The Killer (1989) (Dip huet seung hung)


A Hong Kong standoff.

A Hong Kong standoff.

(1989) Crime Drama (Circle) Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong, Siu-Hung Ng, Yamson Domingo, Siu Hung Ngan, Kwong Leung Wong, Simon Broad (voice), Dion Lam, Chung Lin, Hung Lu, Pierre Tremblay (voice), Hsiang Lin Yin  Directed by John Woo

There are those who are big fans of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s who will tell you that maybe the seminal film of that era and that place is John Woo’s The Killer. At the time it was hailed by the Western press as a masterpiece even though it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office at the time as it was released shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the finest films ever to be produced in Hong Kong.

Ah Jong (Fat) is a hitman for the Hong Kong triads. However, he is getting out of the business, having lost the taste for it and plans to retire after one last job. It goes off pretty well but during the fracas, a pretty nightclub singer named Jenny (Yeh) is injured by the muzzle flash from Ah Jong’s gun when his gun goes off next to her eyes. She will need an expensive corneal transplant or will eventually lose her sight completely.

Ah Jong feels a certain amount of guilt over the incident and begins hanging out at the nightclub to hear the singer, whose sight has become so poor that she doesn’t recognize him. He witnesses an attempted mugging on the singer and drives off the bandits. Afterwards, he escorts her home and eventually the two begin to fall in love. Ah Jong resolves to get her the transplant to save her sight and in order to do so, he contacts his Triad handler Fung Sei (Kong Chu) to set up one last hit, the proceeds for which should be more than enough to pay for Jenny’s operation.

At the Hong Kong dragon boat celebration he assassinates an industrialist. However, he is observed by maverick Hong Kong police detective Li Ying (Lee), who along with his partner Tsang Yeh (Tsang) begin closing in on the assassin. The Triad boss, the ruthless Hay Wong Hoi (Shing) refuses to pay Ah Jong what he owes him and puts out a hit on his former employee. Not a smart idea. Ah Jong isn’t about to go down quietly and together with Fung Sei determine to take what is his. Li becomes intrigued with the assassin when he rushed a child, hit by incidental gunfire during the shootout, to a hospital but by doing so gets caught in the middle of the war between Ah Jong and the Triad. One thing is certain; bullets are going to fly.

The violence here is stylish, influenced by such American auteurs as Scorsese and Peckinpah. The final shootout takes place in a church that is in the process of being renovated; noted cinematographer Peter Pau and his co-cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong use doves, a Woo trademark (although this was the first film he would use them in) with a gauzy focus to make the setting somewhat ethereal; a purgatory in which the protagonists will go either to heaven or to hell.

Chow Yun Fat is one of the most charismatic and able actors to ever come out of Asia. although as of late he hasn’t appeared in many films that have made it to the States he has continued to be one of the most in-demand actors in the East. He demonstrates his screen presence here, using his athleticism to good advantage particularly in the gun battles.

The relationship between Ah Jong and Detective Li is crucial to the film’s success and the relationship goes from antagonists to grudging respect to close friends in a short time. That might seem laughable to Western audiences but it feels organic. I will admit that seeing the film a second time 25 years after originally seeing it during its first American theatrical run that the film doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it might; some of the dialogue comes off as clunky and there is a cheesy factor that I don’t remember from my first viewing, when I was extremely impressed and became a lifelong devotee to Hong Kong-produced films ever since. Woo himself had to make some compromises due to run-ins with his producer, the legendary Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Hark is a man of strong opinions and the two butted heads over things like the soundtrack. Woo wanted Jenny to be a singer of sultry jazz songs but Hark didn’t think Asian audiences would like that and insisted that she sing Chinese pop songs. For the record, Woo was right.

The Killer has been a tremendous influence on action films in general; echoes of various scenes can be seen in just about every action film made since, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Luc Besson and Antoine Fuqua. Sure, there are some cultural aspects that may seem foreign to American audiences but the action sequences by themselves are worthy of study, particularly for the serious aficionado of action movies. While I left my more recent viewing less impressed than I had been after my first, I had to remind myself that many of the sequences have been so imitated that they seem less incredible now than when I first saw it, when I have to say without reservation that I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In many ways, it still can be said about this movie – it is an amazing piece of filmmaking and anyone who seriously loves movies should make the effort to see this film at some point; it is required viewing for any understanding of action movies and non-American cinema.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully choreographed action. Fine performance by Chow Yun Fat. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated. Some of the dialogue is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: An incredible amount of violence, mostly bloodless although there are a couple of disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of foul language and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The subtitles were so badly translated during the first American theatrical run that the film was mistakenly promoted as a comedy..
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Dragon Dynasty DVD/Blu-Ray version includes a location guide. Surprisingly, the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition contained no notable extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and streaming)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Leatherheads

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The Raid 2 (The Raid 2: Berandal)


Talk about Hell's Kitchen...

Talk about Hell’s Kitchen…

(2014) Action (Sony Classics/Stage 6) Iwo Uwais, Julie Estelle, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Yayan Ruhian, Donny Alamsyah, Alex Abbad, Tio Pakusodewo, Cecep Arif Rahman, Ken’ichi Endo, Ryuhei Matsuda, Very Tri Yulisman, Marsha Timothy, Kazuki Kitamura, Epy Kusnandar, Cok Simbara, Roy Marten, Fikha Effendi, Hecky Solaiman, Zack Lee. Directed by Gareth Evans

Action movies have evolved over the years because we have changed over the years. Bombarded by videogames and the frenetic martial arts movies from the Far East, the old Hollywood action films have become more and more dinosaur-like particularly as our action heroes have aged.

The Raid: Redemption, filmed with Indonesian actors by Welsh director Gareth Evans, sought to set that evolution spinning into something new and proceeded to do just that. While some decried the lack of character development (legit) and sneered at the non-stop barrage of bloody fight scenes and action sequences (not so legit), the movie has had an effect on action films the world over and is in line to be remade Hollywood style.

The sequel has now hit American shores and is it more of the same? Yes and no. Rama (Uwais), the rookie cop from the first Raid is pulled aside by Andi (Alamsyah), the leader of a small underground task force and warned that he and his family will now be targets of those above the vicious gang lord of the first film. He will be willing to protect Rama’s family – provided that Rama goes undercover in one of the major gangs in Jakarta. In order to get in, Rama will have to go to jail and make friends with Uco (Putra), the pretty boy son of Bangun (Pakusodewo), the aging crime lord. Rama winds up spending two years in prison, but manages to save Uco’s life during a muddy prison riot which was meant to be a diversion so that inmates could assassinate Uco.

Upon release a grateful Bangun offers Rama a position as a goon, complete with new clothes and a new small but expensive apartment. Rama will be assigned to Uco but under the watchful eye of Eka (Antara), the second-in-command in the organization. Uco is eager to take over the family business but has a bit of a temper problem so Bangun deems his son unready, further chapping Uco’s posterior. Bangun has kept the peace with Japanese Yakuza leader Goto (Endo) but the two rivals are always a heartbeat from war. Ambitious new player Bejo (Abbad) looks to play one side against the other with Rama caught in the middle.

There is a little more plot and character development here, but oddly none of it regarding Rama who we discover little more of than we knew from the first film. Instead, the movie tends to put more personality in the side players, including flashing killers like Hammer Girl (Estelle) whose talents are self-explanatory, Baseball Bat Man (Yulisman) whose talents are likewise self-explanatory and martial arts expert Prakoso (Ruhian) who just wants to bond with his estranged daughter.

Some of the stunts and fights here are epic – a lengthy car chase is one of the best on film since Bullitt and The French Connection  and the fight between Rama and the Assassin (Rahman) in a restaurant kitchen is the very best in either film. However, the movie suffers from a martial arts film cliche – solo fight syndrome. Other than one scene in the prison, every fight has a group of bad guys take on Rama one by one and of course he kicks the ass of each thug in turn. And of course there is the other lapse in logic, a complaint I have not just with this film but other martial arts films in general. To wit; these are all gangsters. You would expect them to have access to guns. So why do none of them carry any? One well-placed gunshot is going to trump anybody, no matter how skilled a fighter they may be.

The movie does slow down somewhat during the expository scenes, but Evans seems to be taking cues from Scorsese in setting up his gangs which is a good thing. Uwais, a mixed martial arts pro, also makes for a charismatic action hero but his acting skills are somewhat limited, although he is much better here than he was in the first film. I can see him becoming a legitimate action star a la Jet Li and Jackie Chan with some further experience.

At nearly two and a half hours, the movie is a little bit on the long side and fills up much of the time with fight scenes that seem more forced and repetitive of the others in the film  – Rama encounters a group of goons and then beats them up as they attack. One. By. One. Still, if you don’t mind sitting through a few redundant action vignettes, you’ll be rewarded by the last third of the film which is well worth sitting through the first hour and a half for. While I don’t know that this is necessarily better than the first film which added a claustrophobic element that is missing here, in the final accounting the good outweighs the not-so-good here and for those who love martial arts and gangster movies with plenty of action, this is manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking action sequences and stunts. Compelling storyline that has some elements of Scorsese in it. Uwais a legitimate action star.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many repetitive and unnecessary fight scenes. Too many gangster film cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of violence and bloodshed, some of it extreme. There’s also some foul language and brief sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually written before the preceding The Raid: Redemption but the Malaysian producers thought it would be too expensive to make, so it was shelved in favor of the lower budgeted one. When that became a massive hit, the script was rewritten slightly to insert the main character of The Raid: Redemption in as the main character here.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dredd

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Mission Congo

The Wolverine


Hugh Jackman is pissed off they started shooting the new X-Men movie without him.

Hugh Jackman is pissed off they started shooting the new X-Men movie without him.

(2013) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Famke Janssen, Brian Tee, Will Yun Lee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Ken Yamamura, Nobutaka Aoyagi, Seiji Funamoto, Shinji Ikefuji, Qyoko Kudo, Nobuaki Kakuda, Chiharu Mizuno, Conrad Coleby, Taris Tyler. Directed by James Mangold

Nobody wants to live forever. Just ask somebody who actually might, like Logan – better known as the Wolverine (Jackman).

He is in self-imposed exile, sleeping in the frigid cold and rain, staying away as much as possible from other humans. After the death of his love Jean Grey (Janssen) at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand he has come to realize that he is going to watch everyone and everything he loves die, and in some cases be responsible for those deaths. Eternity can be long and slow and painful.

But he is found by a red-headed perky Japanese woman named Yukio (Fukushima) who is quite handy with a blade herself. She’s got that mischievous schoolgirl quality that Japanese women are fond of cultivating these days but she has an offer for Logan – to accompany her to Japan to bid farewell to her employer, Yashida (Yamanouchi) who had been a guard at the POW camp Logan had been interred in near Nagasaki and whose kindness had saved Logan’s life – a favor which the Wolverine felt obliged to return.

Yashida is dying but his doctor – who we will come to know as the Viper (Khodchenkova) – has discovered a way to transfer Logan’s mutant healing power to Yashida. Logan is skeptical and decides to pass. As he stays the night he meets Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Okamoto) whose brutal father Shingen (Sanada) will inherit the multi-billion dollar tech company Yashida built.

But Yashida had other plans for his money  and his company – he means to leave them to his granddaughter which throws things up into disarray. The Japanese Yakuza stage an attack at a sacred ritual in an attempt to kidnap Mariko. She is protected by her childhood friend and expert archer Harada (Lee) but  the numbers are overwhelming and Logan, who had sworn to forego his heroic past is sucked into the fray.

Based on one of the most popular storylines of the Wolverine’s four-color career, this portrayal of the X-Man is to my mind the closest to how the character behaves in the comic book. Not only did Jackman bulk up severely (which I’m sure the ladies will appreciate during his many shirtless scenes) but he is accessing a darker side of the character; not quite the anti-hero he would become but certainly a character with a rigid code that is mirrored by that of the Japanese samurai and ninja codes.

Unfortunately not all of the other characters hold up to Jackman’s Wolverine, particularly Mariko whose character is a typical damsel in distress. Of course, Wolverine develops a thing for her but for the life of me I can’t really figure out why. Rebound relationship, I guess. Yukio is far more interesting and in many ways, more suitable as a romantic partner for Logan but love doesn’t always go in the obvious direction.

There are plenty of terrific action sequences, particularly a chase scene on a bullet train in which Wolverine and several Yakuza assassins do battle on top of the train whizzing at 300 mph through Tokyo. It’s one of the most edge-of-your-seat action sequences you’re likely to see all year. There are several others which are nearly as good.

Unfortunately there are also long dry spells in which Logan seems to be recovering from injuries (his healing abilities are compromised during the film) and time after time we see blurry pictures of a wobbly Wolverine as he comes close to passing out. No mas, amigos.

While some of the conceits of the movie stretch believability quite a bit, still this is a slam-bang action movie that not only fleshes out the character of Logan quite a bit but also explores mortality and the culture of honor which is often circumvented by ambition. While standouts have been few this summer, this is a solid action movie that will keep you well-entertained and might resonate enough to warrant adding it to your home video collection when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Better and more faithful to the four color version of Wolverine. Amazing action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Silly in places. Drags a bit. Mariko comes off as bland.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, a small amount of gore, some sexuality and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is being released in Japan a month after it is in most of the rest of the world to avoid coming out near the anniversary of Nagasaki which figures heavily in the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Rain

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring