Jason Statham and Jet Li prepare to face off in the tension-free climax.

(2007) Crime Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Devon Aoki, Kane Kosugi, Luis Guzman, Saul Rubinek, Ryo Ishibashi, Sung Kang, Nadine Velazquez, Andrea Roth, Matthew St. Patrick, Mark Cheng, Terry Chen. Directed by Phillip G. Atwell.

There are Asian martial arts movies, and then there are American martial arts movies. Asian ones tend to be way over the top, nonstop action sequences with plots that are almost an afterthought, more of an excuse to move the story from one action sequence to the next. American martial arts movies tend to be grim thrillers with double and triple crosses, lantern-jawed heroes and more guns than fisticuffs. 

War is an American martial arts movie with a pair of FBI agents – Crawford (Statham) and his partner Lone (Chen) who are monitoring a Triad smuggling operation into San Francisco when all Cleveland breaks out. Gunmen have come on the scene and turned it into a war zone. Lone wants to take a closer look, but the more cautious Crawford wants to wait for backup. Still, a closer look might not be a bad idea, so they go in and encounter a great deal of carnage. When Crawford spots a single bullet casing, he realizes that this is the work of the near-legendary assassin Rogue (Li), who was trained by the CIA and then turned on his handlers, becoming a mercenary for hire. By this time, however, it’s too late – Rogue shoots Crawford and is preparing to deliver the coup de gras when Lone rescues Crawford and shoots Rogue in the face, apparently killing him.

But of course, in an action movie, even people who are shot in the face don’t die, and a none-too-pleased Rogue pays Lone a visit, murdering his entire family and setting his home ablaze. Crawford is devastated by the fate of his partner.

Three years later, Crawford has obsessed over bringing the elusive Rogue to justice, but Rogue has fallen off the radar. His obsession has cost him his own marriage, as his wife (Roth) is happy to remind him. Still, even without Rogue, Crawford has a great deal to keep him busy. In addition to the Triads, run by Chang (Lone), the Japanese Yakuza have moved into the area, whose boss is the Japan-based Shiro (Ishibishi) who sends his daughter Kira (Aoki) to prepare his American operations for his arrival. 

Chang and Shiro are blood enemies; Shiro engineered the massacre of Chang’s family in Hong Kong and stole millions of dollars of art and artifacts from their home, all of which he has sold save for two ancient miniature statues of horses, made of gold. Shiro wants to sell these last two items as well, but nobody in Asia will buy them now that Chang has once again risen to prominence. So, he decides to sell them in America. Unfortunately, Rogue – now back on the scene – has apparently switched sides, having left Shiro’s employ for Chang’s. This act alone sets off a chain of events that leads to an all-out war between the Yakuza and the Triad, with many innocents caught in the crossfire. For Crawford, none of this matters – his chance to administer final justice to Rogue is at hand.

Where to begin here? This is a completely wasted opportunity. Statham and Li are two of the most charismatic action stars today, but most of their action sequences require little of them but to snarl and shoot. The script is a hodgepodge of action thriller cliches and forced twists and turns. The only real interesting twist here is Rogue’s identity (revealed in the final reel); the ending is terrible and essentially reveals that all the drama evolved from one of the main characters’ completely out-of-character actions. This plot point is so preposterous that you can only throw popcorn at the screen and boo or hiss, or whatever it is you do to reflect your displeasure at movie theaters. 

Statham and Li were both coming off of terrific performances, Li in Fearless and Statham in Crank, but they seem oddly flat here. The whole movie is building for their climactic encounter, but when it finally comes, it’s anticlimactic. There is almost no fighting nor is there any chemistry. Interestingly enough, the two would spend time on the same side in last summer’s The Expendables.

Atwell is making his feature debut; previously he directed music videos and quite frankly, he has problems keeping the story flowing over the length of the film. The whole subplot involving Benny (Guzman) and the plastic surgeon (Rubinek) is superfluous and unnecessary, much as having both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” in the same sentence is. While on the plus side he doesn’t have the tendency of most music video directors to use endless quick-cutting and surreal or symbolic passages, he doesn’t really show he has an aptitude for action.

That’s not to say that the movie is totally without merit. There are some nice sequences with Statham and his FBI team, and Aoki makes for a menacing baddie but for the most part, this is just wasted opportunity.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice sequences. Lots of bullets flying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little or no chemistry. Plot is too cliché or overloaded with twists. Ending is preposterous. Soundtrack is barely listenable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence, some of it fairly gruesome and also a good deal of sex, some of it fairly gruesome.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title for the movie was originally Rogue which Screen Gems changed to avoid confusion with a killer crocodile movie that Dimension was releasing more or less at the same time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track and a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even.


TOMORROW: Miss Potter


Mutant Chronicles

Take off, hoser!

Take off, hoser!

(Magnolia) Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, John Malkovich, Devon Aoki, Benno Furmann, Sean Pertwee, Anna Walton, Pras Michel, Tom Wu, Steve Toussaint, Luis Echegaray, Shauna Macdonald, Christopher Adamson. Directed by Simon Hunter.

The future is not a very nice place. The resources of our planet have all but been exhausted by the 28th century. No longer a planet divided into nations, the world is ruled by mega-corporations. There are only four left, more or less divided into geographical territories, and they fight over the scraps that Mother Earth has left.

One such battle takes place in Eastern Europe, where a strange seal is uncovered in the Earth. A stray shell cracks the seal and inadvertently re-activates a massive machine that has been dormant for thousands of years.

In the distant past, the machine had come from outer space without explanation and began mutating the human population into homicidal creatures whose sole purpose was to kill, or capture the remaining humans for mutation. An ancient hero managed to overcome the mutants and seal the machine in the depths of the earth, leaving behind a document that has been unknown to the general population but guarded by a group of monks who revere the Chronicles as scripture.

The mutant outbreak gets to be overwhelming – the corporate armies can’t withstand the onslaught of the mutants, whose arms have become deadly bone-blades. Major Mitch Hunter’s (Jane) unit barely survives – they wouldn’t have without the sacrifice of Mitch’s friend and mentor Nathan Rooker (Pertwee). The decision by the Earth’s erstwhile political leader Constantine (Malkovich) is to evacuate as much of the remaining people on Earth off-world to Mars. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough transports to evacuate everyone on time and massive panic erupts, with the accompanying studies in humanity’s baser emotions.

However, Brother Samuel (Perlman), one of the last remaining members of the Order that has guarded the Chronicles for so long, has a plan. He will lead a team into the Machine itself and plant there a weapon left behind that the Chronicle says will end the threat of the Mutants and the Machine forever.

An elite team of commandos from all four corporations are assembled, led by Major Hunter. His team includes the arrogant, elitist Lt. von Steiner (Furmann), the silent but deadly swordsman Severian (Walton), the easy-going Cpl. De Barrera (Echegaray) and the beautiful Cpl. Duval (Aoki). Together with Brother Samuel they journey to the location of the Machine, but quickly discover that even the skies aren’t safe from the rapidly evolving mutants. Can these few stand against the vast hordes of Mutants taking over our planet?

Hunter has crafted a visually arresting movie. There’s an excess of carnage – the Mutants kill with bladed arms, slicing and dicing a swath through the film’s endless supply of extras. The look has been described as “World War I meets Steampunk” and that’s quite accurate. It begs a few questions – how does a civilization that has the capability of off-world colonies rely so heavily on steam-powered vehicles that have gauges and valves instead of digital readouts and computers. And of course, the usual Hollywood bugaboo – if there is an ancient weapon capable of destroying the unbeatable foe, why wasn’t it used the first time out?

The cast is pretty impressive for an independent action movie. Perlman plays a character more akin to the Beast than to Hellboy (remember his work on the TV series “Beauty and the Beast”?). Jane, who has starred in such movies as Punisher and The Mist, is one of those actors who don’t seem to get the respect he deserves. His heroic Hunter tosses off one-liners that would do Schwarzenegger proud, and has the charisma to be a leading action star. Malkovich, who is only in a couple of scenes here, is typical Malkovich for his role. Aoki is, like Jane, an incomprehensibly underrated actress who doesn’t get the attention she should be getting.

The real star here however is production designer Caroline Greville-Morris. Her task was to create a society that is crumbling, advanced and yet without the resources to sustain it. Something tells me that she was given the directive to make it look deliberately like First World War trench warfare in the initial battle scenes, and it does, down to the uniforms of the corporate soldiers.

There is some CGI here, but it isn’t the centerpiece of the movie, which is amazing considering the subject matter. The mutants make excellent monsters, and their relentless, unremorseful bloodlust and rage are completely credible. I’m not that familiar with the pen-and-paper RPG that this is based on, but I’m assured it’s fairly faithful to the storyline of the game.

I didn’t expect to like The Mutant Chronicles as much as I did. This movie has been around since last year (it’s already seen release in Europe for nearly a year) but the producers have had difficulty securing an American distributor. Normally that sets off alarm bells in this critic’s brain. After finally cutting a deal with Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Releasing, Cuban made the odd decision to air the movie first on his HDNet cable channel before its theatrical release (which unfortunately has been limited to New York and Los Angeles). That’s a shame, because despite all its logical flaws, it is a highly entertaining sci-fi war film. I’d characterize it as The Dirty Dozen if written by John Carpenter and directed by George Romero. That’s pretty high praise in my book. In any case, if you get an opportunity to see it in a theater, or on HDNet, or eventually on DVD/Blu-Ray, by all means do so – you won’t regret it.

WHY RENT THIS: The WWI meets Steampunk production design is visually arresting. Fine performances by the leads, particularly the underrated Jane, are unexpectedly welcome. Truly menacing villains and some excellent battle sequences make this an exciting sci-fi war film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story has some severe logical flaws that at times take you out of the movie’s world. The carnage can get brain-numbing after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of carnage and foul language. The mutants are so unnerving that they’ll give younger viewers nightmares for weeks. Okay for older or more mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mutant Chronicles began life as a pen-and-paper role-playing game developed in Sweden.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An HD-Net making-of documentary, footage of the movie’s Comic-Con panel and a seven-minute teaser made by director Hunter to generate buzz and illustrate to his cast and crew what kind of mood he was looking for.


TOMORROW: The Wrestler