Tag Archives: martial arts

Marvel’s The Defenders

[3 stars]

One of the biggest challenges coming into this collective mash-up was that each of the prequel/origin series had very distinctive styles. Daredevil was a sort of stylized, dark police/action series. Jessica Jones was a gritty, street detective show. Luke Cage was borderline black exploitation, but with a positive flare. Iron Fist was much closer to pure martial arts comic book than anything else, and with a weak lead to drive it.

This is is also the first time I’m aware of multiple shows feeding into a single new entity (and done so with intent, not a temporary cross-over or spin-off). Aspects and mysteries from each of the shows come up and are woven back into a single tapestry for a sixth season climax (Daredevil has had two seasons already). You just have to appreciate the audacity of it, if not always the execution.

The melding of the styles actually worked rather well; the first half of the season spent time mixing them together into a blend of something that absorbed aspects of each. They also didn’t immediately form the team, for which I was grateful. The Defenders are an uncomfortable alliance of, often, reluctant heroes. Fate and The Hand insist on throwing them together, but sometimes they’d rather be throwing each other. It makes for some nice moments of tension and humor, as well as the iconic Marvel “moments in the restaurant.”

In addition to our main heroes (and enemies), adding Sigourney Weaver (A Monster Calls) to this cast was a a coup. She plays one of the most quietly competent and confident leaders of the opposition I think I’ve seen. She never loses her cool or focus, though she  does manage to show some levels.

But as a series unto itself, as clever and fun as it is, the entire plot rests on the shoulders of the Iron Fist. Frankly, Finn Jones is just not up to the job. He comes across as immature and petulant rather than as broken and troubled while trying to find his way. It weakens the result and keeps you from emotionally committing to the effort. You just want to slap sense into the man-boy. It particularly makes the events leading to the climactic reveal feel silly. The ongoing reluctance of Daredevil’s sidekicks was a drag on the story as well, though it is handled significantly better.

Ultimately, the series goes where you’d expect, which is fine. This is a super-hero trope and the journey is as important as the results. The fact that clues to it are throughout the previous five series is really fun. I do want to see what comes next, but I’m hopeful/hoping that the focus will be on a different character, and that Danny Rand will finally grow into his long pants and be a bit more Tony Stark than Pee Wee Herman (and aren’t there golden fists jokes to be made there?). But you do have to see this if you’ve committed to any of the previous lead-ups just to see the other characters grow. It certainly isn’t wasted time, but I had hoped for something better given the strength of the other three leads.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was visually entertaining and intriguing enough that this follow-up prequel by the same writers and director caught my attention. Director and co-writer Hark Tsui has a boundless imagination and nearly overwhelms you with creative scenery and fights. Actually, if you are stuck with subtitles, it can be exhausting as the dialogue can be fast and furious, even during some of the action sequences.

But the story is full of action and humor and crazy, wild plot choices. Though there is a huge cast of characters, the film is really propped up by three actors: Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng (Monkey King 2), and Angelababy (Independence Day: Resurgence). The fights are replete with wire work, which isn’t my favorite for martial arts, but this is a fantasy and that is part and parcel of the genre. The fights are still entertaining and inventive…even if they defy all known physics. 

I’m not sure why Tsui decided to loop back on Dee’s timeline to slip in this prequel even while he was planning the next main timeline movie, but perhaps that will become clear when Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings releases. In the meantime, you have this confection to chew on, if you are into this kind of thing.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Objectively, this film had a lot going for it in its conception. It had global scale and an established global cast. Unfortunately it also had a pedestrian script and a weak director.

Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of the first xXx (and no one liked the second). This was definitely the best of the three, with a more complex plot, but sadly also with about as much depth. It is neither James Bond serious, Suicide Squad bizarre, nor Kingsman comic-bookish but has aspects of all those approaches. It can’t quite focus on whether its humor is ridiculously arch, as Toni Collette (Miss You Already) does it, or whether it is deadly serious. Director Caruso’s (I Am Number Four) pacing is all over the place keeping the various aspects from coming together seamlessly.

More frustratingly, while the action is wonderfully conceived, the filming, by design, never really caught a lot of the action (literally, they wanted it to feel like the camera just couldn’t keep up with it). And isn’t that the reason we go to films like these?

The cast is an extraordinary collection of talent. In fact, outside of the Expendables series, probably the densest collection of stars put together for an action film. Vin Diesel (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) of course heads the gang of adrenaline junkies, but he has added two of the top martial artists in the world, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (The Protector 2).

Into that mix he sprinkles in Ruby Rose (John Wick: Chapter 2), Deepika Padukone, Nina Dobrev (The Final Girls), Game of Thrones’ Hound, Rory McCann, and Chinese sensation Kris Wu, not to mention UFC’s Michael Bisping and real-life footballer Neymar. And (yes, more “and’s”) let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island). Seriously, there is someone for everyone in this punch, drive, shoot, explosion, free-fall fest.

In watching the extras, you get a real sense of what it was they thought and hoped they were creating. In many ways Vin was trying to evolve the xXx series as the Fast & Furious had, but with a bit more actual story. But it lost its way despite some excellent schematics to get it there. International audiences were kinder to the film (on the order of 7x the domestic box take), probably due to recognizable faces for them in the cast and a general emphasis on action over dialogue. Vin may be able to pull this out yet…he had the right idea, he just needs a better director and script.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]

Sense8

Samurai Jack (series 5)

After a 13 year hiatus, there was definite trepidation around how this magnificent series would revive; the dead so often don’t return with their souls intact. I needn’t have worried. Despite the gap in time (appropriate in some ways) and the move to computer graphics, Samurai lost little, if any, of its original sense and sensibility. Its minimal graphics were very much in its favor, and the return of Genndy Tartakovsky to oversee and run the result kept it on track. Even the loss of Mako as the voice of the great evil Aku didn’t slow it down.

In some ways, this is the best of the series. Before it was very episodic without much of a trajectory other than the increasingly scaling fights with Aku. The universe always expanded with new characters and ongoing interactions, but seasons never felt like they had a shape. This final series has a very definite shape and a eye to its ultimate ending.

If you like Samurai Jack, you have to see the end of the saga. If you somehow missed it before, discover it now and not have to wait over a decade to have your hunger sated for an ending. Samurai remains as good as ever and as beautiful and as poetic as it began.

Samurai Jack

Marvel’s Iron Fist

This is by far the most disappointing of the Marvel Universe series that Netflix has produced, which is why it has taken me so long to complete the run. It is the weakest writing and the least stylistic. It is, however, steeped in the mythos of the other tales: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These aspects make it more interesting than it has earned, frankly.

Iron Fist, as a character, has somewhat nebulous powers and rules, and his backstory is only marginally interesting for most of the series. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) manages a sweet demeanor, and the somewhat lost vibe of a young child in the world, but he is also just plain dumb as a character, making foolish choices. If this is the absolute best that Kunlun has to offer, they need a bigger population. And how did this simpering, whiny, tantrum throwing kid make it to Iron Fist anyway?

More generally, motivations for all the characters are hard to believe and understand. Tom Pelphrey (Banshee) and David Wenham (Lion) are all over the map on their choices and drives. Sure all of the men, including Jones, have some intense backstories, but I’d expect a clarity of purpose to be driving them so I can understand when things change.

The women fair a bit better for most of the series. Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Force Awakens) has nice levels and some obvious secrets. Jessica Stroup (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is a tough character but hard to pin down because she is unevenly written and used. By the end of the sequence, they have squandered her completely and weakened her unforgivably.

It is really the two returning characters are best served because they have actual history to draw on: Wai Ching Ho (Daredevil) and Rosario Dawson (Gimme Shelter). Both are easy to understand and, in the case of Ho, we finally get to learn a lot more about this enigmatic kingpin.

There really is only one reason to watch Iron Fist, but you’ll need to see the whole series to understand why and, even then, you’ll have to make a logical leap beyond their unearned finale. Marvel was due a weak delivery after all its high powered hits. And, to be clear, this isn’t awful, it just isn’t in the same class as its colleagues. Better writers and directors would definitely help. Some more time in the writers’ room to break out the episodes and season more interestingly wouldn’t be amiss either; creator/producer/writer Buck (Dexter) just didn’t hit his mark. I am hoping that as the story carries forward, the Iron Fist will find more solid story-telling.

Image result for iron fist

John Wick: Chapter 2

Stylish, brutal, and a great object lesson in inflexible rules and unchecked power. Oh… and wonderful counter-programming for Valentines Day!

This is that rare event where the sequel is actually better than the first movie.  The first chapter of this soon to be three part tale was a rocky start. After the initial brutality of the opening, it was really just a violence fest (however creative). Still it was fun and creative enough to bring me back for round 2.

Director Stahelski and writer Kolstad ran with what they started and built on it. The violence remains matter-of-fact. You don’t get to revel in it (with one exception). Killing is a necessity but not necessarily entertaining like we’re used to in films. Most movies use the fight choreography as a reason to cheer or show how clever the hero (or antihero) is. Jack Reacher, for instance, has pauses and moments so you can enjoy the fight and support the cleverness and prowess of the violence. It is a form of catharsis, but one that diminishes the reality of actions. Wick, on the other hand,  just keeps going, putting bullets and knives in bodies as he wades out of the shark tanks he keeps finding himself in. It isn’t something he is proud of, it is something he just has to do to survive. He even actively attempts to avoid killing if he can by giving people choices. On this point Reacher and Wick are similar, but it really more the way the fights are directed that sets Wick apart from most action films.

This chapter of Wick’s saga picks up pretty much from the end of Chapter 1. The short opening act brings that previous story to a close while providing the necessary background and reminders to re-illuminate the world. Then there is a brief respite. Hey, it’s John Wick, of course it is brief. This is where the new movie leaps ahead of its predecessor. We have a real, believable reason for Wick’s jumping back into the fray. And it is quite the fray. Keanu Reeves (The Neon Demon) is back full-force.

Intersecting with him for various reasons and in various ways are  bevy of interesting characters. Ian McShane (Hercules), Lance Reddick (Bosch), and Common (Suicide Squad) on sort of the side of right, and Riccardo Scamarcio (London Spy), and Ruby Rose (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) aligned against him (or against him moreso?). However you slice this it is Wick vs. just about everybody thanks to the rules of the trade and a lack of flexibility to those rules when someone abuses them.

There are two obvious moments that could have easily defused or changed everything in this script, but they were avoided. One is a scene with Common and the other McShane. Each could have changed the tide but neither could see beyond the rules as they had always applied them.

Admittedly, these issues could be seen as flaws in the script, or they could be seen as the point. I prefer the latter. This is a society in decay and impending ruin brought on by its own choices and issues. The rot at the core of it are the shadowy, powerful folks at the high table. As Chapter 3 comes along, I expect to see a razing of the landscape and a new order rise, but that’s just a guess.

The thing you need to really understand about John Wick is that while the movies are great rides, they aren’t gleeful at all. You leave breathless but a bit put off and yet rooting for Wick all the way. I respect that the violence isn’t directly celebrated, even if it actually is and we do. The movie is a conundrum, but I think in a positive way. Violence and actions have consequences in Wick’s world. And he takes a serious beating trying to navigate it all; we just get to ride it out, arms in the air and screaming gleeful, bloody murder.

John Wick: Chapter 2

The Monkey King 2 (Xi you ji zhi: Sun Wukong san da Baigu Jing)

Our myths and culture strongly affect how we tell stories. Watching film steeped in ancient Eastern myth can be both jarring and fascinating to a Western viewer like myself. The Monkey King figures in many Chinese stories. This tale follows the middle part of the Monkey King’s enlightenment.

Now this isn’t a good movie by any stretch. It is thin on logic and plot, in large part because it is more parable than film, but also because it was done on a smaller budget. The visual effects are many and, at times, nicely thought through. The fighting scenes, however, are marginal and so heavily dependent on wire work and CGI that they don’t feel at all believable. And the acting, well, actors hit their marks and made their points, but to say they were creating much of anything would be quite the fib.

Either you enjoy these kinds of films or you don’t. I do. They’re escapist, rarely predictable, and visually fun. And, as mentioned, interesting windows onto a way of thinking and mythos that are different than the bulk of what is available on a daily basis to me. For its genre it is middling on story but high on effects, so the choice is yours. I laughed, I enjoyed, and I’ll probably watch the sequel.

The Monkey King 2

Mojin: The Lost Legend (The Ghouls)

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Chinese  fantasy films aren’t for everyone. As I’ve admitted many times before, I love them for the spectacle and the choreography. The humor, however, as is the case in this one, is often a detractor as it tends to be overly broad. This particular film has some additional overlays of culture and history that make it unique as it traverses the Mongolian highlands. Mojin also focuses on a different vein of martial arts study, Ba Gua, than we typically get to see. But, unlike Tai Chi Hero, a related branch of fighting, The Grandmaster, or True Legend, this isn’t an origin story, so much as an opportunity to show off its philosophy if you can follow it. I couldn’t, but it got me to look it all up afterwards so I could understand it better.

The main roles in the film are a trio of modern treasure hunters, a physical trigram, played by Kun Chen (Let the Bullets Fly), Bo Huang (Journey to the West), and Qi Shu (The Assassin). The three work great together on-screen and Qi Shu is no shrinking violet when it comes to just about anything in this story.

Driving the story from the past of the two men is the memory of former comrade, played by Angelababy (Hitman: Agent 47). She is a regret they both have, for different reasons, and a wedge that tries to continually drive them apart. It is an interesting flavor to the action, even if a little forced, and adds to the complexity of the story in some nice ways.

This isn’t a great tale, but it comes at a lot of the standard tropes in some unexpected ways, which makes it just that little bit more able to hold your attention. The production design is also extravagant and detailed. And be warned, the Chinese and Mongolian, much like many of the attack moves, flies almost faster than you can read the subtitles at times. But for some fun distraction in the hands of some solid actors, this was entertaining.

Furious 7

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Story? Well, this doesn’t quite live in a world of reality (either for physics or procedure). There’s just barely enough of a veneer to slide your brain to the finishing moments. Then again, you don’t come to this series for reality. The problem is that it is long for a movie with little connection to the world.

What you do get is a testosterone-filled movie full of stunts… almost to the point of numbing breathlessness. Seriously, in the first half hour I pretty much stopped being thrilled because it was just a bit too much to absorb that many stunts in so short a time. Then they backed off enough from the quick bikini and action shots so that I was able to be impressed again. 

One odd knock-on effect with this installment was Paul Walker’s (Brick Mansions) death before it was finished filming. I had managed to avoid finding out how they dealt with the loss in the film… but that also meant I spent the entire movie wondering how they might exit him from the story. To their collective credit, the cast, writers, and director all were conscious of that fact and played with it throughout the movie. It is a bit of morbid humor, but it added a darkly fun overlay to the action. And their ultimate decision on how to do so was well done.

So, sure, see this for the fun and the continuation of the annoying cliff-hanger from Fast & Furious 6 and the insane stunts. I can’t imagine how they top this latest in the series, but they’ll have to in order to keep the franchise alive. And, currently, the plan is for 3 more installments…