Thursday, February 28, 2013

In short: Invasion Force (1990)

A low-rent film crew is shooting a movie for Action International Pictures Studios on a wooded mountain somewhere in the US South. The production seems rather ill-fated, though. It's "star" Troy (David "Shark" Fralick aka David Shark) is a mouth-breathing idiot, director Ben Adams (Walter Cox) hates lead actress Joni Marshall (Renée Cline) because she's got her role for being the producer's girlfriend, and Joni isn't too keen on Troy - or her producer boyfriend, for that matter. These problems will turn out to be rather minor, though, once a troop of armed non-US military personnel led by Michael Cooper (Richard Lynch) parachutes in, and decides that they really don't want any witnesses to whatever their surely fiendish plan might be.

The bad guys didn't figure on several things though: Joni turns out to be a natural born low-rent action heroine with curiously good knowledge of automatic weapons as well as a fine hand for decisive ridiculous pep talks. Ben is the kind of guy well able to rise above his lazy director ways once his properly inspired. And special effects guys? They can just do about anything.

Seldom do cheap action productions get as meta as this Action International Pictures Studios movie (see how meta it gets?) directed by - of course - David A. Prior. Not that the film deconstructs its own genre - I rather expect Prior watched F/X before writing the script for this one and thought a bit of self-referentiality would be a good way of keeping another of his Alabama-shot high concept/lower budget action films from becoming as boring as action movies that can't afford that much actual action can easily become.

If you're willing to go with the film (that is, ignore all the typical troubles of this kind of production and ignore silly concepts like logic), Prior's idea is even a good one. Here's a film working hard for providing its audience with some fun in exchange for their video rental fees, and because a handful of explosions (first exploding hut in the movie's first five minutes, exploding hut fans) and some really fake looking shoot-outs probably won't cut it, Prior will attempt to provide an adequate amount of fun via friendly self-referentiality, chummy and obvious yet probably true jokes about filmmaking for little money, and whatever half-baked plot he can barely afford to bring on screen.

Invasion Force convinced me of its special charm early on with its reproduction of the climax of a cheap action movie inside of an even cheaper action movie, and then continued to fight for my heart with Renée Cline's highly spirited scenery-chewing (particularly inspiring for her "pep talk" that'll make you cringe, cry, and laugh in equal manner) that may be bad acting but sure a hell is entertaining especially in contrast with the woodenness of everyone else except for (of course) Richard Lynch, and dialogue that often is rather funny and clever even though the actors (mostly "local talent" to whom the first part of the phrase applies more than the latter one) don't really know how to deliver it properly; the latter makes a film this good-natured and relaxed about its own nature actually more fun to watch.

It shows quite a bit of the true spirit of filmmaking to shoot a film nobody will expect anything of, yet not make the perfunctory bore you could get away with without a problem because nobody cares about films like this. Prior instead puts a bit of charm and love into Invasion Force only a handful of people will ever appreciate. For that, I can only salute David A. Prior.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In short: Cyborg 2: The Glass Shadow (1993)

In the future, two companies, one Japanese and one American, producing intelligent, feeling androids they call cyborgs for no good reason vie for world domination. Pinwheel, the American corp, decides to dominate their Japanese counterpart once and for all by blowing up the competition's executive level with a special cyborg explosive they have prepared their cyborg Casella "Cash" Reese (Angelina Jolie) with.

A quite independent cyborg (who actually is a cyborg and not an android like Cash) named Mercy (Jack Palance) who likes to communicate with the world via a negative image of his luscious lips on TVs lying around - and in this future, TVs are lying disused in the dust everywhere - has other plans for her, and pushes Cash and her martial arts instructor and owner of a big crush on his charge Colson "Colt" Ricks (Elias Koteas) into a daring escape attempt.

The bad guys send a crazy bounty killer (Billy Drago) and an equally crazy cyborg bounty killer (Karen Sheperd) after what will soon enough become the lovers, but as you know, love, kicks in the face and Cyborg-Palance conquer all.

Michael Schroeder's Cyborg 2 is a film that usually gets a bad rep as a horrible, horrible movie. I, however, somewhat emphatically disagree with that position, possibly because I just watched the film this isn't really a sequel of (even though there are a few seconds of random scenes from it inserted into this), and therefore know the difference between a boring low budget movie and one that is trying enthusiastically. Cyborg 2 is the kind of film Roger Corman could have produced in the late 70s if the late 70s had had a thing for somewhat cyberpunk-y futures. It's cheap, it's not as dumb as it pretends to be, and from time to time, it's even rather funny.

And really, what's not to like about a movie that contains: Jack Palance's lips chewing the scenery, and then Billy Drago and Karen Sheperd taking care of whatever he left of it, a young, pretty insecure and very cute Angelina Jolie (who does get naked, as does Koteas so there's nudity for everyone), copious amounts of blue, amber and red lighting, an arena fight below two ventilators, Jack Palance making things explode, cheap production and costume design that is either meant to suggest curious cultural crossovers in the future or a random grab into a wardrobe, and a story - such as it is - where love and an exploding Jack Palance cure all ills? Even better, all this stuff is told without too much boring filler and with a totally annoying synth soundtrack. If that doesn't make Cyborg 2 a winner in anyone's book, I don't want to read it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Timecop (1994)

In 1994, time travel has been invented (don't you remember?). The US government fastly realizes the danger of the new technology, what with possible ripple effects from changing the past large enough to destroy the universe, so they secretly (I think) open their very own time police.

Just before beat cop Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) can join this very special new field of law enforcement, some goons assault and nearly kill him and blow up his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) and their home.

Ten years later, in the far-flung future of 2004 when cars drive automatically and don't have any windows anymore, Walker still hasn't asked himself what the hell the attack was all about. Instead, our hero spends his time watching wide-screen videos (a part of the future the film gets very right) of his wife, working the time beat and having a frightening haircut. When arresting his former partner for temporal financial shenanigans, Walker learns of a horrifying conspiracy: senator McComb (Ron Silver) who just happens to control the senate oversight committee for time-coppery plans to buy himself the presidency with money made via the most obvious time manipulations he can think of.

Knowing that McComb is evil and proving it are two very different things, even though the senator has a tendency to go for explosions and violence where subtlety and secrecy would win him the day. Walker will need all his powers of face-kicking and one-linering to save the US from a president who bought his job (which would probably make the first US president who hasn't thanks to him), and perhaps change his own past for the better in the process.

With Timecop, we're already at the tail end of Jean-Claude Van Damme's short career as something of a mainstream movie star. Many direct-to-video action movies and a pretty substantial late-career renaissance should of course follow. Quality-wise, you really can't blame Timecop as a particularly bad influence on Van Damme's career, for this is a perfectly fine example of US SF action of a type that surely isn't going to wow anybody with its subtextual depth and clever plotting but sure knows how to entertain.

Director Peter Hyams is a bit of a specialist for this sort of thing, the kind of working director that can turn a mediocre script (and he generally isn't going to get a better one) into a fun movie without making a big thing out of it. Which does sound like I'm damning him with faint praise, but really, most directors working from mediocre scripts never end up with anything worth watching at all, certainly not with films that are as pleasant fun for ninety minutes as Timecop is.

When it's not going through the expected action sequences - pleasantly enough sequences that consist of more than just Van Damme doing That Kick and the splits, though there is room for both - Timecop also throws its audience's brains some bones. Sure, Ron Silver's plan is utterly moronic (and he's so proud of it, too, for some reason) and the plot is generally obvious, but there are a few nods towards the subversion of genre tropes to keep one interested - particularly when the film threatens to turn into that most dreaded of things, a buddy cop movie, yet then quickly doesn't. Plus, the final thirty minutes or so make good use of the time travel shtick to build up to an actually exciting climax, that also just happens to include the movie's best action scenes (since this is still an 80s movie despite having been made in the 90s, the finale of course takes place in the rain); unlike some action directors I could mention, Hyams does know about the wonders of escalation and what to do with them.

Van Damme is, of course, pretty much Van Damme here - allowed to be a bit softer around the edges than most US action stars, probably kinda pretty if you like the type, and at this point a rather convincing physical actor. Compared even with the first Universal Soldier movie made only two years earlier, Van Damme's performance has improved enormously. While he's certainly not in the business of competing with young Robert De Niro (he isn't trying, and needn't to, obviously), the stiffness and awkwardness has mostly disappeared from his performance and made room for a self-assuredness that fits an action movie star nicely, leaving his part of Timecop just as satisfying as the rest of the movie.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

In short: Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

I'm one of the proud few who thought the first Silent Hill adaptation was rather good (and, unlike the Roger Eberts of this world, didn't find myself unable the understand what was going on in it), so I did go into the sequel with an uncharacteristic degree of optimism despite the negative critical tone towards the film all around. After all, when do mainstream film critics understand or appreciate genre movies?

Alas, Revelation (loosely based on the third Silent Hill game) actually is as bad as they say. It's particularly disappointing because director Michael J. Bassett has made some often clichéd and slightly stupid yet entertaining and atmospheric films before. It's actually a bit of a shock how little of the positive traits of his filmmaking Bassett shows here. His script somehow manages to have a plot that is much less effective on a dramatic level than that of the videogame it is based on; Bassett changes all the wrong parts (basically everything that's original and clever) of the original Silent Hill 3's plot, and keeps those parts that don't make much sense keeping in a movie. There's also so very much needless exposition (some of it made even worse through just as useless flashbacks to the first film), as if the director were afraid of keeping anything unexplained in a film belonging to a franchise that has ambiguity at its heart.

I could still live with all of these flaws if Revelation were any good on a visual or just atmospheric level, but the production design consists of visual elements ripped from the game without any understanding of their thematic meaning, used without any idea of what to do with their inherent creepiness. This is a movie that manages to make even Pyramidhead and that damned bunny silly instead of creepy - if that's not a sign of a director who doesn't know what he's doing I don't know what is. Even worse, Silent Hill: Revelation is a movie that needs to be inherently Weird but is utterly clueless about what that even means.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Battletruck (1982)

aka Warlords of the 21st Century

The apocalypse has come and gone (again). After the Oil Wars, the remnants of humanity have divided into the usual camps, though there do not seem to be any mutant cannibals around.
Former military man Straker (James Wainwright) cruises the empty highways of New Zealand with his bands of crazy thugs in an armoured truck, always looking for fuel and people to crush under his boot heels. Just after his awesome crushing technique has gotten him possession of a large underground fuel depot, the girl Corlie (Annie McEnroe), with whom Straker has a rather complicated relationship, escapes from the fascist's loving arms.

Straker's men are just beginning to catch Corlie and bring her back again, when the motor-biking Hunter (Michael Beck) appears and rescues her. Hunter is the proverbial post-apocalyptic loner living his life in the mountains, fuelling his bike thanks to the wonders of chicken shit, and really having no room for other people close by. Consequently, Hunter loads Corlie off at a base democratic commune named Clearwater he is somewhat friendly with.

The people of Clearwater are quite good at living a dignified post-industrial life, or as dignified as life gets when you mainly live on turnips, and do take in Corlie. Unfortunately, Straker isn't too far behind still looking for the girl. Obviously, he has no moral qualms with steam-rolling some radical democrats. For the moment, Corlie escapes Straker and seeks help with Hunter, who will have to change his loner ways a little to help her and Clearwater out.

Harley Cokeliss's Battletruck is, despite of a production credit by Roger Corman's New World Pictures (at a point when that company was still able to produce good B-movies), a film shot in New Zealand by people from New Zealand.

In tone, the film is one of the slightly more serious post-apocalyptic films, not just without giant insects and mutants, but also clearly trying to paint a somewhat believable picture of a world after a third world war that doesn't seem to have become very nuclear and the destruction of most oil fields and fuel reserves. Unlike in most films of the genre, people don't dress in leather and latex and drive dune buggies around (though the second vehicle of the bad guys is relatively close to one), but look as if they were actually dressing in scavenged clothing as well as home-made ones, clothing clearly chosen to keep them warm in a world without central heating. Instead of cars, what we see of people use horse drawing carts made from car parts.

The same goes for the few buildings in the film - most everything looks as self-constructed by amateurs as is to be expected, yet also like the kind of building one could imagine to see people construct in their situation. The only aspect of Battletruck going somewhat in the direction of the silly are the few motor vehicles; these still look pretty home-made with their dubious "armour" which just doesn't seem all that useful or probable. At least the vehicles do fit stylistically into the rest of the film's production design. I also don't think you are allowed to make a post-apocalyptic movie without improbable vehicles like the VW Beetle thing Hunter drives during the climax, so Battletruck just had to get with the program.

The scavenged and home-made look of the film goes quite a way in providing it with the proper post-apocalyptic mood, but the real star of the movie is director of photography Chris Menges's work. Menges - who by now has won two Oscars - shoots the properly awe-inspiring and beautiful landscape of New Zealand with an eye for natural light and the inherent strangeness of nature. It's a truism that, if you can't afford much of anything on your budget, but have the right landscape around you, you can still make a film that looks like several million dollars, in particular if you have a DP of Menges's quality. It also sure doesn't hurt to have a director with Cokeliss's talent for using a small number of buildings and vehicles so economically the audience mostly won't notice how small that pool actually is.

On the negative side, there really isn't that much substance to the film's script. The characters and their relationships - with the exception of that between Corlie and Straker - are a bit too simple, the political allegory so obvious I can't even get snarky about it being an allegory (the lowest form of subtext), and the pacing of the film's second half turns from slow to snail-like.
Despite these misgivings - and what I think is the curious attempt to sell the film as taking place in the post-apocalyptic USA via bad accents - Battletruck's visual power and the lived in feel of its post-apocalyptic world are more than enough to recommend it, at least to post-apocalypse movie enthusiasts like myself.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sitting Target (1972)

Despite having landed in prison thanks to a mysterious snitch, hardened professional criminal Harry Lomart (Oliver Reed) seems willing enough - though not happy to, mind you - to peacefully wait out the next fifteen years or so in prison. After all, his wife Pat (Jill St. John in a surprise non-awful performance) is going to be waiting for him when he gets out, so there's something to look forward to, right? Harry's disposition changes when Pat visits him to give him a particularly fine Dear John speech. Not only does she want to get divorced, but she's also pregnant by another man. Harry's not the kind of guy to take news of this sort in stride, and unsuccessfully attempts to strangle Pat at once.

A bit later, Harry and his partner and eternal best friend in crime Birdy Williams (Ian McShane) - in fact, they seem so good friends it is sometimes curious why Harry is so hung up on his wife seeing as he is also married to Birdy - break out of jail. Birdy would prefer to just flee the country, but Harry still has his murderous plans for Pat (and her elusive new man) in his heart, and Birdy's not the kind of friend who leaves his buddy just because of a minor murder plan. Or because Harry does the unthinkable for a British criminal (even of his rather brutal persuasion) and acquires a gun and starts using it quite like the bad guy in a crime movie. This sort of behaviour doesn't just increase the enthusiasm of Inspector Milton (Edward Woodward), the man in charge of protecting Pat, for his work, but also strains Harry's relations in the underworld to a breaking point. It's really just the question of how much carnage he will be able to cause before somebody gets him and Birdy. Perhaps he'll also find an answer to the question of who exactly did initially snitch on him. Harry probably won't like the answer.

Douglas Hickox' Sitting Targets belongs to the fine group of deeply pessimistic crime films (one could argue they are even more pessimistic than the classic noir movies) made in the UK during the 70s whose most famous example is of course Mike Hodges' Get Carter, and rightly so. Sitting Target is a fine example of the form too, filtering a gritty sense of reality (rather than "realism") through the lens of the sort of artificiality that is meant to heighten intensities rather than break them. There's - apart from the dramatic one - no irony in Hickox' direction. No curious camera angle, no peculiar framing of a scene is meant to point out its own artistry; everything is in the service of characters and plot.

Still, from time to time Hickox lays his obvious visual metaphors and clever camera angles on a bit too thick, not like somebody who wants to point out his own awesomeness, but as if he were afraid the audience wouldn't get what he's trying to do unless he hammers it home and then hammers it home again. A man for subtlety and ambiguity the director ain't.

Fortunately, the film only suffers from that sort of over-emphasis (which always reminds me of Eisenstein when I encounter it) in a few scenes, and isn't at all ruined by it. Hickox also shows himself adept at increasingly intense, often just slightly bizarre and highly creative action scenes. My personal favourite is a sequence where Reed has a peculiar kind of duel with two motorcycle cops in an immense mass of hanged laundry. It's the sort of scene that should be ridiculous taken at face-value but is set-up and filmed with so much cleverness and intensity it's impossible not to take it absolutely seriously.

That scene - and many others - wouldn't play quite as well if not for some rather great acting, with Reed playing the kind of violent, intense and too frequently unthinking man (critics often like to use the word "animalistic" here, but that's a cop out word to describe physical emotionality as primitive if ever I heard one) he got often typecast as with all of his immense powers of glowering and slurring his lines (an approach whose general lack of subtlety fits the film it occurs in perfectly). As is often the case in his movies, Reed's performance is the obvious main attraction in the cast (in Sitting Target's case quite logically so for plot reasons), but McShane and the other actors do more than create good foils for his various outbreaks and sudden mood shifts. The way they play it, there's more going on than the violence and the shouting, just not necessarily things Harry as a character very much caught up in his own emotions is able to realize, turning him into another crime movie protagonist caught up in things very much beyond his control and understanding.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Cold green skin against soft warm flesh...a croak...a scream.

Tekken (2010): Veteran TV and low budget director Dwight H. Little's Tekken may very well be the best adaptation of a fighting video game. Which is to say that is goes through all the mandatory plot beats of every tournament movie ever, adds some post-Blade Runner low budget multiculturalism, shitty music, and a bit of the ole Hero's Journey and arrives at a film that is perfectly entertaining for the ninety or so minutes it runs, if the viewer is willing to accept a lot of silliness, or has a working sense of humour. I sure am and sometimes have. The film's best moment is probably when the SF tournament movie threatens to turn into a SF revolutionary action movie for ten minutes or so, but clearly, politics and family problems are best solved in the ring. An additional attraction is that the movie can be the basis for the most drunk drinking game imaginable based on the mention of the word "Tekken".

The Transporter 2 (2005): After the high of the first Transporter, this sequel shows Besson's Europa Corps. up to their usual crappy tricks again: the script is insultingly stupid (Luc, that's not how a virus works), the jokes about as funny as dying a painful death, and the action may be loud but is not at all involving. That charm I liked so much about the first Transporter is gone only to leave even more product placement in its place, and the sense of fun has been replaced by the film shouting at my that I'm supposed to have fun…or else.

Transporter 3 (2008): This one's something of a return to form for the series in so far as it doesn't flaunt its own stupidity for more than a few scenes, but mostly prefers to play its perfectly good stupid action movie high concept (a kidnapped politician's daughter, exploding bracelets, the Power of Love™ and an evil US corporation feature in the plot) straight. It's a bit of a shame to see director Olivier Megaton bury some clearly excellent car stunt work behind awkward camera angles and confused cuts, as if he weren't trusting his superior stunt team to actually delivers what it promises despite even this mutilated form not being able to hide their excellent practical execution of awesome-silly ideas. Still, this one's at least decent entertainment, heights the previous film was never able to reach. Plus, there's some choice objectifying of Jason Statham (whose fighting style really seems to be based on stripping) for those in the target group for this sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In short: Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

I find two types of films the most difficult to write about. The first one are films so mediocre in all aspects they leave me with the feeling they don't exist as anything else than as artefacts created to fill otherwise empty spots in DVD stores or TV schedules; these movies aren't painful to not write about.

The second type, on the other hand, are films like Peter Strickland's utterly brilliant Berberian Sound Studio that leave me a little exhausted by their sheer aesthetic perfection. Here, the only way to write appropriately about a film is to describe every noise on the soundtrack, every edit, every movement on screen in the most meticulous detail possible. Proceeding thusly, one does of course only produce a long, tedious piece that could never even hope to explain or reproduce the aesthetic richness of the experience of actually watching the movie. So that's not a thing to do either.

Therefore, the only out left - apart from ignoring a film much too wonderful to ignore - for me is to pretend being a professional movie critic. That song goes a little something like this:  "Berberian Sound Studio - Brilliant acting, brilliant soundtrack, brilliant sound design, brilliant direction. 10 out of 10! Watch if you have even the slightest bit of love for Italian genre movies of the 70s, hauntology, films that don't slavishly adhere to the most simple narrative structures, intelligent weirdness, critique for genre tendencies that still loves the genre it critiques or just plain great cinema!"

Gosh, I sound just like Entertainment Weekly if they'd let people with actual taste write for them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Mechanik (2005)

aka The Russian Specialist

After taking bloody vengeance on the men who killed his wife and son, former Speznaz soldier Nikolai Cherenko (Dolph Lundgren) leaves Russia to illegally work in the US as a mechanic. After years, a clearly very rich family seeks Nikolai out to convince him to return to Russia and rescue their daughter Julia (Olivia Lee) from the hands of kidnappers. At first, Nikolai isn't interested in doing this kind of thing anymore, but once he is told the leader of the kidnappers is Sasha Popov (Ivan Petrushinov), the guy mainly responsible for his family's death whom Nikolai left for dead in his vengeance spree, he's all in.

Nikolai hires British expatriate William Burton (Ben Cross) for information and organization purposes, grudgingly takes on a group of Russian redshirts as helpers, and off he goes to the rescue.

As it turns out, rescuing Julia isn't that dangerous (unless you're a redshirt) but then getting her over the border to Finland (rural Russia of course being played by Bulgaria) is quite a bit more difficult, particularly with Sasha and his men hot on our heroes' trail.

I'm rather often making fun of Dolph Lundgren but leave it to the often fake-Russian Swede to make a cheap yet excellent little action movie with himself in the leading role like a rather more likeable Kenneth Brannagh (I think I may have mentioned my loathing for that particular one-man-show once or twice, too). As a director, Lundgren isn't particularly showy when it comes to the action sequences. They're all shot with surprising restraint, and few attempts to show off by overusing stupid post-production effects. Lundgren seems to prefer a more direct and straightforward approach to action direction I generally prefer too, with a certain scruffiness in choreography and approach that reminded me of nothing so much as of certain US b-westerns.

That isn't to say Lundgren doesn't do anything beyond pointing the camera in the direction of the action. It's rather the case that Lundgren puts his direction in the service of his (maybe minimal yet pretty effective) plot and not the other way round. From time to time, he even does something subtle (nothing you see every day in a low budget action film) - I particularly liked the contrasting use of the usual bleached out colour scheme all films made after 2002 are bound by law to use and something slightly more colourful to enhance certain emotional moments.

Staying with the theme of subtlety, the director/actor's approach to emotional scenes is also more controlled than you can expect in a cheap action movie. While the film hits the expected emotional beats, it doesn't feel the need to hammer them home, in the clear knowledge that the audience has seen characters and narrative structures like this before and will be able to understand them even if you don't turn your melodrama to eleven. From time to time, I even had the impression the film mildly criticized the rituals of male violence and the dead women following them, though that might be me reading a bit much into a simple and straightforward film. At the very least, this is a film that doesn't go the "kidnap victim falls in love with her rescuer so that we can include a sex scene" road, and prefers a rather more believable moment of basic tenderness between the characters.

Anyway, if Lundgren ever directed a film not about Lundgren killing a lot of people (though he doesn't kill that many here: this is a movie where surviving a one to five shootout is seen as impressive badassery, which is good for the film's budget as well as its believability, really, and keeps the grand finale actually more tense because our heroes feel more human), I'd actually be quite excited to see it.

Until that day, I'll probably keep myself happy re-watching The Mechanik.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

Let's just pretend Universal Soldier: The Return never happened or was a long dream sequence created by Luc Deveraux's addled mind. It's easier than you think.

In this new, improved timeline, a Russian terrorist group led by a guy named Boris (Aki Avni) kidnaps the children of the Russian Prime Minister, and holes up with them and his small private army right next to Chernobyl reactor number three, wiring the reactor to blow if his demands are not met. To make a bad situation worse, Boris has acquired the services of mad scientist Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale), one of the core developers of a new, improved for the age of cloning and genetic restructuring UniSol project. Colin has brought one of the new UniSol prototypes (Andrei Arlovski) he stole when the project got shattered because of the psychological unpredictability of its subjects with him, providing the Russian with a rather effective one-man defence perimeter for his radioactive base.

Because the Americans are at least half responsible for this little problem, they bring in a bunch of troops and the four last first generation UniSols to take Boris down. Unfortunately, the old UniSols turn out to be no match for the new model, and after they are slaughtered, the remaining soldiers turn out to be even less of a problem for the unstoppable killing machine.

The only chance to disarm the explosives and rescue the kids is now good old Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who has been in experimental psychological treatment with a Dr Flemming (Emily Joyce). Flemming's attempts to de-program Luc and turn him into a complete human being again are not very successful. Luc is disoriented, depressed, and still prone to violent outbreaks at mild provocations; one might even think he was happier as a mind-controlled killing machine, or at the very least more at one with himself. Of course, the military-industrial complex has no qualms using him again, if he wants to or not, so his opinion really doesn't matter all that much.

While Luc is being prepared for slaughter, tensions between Colin and Boris lead to the activation of Colin's fail-safe device, a clone of Luc's old enemy Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren). Alas, Clone-Scott is in the middle of an existential crisis himself, and we all remember what happens when he starts to think, so the level of chaos and violence when Luc finally becomes whole (that is, a monster) again will be rather higher than expected.

My, John Hyams really is a rather good and clever director of what by all rights should be low-rent, low budget action movies. His UniSol: Regeneration trades in the slight silliness of the first movie and the ridiculous cheese of the second for a somewhat more thoughtful treatment of the whole undead, genetically modified clone warrior business, using the necessary breaks between the ultra-violent punch-outs and shoot-outs to actually try and imagine its psychological effects on said warriors. The film does clearly realize that there's a bitter irony in the fact that Luc, the most fully human UniSol we meet, is much more himself when he leaves his humanity behind; there's already the hint of the UniSols becoming a species different from humanity Day of Reckoning (more about that one at a later date) would go on to deliver lurking in the shades.

Regeneration does not yet crawl as deep down the rabbit hole as the later film does. The comparative thematic complexity in Regeneration is used to enhance the impact of its action scenes, and not the other way round like in Reckoning, but as with most action movies that actually use themes and characterisation (even Boris has actual motives and an implied history to explain his actions), the film does become all the better for it, proving again that carnage is much more interesting when a movie provides the audience with a reason to care. On the negative side, Regeneration's plot is a bit unfocused from time to time, the script clearly working around the fact that Van Damme and Lundgren weren't available (or not cheap enough?) for all that many days of shooting but the film needed to get to length. However, the film's more flabby moments do at least always connect with its thematic interests, so there's never that horrible moment so typical of the way low budget movies have to be produced when scenes have no reason to exist in a given movie at all.

Van Damme gives one of his better performances here, selling Deveraux as a killing machine (no surprise there) as well as an existentially confused human being with the appropriate degree of subtlety. Even Lundgren, generally the weakest actor on this level of US action cinema (unless you count Seagal and Norris, but I've always found it better to ignore those two completely, for moral and political reasons) for my tastes, does rather well in his relatively minor appearance, even using a bit of subtlety in his approach I honestly didn't think think him capable of. The rest of the cast is appropriately good - physically menacing in the case of Arlovski (who actually takes part in more fights than anyone else on screen), scenery-chewing in that of Shale, and so on.

But what, the impatient may ask themselves about the action in this action movie? Well, Hyams is pretty great at staging that too, using the film's industrial building locations and grimy corridors (there are a few equally grimy outside locations too) as creatively as possible under the circumstances, and even finding money for a neat little car chase at the film's beginning. The numerous fights and shoot-outs here are too bloody to be pretty (the director obviously likes a good bit of gore), but are impeccably edited and staged with all the physicality and tempo one can wish for.

If you're like me, and you sometimes start to drink heavily when thinking about the sad state of contemporary low budget action cinema, a film like Universal Soldier: Regeneration comes as a fine antidote for the blues, for its ambition as well as its ability to turn its few resources into something nearly spectacular.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Exploder Button: The Squeeze (1977)

Did you know Michael Apted once was one hell of a director who made one of the hidden gems of UK 70s crime movies? I sure didn't until a few weeks ago, when I watched The Squeeze, and found myself confronted with a great and gritty crime movie that somehow still manages to be humanist.

I go into more detail in my column over on Exploder Button.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In short: Hunt To Kill (2010)

In theory, border patrol beefcake Jim Rhodes (Steve Austin) has plans to use the winter break of his daughter Kim (Marie Avgeropoulos) - action movie hero daughters are all called Kim for contractual reasons - for some quality bonding time. There will in fact be bonding time for the two of them but of a rather more violent manner, for the gang of raving lunatics - among them good old Gary Daniels - of a certain Banks (Gil Bellows) has come to the mountains of Montana to hunt down their former boss (Michael Hogan) who absconded with a lot of money and tried to blow them up.

When their paths accidentally cross, the bad guys kidnap Rhodes and Kim because they need a wilderness guide to find their intended target. Whatever happened to paying a shady alcoholic for these things? Of course, seeing as this is a direct-to-DVD action film, violence ensues soon enough.

Ah, the horrors of basic competence. No single element of (direct-to-DVD, but you already knew that) Hunt to Kill is remarkable in any way or form: Keoni Waxman's direction is serviceable if you're not afraid of films on whose frame composition has not been spent a single thought beyond "are the actors in the frame?". The acting is okay in a very okay manner with Bellows doing his best to be a scenery chewing psychopath but unable to ever not come across as a basically nice guy playing a psychopath, Austin glowering a lot (surprise), and everyone else being kinda there. Eric Roberts pops in to die in the pre-credit sequence, for an international superstar of his calibre is clearly too pricey for the film at hand. The script is clichéd and kinda dumb yet not so dumb the film gets ridiculous or interesting, and there's no visible effort to bend any cliché even in the slightest; the only black character is not only the rapey one but also dies first, for Cthulhu's sake. The action is barely okay, with some decent poky-stick-based gore once Austin's character channels his inner serial killer, and hot rock-climbing and ATV racing action as supposed highpoints, but never a moment to actually wow anyone.

These aren't the elements of a film that's horrible in any way, shape, or form, but of a film completely lacking in actual personality, the cheap burger of action movie-dom. At least I learned from Hunt to Kill that to best way for a father and daughter to bond is for her to realize that Daddy is the kind of guy who kills people he has already rendered helpless.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Jet-hot action! Jet-hot suspense! Jet-hot thrills!

The Expatriate (2012): Philipp Stölzl's film about a former CIA operative (Aaron Eckhart) getting into trouble with an international conspiracy that includes his former handler (Olga Kurylenko) and threatens to cost the life of his daughter (Liana Liberato) is a neat example of the modern international (producing countries are the USA, Canada, Belgium and the UK, the director is German, and the actors are coming from everywhere) spy thriller. It's not a film that hits many surprising beats but it tells its story well, with the proper amount of violence and one of the more convincing variations on the "daughter and father come together through the father's talent for lethal violence" theme. Plus, the acting's more than decent and in the Europe of this film - quite unlike in that of Europa Corps. movies - brown people aren't automatically evil.

Killer Joe (2011): This is one of those cases where I absolutely understand the wave of approval a film and its director (in this case a William Friedkin absolutely not willing to coast on previous achievements or attempt to copy them) are met with, see the artistic value and the plain effort in every shot, yet still, when it comes down to it, can't get excited about the film in the slightest, and even feel rather annoyed by it. Large part of the reason for that might be an ending that works wonderfully on a subtextual level, less so as the tour de force where blackest comedy and violence meet I think it's supposed to be, and makes little sense when you try and see the characters as people. And here comes the other, much heavier, problem I have with Killer Joe into play - I have my doubts it sees the uneducated Southern poor it concerns itself with as actual people instead of as objects it can slyly look down on as so stupid and alien they deserve whatever shit is coming to them; at the very least, the film lacks any kind of sympathy with its characters, and without that sympathy, I don't really see a reason to care about a film be it as artful as it may.

Seven Psychopaths (2012): Yet another movie I'm not as in love with as I'm probably supposed to, even though it is full of things I love in my movies: Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, meta, the subversion of genre standards, an excellent taste in music, shaggy dog stories and direction that thrives on details. Problem is, I like my subversion of genre tropes rather more subtle, or at least less self-congratulatory. Martin McDonagh's film loudly points out that it's subverting tropes right now about every ten minutes, instead of just doing it and trusting in the audience to understand what it's doing. There's something self-congratulatory and smug about this approach that rubs me the wrong way and really doesn't fit the actual charm and intelligence that the film's script shows when it's not patting itself on the back. Of course, this is also a film that loves to stop its critique halfway, pointing out the absence and uselessness of women in action etc. cinema but then not doing any better by its own female characters, so maybe I'm just expecting too much of it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sinister (2012)

True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), with a career ever on the downward path after his first book hit big, has a modus operandi that isn't bound to make him any friends: he and his family - wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) and son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) - move to the community where the crimes Ellison is going to write about took place in what one can't help but assume is some sort of writer method acting; writing highly critical of the local police generally follows. Needless to say, it's not a very good way to make friends, or have a peaceful family life.

This time around, in his quest to solve the murders of a family of four and the disappearance of their daughter, Ellison even goes a step further. Without anyone's knowledge but Ellison's, the Oswalts move into the house the victims lived in and in whose backyard they died by hanging. Tracy is sure going to be happy if she finds out.

On the very first day in the house, the writer finds a box full of super-8 movies. Instead of the expected home movies, these films show a series of murders that began some time in the 1960s. The find seems to set something in motion around Ellison. Increasingly bizarre things happen to him in the house at night, things that soon enough can't be explained away as natural anymore. The writer's further research turns up disquieting facts that suggest the murders could be part of an occult ritual connected to a Babylonian godhood known as The Eater of Children. The more Ellison learns and suspects, the more horrifying his nights become.

It's as if Ellison's attempts to find a hidden truth had started a process leading - perhaps - to knowledge but also to an inexorable doom.

I'm repeating myself, I think, yet it's still true: sometimes, writing about the films that impress me the most - or in this particular case actually leave this hardened horror movie watcher anxious and not too happy to be rather close to his bed time at the time of writing - is the most difficult because whatever I could write about a movie like Sinister makes an inspired achievement in the "horror movie as nightmare" part of the genre sound like just another well-made movie. Of course, Scott Derrickson's Sinister is a well-made movie, one where sound and vision (hi, David!) very consciously come together to near hypnotic effect, where no scene hasn't a clear - and in hindsight often rather horrifying - reason to be on screen. Sinister is a tight film, seemingly slow-paced but actually relentlessly economic, with more than one sequence I find difficult to get out of my mind now.

Of course, I'm pretty much the ideal viewer for this sort of thing; supernatural horror about weird, ritualistic occurrences, films with a tendency to let the real slowly bleed into the realm of nightmare (or maybe the other way around), horror that is beholden to the Weird, all belong to a fictional area where I feel at home. I'm bound to like a film like this nearly automatically, particularly when it is so damn good at what it does as Sinister is. There are a lot of ideas and concepts in here I love in horror: the unstoppable doom once a protagonist has quite innocently stepped over an invisible line dividing the quotidian world from something dark and not really explicable, the strange and psychologically horrific mechanisms of said doom, the base in a vague mythology that isn't meant to explain things but rather to make them feel more pervasive, the way the film uses the sinister undertones and physicality of analogue film technology, the intensity with which the personal drama and failings of the protagonist and the basis of the horror are feeding off each other without the whole affair turning into a morality play where the abnatural's function is to punish the protagonist for these failings (the film's universe seems much crueller, or just less moral than that).

I could go on and on and never truly get to the point of what makes Sinister so special, so I'm just going to shut up and recommend anyone interested in horror to watch it in a cop-out write-up ending I stole from mainstream film critics.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Transporter (2002)

Frank Martin (Jason Statham) spends his post-military retirement living at the Cote D'Azur. Because retirement isn't cheap - and because he clearly likes excitement - Frank works transporting illegal goods and people in his souped-up car through France. Because he likes order, or is a functional neurotic, Frank has some rigid, unbendable rules to protect himself from knowing too much about the things he transports, chief among them "never open the package".

One day, he does open one, and finds a young woman (house favourite Shu Qi) inside. He's professional (or bastard) enough to still deliver her without questions asked and pretend he didn't open the package, but the guy he's working for (Matt Schulze) likes to make sure of things, and so attempts to blow Frank and his car up. The latter doesn't survive, while the former becomes royally pissed off. While breaking some henchmen legs and stealing a replacement car belonging to his former client, Frank accidentally re-kidnaps his former package.

Lei, as she is called, does not take long to charm and lie herself into Frank's trust (some actual romance is involved too), for she fastly identifies him at the big softie he is at heart, and could really use her own personal do-gooder right now - not just for protection but because a whole lot of enslaved illegal immigrants could really use some rescuing.

I am, as I have made clear a few times already, not the biggest fan of the particular style of action movie Luc Besson's Europa Corp. trades in, because all too often, what is probably meant to be light and silly ends up feeling stupid and just lazily written to me.

So by all rights, I should find Louis Leterrier's - with action direction by Corey Yuen - The Transporter just as off-putting as I do most other EC movies, particularly since the film also trades in travel ad pretty (and therefore boring) landscape photography, product placement for German car manufacturers, and the kind of slick direction that always signals a lack of character and personality to me.

As a matter of fact, though, I do enjoy The Transporter immensely. For once, I do find the humour in a Besson-written Euro action movie actually funny instead of annoying, the silliness of some of the action scenes perfectly sensible, and don't want to strangle anyone for the sin of too lazy plotting. Sure, the script isn't a brilliant intellectual effort, but it uses shortcuts only to get to the more interesting parts faster and not to smugly assert its own superiority over things like logic or basic characterisation. We're of course still in the realm of action movie short hand and cliché characters here, but those are delivered with relish and conviction. I wouldn't ask for more from this kind of film.

Unusually for an action movie - even one as consciously light in tone and relatively non-lethal in its violence as this one - Statham (whom I will never love but who is much better at basic acting than most action movie specialists) and Shu Qi (who can be a serious actress if a film lets her yet also can just do "adorable" with frightening ease as is the case here) have actual chemistry between each other that makes the little romance bits in the film rather pleasant and charming (it's that word again). Turns out some charm goes well with car chases and martial arts-y fights.

The action is pretty good too, going from cheap yet exciting car chases to martial arts fights that even (not a big surprise given Yuen's family background as a member of an important family of martial arts choreographers) dare become silly like a new wave kung fu movie. Statham's a bit on the slow side in the martial arts scenes for my taste, but I do appreciate the film not overusing stunt doubles and not trying to hide the humanity of its star behind rapid editing. That's something The Transporter's sequels will take care of.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Universal Van Damme (sort of): The Expendables 2 (2012)

Shady CIA person Church (Bruce Willis) presses Barney Ross's (Sylvester Stallone) team of biker mercenaries (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and newbie Liam Hemsworth) into service to catch him a McGuffin out of a safe inside a crashed plane. Because you wouldn't let these guys attempt to crack a safe when you want to keep the things inside it un-exploded, he loans them…a GIRL(!) named Maggie (Yu Nan) with expertise in safecracking, not doing shitty one-liners, and killing people.

Alas, once our heroes have acquired the McGuffin - that turns out to be a computer map showing where the Russians hid a lot of weapons-grade plutonium during the cold war - bad guy Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his sidekick Hector (Scott "Totally Russian" Adkins) take it away from them, killing the newbie Expendable who had "guy who will soon die to motivate the heroes' killing spree(s)" tattooed on his face, in the process.

Obviously, the rest of the gang swears vengeance, but there are quite a few people to kill and cameos by Arnold "Couldn't Deliver A Joke If His Life Depended On It" Schwarzenegger and Chuck "Racist Homophobic Prick Whose Comedic Line Delivery Is Even Worse Than Schwarzenegger's If You Can Believe That" Norris to survive before the manly happy end.

Simon West's The Expendables 2 shares a lot of flaws with the first movie: the competent yet curiously indifferent action (a problem that is exacerbated because the film has to convince us of things like Statham being able to beat Adkins in a martial arts fight, Schwarzenegger actually hitting someone when he vaguely points his gun in a direction and wobbles around like an old man way past his prime, that sort of thing), the stupidity of its smugly winking humour, the inability to do anything with Jet Li (whose role is reduced to a mere cameo here anyway), the banking on nostalgia as the film's only reason to exist.

West's film even adds even more problems to these. The film is treating its main bad guy Van Damme as a cameo character who isn't actually in the movie much, which - oh the surprise - turns out not to be something that improves a movie's dramatic weight. For if the film doesn't give a shit about its bad guy, why should the audience care if the good guys can kill him or not? Even when he's on screen fighting, Van Damme is quite underused, an really not allowed to do a move which isn't THAT KICK during his fight (see also indifferent action).

The cameos - and the nostalgia that goes with them - are another of The Expendables 2's problems, because they are handled so badly: the film really is just stopping to pop in Schwarzenegger and Norris (as if anyone wanted the latter) without even attempting to integrate their appearance properly into what little plot there is, and without a care this method kills any tension that might have been left. It's clearly more important to West and his film to have Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis exchange old catch phrases and Norris (yuck) make a Chuck Norris joke than to make an action movie with these guys that is actually exciting.

That's a bit of a shame too, for there's a much better (and more entertaining) movie hinted at whenever Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Crews and Nan Yu (Couture might as well not be there, and I'm honestly not sure if he actually is in much of the film) are allowed a little leeway to just relax, trade comradely jokes and shoot some people in an off-handed manner. Of course, that would be an actual movie and not just boring nostalgia and "irony", and therefore nothing West, Stallone, and co. are interested in.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In short: Cobra (1986)

Marion "Cobra" Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) polices the streets of the City with all the finesse of a bulldozer, dropping dead bodies wherever he drives his show-off car with the "AWSOM" plates (seriously), and whines about the horrors of cops having to follow the Laws they're sworn to uphold at least sometimes whenever possible. Cobretti's special talents are needed when model Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen) witnesses something she'll only later realize is part of the Night Slasher serial killings terrorizing the city. If anyone would listen, Ingrid's testimony would also hint at the horrible truth about the Night Slasher: the murders aren't committed by a single man but by a veritable cult of maniacs who like to spend their killing-free time rambling about "the new order" (a much better band than anything on the soundtrack) and standing somewhere underground rhythmically hitting axes against each other. What's up with that? The film ain't tellin'.

Because the cult tries to kill Ingrid, Cobretti makes it his goal to protect her with all the lethal violence he clearly relishes as much as the bad guys. Things get decidedly more difficult for him because killing is really the only thing he's good at - he just sucks at actual police work. Plus, one female cult member just happens to be a police detective (perhaps driven insane by the stupidity of her colleagues?).

Ah, the 80s, when nothing was more predictable than movie cops showing no aptitude for actual police work but a real hand at sadistic violence combined with self-righteousness and whining being held up as ultra-cool heroes. So it comes as no surprise that director George Pan Cosmatos treats Stallone's character (hilariously outfitted with everything a twelve year old thinks is cool) in Cobra as an admirable hero throughout, notwithstanding the fact that he's clearly too dumb to get a job filling out parking tickets and is pretty fucking ineffectual too boot. On the positive side, there really isn't that much time for Stallone to mumble the usual fascist platitudes (they are more used for one-liners, as when he declares "you have the right to remain silent" before he burns an already helpless cultist alive), because there are cars to crash, guns to shoot, and things to explode, and really, the film's politics are as dumbly argued as its hero is, so there's little I can take seriously enough to actually get angry about here.

Of course, it would have been nice if the script had bothered to give its hero some sort of character development from - say - cop on the edge to cop over the edge, or had provided some kind of coherent motivation for the gang/cult/political party he wipes out, but that would have meant an actual effort Stallone's script just doesn't seem willing to make. This would also have improved the film quite a bit on an emotional level, for as it stands Cobra is a movie about an asshole I don't care about fighting other assholes I don't care about. The action scenes are well done, and Cosmatos knows his mid-80s grime well, but that doesn't automatically lead to a movie worth watching.

I know, I often enough champion films here which are just as dumb, just as mean-spirited, and just as shoddily written, but these films generally have something, let's call it soul, or personality, or charm, I just don't find in Cobra.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In short: Two Moons (2012)

Original title: Doo Gae-eui Dal

So-hee (Park Han-byeol), Seok-ho (Kim Ji-seok-I) and In-jeong (Park Jin-joo) wake up in the proverbial dark house in the dark woods without any memory of how they got there or why they might be there. Something's not right at all with the house: there are strange noises, the feet of a floating woman hanging in the background, an atmosphere of dread hanging over the place. The three just can't shake the feeling they're not alone. After some uncomfortable and confused time spent in the house, Seok-ho and In-jeong decide to try their luck walking through the woods (at night, in the dark), only to walk around in increasingly panicked circles, with a side order of floating woman ghost.

The situation doesn't improve when they make their way back to the house. So-hee seems weirdly calm about the whole supernaturally threatening situation. Sure, she says she's a horror writer and part-time sensitive, but is that really all she knows about what's going on? And while I'm asking questions, what's with the two moons hanging in the sky?

I've fallen a bit out of love with South Korean horror in the last few years. Many of the South Korean genre films I've seen that were made during the last two or three years shared high ambitions, high technical competence, and an obsession with twists but seldom managed to actually use their ambitions wisely or come together as actual movies.

I'm happy to report that Two Moons is a much more effective film. Somewhat ironically, it achieves this state of grace by ramping down its ambitions concerning thematic resonance, deeper thought, or anything else of this sort, and really just seems to want to be one thing - a scary movie that'll make an audience jump, start, and perhaps shiver for ninety minutes or so. For once, this comparative lack of ambition works in a movie's favour. Director Kim Dong-bin (whose only other directorial credit lies with the disappointing Red Eye) concentrates on all classic scare tactics apart from the jump scare (no spring-loaded cats for you, audience!), turning a series of typical and not quite so typical horror sequences into a horror film that may not possess much depth but sure as hell is fun to watch. I'm particularly fond of Kim's use of spooky things happening in the background, a technique that can get annoying fast when overused or used by someone who doesn't realize what's actually scary about it (hint: scenes like these aren't about showing the audience something particularly scary but about reminding it of the feeling of someone standing behind them when nobody should be there) yet works wonders in the right hands. The director also shows a fine eye for the use of different types of light to help change the mood of scenes, or even to pace them; it's also nice to watch a film that isn't just yellow.

Two Moons' plot is based on several twists - it's still a South Korean horror film after all - with a basic set-up that is very silly once one thinks about it but it's so well paced the annoyance twist-heavy plots usually produce in me didn't set in. Not that I found the film's twists particularly surprising (this isn't my first movie about amnesiacs waking up in an old dark house, after all). Rather, their execution didn't necessarily need me to be surprised by them to keep them working; I, too, do appreciate a twist-y horror film confident enough to keep its twists inside the rules it establishes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Tournament (2009)

So, when was the point western low budget (though The Tournament is low budget compared to mainstream cinema, and not compared to your typical Steve Austin vehicle) action movies turned good again? Or have I just been unlucky these last few years and always stumbled upon the bad ones while other films provided the warm glow of explosions and the merry colour of blood I was craving? It's a thing to get philosophical about, so please insert your own description of the cruelty of the universe here.

Scott Mann's The Tournament is the latest film convincing me to ask this bundle of questions, for lo, it is pretty great. The titular tournament, managed by a Mr Powers (Liam Cunningham), takes place all seven years in varying places around the globe. In it, thirty of the world's most dangerous assassins dumb, desperate, crazy or jaded enough to play in this sort of game, are set loose in an unsuspecting town or city in a battle to the death. Everyone has an electronic capsule implanted that shows them as nice little blips on their co-contestants' cells, and makes the whole thing easier to follow for the rich perverts betting on the game via the inescapable surveillance cameras. This time around, the game takes place in a city in the North of England. To make things more interesting, this year, the capsules not only work as tracking devices but will also blow the remaining contestants up if more than one of them is still alive after twenty-four hours of bullets and explosions.

Among the contestants are depressed Hong Kong killer Lai Lai Zhen (Kelly Hu), insane Texan with a penchant for cutting off fingers Miles Slade (Ian Somerhalder), French Parkour-based killer Anton Bogart (Parkour athlete Sebastien Foucau), last game's winner Joshua Harlow (Ving Rhames) and an assortment of meat played by people like Scott Adkins (as in many of his films inexplicably cast as a Russian) and Craig Conway. Harlow retired after the last game and is only taking part in the Tournament again because somebody killed his wife, and Powers has told him the killer is among the other contestants. Violence ensues, as was to be expected.

Things get more complicated when Bogart manages to cut out his tracer and smuggle it into the coffee of the disgraced alcoholic priest Father MacAvoy (Robert Carlyle), and turn the priest into bait. Fortunately for the priest, Zhen quickly realizes that he isn't an actual contestant, and even better for him, unlike Powers she actually cares. So Zhen decides to protect MacAvoy from sure death, which just might turn out to be the thing that saves herself as a human being.

As I said, The Tournament is pretty great fun, despite the obvious plot holes, and its need for its audience to believe in a criminal conspiracy so effective it can not only repeatedly organize this particular type of death match but keep it covered up despite the mass slaughter going on in public. The thing is, once the film has made its set-up clear, it treats the whole bit of silliness with unblinking seriousness, which always goes a long way with me if a film wants to convince me of a silly idea or three, and leaves me with no will to argue with it. Additionally, The Tournament's action is paced in the proper break-neck speed that makes it increasingly difficult to find time to nitpick.

These action scenes are pleasantly varied in style and approach too, so you get a bit of martial arts fighting, various bloody shoot-outs (there's not much gore but oh so very much splattering blood I couldn't help but think, "analyse this, Dexter Morgan"), as well as some car stunts, all culminating in a particularly great melange of all of these things. Even better, Mann may be prone to a bit faster editing than I generally prefer yet he never loses control of the scenes, so it is at least always clear who does what to whom in which position.

Even though the film's dramatic plotlines don't sound very interesting on paper (I bet most readers have already deduced the film's two biggish twists from the plot basics I provided), they do work rather well in humanizing the core characters, be they killers or not, providing film and audience with a reason to care for what happens with them.

The film's triple redemption plot does not lay things on too thick, either. It may not be very original but it works well grounding the carnage in something relatable and human, which often makes the difference for me between a competent action movie and a great one. The Tournament, also thanks to the simple yet effective performances by Hu, Carlyle and - to a lesser degree - Rhames, is rather a great one.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Cyborg (1989)

For some reason I decided not to make my irregular series of posts about the body of work of Jean-Claude Van Damme too easy on myself, and start with the really painful films early enough. Please keep in mind I enjoyed a movie like Universal Soldier: The Return well enough, so my definition of "painful" might just be a bit skewed. Be that as it may, I give you a film directed by the god king of boredom himself, Mr Albert Pyun. And nope, this write-up isn't based on the "director's cut", for as far as my sources tell me, Pyun made an even more half-assed job out of that one.

Anyway, Cyborg. It's the end of the world again, this time via all-purpose "chaos" followed by a horrible, incurable plague that has left the remnants of humanity throwing all of their crap out on the streets and donning combinations of leather vests, fur vests, swimming goggles, chainmail shirts (hullo RenFair!), and so on; I bet they'd drive dune buggies too if only the budget allowed them to. Warning: I'm now going to turn a backstory told in various ill-placed flashbacks into something linear that might be construed as spoilers if you're an idiot. Decades after the collapse, some scientists in Atlanta are on the way of developing some sort of cure (???) for the plague but they need some sort of data hidden in the computer system of New York (????) to make it work, so they turn the scientist (?????) Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon) into a cyborg to go and retrieve the data from the city. They kinda forget to improve her defence capabilities in any way, shape or form, of course, or else we wouldn't have a movie. New York, alas, is ruled by the iron fist (okay, chainmail vest) of one Fender Tremolo (oh gawd, it's like JoJo's Bizarre adventures, only lame and boring; right, he's played by a Vincent Klyn), leader of a band of what the film for some reason calls "pirates" (though I bet the script spells it "pyrates").

Fender rather likes the state of the world as it is, so when he inevitably catches Pearl, he decides to kill her at oncebring her to Atlanta herself so he can, umm, ah, you got me there. Before Fender could kidnap Pearl, she met the "slinger" (like a D&D ranger, but crap) Gibson "Gibs" Rickenbacker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who may not have been able to save her, but now slowly, very very slowly makes his way through post-apocalyptica to rescue her, or rather, to kill Fender, because of course Gibs is one of those action heroes with a brooding-inducing past that causes them to pretend to not care about anyone. Plus, Fender and Gibs have backstory the film will slowly, very slowly dole out over the rest of the running time in numerous flashbacks, even though even the dumbest of viewers will have gotten it in the first one. On his slow, slow way through perfectly fine woods the film still calls "The Wasteland", industrial buildings and more industrial buildings, Gibs picks up drifter Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter) so that Van Damme isn't the only one to shove his nude ass into the camera. Will everything culminate in the shoutiest action sequence in the rain ever shot in the most boring way possible, shortly after a crucifixion scene? You bet!

Did I ever mention how much I hate the movies - okay "movies" - of Albert Pyun? It's a bit sad, really, for Pyun has all the misguided enthusiasm, drive and frightfully bizarre vision of an Ed Wood, and while that's not the sort of thing that usually leads to "good" movies, it is generally the sort of thing that leads to beautiful, confusing and deeply human movies. Unfortunately, Pyun has one singular talent as a director, and that is to turn even the most awesome, ridiculous or entertaining sounding thing into pure boredom. It's perfectly alright with me when a film is dumb, its plot makes not much sense, and Ralf Moeller is wearing a glam rock wig in it, but I can't abide when a film is this boring.

Particularly poisonous - please keep in mind this is supposedly an action movie, a genre that thrives on pacing - for the film are the numerous, deeply redundant and boring flashbacks that usually - boringly - hammer home points the audience has gotten felt hours ago (leave it to Pyun to make an 80 minute movie that feels longer than the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy in the extended versions). I assume Pyun's ideal audience consists of people even dumber than himself. Yet even when the film isn't flashing back this way or that way, Pyun's singular un-talent turns everything it touches more boring than one could have imagined, magically transforming what probably was supposed to be an exciting chase plot with a bit of emotional impact into a long, tiring dreg of a film. It doesn't help (action movie, remember) that Pyun clearly doesn't have a clue how to stage or film action scenes, so that the best we can hope for is Van Damme doing That Kick repeatedly, and dropping onto Ralf Moeller's head from doing a particularly awkward wall-version of the splits. I'd be excited if I - like Pyun, one supposes - had never seen an even mildly successful action movie before.

In better hands, some of the script's ideas (the comparative vulnerability of Van Damme's character, the curiously off-beat post-apocalyptic world) could probably have gone somewhere, but Pyun drowns every good idea in hours of nothing of interest happening.

Here I'm nearly finished with the movie (thank Cthulhu, who probably produced), and I still haven't even mentioned the purported hero of this series and the movie, JCVD. That's because at this early point of his movie career (it's his second leading role as a good guy if I count correctly), before his short stint as a movie star and the subsequent awesome afterlife as direct-to-video hero, there really isn't much to say about him. As an actor, Van Damme is still rather overwhelmed with simply emoting in front of a camera. Paired with a director who doesn't know what he's doing and certainly won't provide any guidance, this leads to a performance of half-assed, constipated glowering that is supposed to be tragic brooding, mumbled dialogue, and That Kick. I've seen worse in even more low-rent action films, but that doesn't make Van Damme's performance here any more entertaining to watch.

The rest of the cast shouts and growls a lot, which seems like the only reasonable reaction to Cyborg, really.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Body Count (1995): Despite a promising beginning, this (kinda) action movie about Sonny Chiba and his girlfriend Brigitte Nielsen murdering themselves through a "special" police department with members like Robert Davi, Steven Bauer and Jan-Michael Vincent to find out who of them first hired Sonny to kill a gangster boss and then set him up to be arrested, soon turns into a bit of a slog. It's the kind of action movie where the sporadic action scenes are actually decently done, but in between, there's a bunch of boring and irrelevant dialogue and disinterested acting by people who could do better. The only thing that kept me awake enough to not miss the curious finale in which Chiba steals streetcar as most inappropriate escape vehicle imaginable were the horrors the film's costume department inflicted on him and Nielsen. Is that a glittering baseball cap on your head, Chiba-sensei?

Crawlspace (2012): This Australian low budget movie has nothing to do with the other movies called Crawlspace (in case you're like me and always fear an unnecessary remake). It's about some soldiers with crappy call signs crawling through the mad science base of the Australian/US governments - which incidentally only consists of various sizes of crawlspaces - and having trouble with the mad science experiments running loose. This is one of those SF/horror films that would have only needed a script that's a little sharper, and acting that's a little less clichéd to become actually good. As it stands, the movie is competently done and entertaining enough as long as you don't think too much (or at all) about it, but too often falls needlessly back on clichés and underdeveloped ideas.

Play Dirty (1969): House favourite Andre de Toth directs a war movie following a britizized (it's a real word, I'm sure) Dirty Dozen formula starring Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport. The film contains an astonishing amount of cynicism and bitterness towards war, humanity, and the British class system. Play Dirty features its share of tight action, but below the very slight veneer of "war is an adventure" lies a deep undercurrent of loathing the film likes to express with a sarcastic sneer one can hardly ignore. It's an impressively effective movie at that, and as far from any propaganda bullshit as I can imagine.