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

Kill Bill: Vol. 2


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Uma Thurman is astonished to find a white-haired Chinese master growing out of the end of her stick.

(2004) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sid Haig, Perla Haney-Jardine, Caitlin Keats, Jeannie Epper, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Stephanie L. Moore, Shana Stein. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

The first Kill Bill was an action-heavy revenge flick that sent the Bride (Thurman) after her fellow members of an elite assassination squad who had participated in murdering her groom at the altar, massacring everyone in attendance at the wedding and leaving her for dead. She is working her way up to Bill (Carradine), the leader of the squad and her former lover.

First she’s going after Budd (Madsen), aka Sidewinder, Bill’s brother and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. However, after the demises of the various members in the first film, Budd is waiting for her with a double barreled shotgun packed with rock salt. The force of the blast knocks out the Bride, whom Budd proceeds to bury alive. He offers to sell the Hattori Hanzo sword she had made in the first film to Elle Driver (Hannah) aka California Mountain Snake for a million bucks. However, Elle double crosses him and leads a deadly Black Mamba viper in the satchel with the cash, which bites Budd and finishes him off.

However, the Bride during her training with Pai Mei (G. Liu) – told in flashbacks – learned how to break wooden planks with her bare hands from short distances away (most martial artists use the full extension of their arms to break boards) and she does so, allowing her to break the planks and claw through the dirt to freedom.

More than a little hacked off she returns to the double wide where Budd shot her and finds him dead there with Elle still there gathering up her cash and the sword. The Bride gets in an epic battle with the one-eyed Elle and eventually beats her, plucking out her remaining eye and leaving her for the Mamba which is loose in the trailer.

Now it is time for her to take on her nemesis, her former lover and former employer. When she finally meets up with Bill, things won’t go as expected; she’ll be forced to confront some truths about herself and about her life and make peace with who she is before she can Kill Bill.

If anything, this is even better than the first film which was a non-stop action funfest that paid homage to nearly every genre of modern grindhouse movie imaginable, from samurai films, wu shu epics,  blaxploitation to anime. This one has a few more homages but to be honest, this is where the meat and potatoes of the storytelling lies. It is here where you get the emotional payoff that the first movie was leading up to.

Thurman is less robotic here and while she isn’t the most expressive actress ever, this is one of her better performances. Carradine, the “Kung Fu” veteran who had largely been forgotten in the 90s showing up in cameo appearances in cheesy exploitation films, gives the performance of his career here. Mainly an off-screen presence in the first film, he shows both the tender and murderous sides of his character, and demonstrates the cunning that  a hunter of human beings would have. The conversation between him and his former lover that makes up most of the end of the film is really one of the most compelling confrontations in cinematic history – and there really isn’t a whole lot of action going for it, but what action there is pays off big time.

The two films do stand alone pretty well individually, but really to get the maximum effectiveness from Vol. 2 you have to at least have some knowledge from Vol. 1. Those who haven’t seen the first film at all may be a little bit lost throughout the film and certainly the emotional wallop of the last scenes won’t be as intense.

Although Tarantino has gone on to direct some amazing films both before this and after it, to my way of thinking this remains his magnum opus and maybe the masterpiece that will always define his career. What distinguishes him here is that while he has always been a fan of movies first and foremost, he never loses sight of the power of good storytelling. In other words, he doesn’t just mimic a few genres for film geek cred; he understands what makes those genres work and links them together with a story of epic grandeur, one that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman wronged is nobody you want to mess with.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most amazing action films of all time. Carradine gives a career-reviving performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You really need to at least be familiar with Vol. 1 in order to appreciate this.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with the first volume, there is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language; there’s also a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two volumes were always meant to be seen as one film. However, it has only been screened as such just twice – at Cannes and then in 2010

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a performance from the movie’s premiere by Chingon, the band fronted by director Robert Rodriguez (who contributed some music for the film).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $152.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Kill Bill: Vol. 1


Kill Bill Vol. 1

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

(2003) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is hipper than just about everybody, and he knows it. That’s OK, though; the guy knows movies. He understands the art that is the “B” movie, the kind of stuff at which most critics turn up their noses, or use to play the trash hip.

Kill Bill is Tarantino’s magnum opus, a loving tribute to movies he loves and admires, from Japanese samurai flicks to film noir to anime to blaxploitation to Hong Kong martial arts movies. And he delivers it with impeachable visual sense and a crafty sense of humor. The movie is so long and complex that it was divided into two separate movies and released a year apart. While that can be absolutely fatal for certain films that have tried much the same thing (I’m looking at you, last two movies of the Matrix trilogy), the two Kill Bill films each stand on their own.

The story: The Bride (Thurman) used to be Black Mamba, a lethal assassin and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, but has decided to leave the business and get married. Bill (Carradine, whose face is never seen in the first film), her former employer, disagrees and appoints her former cohorts Copperhead (Fox), Cottonmouth (Liu), California Mountain Snake (Hannah) and Sidewinder (Madsen) to send his regards. After a savage beating of the Bride and her Groom, Bill delivers the coup de grace – a bullet to her head – personally.

Fast forward four years. The Bride awakens to find everyone she loves murdered and her life over. Having been an assassin, she decides to put her talents to use against those who wronged her, leading up to her former employer. As she goes after each member of the squad, she is aided by a retired Japanese sword maker, Hattori Hanzo (Chiba), who makes her a special weapon to use in her quest.

The story is not told sequentially; it begins at the second name on her death list and goes from there. Tarantino’s jumping around in time makes sense; the first name on the list, Cottonmouth – otherwise known as O-Ren Ishii, is the more spectacular and difficult “hit” of the two presented here, and makes a far more fitting finale for this volume than would the second, which is almost anti-climactic.

Tarantino also divides the movie into chapters, with each in a different genre; from the Samurai style (the sword making sequence) to anime (the Cottonmouth backstory), blaxploitation (the Copperhead sequence) and a good, old-fashioned Hong Kong swordfight (The House of the Blue Leaves sequence that closes the film).

At each turn, Tarantino pays tribute to heroes and genres of the ’60s and ’70s, from the casting of Carradine, Liu and Chiba to the use of Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit (from his final film Game of Death) in the House of Blue Leaves chapter (of course, it’s not the actual tracksuit).

Part of the mandate for Tarrantino here is to inspire people to see the second portion of the movie, and he does that. There are interesting twists, and the fight sequences are nothing short of astonishing, particularly the House of Blue Leaves portion, and the one-on-one dual between Liu and Thurman that follows immediately thereafter. There is some wire work, yes, but it’s kept to a minimum.

The violence is gratuitous and often graphic, although sometimes almost cartoonish in nature. There are a few moments that will make squeamish sorts squirm (particularly the aftermath of the Blue Leaves portion) but the blood that fountains out of the Bride’s victims is thinner than water, for what may be a subtle joke by the filmmaker.

Thurman is almost wooden, which I think is purposeful. Her beauty and glamour are stripped away in favor of a soulless killing machine, for whom revenge has become the single point of life. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the actors either join Thurman in emotion-free fashion (Liu) or are so over the top you’d think they were making an assault on Everest (Hannah, Fox). Veterans Chiba and Carradine give restrained performances. Chiba shows why many consider him to be a gem of cinematic history. Liu, who often shows up as the old wise man with flowing white eyebrows in chop sockey films, plays much the same part.

This is a movie I admire more than I like, although I like it a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. Da Queen said that she felt like she was in a room full of master painters — Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Rembrandt — and she had only crayons. Tarantino’s massive knowledge of film is put to good use here.

This isn’t so much a tribute, or homage as an attempt to wrap all these diverse styles into one coherent story to make a new art form, and it works most of the time. One of the calculated risks Tarantino took when he agreed to splice his film in two is that some may wind up liking the first volume only after seeing the second, and some may wind up confused or overwhelmed enough by the first to completely skip the second. That would be a shame. There will be more on the second volume in a future edition of Cinema365 but let’s just say that both movies work best in tandem with one another and while each stands alone on their own, it’s like having peanut butter without jam on your sandwich. Good, but could be better.

If you love exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, or even if you don’t, this is one of the finest action movies to come out in the first decade of the 21st century. The more often I see it, the more I like it and that certainly marks it as a classic film.

WHY RENT THIS: House of Blue Leaves sequence one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Tarantino’s extensive knowlege of genre films is utilized perfectly. Seeing faded action stars like Chiba, Carradine and Gordon Liu does the heart good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the acting is a bit wooden. The dizzying array of styles may be too much for most.

FAMILY VALUES: This is as graphically violent and bloody a movie as you’re likely to see. There are a few bad words and some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The start of production was delayed due to Uma Thurman’s pregnancy. Tarantino never considered recasting; the part of The Bride was intended for her and her alone.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos by The 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s, the Japanese band that played during the House of Blue Leaves sequence.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster through and through.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Game of Death

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted