With it being October and all, I was in the mood for a decent horror video game that fulfills my basic requirements for a game — that it be old enough so everyone else has lost interest in it, thus driving the price down to an affordable ten bucks or so. Of the many recommendations I got, I decided to go with F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon, because I thought the blend of supernatural horror with a SWAT type first person shooter would be interesting. Plus, I’d been told the game was genuinely scary in many places. Seemed like the perfect late-night indulgence. And for portions of the game, it was. It’s a fast paced shooter that does indeed boast some incredibly effective spooky material. But it’s also too repetitive, and the horror often gets forgotten in favor of room after room of shooting it out with basically identical opponents gussied up in the same sort of assault team gear your own character is wearing.
I learned two important things from this psychotronic adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel, Die Blaue Hand. First, you can’t casually watch one of these Edgar Wallace movies from Danish film studio Rialto. Turn away for five seconds, and when you turn back to the television, you will be completely lost. They are so fast moving, and so insanely convoluted, that you have to concentrate on them with an intensity usually reserved for deriving the Unified Field Theory. The second thing I learned is that while quantity doesn’t equate to quality, featuring double the Klaus Kinski in your film is a sure thing. He shows up here as twin brothers, and unfortunately, that lead to the aforementioned distraction as I started daydreaming about what Crawlspace would have been like if Klaus Kinski was slinking around, peeping on…Klaus Kinski!
There’s little to write about news-wise for Saturday, our third and by far the biggest day of the convention, because we got shut out of every panel we wanted to attend. So it turns out that to get into a 5pm panel in the IGN Theater, you have to go to the 10am panel and just sit there all day. I knew the panels I wanted to attend in that particular room — The Walking Dead panel and The Avengers movie panel — were going to be crowded, and I was prepared to queue up ninety minutes, even two hours ahead of time. No dice. By the time we got to the line, it was an unruly mass of humanity over which the otherwise more or less competent line organizers had completely lost control. This sea of shut out hopefuls were jammed into a space in front of and totally swallowing an escalator, which made for something of a traffic nightmare. Even when we decided it was pointless to stay in line, it took nearly twenty minutes to extract ourselves from the well-behaved but poorly organized mob.
Things picked up somewhat on Friday as the Con began in earnest. Unfortunately, this means I spent a lot less time prowling and a lot more time waiting in long lines for panels. The order of the day seems to be that, if there is a panel you want to see, go to the one in the same room directly before it. The “we don’t clear the rooms” policy is a mixed bag, with the positive aspects being obvious when you are already in a room, and the negative ones being obvious when you are in the front of a line, walk in, and the room is already 3/4 full.
For those who don’t know, New York Comic Con is sort of like San Diego Comic Con, except instead of a bunch of studio PR flacks and Hollywood jerks, you get to see and hang out with actual comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, and anime fans and creators. It’s still a big convention, though, with a lot of big names if you follow the industry. Thursday is sort of a preview day for professionals and us camera-toting press types, a chance to get some photos without being jostled by Harley Quinns and an endless parade of David Tenants. On the other hand, if you brought a camera, you’re probably there specifically for the Harley Quinns and David Tenants.
If any actor in the world was born to play Ichabod Crane, it would be Jeff Goldblum. So thank God someone thought to cast him in just that role. 1980’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is, along with Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a made-for-television movie I seem to remember watching just about every single Halloween when I was a wee sprout. In actuality, I probably only watched it a couple times, and even though I begin every description of Dark Night of the Scarecrow off with, “Man, I watched that like a thousand times when I was a kid,” I’m pretty sure I actually only watched that one once. All I remember from it is some guy I could swear was M. Emmet Walsh drowning in a silo full of corn. All I remember from Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a scene where Brom Bones puts on a hood to disguise himself as the Headless Horseman. Heck, I didn’t even remember Jeff Goldblum was Ichabod Crane, and I could have sworn that Brom was played by Stacey Keach.
Well, it turns out that M. Emmet Walsh isn’t even in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Brom Bones was played by football legend Dick Butkus, not Stacey Keach. That’s what I get for listening to eight-year-old me. Though I will defend my younger self — it seems almost impossible that M. Emmet Walsh wouldn’t have been in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Dick Butkus and Stacey Keach do look a lot alike. What can you do?
Anyway, back in 1980, I watched Legend of Sleepy Hollow while spending the night over at my friend Rowman’s house. Rowman and his house played a significant part in my life up until middle school, when he and his family moved away. In our newly planted little neighborhood in Centerfield, Kentucky, his was the house that was farthest out in the woods, and therefore, our favorite place to spend the night. It was from his house that we launched our many Bigfoot expeditions. It was in his basement that we tried to summon the ghost of the recently deceased John Belushi. And it was there that I was once terrorized by an ax murderer. That was during a slumber party convened to work on our Greatest American Hero stage show, which consisted mostly of Rowman tying a towel around his neck, wearing red pajamas, and jumping off the stairs while flailing his arms and legs wildly. Anyway, his mom was…well, you see…this was the 1970s, right? So things were, you know, different back then. So Rowman’s mom decided a basement full of freakish little boys was too good an opportunity to let pass, so she snuck outside, grabbed an ax, pulled a stocking over her head, and squatted down in front of the basement windows, lightly tapping it with the ax until one of us noticed. Our reaction was, ummm…hey! Why don’t we move on!
Anyway, I was over at Rowman’s house when we watched this, and in my memory Dark Night of the Scarecrow on the same night. That probably wasn’t the case, and I’ll think I’ll stop talking about Dark Night of the Scarecrow until its time to review that movie. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite spook tales. When I moved to New York, I made sure to visit the Sleepy Hollow cemetery to see the gravestones of the many people who irritated Irving and so got characters named after themselves in his tale of horror. As a kid, I even used to make my parents go out of their way on drives so we could go over the covered bridge in Goshen. That covered bridge was fabled to be ground zero for all sorts of ghoulish shenanigans and devil worshipping, though it wasn’t until my teenage years that I really got to indulge those fancies. I remember loving Legend of Sleepy Hollow the TV movie as a kid, but then, I wasn’t a discerning viewer. So I thought it would be fun, years after the fact — decades, even — to revisit it. Unfortunately, this like many TV movies from the era has yet to be released on DVD, so tracking it down took some doing. But we here at Teleport City are nothing if not tenacious, and before too long, I was queuing this sucker up in my old VHS player to see what it had to offer.
I guess I was pretty patient as a kid, or I watched this the same way I watched most things at that age — while doing five other things. Pretty much the first hour of the movie is a colonial era romantic comedy, with gangly young schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Jeff Goldblum) arriving in the remote New York town of Sleepy Hollow and immediately getting on the bad side of local blowhard bully Brom Bones (Dick Butkus). Crane is a happy-go-lucky fellow though, and he reacts to Brom’s needling with a good-natured humor that only makes the mustached thug angrier. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Crane soon becomes infatuated with Katrina Van Tassel (Meg Foster), also the object of Brom’s affection. Thus we set the stage for an hour of romantic conniving and silliness, with the occasional mention of ghosts and that most famous of local bogeymen, the Headless Horseman.
This portion of the film seems like it would bored a young viewer silly, but it didn’t, and I wonder why. Part of it is that there’s just enough spook stuff to string you along if that’s what you’re looking for. Yeah, it’s obvious most of the stuff is hijinks orchestrated by mischievous locals, but it doesn’t matter. You still get people talking about ghosts and apparitions. Also, we kids knew that the Headless Horseman was real, and that he was going to come after Ichabod Crane, so I think we were easily able to tolerate the romantic comedy stuff because we knew what was coming. But also there’s the simple fact that Jeff Goldblum is pretty fantastic in this, an Ichabod Crane that we all loved and related to. He was a nerd, sure, but he was also confident (up to a point), clever, and had luck with the ladies. He makes social gaffes and was put in embarrassing situations, but he always handles them with a wink and dignity, even in the most undignified moments. Goldblum is basically playing Goldblum, but Goldblum is exactly what’s called for in Ichabod Crane.
It’s just enough to keep a kid interested for an hour or so — and it’s at the one hour mark that the movie knows to start bringing on the scares (not to mention a food fight). Although we know that most of the chilling things becoming more pervasive in Ichabod’s life are being perpetrated by Brom and his slack-jawed flunkie in an attempt to disgrace the schoolteacher and drive him mad, it’s soon also apparent that not everything that’s lurking in the dark woods around Sleepy Hollow is a prank or a legend. And the fact that Goldblum makes for such a likable Ichabod means what we know is about to happen is all the tenser. It even makes for an unexpected tone of melancholy despite the fact that the movie up until this point has been relatively breezy and comedic. When the final act plays out along a dark, snowy path, we were (and remain) primed and ready for the Headless Horseman, the appearance of which is made all the sweeter for the fact that he’s been absent the entire movie.
It’s a pretty authentic version of the story, low key but professionally filmed and acted. Though made for TV, it could easily have passed muster as a feature film had the taste in feature film horror not moved toward slashers. director Henning Schellerup was mostly a cinematographer on feature films, and an occasional director on made-for-TV movies. He brings a cinematic eye to the small screen, making good use the snowy landscapes and dark woods. The entire movie only requires a few simple locations, but you never notice how limited it is since Schellerup is an ace at capturing the stark beauty while making sure the picture concentrates on the characters. Luckily, the screenwriters are up tot eh task of having the characters be the center of attention. Jack Jacobs had been writing television for decades, and Malvin Wald cut his teeth writing some fantastic film noir scripts, including The Naked City, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. They create an Ichabod rane that we enjoy following, and a Brom Bones we hate without really hating him. The supporting cast, including Meg Foster and her icy eyes, is solid, but really this is Goldblum’s show, and he nails it.
Unfortunately, being a television movie means it plays out pretty conservatively. Even the ending we knew and expected is turne don its head in favor of a more family-friendly happy ending — the movie’s one real misstep. We knew the story of the Headless Horseman, and we knew what happened to Ichabod Crane. We didn’t need it softened for us and made into an “all’s well that ends well” sort of thing. That keeps this version from being my favorite, though ultimately it doesn’t spoil the whole thing for me. The finale is still pretty thrilling, with Ichabod chasing after a headless horseman he assumes to be an impostor when, in fact, we know it’s the real deal. And the rest of the movie has been charming enough that as kids we were willing to forgive its lack of a covered bridge and jack-o-lantern throwing. It may partly be nostalgia, but other things for which I have fondness born of youth did not survive adulthood re-examination (Return of the Jedi, I’m looking at you). But I really enjoyed revisiting this version of the classic tale. As an adult looking at it, I probably regret the absence of those things more than when I was a kid, but it doesn’t really bother me. Jeff Goldblum is just too perfect, and the film is just too enjoyable, for me to go all sourpuss on it.
Release Year: 1980 | Country: United States | Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sand, Meg Foster, Laura Campbell, Dick Butkis, James Griffith, Michael Ruud, Karin Isaacs, H.E.D. Redford, Tiger Thompson, John Sylvester White | Screenplay: Malvin Wald, Jack Jacobs | Director: Henning Schellerup | Cinematography: Paul Hipp | Music: Bob Summers | Producer: James L. Conway
Back in the 1980s, American pop consciousness got really obsessed with the Vietnam War. Serious questions about what the war meant to the American psyche manifested in a variety of mediums, none so readily exploitable as film. And film, like Bo Gritz, became obsessed with exploiting the notion that American POWs were still being held captive in Communist Vietnam. Gritz, amid a flurry of self-promotion and with a team comprised at least partly of bikini chicks wearing t-shirts about how awesome Bo Gritz and his howlin’ commandos were, set up shop in Thailand and began crowing about mounting rescue expeditions. Dealing with a KIA family member can be devastating; dealing with an MIA is often even worse. As far as I know, Gritz never actually amounted to much other than a huckster, and although Vietnam began a program of finding and returning remains of American servicemen, there was never any secret cache of POWs discovered. But the idea had taken root, and once that idea took root, American cinema was quick to send a seeming endless parade of would be heroes who didn’t fight in the actual war to win it for us after the fact in make believe. Uncommon Valor was the most respectable. Rambo: First Blood Part II was the most iconic.
And Ultimax Force is the movie that asked the question: what if Rambo was ninjas?
The world is full of advice about whiskey and how to drink it. Much of it is bad, or at least, really snobby and inaccessible. BallnRoll asked me to break it down in Whiskey 101, a quick guide to ordering something a little more adventurous than Johnny Walker Red on the rocks — but without the whiskey snob pretension.
Every old fart knows the 80s were the golden era of the big, stupid action movie. As for exactly which of the many bloated, gloriously moronic 80s action movies was the ultimate 80s action movie — well, I’m sure no one agrees on that. Cases can be made for everything from Commando to Die Hard to Bloodsport. For my money, though, the ultimate 80s action movie might be the awesomely boneheaded The Taking of Beverly Hills. It’s not the biggest 80s action movie, and certainly not the best or best known. And in fact, it wasn’t made in the 1980s at all, but came out in that transitional year of 1991 when we had put away our parachute pants but still hadn’t forsaken our billowy Chess King shirts. Despite the production date, however, no other action film contains such a perfect and complete distillation of the 80s attitude as The Taking of Beverly Hills, a movie about a bunch of spoiled millionaires who are taken advantage of by a slightly meaner millionaire until another millionaire steps up to the plate to blow stuff up. It’s the cinematic embodiment of the Me Generation, even more so than Wall Street (which purports to moralize about geed and selfishness) and with way more exploding Rolls Royces. Hell, The Taking of Beverly Hills is like someone got drunk and was like, “What if Wall Street was Die Hard?!?” Even the music, which is dripping with synths and saxophones, is quintessentially 80s.
Star Ken Wahl, who who once shot an uzi at Klaus Kinski while pulling sweet 360s on the ski slopes and listening to Tangerine Dream in the movie The Soldier, stars here as lunkheaded superstar quarterback Boomer Hayes, though I think we’re actually supposed to think he’s somewhat smarter and more sensitive than the average football player — a character trait communicated by having him trade charity guest appearances for sex. Wahl, looking beefier than he did just a few years earlier, never really made it to the upper echelon, or even the second tier for that matter, of action stars, though it’s not necessarily any fault of his. The second tier was occupied by Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, and those egos took up a lot of space.
Boomer and his wicked mullet (there was a law at the time that every quarterback, real or fictional, had to sport a mullet) are making an appearance at a posh Beverly Hills charity event also attended by smug millionaire Robert Masterson (the always awesome Robert Davi, who I think has played a smug criminal in every single role he’s ever had). Masterson is the usual “money can’t buy you class” sort of asshole these movies love, so all the people who were born into money can tsk-tsk the uncouthness of the guy who actually earned his millions. Boomer also meets harried cop Ed Kelvin (Matt Frewer), who provides us with the movie’s trite lesson about how all the people who work in Beverly Hills can’t afford to live there, and heiress Laura Sage (Harley Jane Kozak), with whom he will engage in the aforementioned sex-for-donations transaction — and you thought that was going to be between Boomer and Matt Frewer!
Boomer and Laura retire to his mansion to cavort in a bubble bath, where they don’t have to see or hear about poor people. Weirdly, it’s Boomer who does most of the sexy writhing in the bath — score one for equality, but only if you think “sexy writhing” includes flailing your feet around and sculpting yourself some wicked wizard beards out of bubbles. Meanwhile, Officer Kelvin runs across a careening tanker truck that soon crashes and spills toxic chemicals all over the place. A state of emergency is called, and Beverly Hills is evacuated of all its residents — except for Boomer, who was too busy making bubble beards to hear all the sirens or the sounds of his bedmate shouting downstairs and being escorted away by the cops. Then comes the kicker — there is no toxic spill. The entire thing was a ruse orchestrated by a gang of bitter ex-cops who were sick of watching over a bunch of self-centered Beverly Hills millionaires and so have now decided to rob the neighborhood blind. Of course, they didn’t count on that most classic of action movie evil-scheme monkeywrenches — the righteous football player.
Before too long, Boomer has stumbled onto the plot, and in about the same amount of time, Ed Kelvin discovers that his fellow conspirators aren’t as hesitant to shoot innocents in the head as he is. This leads to the confused beat cop teaming up with the quarterback to put an end to the madness. They’re an interesting duo, though Frewer plays his semi-dirty cop a little too whiny for my taste. Neither of them are particularly good at being action heroes. Kelvin is too distraught over a combination of having had a part in the plan, trying to extricate himself from the madness, and worrying about the fact that even if he survives, he’s doing time. Boomer is a football god, but unlike most movies where being a football player equips you with the skills and technical knowledge of a Navy SEAL, it’s obvious he’s in way over his head. As the two alternately try to escape from Beverly Hills or put an end to the robbery scheme, a lot of windows get broken, and a lot of stuff blows up. There will be more tortured football analogies than you could possibly imagine, and at one point Ken Wahl fights a SWAT tank!
Then he gets a bag of ninja throwing stars.
Much of The Taking of Beverly Hills is dumb as a brick, but at the same time, some of it is kind of clever. The robbery scheme is pretty well thought out if entirely implausible, but it’s only implausible in the real world. In the world of action cinema, it’s a perfectly workable scheme. Because Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles what The Vatican is to Rome, it’s the perfect place for the heist. The police department, electrical grid, and phone system are all self-contained. Many of the action movies of the 80s and early 90s spillover could be summarized as “Die Hard in a…” and it’s pretty obvious that The Taking of Beverly Hills is really just “Die Hard in a city,” before Die Hard With a Vengeance was “Die Hard in a city.” And The Taking of Beverly Hills is a better “Die Hard in a city” than Die Hard with a Vengeance was. Even if it’s just a Die Hard clone — complete with a ridiculously convoluted scheme meant to cover a different, even more convoluted scheme — the movie moves along at a quick pace and manages to be, if not actually clever, then at the very least breezily enjoyable.
Director Sydney J. Furie was an accomplished director with a couple classics (including the spectacular Michael Caine spy thriller The IPCRESS File) and a couple not quite classics (the strange Vietnam war soccer movie The Boys in Company C) under his belt, as well as more than a few goofy 80s action films (including Iron Eagle) and one certifiable abomination (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), though blame for that dung pile is squarely on the shoulders of Christopher Reeves and the Cannon Film Group far more than it is on Furie. For The Taking of Beverly Hills, Furie brought with him his long-time screenwriting collaborator Rick Natkin, who brought with him his sometimes collaborator, David Fuller. You wouldn’t think a movie as mindlessly silly and entertaining as this would need three writers, and you’d be right. It actually had four writers. Somehow, TV writer David J. Burke was thrown into the mix as well.
Usually, the more writers you have on a film, the worse it gets, but this team somehow managed to click, and they keep the plot relatively lean and fast-moving. You have to forgive certain aspects of the film, mind you, chief among them being that the story never really gives us any reason to like Boomer all that much. He’s a rich football player who trades charity appearances for sex, but I guess in the roll call of football player crimes, the fact that the sex he solicits is at least consensual elevates him above most. Still, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the snotty millionaires getting robbed of things that are insured anyway — yeah, it turns out that the whole scheme has actually been orchestrated by Robert Davi (no spoiler — it’s fucking Robert Davi! Did you think he was going to be a good guy?) so he can shame and bankrupt Laura’s father, who happens to be CEO of the insurance company most of Beverly Hills uses. The script has to have the cop gang senselessly killing people, otherwise, as far as most Americans would be concerned, the crooks would be the good guys.
Ultimately, Boomer succeeds as an action hero because Ken Wahl — and not necessarily because he’s good. Wahl seems perpetually confused throughout the movie. Whether this is intentional or simply the result of Wahl being a bad actor in this instance is unknown and unimportant, because perpetually confused is the exact state of mind a guy like him should be in when caught up in the middle of such an ludicrous criminal scheme. Plus, his Boomer copies the one thing from Die Hard that many clones forget — he’s wounded. When the movie begins, Boomer has been hobbled by a knee injury, and for most of the movie, he’s plagued by the injury that keeps him from being any sort of unstoppable killing machine. He also doesn’t know much about guns (I would say he could learn a thing or two from Plaxico Burress, but all Plaxico did was manage to shoot himself in the leg), and much of his success in fighting the gang of cops comes from luck, knowing the lay of the land, and help from his reluctant sidekick Officer Kelvin. Speaking of which, I have to say that although I like Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Eureka) a lot, he’s pretty annoying in this. The script’s one misstep is mistaking “whiny and annoying” for comic relief. It is, of course, not the first script to do that, nor would it be the last.
There’s very little to say about the rest of the cast. Former Fear frontman turned competent character actor Lee Ving (Streets of Fire) is basically wasted. I feel like Davi, one of those great “assholes” of the era (though no one is as good at it as William Atherton), is somewhat under-exploited. We know he can be a lot smarmier than he’s allowed to be here. The dame in the story has even less to do than usual, and most of the cops are just there to stand at roadblocks or jump backwards into swimming pools after Ken Wahl throws something at them. The only supporting character of note is Branscombe Richmond — whose real name sounds like he should be one of the millionaire characters in this movie. Richmond is “best known” for his recurring roll as Bobby Sixkiller, Lorenzo Lamas’ buddy in Renegade, but he pops up in all sorts of the more outrageous action films, including Commando, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and the unspeakably awesome Never Too Young to Die. In this one, he’s hooting and hollering and gunning people down and tearing around (and through) Beverly Hills in a SWAT assault vehicle.
Buried somewhere beneath all the exploding and things being thrown (although there are guns everywhere, Boomer is a QB, so naturally he prefers throwing things at people) there might be the hint that The Taking of Beverly Hills is playing itself as a straight-faced satire of the genre. By 1991, 80s action films were obviously self-aware (not that they hadn’t always been a largely tongue-in-cheek genre), so playing one for laughs without drawing attention to the fact really wouldn’t have resulted in a movie substantially different from one that wasn’t satire. Whatever the case, critics and audiences were unkind to The Taking of Beverly Hills. It was pretty roundly savaged by reviewers and never made a splash with viewers. There had apparently been some hope that it would be a hit — someone even tried to make a video game of it back in the day! Too bad it didn’t pan out. I honestly enjoyed the hell out of The Taking of Beverly Hills. It is phenomenally dumb and ridiculous, but always in a highly enjoyable way. There’s massive amounts of (relatively bloodless) carnage, the wanton destruction of lots of luxury items, an uneven but enjoyable cast, a quick pace, and a few laughs. Oh, and ninja stars! I might even consider it a forgotten classic of the genre.
Release Year: 1991 | Country: United States | Starring: Ken Wahl, Matt Frewer, Harley Jane Kozak, Robert Davi, Lee Ving, Branscombe Richmond, Lyman Ward, Michael Bowen, William Prince, Michael Kehoe, Mark Haining, Jason Blicker, Tony Ganios, Ken Swofford | Screenplay: Rick Natkin, David Fuller, David Burke | Director: Sidney J. Furie | Cinematography: Frank E. Johnson | Music: Jan Hammer | Producer: Graham Henderson
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.
Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.
For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.
When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.
The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.
During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.
So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.
At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.
Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.
His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000’s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.
And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.
And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.
And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.
Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.
When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.
Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.
If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.
Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.
There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.
If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.
The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.
To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang