I have nobody to blame but myself. I mean, by now I should know that Hong Kong movies are not what they once were (i.e. good). And I should certainly know not to expect anything much from pop duo The Twins, a.k.a. Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung – I did, after all, suffer through their crummy vampire action mess The Twins Effect. So why in the Gay Blue Hell would I be interested in Protégé De La Rose Noire, their latest box office smash? Well, because one of my Hong Kong heroes, Donnie Yen, was the man behind the camera, and Donnie kicks ass. He was the action choreographer on The Twins Effect, and deserves the credit for making the mostly non-fighter cast look halfway competent. So maybe, just maybe, he could pull something out of the fire. Also of interest is that the movie features Donnie’s little sister Chris Yen, returning to the big screen for the first time since her debut in the little-known 1986 Yuen Woo-ping film Close Encounter With A Vampire. Still, I didn’t dare get my hopes too high, which is just as well because the movie still couldn’t live up to them.
If there’s one lesson to take away from this lavish Thai swashbuckler, it is this: if you are a dick to whales, don’t go to war against a guy who is nice to whales and can also ask them for favors.
These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan. It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with maybe an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.
As the kind of pop culture savvy, switched-on individual who reads Teleport City, I assume you’re familiar with Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man. But in case you’re not or just need reminding, here’s a quick recap of the plot. Peter Parker sees the girl of his dreams being wooed by a wealthy jock with a flash car. Deciding what he needs is a cool set of wheels, he uses his recently acquired spider powers to enter a wrestling contest for money, only to see through his inaction, his beloved Uncle Ben shot and killed. The 2009 Russian film Black Lightning (produced as all Russian movies apparently are by Night Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov) uses the same plot, but asks the one important question Spider-Man left dangling; ‘what about the car? What about the car??’
Moscow, 2004. Greedy industrialist Victor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Night Watch) is drilling for the vast diamond deposits buried under the city. Despite warnings that this will undermine the foundations of Moscow and possibly kill millions through earthquakes, Kuptsov pushes ahead, but is thwarted when his giant Matrix-style tunneling machine isn’t powerful enough. The only thing with enough energy to complete the plan is the MacGuffin-O-Tron, also known as the Nanocatalyst. This device fashioned from magic moon rocks can increase the power of any normal fuel to over a million times the power of nuclear energy, or something. It was designed in the Soviet days but the project was abandoned.
In the present day, some workers employed by Kuptsov discover the lab where the Nanocatalyst was discovered. There are lots of blueprints and so forth, and also an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga automobile. Seeing the chance to make a profit, they decide to swipe the car and sell it. Which may have a certain significance to college student and our nominated Piotr Parkovich, a.k.a. Dmtry, Dima to his friends (Grigory Dobrygin). Dima is contentious, studies hard, and has serious hots for the new girl, Nastya (the extremely pretty Ekaterina Vilkova, Hipsters). Dima though is constantly upstaged by his rich buddy Maxim (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a sleek white Mercedes (one of the things that tickled me about this movie is how everyone evil drives a Merc. I’m half-expecting to find an interview where one of the writers reveals a Mercedes killed his father). Seeing his son is pretty bummed out, Dima’s Dad (Sergey Garmash, Space Dogs 3D), a poor but upstanding tram driver, buys his son… an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Dima is grateful but not exactly thrilled; this is hardly the car to impress Nastya. So he hides it and tries to get the bus to college, but misses it because of stopping to help an old drunk. And on this day of all days, when nasty Victor Kuptsov is giving a lecture at the college. Dima earns some cutting remarks from Kuptsov, who trots out the old bullshit that successful people help only themselves. But his words strike a chord in Dima, who wants to make enough money to impress the girl he loves. You can probably see where this is going…
Kuptsov meanwhile is annoyed that the Nanocatalyst is nowhere to be found, only a container of previously converted super-energized nanofuel (it’s blue and glowing so you know it’s crazy powerful). From the blueprints it’s apparent that the Nanocatalyst has been built into the missing Volga, so Kuptsov sends his army of heavies out into Moscow to find all the Volgas they can. Meanwhile all is not well in the Dima household. Dima’s new attitude of only looking out for himself and trying to make as much money as possible does not sit well with his poor-but-proud Dad. When Dima Sr. intervenes in a mugging, his son berates him for risking his life for someone else, causing a deep rift between them. Kuptsov’s men observe Dad getting angrily out of the Volga, but stick with pursuing the car. And then Dima makes a startling discovery: his car can fly. Aw, man. The Russians had flying cars back in the 1960s? Way to go, capitalism.
Through an old record he finds in the glove box, Dima tracks down a couple of the scientists who built the car. They are now married, Perepelkin (Valeriy Zolotukhin, Night Watch) and Romantseva (Ekaterina Vasileva). Perepelkin is suspicious, claiming they could never get the Nanocatalyst to work, the project was closed down and chief scientist Elizarov (Juozas Budraitis) was fired in disgrace. Romantseva is more sympathetic and gives Dima the manual for the car. Now that he can circumvent the horrendous Moscow traffic, Dima becomes the star of the flower delivery service he’s been working for. Finally he has some cash to splash around, and takes Nastya to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He discovers quickly that she’s not the rich sophisticate Max said she was, and if she fails the next college exam will have to go back to her family in the country.
Unfortunately with great wealth comes great assholery. Dima gets into a fight with Max, and says a few salacious (and untrue) things about Nastya, which she overhears. Even worse, when he goes to reconcile with his Dad, Kuptsov’s men get there first, and the mugger Dad thwarted earlier is in their employ. Dad ends up bleeding to death in a snowy side-street while Dima sits idly by, refusing to call an ambulance because it doesn’t fit with his new ‘looking out for number one’ philosophy. He realizes too late who the victim is, Dad having already passed away.
At home with his distraught Mum (Elena Valyushkina) and little sister Tanka (Katya Starshova), Dima has the revelation we’ve been waiting for since the opening credits, especially when Tanka tells him “you’ll have to be dad now.” Using the Volga’s super-radio which cleverly doubles as a police band scanner, Dima becomes a hoodie-wearing superhero. He saves a child from a burning apartment block, foils an armoured car robbery and saves a baby in one go, even catches the mugger who killed his Dad (the mugger’s fate is not revealed, but since I don’t think Dima ever knew it was him, this isn’t too much of an oversight – I quite liked the ambiguity, in fact). He also gives the Volga a spiffy new coat of paint, and soon the people and the press are going crazy over this hero they have dubbed ‘Black Lightning.’ My favourite scene in the film is a lovely little moment that pops up about now, when Tanka asks Dima if Black Lightning is real. He says yes, but nobody knows who he is. “I think it’s Dad,” she replies. Brought a little lump to my throat, I don’t mind telling you.
Kuptsov is getting extremely frustrated with his inability to capture the car and the Nanocatalyst. He recalls the three scientists from the original project and convinces them he’s building a new version of the car to help Black Lightning in his heroic work. It transpires that Romantseva and Elizarov were in love, but because Perepelkin wanted her for himself he faked the negative results, knowing Elizarov would be fired. Meanwhile Dima deliberately fails an exam, knowing his place will go to Nastya, who is genuinely struggling. She realizes he’s not the dickhead she thought he was, but in a romantic twist of fate that is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, ends up thinking Maxim is Black Lightning. Max being a genuine dickhead, plays along.
Back at Kuptsov’s facility, Perepelkin finds out about the plot to drill for diamonds and destroy Moscow. Now eager to redeem himself, he tries to escape and get help even though it means likely death. Kuptsov lets him go, betting that Black Lightning will show up to rescue him. Nastya meanwhile has switched her allegiance back to Maxim, admiring his apparent selflessness and heroism. Discovering this, Dima almost lets Perepelkin die just to prove Maxim isn’t the hero, but of course he can’t. “Black Lighting will be there. He has to be there,” he tells Nastya, even though he knows he’s playing into Maxim’s hands (Max is hiding in the toilet at this point). And somehow, Nastya realizes that even though Maxim is apparently the hero, she actually loves Dima.
Unfortunately Dima falls into Kuptsov’s trap, failing to save Perepelkin and losing the Nanocatalyst to the bad guy’s super, rocket-armed flying Mercedes. Kuptsov re-starts the drill with the three scientists tied to it, and Moscow seems doomed. With only his small reserve tank of nanofuel left, Dima is able to stop the drill and recover the Nanocatalyst. Kuptsov is furious and, having worked out who Black Lightning is, kidnaps Nastya, demanding the Nanocatalyst in exchange for her life. Can Dima save the woman he loves and Moscow and defeat the man ultimately responsible for his father’s death? Does a Russian bear shit in the woods?
Y’know, I could say a lot of negative things about Black Lightning. Sure, it’s massively derivative of American comic book movies; as well as the Spider-Man series, it borrows bits of Iron Man, Batman Begins (the score is identical in spots) and Universal’s legal team may have been rubbing their hands over the Delorean-like design of Kuptsov’s flying Mercedes (Universal put the film out internationally though so I assume it was OK). Dima even has a Facebook account where people can ask him for help, Kick Ass style, but I guess those movies were in production at the same time so we’ll let that one go.
On top of that, the plot is pretty thin, and several of the elements could have been fleshed out better. In particular I’d like to have seen the car given a bit more… personality I guess. I don’t mean have it talk or think for itself, but it doesn’t register on-screen the way I think it’s meant to. Partly this is down to Dima’s character never seeming to have much of a bond with it; it’s just a tool for getting the job done. I do wonder if part of this is because the special effects, while good, are used sparingly, so the flying sequences are quite brief. Hey, I doubt they had $150 million to spend so that’s understandable. I also think it’s because Grigory Dobrygin as Dima isn’t a very good actor. He’s a little too blank, is better at being a jerk than a hero, and a times is even a little creepy. The rest of the characters are pure ciphers, though thankfully filled by good actors who make them work for the most part.
And then there are those pesky action sequences. I know that in a movie about a magic flying car it’s probably silly to complain about how much of the action seems to defy physics, but there are moments where I did roll my eyes (like when Black Lightning is flying vertically upwards with another car balanced upright on the front fender – I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work). And a little more time spent on exactly what the car is capable of would have been nice. It seems like the only difference from a normal car is supposed to be the flying thing, and yet BL seems to be indestructible, can apparently go into space without ill effects despite earlier being shown not to be watertight, and a few other things. And honestly, when it comes to super-heroics a flying car is a lot less practical than a dude swinging from a web. Take the moment where a stolen armoured car is about to hit a woman and her baby. BL shunts it from the side, flipping it over. So now it’s still moving forward at speed towards the baby but completely unable to steer. Of course it stops in the nick of time but you get the idea.
And yet… for all its many faults, I found myself going along with Black Lightning, and getting genuinely invested in the outcome. There are some nice moments throughout, and so help me I wanted to see weird, creepy Dima get the girl. I mentioned the sweet little bit with him and his sister, and I all but cheered when Dima thinks he’s sacrificing his future with Nastya to do the right thing. I am something of a sucker for comic book movies, I guess. I even smiled a little at the joke stolen from the Moore-era Bond movies, when a guy about to knock back his fifth vodka sees the flying car and swears off booze forever. So while far from a classic, I’d give Black Lightning a pass, even though it has nothing to do with the DC comics character of the same name – a black guy who shoots lightning.
And so what if they never really address why a bunch of scientists, discovering a magic new power source, would turn it into a flying car? If I had the technology and the resources I’d build that shit yesterday!
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Russia | Starring: Grigory Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Ekaterina Vasileva, Juozas Budraitis, Ivan Zhidkov, Sergey Garmash, Ekaterina Starshova, Mikhail Efremov, Dato Bakhtadze, Igor Savochkin, Sergey Legostaev, Elena Valyushkina | Screenplay: Dmitriy Aleynikov, Aleksandr Talal, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Rostislav Krivitskiy, Vladimir Neklyudov | Director: Dmitriy Kiselev, Aleksandr Voytinskiy | Cinematography: Sergey Trofimov | Music: Yuriy Poteenko | Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Syuzanna Muazen, Pavel Ratner, Iva Stromilova, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel | Original title: Chernaya Molniya
Of the many pleasures in life available to be sampled by an aging and debauched, lecherous libertine like myself, the “misguided celebrity cross-over attempt” hardly beats out “a night with half a dozen young Russian models and a video camera,” but it runs a close second. Or maybe third. And maybe not that close, actually. Anyway, the point is, I get a hearty chuckle out of the disasters that occur when a celebrity in one field aspires, either because of a raging ego or genuine creative impulse, to become a star in another field. Actors recording albums. Musicians starring in movies. Sports personalities trying to do either. And while the world is littered with terrible albums recorded by people who were famous for something other than music, it’s “making a movie” that seems to be the baseball cap of ill advised — though totally understandable — efforts. Just like how every other sport has a baseball cap associated with their team (you don’t see baseball players walking around in casual football helmets, after all), it seems like it eventually comes down to the person famous in that genre of celebrity wanting to make a movie. Most of the time, they simply pop up as a star or co-star in a disposably idiotic movie. But sometimes, the celebrity has enough money and staggering enough delusions of grandeur that they can give the world that most special gift: the vanity project.
Vanity movie projects can undo even accomplished movie makers, who should already know better. But it’s a particularly sublime sort of vanity project that comes along when the person indulging their own ego and — again, totally understandable and relatable — desire to make a movie. Few people working today seem quite as committed to totally insane vanity movie projects as mixed martial artist and UFC superstar Hector Echavarria. When you read a one-line summary of his life, Echavarria himself sounds like the villain in any number of dumb direct-to-video action films from the 1990s — an Argentine millionaire businessman and kickboxer? Come on! How many of those did Jalal Merhi take down in 1993?
But the thing is, Hector’s background also prepares him ably to be the hero in any number of the same films, probably teaming up with Jalal to take down a gang consisting of…I’m gonna say John Miller and Bolo Yeung. Because according to the legend, Hector Echavarria was a sickly youth who was eventually taken under the wing of a fleeing Shaolin monk who had defected from China. The monk began training the young boy, and as the years progressed, the association with monk Kou Tsao enabled Hector to train with a variety of famous sifus, masters, and senseis. But life was tough for the kid, and he soon entered the seedy world of underground streetfighting. When he was arrested after breaking an opponent’s ribs, a cop told Hector he better clean up or end up in prison. Hector heeded the cop’s sage advise and eventually became a professional tournament fighter. Remember — this is not a summary of the plot of the movie I’m eventually going to get to. This is Echavarria’s real, or at least “officially sanctioned,” biography. No word on how much of his life was taken up with training montages set to bland synth-and-guitar-driven music, but I assume it to be a substantial amount. Also no word on how much of it is utter bullshit.
Rather than his background leading him to throw down against a local crime lord while also fighting to save the community arts center from greedy developers, Echavarria’s life took him in the direction such backgrounds usually take people in real life: he decided to open a gym in Miami. It was there that Hector met someone associated with a edgy new television show that was about to shoot its first season: Miami Vice. Echavarria must have enjoyed the experience, because he kept at it, and eventually he got the attention of producers back in his native Argentina. A string of roles followed, and Hector must have saved most but not all of his pennies (he probably had to spend some on sweet Ed Hardy shirts, after all) until he could cash in on them and his fame to do what you, I, and many others would likely do given the same opportunity: write, direct, and star in a really bad direct to DVD action movie with all his buddies, crammed with tons of gratuitous violence and nudity. And know this: despite all else that I may write about Never Surrender from this point on, the ultimate thing to realize is that Hector Echavarria made exactly the same movie I would have probably made in his situation. It is without a doubt the heir to all the direct to video action films of the 1990s, with a healthy dose of full frontal Andy Sidaris style sex and nudity thrown in for good measure.
As if the rampant macho wish fulfillment wasn’t already obvious enough, get a load of the plot: Diego is the baddest man on the MMA circuit. All the other MMA guys (played by actual MMA fighters) want to hang out with him. But Diego’s drive to always be the best leads him to a seedy underground fighting circuit where the winner gets to fuck the loser’s girlfriend. No, seriously. What you have here is pure, unadulturated MMA fanfic in which Hector Echavarria is casting himself as the quintessential “Mary Sue.” For those who need clarification, in the world of shitty, most fan-generated fiction, a “Mary Sue”is a character that is a blatant stand-in for the author. Only it goes beyond that. Mary Sue will be the absolute best at everything, and all the formerly competent characters occupying some work of fiction will suddenly fawn endlessly over and constantly need the help of Mary Sue, who’s just the bestest and smartest and prettiest and Legolas will totally fall in love with her and marry her and they will go on a honeymoon to Sanrioland.
Diego is basically the MMA fanfic version of a Mary Sue, with Echavarria wishing himself into a role where actual MMA guys all fawn over him and tell him how awesome he is and want to ride around in his stretch Hummer limo. Plus, he could beat them all up if he wanted to, and he makes super-love to ladies. As far as I know, Echavarria himself never actually worked the mixed martial arts circuit, which makes it even sweeter that he would cast himself as the number one pit fighter in the world, then wave enough money in front of legitimate MMA fighters to convince them to show up for a few hours and tell him how awesome he is, and how they all wish they could be more like him. Of course, the entirety of his plan was to pay fighters to show up and praise him. He didn’t really know what to do with them beyond that, so you get a steady procession of guys like BJ Penn and Rampage Jackson showing up out of nowhere, saying, “Diego, you da man!,” maybe having a fight scene with some thugs, and then their character disappears for the rest of the movie.
Eventually, through sheer force of human intelligence, Diego surmises that maybe, just maybe, the women aren’t as willing participants in this exchange as you would think. I mean sure, all of hem like fucking Diego, but the rest of the time, they’re basically sex slaves. Obviously, it’s up to Diego to fight for their freedom and put an end to this whole sordid business. It could also be that Diego doesn’t actually realize what he’s taking part in is wrong; it could be that Hector Echavarria realizes that the one person in the world he really wants to make love to is Hector Echavarria, so he might as well fight to free all these chicks. Standing in the way of Diego and supreme righteousness is bloodthirsty thug Patrick Kilpatrick, who apparently traveled into the Face/Off universe and stole Randy Couture’s face.
You know the grunting noise a rutting feral hog makes? This movie is the embodiment of that sound. This movie is an Ed Hardy shirt. Hell, this movie doesn’t just feature stretch limo Hummers; it is the cinematic embodiment of a stretch limo Hummer, and chances are if you think stretch limo Hummers are totally bad-ass and classy, then this is probably the movie for you. Or, if you are like me and just love totally goofy, incompetent movies packed to the gills with tough guy swagger, naked strippers, and dudes punching each other in the face, well, you’ll probably be happy too. 100% USDA prime meathead dialogue, an inability to string scenes together in any coherent sort of way, characters who pop in and out of the movie at random and purely because Echavarria was able to convince them to show up and do a scene — this is a shitty, sleazy b-movie the way they used to make ‘em, and I was overjoyed watching every sordid, idiotic frame. Never Surrender is a pretty terrible movie by almost any sane measure, but as long as you aren’t looking for good or logical writing, quality acting, well-executed fight scenes, or any sense of good taste or decency, there’s untold amounts of entertainment to be mined from a movie this absurd. It really was just like staying up late to scope out titty movies on Cinemax back in the 1980s, only instead of Jack Scalia solving an insurance fraud case involving Shannon Tweed, mixed martial arts dudes would show up in between the sex scenes with anonymous strippers to beat each other up. If you have any sort of fondness at all for that sort of irredeemable crap, let Hector Echavarria ensure you that, if nothing else, he’s still respecting the tradition.
The film does have some potentially decent fight scenes, but unfortunately, Echavarria is about as good at directing a film as he is at acting in one. He has no real grasp of how to stage fights for the camera, and the result is a lot of messy fights with lots of editing and no real rhythm. Echavarria himself looks particularly sluggish in some of the scenes, and his desire to do as many spinning, high kicks as his kickboxing background will allow him doesn’t really fit with the whole MMA vibe. For those old enough to remember, when MMA first began its march to popularity, the matches threw together a bunch of different sized fighters using a bunch of different styles of fighting. It didn’t take too long before people noticed that the guys who tried to break out the funky styles got destroyed, and every match was dominated by the guys who knew grappling disciplines like jujitsu. By the time Never Surrender was released, the idea that an MMA circuit could be dominated by a forty-year-old dude spin kicking and doing the splits was, at best, quaint.
At the same time, bringing a truer MMA style to the screen, where two guys circle each other, throw a few kicks and punches, then spend the next ten minutes on the ground maneuvering for a choke hold to end the match, does not particularly compelling cinema. In the hands of a creative and talented choreographer, just the right balance of what happens in the ring and what we wished would happen in the ring could be obtained. The driving force behind many of the current crop of low budget MMA action films, Tap Out, worked hard to get it right, and most of the time, they succeed. Echavarria, on the other hand, flails about, and the film’s fight scenes suffer from his lack of attention to anything but filming himself with a naked hooker grinding on top of him in slow motion. Even the veteran MMA guys who show up to pretend like they give a shit about Hector Echavarria are undermined by the director’s poor grasp of how to stage and shoot a fight for film. Although, once again, if you are looking to relive the ridiculous low-budget actioners of the 80s and 90s, Echavarria at least handles himself in a fight as well as Jalal Merhi, and substantially better than, oh, let’s say Julie Strain.
Never Surrender (the 1000th film to have that title) is ultimately a movie about how awesome Hector Echavarria is, playing to the tough guy (and more importantly, wannabe tough guy) fantasy he and his target audience doubtless harbor: to be the baddest mother fucker in the world, out-fighting and out-fucking every other man on the planet. It’s obvious from the get-go that only by writing, directing, and starring in the movie himself could Hector Echavarria ever hope to communicate to the rest of us just how awesome Hector Echavarria is and how awesome it is to be Hector Echavarria. Every frame of this movie is designed specifically for Hector to remind you of how cool and tough Hector Echavarria is. He can beat up anybody, and every hot chick with fake boobs wants to have sex with him (and actually, probably did to get their three minutes of “fame” in this movie, pretending to do what they did in real life to get the role). Because he’s a classy guy, Hector stops short of adding DVD audio commentary in each sex scene to the effect of, “We’re pretending to have sex here, but we did it for real also.” So I don’t know. If this movie is just a self-indulgent way to pander to his own ego and let the world know how great it is being Hector Echavarria, maybe he’s right.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.
Following the trail blazed by Yimou, we started getting a slew of impressive looking, giant-scale historical epics, some with more martial arts than others. Having limped along for so many years with nothing at their disposal but pop stars more interested in sculpting their hair and male model abs than in learning the craft of making an action film, Hong Kong film makers suddenly had the best and brightest of China at their disposal, and the mainland Chinese seemed absolutely raring to prove themselves to disillusioned fans. Plus, having weathered the pop idol decade, there was now a new generation of directors who were hungry for the sort of slam-bang kungfu films with which they’d grown up in the 70s and 80s. They wanted new faces who wanted to be martial arts stars, and they wanted to bring back the old guard to serve as mentors. And all of a sudden, we were getting movies like Little Big Soldier and Gallants and 14 Blades. Like I said, we’re only just now starting to rebuild, but the new foundation looks more promising than anything we’ve seen in years. I never felt like I needed to learn the difference between Stephen Fung, or Edison Chan, or any of the other goofy young things that devoured most of the last decade. Now we’ve got a whole new batch of names to learn, though, and some of them are worth learning.
First and foremost, learn the name Jiang Lu-Xia.
One of the things I remember most fondly from the 80s and early 90s are the fighting femmes who took over the screen. Names like Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan, Cynthia Rothrock — the movies they starred in during those years may not have always been the best written or best acted, but they damn sure delivered the action. Insane stunts, brutal fights, blazing energy — even the worst of them had enough over the top action to make it worth suffering through the missteps. And if the fightin’ lads suffered during the first decade of the 2000s, the fightin’ ladies all but vanished. The old school “girls with guns” class retired, or they moved on to more upscale prestige projects, or they found their genre was no longer favored by film goers and so sought work in The Philippines and other places where they were still a few years behind what was hip in Hong Kong.
As for us fans of the genre, we had nowhere to go. Cynthia Rothrock came back to the United States, but her movies here were mostly terrible. Hong Kong couldn’t come up with anything better than CGI’ing around Charlene Choi and Maggie Q. There was no action actress who instilled genuine fear in the viewer the way Sonny Chiba-trained Yukari Oshima used to be able to do. There was no one with the innocent-but-deadly charisma of Moon Lee. And there certainly wasn’t another Michelle Yeoh. Luckily, when directors and production companies decided to start making martial arts actioners again, they didn’t settle on the crop of cute pop idols and models that were slinking around the joint. If no actress in Hong Kong was going to put herself through what it took to really become an action star, then they’d just go calling elsewhere. That’s when China’s Jiang Lu-Xia picked up the phone.
If you want to draw comparisons to past greats, Jiang is less “the next Michelle Yeoh” and more “the next Jet Li,” albeit with a dash of Yukari Oshima thrown in. Like Li, Jiang is a wushu superstar from the mainland, and her prowess at martial arts turned her into a one-woman self-defense industry. She started training in martial arts at the age of seven, in Mongolia, and eventually pursued training at various spots in China. Before breaking into film, she was kicking ass in a host of tournaments, not to mention working as a referee, starring in self-defense instructional videos and television shows, appearing on a competition-based reality series called The Disciple, and becoming an internet sensation when she started uploading videos of herself under the name “Mao Er Bao Bei.”
While she was busy honing her skills and uploading videos, veteran Hong Kong action film stuntman, supporting actor, and choreographer Xiong Xin-xin (you know him as Clubfoot from the Once Upon a Time in China series, and he popped up more recently in Bad Blood and the unwatchable Circadian Rhythm) was trying to get a new project off the ground, one that would continue the trend of Hong Kong martial arts films getting back to the spirit of the 1980s, when they ruled the action universe. It would also be Xiong’s first time as director. Xiong soon had Jiang brought to his attention, and like many, he saw her potential as a major new martial arts movie star. Unfortunately, those many people didn’t include many studio execs, who were hesitant to put their faith in this supposed kungfu film revival unless the movie was a period piece featuring Andy Lau in a fake beard. Xiong is well-known and respected, but he’d never directed before, and this chick from…where was it? China? Mongolia??? Why the hell would anyone greenlight a movie like that?
Luckily, just as Andy Lau showed faith in a goofy little idea that became Gallants, and was willing to fund the movie when no one else would, Xiong eventually found backers among friends and the Hong Kong entertainment old guard, including the not-so-secretly most powerful man in the world, pudgy little comedy dwarf Eric Tsang. Seriously, have you ever read about him? That dude could have you killed if he wanted to. Anyway, Jiang Lu-xia threw herself into the role, emotionally and physically, with a gusto and willingness to injure herself that we haven’t seen from Hong Kong since the apparent stuntman death wish they had in the 1980s moved to Thailand. Her skill and enthusiasm for the role turns what is an otherwise clunky film into a fairly enjoyable experience, one that focuses almost entirely on watching Jiang Lu-xia beat the shit out of people in a series of increasingly improbable set-ups.
Jiang plays Nie Yi-yi, a teacher at her family’s martial arts academy. When a freak accident causes the death of her father, she sort of drops out of life until an old friend, Chung Tin (Bio Zombie‘s Sam Lee) runs into her and convinces her to take a job as a bodyguard, where she will be able to beat people up while wearing a business suit. Shortly after taking the job, however, Yi-yi is beset by more problems, as her charge and his family is targeted by a seemingly endless stream of goons. Although Yi-yi beats the crap out of most of them, they still succeed with the kidnapping. Yi-yi and Chung Tin launch a mission to get their boss back, but the deeper in they go, the more it seems like something else entirely is going on.
Yi-yi eventually notices that the the various fights she’s having as part of her mission are being video taped, and before too long, she gets the right people to beat the information out of: none of this is about her boss. It’s about her, and one of the favorites of low-budget fight films: a ring of jaded rich people who enjoy watching and betting on life-or-death street fights. They’ve been secretly video taping all of Yi-yi’s fights and broadcasting them on the Web for gamblers — funny, I guess, given that Jiang herself became a star thanks to using the Web to show off her fighting skills. Obviously, the people using her for her ass kicking skills need to have their asses kicked.
Coweb is, like a number of recent low-budget fight films, a throwback to the 80s and early 90s in pretty much every sense — and that includes the daft writing. But like the movies that are its heritage, Coweb seeks to make up for its narrative shortcomings by making sure we never have much time to dwell on them before all is forgiven by watching Jiang Lu-xia in action once again. Xiong Xin-xin is shaky in his first outing as a full-on director, and some of the film’s action sequences feel a bit awkward, like everyone is still feeling things out. Even when he’s restricted simply to being an action director, Xiong can turn in somewhat uneven work, and that’s once again the case here. But one need not fear, because Jiang Lu-xia comes to the game with such intensity and a willingness to do pretty much anything that’s asked of her that her fight film charisma carries the day. Even in a somewhat half-assed film like Coweb, it’s impossible for me not to love watching Jiang in action — and while some of Xiong’s choreography is off the mark, he also gives us more than enough of it to ensure that he has as many hits as he has misses.
Jiang’s throw-downs against henchmen in a kitchen is fun. While the set-up of her fight in a disco’s shallow pool of water is completely convoluted and absurd, the end result is Jiang fighting a chick in a short dress in a pool of water. Then she fights a dude with ill-advised hair, has some fun on that old Hong Kong action movie friend (bamboo scaffolding), and takes on some kungfu breakdancers before she works up to the main challenge: Kane Kosugi! Like I said, the fight choreography isn’t perfect, but I don’t ask for perfection. I thought it was all pretty entertaining. If Xiong is a bit shaky as director, Jiang looks like she’s been doing this her whole life. Oh wait — basically, she has, hasn’t she? Anyway, she’s the most obvious recent example of the massive gulf between what Hong Kong was doing for the past decade plus — relying on camera tricks, CGI, and pop starlets — and what I hope they start doing instead –which is relying on women who walk the walk.
Her supporting cast is all right, but frankly, we’re here to watch Jiang Lu-xia. Kane Kosugi is one of those actors who deserves better than he gets. He’s not all that impressive a thespian, but within his limits he’s effective — and he, like Jiang Lu-xia, can walk the walk. The man basically finished Ninja Warrior! that he didn’t get credit for beating the course is a matter of a couple fractions of a second, which I thing should be negated by the fact that he did the whole thing in the rain. The prospect of finally getting to watch him in an action movie with a real opponent — instead of being in awkward scenes with stars who don’t have any talent for martial arts — had me pretty excited. Xiong Xin-xin must have felt the same way, because he gives the two of them a good twelve or so minutes to beat on each other. No gimmicks, no fancy directing — just two very, very good martial arts actors doing what they do best. It’s not Jackie Chan versus Benny Urquidez in Dragons Forever, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Coweb ends up being a lot of great raw material that never fully coalesces into a great film, but for those who are accustomed to rolling with the sloppy writing we forgave in the old girls with guns movies, there’s nothing about Coweb‘s sundry sloppy mistakes and silly plot that will prove to be an impediment to enjoying the movie. Jiang Lu-xia shines, and watching her has made me more excited about the future of martial arts films than anyone in a long time. She probably deserves a better director and choreographer in the future, but the inexperience of both her and Xiong Xin-xin gives this movie a rough around the edges underdog appeal. I seem to have enjoyed Coweb a heck of a lot more than many other people, even among those whose opinions on film I take with some degree of seriousness. But whatever the case, I just found it really easy to roll with. It felt like it was 1992 all over again, with a bunch of us huddled around my shitty little television watching Iron Angels or Righting Wrongs for the first time. I had a big, dumb smile on my face after all was said and done. There’s very little pretense about the type of movie this is, and as much as I love the current trend of humongous overblown epics and haunted warlords in medieval China, I’m also a huge fan of lean, no nonsense ass kickers. On that level, Coweb more than satisfied me.
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jiang Lu-Xia, Sam Lee Chan-Sam, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Kane Kosugi, Wanja Gotz, Chan Kwok-Bong, Mike Moller, Peggy Tseng Pei-Yu, Wai Cha Go Si, Ho Chung-Lam, Geung Kam-Kui | Screenplay: Sunny Chan Wing-Sun | Director: Xiong Xin-Xin | Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung | Music: Mak Jan-Hung | Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho, Eddie Chan Shu-Chi | Original Title: Por Mong
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date.
These days, it seems like Japan makes about five zombie movies a week, each one more half-assed and dreadful than the last. Once, long ago, when Italy and the United States had lost interest in the zombie film, Japan decided to start cranking a few out. They started out modest but promising, and by the time we got to Wild Zero and Versus, I do believe that I naively exclaimed that the zombie film was well served by Japanese stewardship. Then they made Stacy, and I started to wonder if maybe I had celebrated prematurely. A few years ago, the United Stated rediscovered the zombie film, and zombies themselves became a pop culture phenomenon that ultimately degenerated into hipster zombie parties and zombie olympics and such. Japan wasn’t going to miss out on things, and a whole slew of cheap, new Japanese zombie movies were soon flooding the market. They were and continue to be high on wackiness and low on watchability, pretty much like their microbudget counterparts in America.
You would assume upon hearing the title that Zombie Hunter Rika is yet another entry in the seemingly never-ending parade of disappointing slapstick splatter movies that are getting pumped out of Japan at a remarkable rate. While it does contain some material that would be at home in a film by Noboru Iguchi, Zombie Hunter Rika is actually more of a straight-forward zombie film — or as straight-forward as Japan has ever made them. Think less Machine Girl, more Junk. It’s also kind of lame, but not so lame as to become totally unwatchable, which already makes it one of the best Japanese cult films in years. It’s a sad statement on the merits of the Japanese cult film when “I really only wanted to gouge out one of my eyes to escape it, rather than both of them” is seen as praise. But really, Zombie Hunter Rika isn’t even that bad. I still had both my eyes by the time it was over. It’s sort of bland and lacks energy in spots, and like all recent Japanese cult films, it has a stuttering, awkward pace. However, it also has just enough inspired moments to make it worth watching if you’re already a seasoned viewer of crappy zombie movies.
From what I gather, Zombie Hunter Rika is supposed to be the third film in a loosely related trilogy, but this is a trilogy only in the same sense that, say Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, and Zombie 3 form a trilogy. I have scheduled but have not, as of this writing, watched Zombie Self Defense Force, the supposed first film in this “Nihonbi” series. The second film, The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, is a largely a pinky sex film that has zombies thrown into the mix. I guess Zombie Hunter Rika falls closer to the Zombie Self Defense Force end of the spectrum, but with a little nudity thrown in to make the kids happy. I guess I will eventually discover what’s expected to link the three together, beyond them being about zombies eating Japanese people. It’s the sort of Bob Woodward-esque commitment to uncovering the story that keeps me going.
Rika and her best friend live in a world that makes almost no logical sense. There are apparently zombies, and the killing of zombies is a sport that creates pro wrestling style internet superstars like the famed Zombie Hunter (one of the worst white guy actors in Japanese movie history — which is a tremendous claim, I know). At the same time, life seems to go on as normal, and when zombies attack a small town, no one else seems to notice or be prepared for it. Some zombie films bend over backward to explain why it’s all happening. Others go with “we will never know what caused this.” Zombie Hunter Rika seems to be taking the approach of “whatever, man.” Rika and her friend fin themselves trapped on the wrong side of zombie gut munchers with her semi-catatonic sword master grandfather, his conniving new wife, her conniving rockabilly-esque brother, a few couple slapstick locals, and a benevolent zombie who has strapped a metal grate to his face to stop himself from eating people. When Rika loses her arm, they conveniently find the big muscular arm of a slain zombie hunter, graft it to her, and thus is born the world’s most powerful schoolgirl zombie slayer.
Shot on video, amateurishly made, but decently acted, Zombie Hunter Rika benefits greatly from diminished expectations. That it managed to be even moderately entertaining makes it seem like some great accomplishment. Some of the jokes are actually kind of funny. The conniving brother has a great fight scene against a gang of zombies in which he…well, it’s really hard to describe. But let’s say you had a friend who was actually kind of good at martial arts, and he got in a real world version of a Tony Jaa fight. It’s like that. There’s an air of competence about it, but without precision choreography, there’s also a lot of awkwardness, falling down, and flailing about. It was probably the best art of the movie, and it comes pretty early on. Action direction was done by Tak Sakaguchi, best known as the mysterious anti-hero in Versus but also one of the crew along with Noboru Iguchi responsible for the wave of aforementioned slapstick splatter movies. There’s an obvious jump in the energy level whenever Tak steps behind the camera to take over for regular director Ken’ichi Fujiwara.
The rest of the film follows the standard zombie film trajectory of a group of people holing up in a house to defend themselves. For the most part, the writing is really dumb, and the way the script has its character act in the middle of a zombie apocalypse just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Things start to drag during the second act, but no sooner are you starting to feel your patience wearing thin than they graft that arm on Rika and the film wakes up again for the finale. Things get insane in that way that seems unique to weird Japanese films but common to them all, if that makes any sense. A sort of predictable unpredictability, where you don’t know what crazy shit they’re going to make up, but you know they’re going to make up a lot of crazy shit. It’s film writing via getting a bunch of cult movie nerds drunk then letting them finish a script. Throw in a lot of zombie gore and some gratuitous boob shots, and you have a film that manages just barely to be on the enjoyable end of the bell curve.
Release Year: 2008 | Country: Japan | Starring: Mina Arai, Lemon Hanazawa, Kotaro Kamijo, Ryunosuke Kawai, Eiichi Kikuchi, Risa Kudo, Yuya Matsuura, Mai Minami, Tsugumi Nagasawa, Akina Serizawa, Takeshi Yamamoto | Screenplay: Ken’ichi Fujiwara, Takeyuki Morikaku | Director: Ken’ichi Fujiwara
Goro Miyazaki, son of famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, has achieved with his debut film, Tales from Earthsea, the same sense of profundity as his father. Unfortunately, while the elder Miyazaki’s profundity usually came from things like wonder, imagination, inspiration, wit, emotion, and beauty, Miyazaki the younger’s effort is one of profound tedium and disappointment. Some might defend the poor lad, saying that the shadow of his father is long indeed, and Hayao Miyazaki has set a standard for animated film making that his son, and indeed the entire Japanese animation industry, could never live up to. Of course, you could also say that Goro Miyazaki would be working at a Lawson’s Food Mart if not for his last name getting him a job. So, let’s call it even.
Tales from Earthsea had a lot of hurdles to clear. First, it was based on a sprawling epic fantasy series by Ursula K. LeGuin — a huge undertaking for even a very experienced screenwriter and director to adapt, let alone a guy trying to do both, and for the first time on top of that. Maybe Goro’s dad could have pulled it off, and indeed, rumors swirled that Goro was having such a hard time with the project that Hayao had to swoop in and clean up some of the mess, though I have no idea if any of that was anything beyond idle fan speculation. I don’t know if Studio Ghibli would want to use Hayao to get people to see this movie, or whether they’d want to distance from him as much as possible.
Eventually, Goro wrangled the books into this movie, only to discover that the US market was closed to him. It turned out that the Sci-Fi Channel had been working on their own Earthsea adaptation and was keen to make sure that their Earthsea was the only Earthsea. Or to be more charitable, they wanted to ensure that us poor, dumb viewers didn’t get confused by something as complicated as different movies based on the same source material, even though one ws a cartoon and the other starred Kristin “Chun Li” Kruek. As a result, the release of Tales from Earthsea in the United States was blocked, at least until such time as the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series vanished from the public consciousness (which, to be honest, probably happened a week after it aired). Despite legal wrangling, however, most of the people who wanted to see Studio Ghibli’s take on the material managed to see it anyway. And the word spreading through fans was that, to be frank, perhaps the Sci-Fi Channel was doing Studio Ghibli a solid.
I withheld judgment. After all, my standards are often vastly different from the average anime fan, so my expectations of what would make the movie good might be very different than those held by, say, someone who gave four out of five stars to Elfen Lied. In addition, I am not completely reverent toward Old Man Hayao. He’s made stuff I love, stuff I like, and stuff I didn’t really care about. He probably deserves all the hype he’s amassed, but I don’t really think that any artist is infallible. Similarly, I didn’t expect Goro to be the same as his dad, nor did I find the nepotism all that offensive. So despite the growing trickle of reviews ranging from lukewarm to deeply offended, I went into the movie with as close to an open mind as an old man such as I could ever hope to have.
What I found was that, as bad as some of the reviews made the movie out to be, I actually thought it was a whole lot worse.
Tales from Earthsea fails as a movie on pretty much every level other than background painting. Because I try to be positive, I will say that whatever slave wage artists Goro had drawing the backgrounds, especially in the city scenes, earned their paycheck. Everything else is a boring wreck. The screenplay tries to jam and juggle several of LeGuin’s novels into a two hour film, and it fails miserably. Plots, characters, and events are picked willy nilly from thousands of pages, and remixed into a tedious mess of a movie that seems designed to maximize the time we spend on the mundane (Goro Miyazaki must absolutely love watching people plow and walk through fields) while reducing anything like action, tension, emotion, or character development into as small an amount of time as he could get away with.
What we are left with is an unengaging, soulless story about a young prince named Arren, who one day stabs his father (hmm…symbolic, Goro?) and runs off. If there was a reason for this, the movie never really cares about explaining it. Arren ha a mysterious split personality, though why and what it means is something they feel doesn’t need to be examined. The wandering lad is soon taken under the wing of a wizard named Sparrowhawk, which is a better name than, say, Orcaseal. The two of them take us on a bored tour of assorted villages as they ride across the land. Eventually, Arren pisses of some slave traders, rescues and pisses off a girl named Theru, and gets himself caught in some ill-defined catfight between Sparrowhawk and his arch-nemesis, the Ziggy Stardust-esque wizard Cob. Eventually, a dragon shows up, because, why the fuck not?
The script puts almost no effort into explaining anything that’s going on or making us care about any of the characters. Things happen because the script says they have to. Characters sleepwalk through actions that don’t seem to have any real motivation. The entire muddled mess is devoid of any emotional hook, dramatic tension, or reason to give a crap about anything.
In my book, the idea of a “good” movie or a “bad” movie is unimportant. All that matters to me is, “Was I entertained?” And a film can, in my eyes, commit no greater offense than being boring. That doesn’t mean slow-moving. That doesn’t mean low key. You can be those things and still be interesting, entertaining, tense, what have you. Tales from Earthsea, however, is boring. Boring, spiritless, and just plain crummy. It’s a movie I wanted to like. I thought the subject matter would be interesting through the eyes of Studio Ghibli. Plus, I always like to champion and enjoy movies other people hated. I thought the potential for a great, sweeping epic was there, or for that matter, for a smaller, more personal story set against a larger background. I got none of that. I don’t doubt that Goro tried hard. I don’t doubt that he was under a lot of pressure. But hey — it’s a big game, and if he couldn’t play it, he shouldn’t have been allowed onto the field just because his dad’s a legend.
This movie was treading into precarious territory before I even saw it. Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite movies and not one I felt was in any need of being updated or remade. Still, I’m nothing if not fair-minded and bored late at night, so I decided to give this remake from 2008 a chance. While I told myself that I was going to judge it fairly, by the measure of it’s own merits rather than through the rosy lenses of my bias, I have to admit that i probably went in with a small chip on my shoulder regardless. Journalistic objectiveness is, after all, a myth. But I’m also not someone who is instantly offended by modern film makers remaking a classic, or what I consider to be a classic. To say The Last Princess is not as good as the original is, I think, fairly obvious. But the original notwithstanding, The Last Princess managed to be entertaining, if unspectacular. The very definition, I think, of adequate film making.
The new movie is a mixture of faithfulness to the original and material revised or creating anew for younger, more modern audiences who probably have no idea who Akira Kurosawa was. The basic premise remains intact. A hairy samurai (Hiroshi Abe, with unenviable task of stepping into Toshiro Mifune’s woven sandals) and a princess (played by tempestuous pop star Nagasawa Masami) are in hiding after a disastrous defeat at the hands of an enemy army. They also happen to be in possession of most of the gold from the royal treasury, hidden inside innocuous looking bundles of sticks, which they need to transport across the warzone and into the territory of an allied clan.
That much remains the same. But here, things begin to diverge from Hidden Fortress. In the original, they are accompanied by two bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing rednecks who offer to guide them to safety but mostly just want a share of the gold (or all of it, if they can steal it). In the remake, only one of the duo is a bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing redneck. The other is a hustler of questionable morals, but he’s also young and handsome, possessed of a certain tendency toward honorable behavior, and is played by boy band pop star Matsumoto Jun. In a nod perhaps toward focus group style filmmaking, The Last Princess devises a romantic subplot for the prickly peasant and the noble princess. I can’t claim much familiarity with either of the young stars, but my impressions based on this movie are that Matsumoto Jun might be a boy band member, but he’s also pretty decent an actor. You know, like Justin Timberlake, but with more unkempt facial hair. Nagasawa Masami, on the other hand, seems to struggle to keep up with both her surprisingly passable young co-star as well as the solidly talented Hiroshi Abe. Abe, for his money, is doing the best Toshiro Mifune impersonation he can, and he pulls it off pretty well.
Rounding out the cast of heroes is Japanese comedian Miyagawa Daisuke. With the one scheming peasant transformed into a dashing hero-in-waiting in need of a shave, the full weight of odious comic relief falls upon Daisuke’s shoulders. I’m not a particularly big fan of comic relief characters, partly because they’re almost never funny. Even in the original Hidden Fortress, the bumbling hick shtick was prone to wearing out its welcome and becoming abrasive. Daisuke still tends toward the irritating, but he’s a fairly adept performer and manages a few funny moments, so that already makes him better than most comic relief characters. Still, at least for me, the moments of the film where his character disappears were welcome.
Hidden Fortress was the closest thing Kurosawa ever made to a straight-forward, swashbuckling adventure film, and The Last Princess is similarly filled with sword fights and feats of daring. Yeah, a good portion of the adventure is marred by the over-use of CGI (the director was previously an effects supervisor), but at least it throws itself into the action scenes with energy and gusto. The finale is pretty fun up until the moment it feels the need to deliver a gigantic computer-generated explosion (which, apparently, manages to kill almost no one despite demolishing an entire mountain). Ending with a giant explosion was maybe effective back when movie makers used actual explosions, but climactic CGI explosions are considerably less thrilling. Still, the movie has enough other thrills to make up for it.
All in all, even given my initial hesitation to embrace a remake of one of my favorite movies, I thought The Last Princess came down solidly on the side of entertaining. It’s well paced, decently acted, and mostly fun. It even manages to have a human moment or two, which is rare in rollicking special effects blockbusters. In fact, despite the spectacle and sword fights, the film’s best moment is one in which defiant farmers refuse to stop their joyous celebration, even though the killjoy evil samurai demand all fun cease. I could have done without as much CGI, but that’s something all us old timers say about every movie. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more that adequate adventure cinema, and that’s what it is. Which was OK with me, because that’ really all I was asking of it.
If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?