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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Olympus Has Fallen


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2013) Action (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Phil Austin, Robert Forster, Ashley Judd, James Ingersoll, Freddy Bosche, Lance Broadway, Malana Lee. Directed by Antoine Fuqua 

We’re pretty fat and happy here in the U.S., economic hardships notwithstanding. We’ve rarely felt the ravages of war and terrorism on our own soil. But as 9/11 proved, that can change in a heartbeat.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent with a Special Forces. He’s also a favorite of President Asher (Eckhart) and his family – First Lady Margaret (Judd) and son Colin (Jacobsen).  But a trip on a snowy road leaving Camp David would change that forever

Now Mike toils in the Treasury Department at a desk job he hates. His wife Leah (Mitchell) can’t understand why he seems so distant; she goes to her job as a nurse as he goes to work somewhat like an automaton. Meanwhile the world keeps on spinning; the North Koreans are gathering troops on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone and the Prime Minister of South Korea is coming to the White House to elicit support from the President.

Then all Hell breaks loose. A transport plane outfitted with advanced machine guns and countermeasures to keep it from getting shot down shoots up the Washington Mall, eventually getting hit by a missile from the White House. At length it crashes but not before taking out the top of the Washington Monument. But that was more or less just a diversionary tactic as the President is hustled down into a bunker below the White House itself and the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes under attack from crack troops superbly trained and brandishing state of the art weapons. The Secret Service and Marine detachment are decimated and to the horror and astonishment of the World, the White House is taken.

With the President, the Vice-President (Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Leo) all in the bunker, the Speaker of the House Trumbull (Freeman) assumes de facto control of the Presidency. Not a moment too soon either because the President is betrayed from within, and now he is a hostage along with all those in the bunker with him.

Kang (Yune), leader of the terrorists, is demanding that the U.S. withdraw all its troops from the DMZ and its warships from the Sea of China. But like everything before it, this is a diversionary tactic from his real objective which is far more sinister and horrible than anyone could imagine. But now that the White House is taken by a hostile force, can the President and his family and fellow hostages be rescued before Kang can carry out his nefarious plan?

Well, duh. You see, nobody counted on Banning making his way into the White House during the chaos. And nobody counted on Banning being the badass he was. But is he enough to save the day?

Well, duh. You’d better believe it. But this is one of those action movies that even though you know deep down in your bones how it’s going to come out, you still sit on the edge of your seat throughout because it’s so skillfully set up and directed.

Butler has already earned his action hero spurs in 300. He cements his status here, showing capable fighting skills and doing some pretty impressive badassery in general. Unfortunately, the writers try to turn him into John McClane a little in the second half of the film which really doesn’t work. Butler is no Bruce Willis and frankly we don’t need another one – we’ve got the original after all. That minor complaint aside, Butler carries the movie nicely.

That the movie resembles Die Hard in DC has been commented upon pretty much by every critic who’s commented at all; I won’t go any further with it except to say that if they’re going to choose an action movie to resemble, they couldn’t have done better.

Fuqua is a capable director (see Training Day if you don’t believe me) but the writing doesn’t measure up to his skills. There are a lot of things that had Da Queen and I staring at each other in disbelief – I find it hard to believe that the government of this country would endanger millions of Korean and U.S. citizens to rescue the President, particularly if the Speaker was in charge (and I can only imagine how quickly Jim Boehner would throw President Obama under the bus if he were in the same situation – probably as quickly as Nancy Pelosi would have done so for President Bush). It is my impression that once the transfer of power has been completed, the President becomes an ordinary citizen. It’s the office of the President that is protected, not the person.

The movie is also hellaciously manipulative. I will admit I felt a pang when the White House is taken; it’s not unlike seeing your favorite pet kicked by someone from another neighborhood. You feel outrage not to mention plain old rage. I was surprised how much the scene effected me. Of course, at the end of the movie the Red Staters I live with were cheering loudly. When times are tough, it’s comforting to know that America still kicks ass in the movies, folks.

REASONS TO GO: Solid action film with a nice premise (although this is the first of two movies this year with the same basic plot). Butler is a terrific action hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Save the kid subplot bogs down the middle third. Extremely manipulative ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and pretty foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cole Hauser and Radha Mitchell previously worked together in Pitch Black. They share no screen time together here however, although Hauser is once again playing a “federal agent” (he played a Marshall in the earlier film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics can’t make up their mind about this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air Force One

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ceremony

New Releases for the Week of November 2, 2012


November 2, 2012

WRECK-IT RALPH

(Disney) Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling, Adam Corolla, Horatio Sanz, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg. Directed by Rich Moore

Ralph is a videogame villain who for decades has been overshadowed by Fix-It Felix who always gets to save the day. Ralph longs to be a good guy but will never be one as long as he is overshadowed by Felix, so he decides to find a game where he can do good. Unfortunately, in his quest he inadvertently releases an evil that threatens the entire arcade. Can Ralph be the hero he dreams of being and save the arcade? It’s a Disney film so I’m thinking “yes.”

See the trailer, promos, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some rude humor and mild action/violence)

Flight

(Paramount) Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood. An airline pilot becomes a national hero when he pulls off an impossible maneuver to land a crippled plane. That adulation quickly turns to something different when his blood work taken from the accident site reveals that he had alcohol in his system during the fatal flight.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)

The Man With the Iron Fists

(Universal) Russell Crowe, RZA, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune. A mysterious stranger arrives in a remote Chinese village to become the village blacksmith. Rival clans within the village force him to forge elaborate weapons of war. When the simmering feud goes nuclear over a shipment of gold, the stranger forges a weapon of his own, channeling an ancient power to fight alongside iconic heroes against soulless villains. The fate of the village rests on his ability to harness that power and control it.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: R (for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use)

Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

Oh, I've seen Fire and I've seen Rain...

(2009) Martial Arts Action (Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang, Kylie Goldstein. Directed by James McTeigue

There are certain movies that you really can’t complain about. For example, this one; the title tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re going to get. You can’t watch it and then bitch about the plot and the acting. The whole point of the movie is to have guys in black pajamas slice and dice each other and fly through the air like moths. Really, that’s the only standard a movie should be held to in reality. Still, one can dream of a little more to a movie than that, right?

Raizo (Rain) is a lethal assassin, trained from childhood (some would say abused) in the art of killing people silently and unseen by the Ozunu clan, the deadliest assassins in Japan. Their compound, high in the mountains of Japan, has never been seen by an outsider and the mere knowledge of their existence can mean death in a most painful and bloody way. Laughing at their rumored existence, well, that’s just plain stupid as a few yakuza toughs find out in the opening sequence.

However, Raizo has a bone to pick with his clan; they executed his girlfriend (Goldstein) in a most gruesome manner (which would tend to piss anybody off) and now they’re all after his ass. Raizo, the deadliest and nastiest of them, is out to topple their empire, aided by a couple of thumb-twiddling Interpol cops, Mika (Harris) and Ryan (Miles). However, Raizo has violated a cardinal rule of the ninja – something akin to rule #1, don’t talk about Fight Club. Now the clan’s leader, Ozunu (Kosugi) and his number two son Takeshi (Yune) have a real need to dismember Raizo and you just know it’s going to end badly for somebody.

This was produced by the Washowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) and directed by McTeigue, who previously helmed V for Vendetta which I think is a much better film than this. Part of the problem of a movie about ninja assassins is the whole conceit that they melt in and out of the shadows; by necessity the movie must be then underlit to provide said shadows, which makes seeing the fight sequences difficult at times. That’s a shame because some of the choreography is pretty damn good.

Yes, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the acting in a movie like this (I did mention it earlier) but I do have to at least point out that I found Harris unbelievable as an Interpol agent (do Interpol agents scream like little girls whenever an assassin shows up?) and that the acting is a bit stiff in general. Rain, the Korean pop star, is more adept at dancing and singing than he is at slicing and dicing, but he performs solidly enough in his fight sequences. He showed immense potential in Speed Racer as a double-dealing race car driver which isn’t delivered on here. Harris was in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and was far more effective in those, so I know both of them are capable of better than they delivered here.

Sho Kosugi is one of the most revered and beloved figures in Japanese action films (particularly of the samurai variety) of the last 30 years. While known mostly to Asian cinema aficionados in the States, he brings a certain gravitas here that is quite frankly wasted. He’s well into his 60s but he can still kick patootey without breaking much of a sweat. Personally, I think he’s worth seeing even in a movie that isn’t.

Something tells me that this movie was a victim of studio over-involvement. A last minute re-write was called for and delivered in a two and a half day turn-around which allowed the movie to make its tight delivery date after which brilliant studio executives promptly delayed its release for almost a year. Really, when dealing with ninja movies it would be a wise studio executive that doesn’t get too involved with the nuts and bolts; the simpler, the better in terms of plot for these kinds of things and its best just to let your fight choreographer and director just go to town; this movie is at its best when they do just that.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very fine martial arts sequences here. It’s always a pleasure to see Kosugi, one of the underrated stars of Asian cinema.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is as wooden as it gets. There are times that the story drags, particularly in the middle. Penalty for overuse of flashbacks. Too many fight scenes lose their effectiveness because they’re badly lit.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a movie of this nature, there’s a boatload of violence and a smattering of foul language. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski did the re-write of the original script which was, in an unusual move, approved by Warner Brothers without notes and shipped into the actor’s hands within a week.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a nice feature on ninjas and the mythology behind them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.6M on a production budget of $40M; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Intermission

New Releases for the Week of November 27, 2009


New Release Preview 11/27/09

It's hard to believe these guys are old dogs now.

OLD DOGS

(Disney) John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Seth Green, Ella Bleu Travolta, Conner Rayburn, Lori Loughlin, Matt Dillon, Bernie Mac. Directed by Walt Becker

From the director of Wild Hogs comes this new comedy that similarly involves older men in a younger man situation. In this case, two successful businessmen on the verge of closing the biggest deal of their careers are derailed by the revelation that one of them is in fact a father and at one of the most critical junctures in their negotiations, will be babysitting his newfound brood. As will happen around kids, chaos ensues.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

(Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flannery, Clifton Collins, Julie Benz. This is the sequel to the cult classic penned by Troy Duffy (the making of which was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Overnight). The brothers MacManus who have been taking it easy in Ireland since the events of the first film find themselves compelled to return to the mean streets of Boston when a priest is brutally gunned down.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for bloody violence, language and some nudity)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Fox Searchlight) Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray. From the minds of the late novelist Roald Dahl and director Wes Anderson (Rushmore) comes this animated feature that pits a clever, tricky fox against three brutal but not-so-bright farmers.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for action, smoking and slang humor)

Ninja Assassin

(Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune. Taken from the streets as a child by the legendary but lethal Ozunu Clan and trained as an assassin, Raizo becomes one of the deadliest killers on the planet. However he butts heads with the clan and is forced to vanish. Now, he finds an Interpol agent who has stumbled upon one of the secrets of the Ozunu Clan and is marked for death. He must protect her – and himself – from the world’s most skilled assassins and try to find a way to bring the clan down for good. This stylized anime/video game hybrid is from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language)

The Road

(Weinstein) Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Kody Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron. After a global catastrophe kills nearly all life on earth and ends civilization as we know it, a father and his son make their way across a barren, dangerous landscape trying to avoid predators of the natural and unnatural kind in an effort to make it to the coast and survival. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, this post-Apocalyptic thriller boasts an all-star cast.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for some violence, disturbing images and language)