ka-Yen Leung, Jacky Heung, Ni Yan, Will Liu, Luxia Jiang, Ze Li, Hanwen Suen, Conan Stevens, Sylvester Terkay, Matt Weise, Dominique Vandenberg, Jon Heidenreich, He Hung. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping

Vengeance is one of the uglier sides of the human spirit. It warps the soul and is a kind of madness, an obsession that can turn a good man into something evil. Those who go through life seeking vengeance are likely to dig their own graves.

Su Can (Zhao) is a skilled general who rescues a prince (Heung) of the realm from a fortress full of enemies in a mountain stronghold. In return for his bravery, Su is offered the position of governor of Hubei province; however, Su doesn’t want it. Su is more interested in perfecting his own Wu Shu and retiring from the military life. He gives instead the position to his adopted brother Yuan Lie (On), who is jealous at having lived in Su Can’s shadow most of his life.

But not all of it  When Yuan was a little boy, Su Can’s father killed Yuan’s father who had been perfecting a particularly evil form of Wu Shu called the Five Venom Fists, afterwards adopting Yuan and his sister Ying (Zhou). Su had fallen in love with Ying and married her, further driving a wedge between the two men.

Five years pass and Yuan returns home, ostensibly to reconcile. However, that’s not going to happen – his heart has grown far too twisted and evil. He murders Su’s father in a particularly brutal fashion and maims Su. Only Ying’s pleas stop Yuan from killing her husband. Instead, Yuan throws Su into a raging river, poisoned and badly injured.

Ying escapes, diving into the river after her husband and rescuing him. She takes him to the lonely mountain cottage of Dr. Yu (Yeoh), a herbalist. Su’s injuries are crippling and only through rigorous training will he be able to use his arm again. At first, Su is more interested in drinking himself blind. Not only did Yuan murder his dad but he kidnapped his son Feng (Suen) as well and Su is in no shape to rescue his own flesh and blood.

However, the Wu Shu God (Chou) takes pity on Su and along with a wise old sage (Gordon Liu) instruct him in the art of Wu Shu. It isn’t until later that Ying realizes that Su is going mad – he is training with nobody. She realizes that Su may never be recovered enough to rescue her son so she decides to go do it herself and gets captured for her trouble.

Su knows that he has no choice; he will have to set aside his demons and save his family. The showdown will be epic but it won’t end quite the way anyone expects – leaving Su broken and fighting in an arena against foreign devils. Has he hit rock bottom? And what will he lose on the way there?

Ping is best known as the action choreographer for films like The Matrix and both Kill Bill movies. He’s also a director and has done over 20 movies on his own. As you might expect, he is an accomplished director of action sequences and has a fluid visual style that’s quite pleasing. However, he is less strong with story and character, letting them take a back seat to the sometimes breathtaking fights.

And they are breathtaking. The fight at the waterfall between the Iron Twins and Su is beautiful (it ought to be; it took 15 days to shoot) and intricate, one of the best martial arts sequences you’re ever likely to see. There are several others which are similarly spectacular. Sadly, when the action stops and the talking starts, the movie grinds to a screeching halt…or screeches to a grinding halt. Choose your mixed metaphor wisely.

Ping is best known for his wire work and he augments that with some CGI sequences involving weaponry and Wu Shu wizardry. Unfortunately, like many effects sequences in Chinese films these days, the work isn’t up to par with modern standards and for the most part look kind of weak and shoddy  While I realize that practical effects aren’t always…er, practical for certain sequences, if you must use CGI at the very least make sure it doesn’t make your film look worse.

Vincent Zhao wasn’t particularly well-known in China when this was filmed – he’d mostly done television and commercial work but he does a pretty credible job here and is at the center of most of the action. Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses worldwide; even though her role here is brief, she elevates every movie she participates in and this is no exception. I could watch her chatting on her cell phone for hours and never get bored.

In fact, having Yeoh as well as the legendary Gordon Liu and the late David Carradine in one of his final roles all together in the same movie is reason enough to rent this sucker, even though they don’t appear in the same scenes at one time. Reason enough for me to seek this one out…and it should be reason enough for you to as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Yeoh, Chou, Carradine and Gordon Liu in the same movie – awesome!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No plot to speak of. CGI detracts from the quality of the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Martial arts violence as you’d expect, some of it brutal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Ping’s first film as a director since 1996.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unreported (the film made a negligible amount in the States although it’s Chinese box office is probably substantial) on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Local Legends

New Releases for the Week of August 30, 2013


Getaway

GETAWAY

(Warner Brothers) Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, Jon Voight, Rebecca Budig, Paul Freeman, Bruce Payne, Ivailo Geraskov. Directed by Courtney Solomon

When the wife of a former race car driver is kidnapped, her husband is forced to commandeer a customized sports car, taking the owner on a high octane race against time. Forced to follow the instructions of a faceless voice, knowing his every move is being watched, he must whip up a plan to defeat the nameless criminal calling the shots, knowing that his wife’s life as well as the two lives in the car are forfeit if he can’t.

See the trailer, clips, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense action, violence and mayhem throughout, some rude gestures and language)

Closed Circuit

(Focus) Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, Julia Stiles. Two former lovers, now estranged, are reluctantly forced to work together as the defense team of an accused terrorist. However, it seems that their every move is being watched and it becomes clear that events are being manipulated. The closer they look, the more danger they’re in.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality, violence and language) 

The Grandmaster

(Weinstein) Ziyi Zhang, Tony Leung, Zhang Yongcheng, Cung Le. Visionary Chinese director Wong Kar Wai weighs in with this tale of Ip Man, the legendary Chinese martial arts master who is best known in the West as Bruce Lee’s teacher. During the chaos that followed the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty, he would rise as the best of the best during the golden age of Chinese martial arts. Not to be confused with the Ip Man trilogy which also was loosely based on the same historical figure.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language)

Instructions Not Included

(Pantelion) Eugenio Derbez, Jessica Lindsey, Loreto Peralta, Daniel Raymont. A ladies man in Acapulco finds a baby girl on his doorstep. He decides to raise her himself after unsuccessfully searching for the mother in Los Angeles and manages to carve out a decent life for the two of them and a successful career as a Hollywood stunt ma. Complications ensue six years later when the birth mother resurfaces and wants her daughter back.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, thematic elements and language)

One Direction: This is Us

(TriStar) Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles. Documentary filmmaker shocks his fans by doing a movie about the teen heartthrobs du jour. At least all the pre-teen tween girls will be giggling and texting in a different theater than the rest of us while this is out.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for mild language)

Satyagraha

(UTV) Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Arjun Rampal. A young man rising in the corporate ranks sees his hopes dashed when a personal tragedy exposes him to the corruption in the system. Moved to take action, he allies with an idealistic older man and ignites a revolution that soon spirals far out of control.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Spectacular Now

(A24) Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler . A popular BMOC in high school, the guy all the girls want to be with falls for the good girl. What begins as an unlikely romance blossoms into something deeper and more complicated than either one ever expected.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Coming of Age Drama

Rating: R (for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens)

Tekken


In the future, there won't be enough fabric left for shirts.

In the future, there won’t be enough fabric left for shirts.

(2010) Martial Arts (Anchor Bay) Jon Foo, Kelly Overton, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Ian Anthony Dale, Cung Lee, Darren Dewitt Henson, Luke Goss, Mircea Monroe, Tamlyn Tomita, Candice Hillebrand, Marian Zapico, Gary Daniels, John Pyper-Ferguson, Roger Huerta, Lateef Crowder, Monica Mal. Directed by Dwight H. Little

When Arcade Games ruled the earth back in the 80s, there was (and continues to be) a subgenre known as the fighting game. Some of these, including Double Dragon and Mortal Kombat lived to become film adaptations and it took almost 20 years but now so does Tekken. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Jin (Foo) is a young fatherless man living in 2039. World War III has decimated the population of the planet and rendered a good portion of it uninhabited. Corporations rules the world now and have divided the planet amongst themselves (which gives corporations more credit for co–operation than they probably deserve). North America is ruled by the Tekken Corporation, which in turn is ruled by Heihachi Mishima (Tagawa).

When Jin’s mother and martial arts mentor Jun (Tomita) is killed during a crackdown by Tekken’s security forces, known as the Jackhammers, Jin – who as a contraband runner was closer to the insurgents than Jun ever was – discovers in the wreckage of his home a badge identifying his mother as a fighter in the Iron Fist tournament which promises riches and fame for life for the winner. Intrigued, Jin decides to enter.

He finds the Tournament to be a mess of intrigue. Heihachi’s son Kazuya (Dale) who is also his right hand man, is plotting to take over the company from his son and is using the highly popular tournament to do it. Jin finds an ally in Christie Monteiro (Overton) and a mentor in Steve Fox (Goss), a former tournament champion who sponsors new fighters.

He’ll be going up against fighters like Miguel Rojo (Huerta) and Bryan Fury (Daniels) as well as other mainstays of the game. The rules of the game however are changing and growing more deadly. With the stakes higher than they’ve ever been can Jin defeat the powerful forces aligned against him and emerge a fighting champion?

This is a very basic outline of the plot which goes into a lot more detail which really is unfortunate. The game itself as I remember it – I don’t think I’ve played a version of it since the 90s – was very simple and straightforward. Quite frankly I’m not sure that fans of the game are looking for a plot that’s anywhere as near as complicated as this.

What they’re looking for are the fights and those are done pretty well. The filmmakers even incorporated some of the moves from the game which was much appreciated by this ex-player. The style is definitely very similar to the look of the game, although obviously adjusted for the big screen.

There is a pretty goodly amount of CGI but quite a bit of it is surprisingly subpar. At times the footage looks like a 15-20 year old computer game. Considering the size of the budget, it’s incomprehensible why the effects looked so cheesy. If I were the filmmakers, I’d have been suing somebody.

The acting is passable which is about what you’d expect in a videogame adaptation but even for that notoriously underachieving subgenre of movies, this is pretty awful. Why is it that when Hollywood takes a videogame and makes a movie out of it they feel it necessary to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator, or give it little or no support in terms of getting good scripts, good effects and so on. No wonder the makers of such obviously cinematic games as Halo and World of Warcraft have given the thumbs down to letting Hollywood have their hands on the properties they’ve worked so hard and spent so much time and money to develop properly. It shows little or no respect for the videogame audience which is kind of bizarre considering that gamers go to a lot of movies themselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nifty fight sequences. Cast gives a game effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really subpar CGI. A mess of a plot.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and brutality with a side order of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Iron Fist Tournament fights were staged at the Hirsch Memorial Coliseum at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport, Louisiana.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interesting Canadian television documentary on  stuntmen which was largely shot on the set of this film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $967,369 on a $30M production budget; this was a box office catastrophe.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mortal Kombat

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Lovely, Still

Pandorum


Pandorum

Dennis Quaid still has The Right Stuff.

(Overture) Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Andre Hennicke, Norman Reedus. Directed by Christian Alvart

It is inevitable that someday, barring some sort of technological fix, we will exhaust the resources of our planet and/or overpopulate it past the breaking point. This may well lead us to seek out a new home, but once we find it we may come to discover that not only are we amazingly adaptable mammals but we are also our own worst enemy.

Cpl. Bower (Foster) and Lt. Payton (Quaid) wake up from hypersleep aboard a gigantic space vessel called the Elysium. They have no memory of their mission or their journey, and only vague memories of a previous life on Earth. One thing they do know – there should be more people aboard the vessel. A lot more, in fact.

Mystery piles upon mystery. Where are they headed? What are they supposed to do when they get there? How long have they been asleep? They need to get into the command center to find the answers but they can’t – it seems the power is out and the ship’s reactor needs to get re-started. Payton decides to hang out by the command center while Bower goes off to fix the reactor.

As he descends into the bowels of the ship, Bower discovers that a horde of flesh-eating mutants rules there, with the few human survivors completely paranoid and violent. Bower begins to wonder if the space psychosis Pandorum – also known as Orbital Dysfunction Syndrome, a delusional paranoia complete with hallucinations that is caused by being in space too long and exacerbated from the process of awakening from hypersleep – may be at work on the crew. He also begins to wonder if Pandorum may be at work on him as well.

German director Alvart goes for a very dark look here, literally. With the power nearly gone, the lighting is dim in nearly every scene, so much so that the company that processed the film had the filmmakers sign a waiver that they wouldn’t be held responsible if the film was unwatchable. However, what you can see is magnificent, a kind of industrial Gothic that conjures of visions of Metropolis and Alien at the same time. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the filmmakers were very much influenced by the latter film, references to which are peppered throughout this movie. The production design makes this movie a visual treat.

One of the drawbacks is that the movie was constructed from two scripts that were similar in theme; cobbling together a movie out of parts like some sort of celluloid Frankenstein is almost never a good idea. However, it seems to have worked fairly seamlessly here for the most part.

Quaid has played spacemen so often he could do it in his sleep – reference The Right Stuff, Innerspace and Enemy Mine – and he kind of does so here. Aside from periodically barking into the intercom “Bower do you copy?” he is given very little to do. Fortunately, Foster gives a fine performance as the aforementioned Bower, a man a little bit terrified of what he doesn’t know but completely focused on the task at hand.

I get the distinct impression that there were two warring schools of thought behind this movie. The filmmakers intended to make a thoughtful science fiction movie laced with horror, while they were pressured instead to make a horror movie with a science fiction setting. The latter won out, and I think the movie is poorer for it; the albino space mutants don’t really break any ground, and the visceral horror is really at odds with the movie’s thoughtful tone. It’s a lot like listening to William F. Buckley telling fart jokes.

A note here; Alvart is very much taken with quick cuts, which means that at times you are going to feel like rewinding and playing back a scene because you’re sure you missed something. I have nothing against quick cuts when used reasonably, but not when used constantly – it gets irritating, like the filmmakers think I have a three second attention span. Of course, maybe they’re marketing this towards people who do have that kind of MTV generation video game instant gratification mentality.

The sad thing here is that the movie’s payoff doesn’t meet the expectations of the premise, which is actually a pretty good one. At just a hair under two hours, the movie drags quite a bit in the middle as well, and by the time the amply endowed Traue and mixed martial arts champion Le show up to amp up the action quotient, it’s far too late to rescue the film from its own psychohorror morass. However, it is a fascinating movie to watch at times, and Foster’s performance makes it worth sitting through some of the gratuitous gore. I suspect that if the filmmakers had made the movie they wanted to make, there’d be a higher rating at the bottom of this review.

WHY RENT THIS: Fantastic production design, alternately claustrophobic and grand in scale. Foster does a bang-up job, particularly in the first half.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Baddies look too much like the mutants in The Descent. The intent to be thoughtful science fiction is subverted by the reality of trying to be a visceral horror movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of bad language and some fairly horrific images. If you think your kid is ready for the Alien trilogy, they’re probably ready for this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Foster insisted on eating actual living insects rather than prop insects, dead insects or using digital effects (the other choices he was offered).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of decent shorts on both the DVD and Blu-Ray edition; one is an explanation of what happened to Nadia’s team (I’m sure you can guess) and the other is a simulated training video for prospective flight teams for the Elysian. The latter is actually a kind of interesting look into the backstory of Pandorum.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Sleep Dealer