The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

The Scythian Lamb (Hitsuji no ki)


….but the seafood is GREAT!!!

(2017) Drama (Asmik Ace) Ryo Nishikido, Fumino Kimura, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kazuki Kitamura, Yuka, Mikako Ichikawa, Shingo Mizusawa, Min Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Tamae Ando, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Toshiyuki Kitami, Miyako Yamaguchi, Shinsuke Suzuki, Sansho Shinsui, Yota Kawase, Masatoshi Kihara, Tsuyoshi Nakano, Daihi, Noa Miyake. Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

The rehabilitation of criminals can be a tricky thing. After all, there are all sorts of criminals; those who commit crimes by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; those who have a compulsion; those who fall in to the wrong crowd and some who just plain like being bad.

Like many other rural towns in Japan, Uobuka is having difficulties maintaining their population as many Japanese citizens are emigrating from the countryside to the big cities. The mayor of Uobuka has struck a deal with the Japanese prison system which is dealing with overcrowding to house six criminals who are considered low-risk; they are to be paroled early and send to Uobuka to live provided they stay there at least ten years.

A minor civic functionary, the handsome and somewhat enthusiastic nebbish Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) is assigned to get all six of the new residents settled. He greets all of them enthusiastically, remarking that Uobuka is a nice place…with nice people…and great seafood.

The first arrival, Hiroki Fukimoto (Mizusawa) seems rather nervous and when treated to dinner, eats like he had been lost in the wilderness without food or water for days. He is given a job at the local barber shop. My first instinct upon seeing him was “who in their right mind would trust this guy with scissors?”

Next comes the beautiful and sexy Reiko Ota (Yuka) who gets work at the local senior center. Hajime likes her just fine…until she strikes up a romance with his own dad! Shigeru Ono (Tanaka) is ex-Yakuza and wants to stay that way, reacting violently to a recruiting visit by his ex-colleagues.

Kiyomi Kurimoto (Ichikawa) seems rather tightly wound; she has an affinity for cleaning…and burying things in the garden. Katsushi Sugiyama (Kitamura) looks to be the bad boy of the bunch; he is unrepentant and with his shark-like grin gets bored almost the instant he gets into town and starts looking for trouble.

The one exception to the bunch seems to be Ichiro Miyakoshi (Matsuda) who comes off as gentle and friendly. After being placed in a delivery courier position (in a distinctive blue and yellow van no less), he and Hajime become friends which isn’t a bad thing; after all, Hajime has a bit of a double life, going from respectable city functionary to being part of a garage rock band on weekends. When Ichiro shows up wanting to learn how to play guitar, Hajime is fine with it. When he starts hitting on Aya (Kimura) who was the high school crush of Hajime (and lead guitarist in his band), things get a little awkward.

They get even more awkward when Hajime discovers that all six were convicted of murder and when someone shows up murdered…well, the fish guts are about to hit the fan, particularly when another functionary finds out their secret and enlists them all to participate in the Nororo festival, a tribute to an ancient sea creature who once terrorized the town, leading to a tradition of two people being thrown off the cliffs into the sea; Nororo would take one, leaving the other to survive.

Yoshida has rafted a wonderfully off-kilter movie that although ostensibly a drama has elements of noir, black comedy and slice-of-life coming of age film all woven in. The Uobuka looks like a pretty nice place to live which although the running joke of Hajime’s exhortations about the quality of life may get old they are nonetheless dead on which is part of the joke.

The performances here are really rather good. Each of the various parolees has a distinct personality and they each get their own moments to shine. Nishikido, known more for his music career than his acting, shows that he has the chops to make it in the movies on both sides of the Pacific. He doesn’t do a lot of singing even in the garage band sequences but he has plenty of presence nonetheless. Oddly, most of the score is less pop or rock oriented but is a kind of discordant minimalism that actually works better in getting across the “something is not quite right” vibe that this film brings to life wonderfully.

While the New York Asian Film Festival screening has already come and gone, this is a good bet to pick up some sort of American distribution. Sure it’s a bit strange but not so much that American audiences won’t connect with it. Hopefully those of you not in the New York area will get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is pitch black and the tone just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. Life in Uobuka looks pretty nice to me.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is minimalist and discordant.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, some mild profanity and a disturbing scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nishikido is a major pop star in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The World According to Garp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Whitney

Twisted Justice (Nihon de ichiban warui yatsura)


Cops and guns.

Cops and guns.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Toei) Gȏ Ayano, Shidȏ Nakamura, Pierre Taki, Munetaka Aoki, Haruna Yabuki, Young Dais, Kumi Takiuchi, Katsuya, Takayuki Kinoshita, Tomoya Nakamura, Ryȗzȏ Tanaka, Ayumu Saitȏ, Takuma Otoo, Yukio Ueno, Minosuke, Ito Shiraishi. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

NYAFF

Certain things translate across cultural lines; that innocence can tarnished until it has rusted away solid and that power corrupts even the purest of souls. A fall from grace is a tragedy in any language.

Moroboshi (Ayano) is a jujitsu wrestler and a pretty good one and has the cauliflower ear to prove it. So good, in fact, that the Hokkaido prefecture police give him a job not because of his criminologist skills but because they hope that he will lead their jujitsu team to respectability, which he does. However, the police detectives in the precinct in the capitol of Sapporo are less enthused about his presence. He is used primarily as a gopher and a clerk.

But veteran detective Murai (Taki) sees something in the young man and takes him under his wing. Murai is at this time a fine police officer and one of the most respected in the department, but the department has this odd points system, in which certain types of busts were worth points while others were worth more points – and others less.

From Murai he learns to play the game of informants – called “Spies,” or just “S” in Japan. Moroboshi uses them to find out information that gets some of the feared Yakuza busted, which pushes up Moroboshi up the ladder at work. As the 70s wear on, Murai commits a cardinal sin and is forced to leave in disgrace, leaving Murai to pick up his informants and his status. Soon, as Japan enters a phase in which the police have become obsessed with taking illegal guns off the street, he has begun using his own Yakuza connections to import guns, then turn them in for financial gain (cops are being paid cash bonuses for each gun they turn in) as well as departmental glory.

But as Moroboshi uses his friends and mistresses, he begins to lose control of his little empire. Fueled on cocaine and high on sex, Moroboshi goes from the young and naïve wrestler and rookie patrol officer to a bitter and jaded veteran cop who sees the abyss rushing towards him. Can he avoid his fate?

The film is based on actual events that made up the biggest police scandal in Japan’s history to date. There is a Scorsese-esque feel here, especially in terms of The Departed, itself based on an Asian film. There are also elements of the Japanese yakuza film, such as the work of the great Kinji Fukasaku, very apparent here. Fans of the crime genre worldwide should sit up and take notice of this film. American audiences might also see the crime dramas of John Woo in between the frames here.

A bravura performance by Ayano has already gotten him notice as a rising star in Japan; he does some unforgettable work as both the young and puppy-like Moroboshi until he becomes the lethal and amoral cop that he eventually becomes. We watch Moroboshi slowly lose the endearing qualities that made him delightful at the beginning but by the movie’s end, the character is utterly corrupt and beyond redemption.

Shiraishi initially sets the movie in the ’70s (it covers a time span of more than three decades) and in each era that the movie checks in with Moroboshi, the film really looks like a movie from that era. For example, the 70s portion looks a lot like an American TV cop show – with boobs. And yes, there are plenty of those; prostitutes play a vital role in the movie.

There are moments of what I suppose are comedy relief that are almost surreal and absurd, but they are rather jarring next to the grim tone of the rest of the film. I think it’s more of a cultural thing that I don’t appreciate them as much; I’ve noticed that Japanese yakuza films often have those moments that are almost bizarre so I suppose that is something that Japanese audiences understand more than I do.

This has yet to acquire U.S. distribution as of this writing and quite frankly is more likely to hit the festival circuit first although someone like Magnet or Well Go USA might take a long look at this and send it out into the American market one of these days. If you see it playing anywhere near you if that occurs, don’t hesitate to go check it out – this is one of the good ones.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film fits nicely the period it is set in. A cross between Scorsese and Woo on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: There are moments of surreal absurdity that jar with the overall gritty tone.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and profanity, along with a surfeit of smoking and some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will make its American debut as the opening night film at the New York Asian Film Festival on June 22, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Apocalypse Child

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

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

War


War

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.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Miss Potter