Tag Archives: martial arts

Gunpowder Milkshake

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a blend of John Wick and Bad Times at the El Royale, with maybe a dash of Terminal thrown in. Think a sort of hyper-real, female assassins tale. It isn’t quite as lyrical as it might have been, and the editing and timing were off for the first half of the film bringing down the energy, but it holds together and is definitely a fun ride.

At the center of it all is Karen Gillan (Spies in Disguise), in full Nebula voice, as a disassociated, abandoned woman doing the only thing she’s ever known how to do. And she does it very well. Things, of course, go wrong and she finds herself suddenly in the position of trying to do the right thing to balance out the voices in her head. This brings us to another wonderful performance by Chloe Coleman (My Spy), who has now lost her second chance at a big screen launch thanks to the pandemic, but who continues to impress.

Joining Gillan, from her past and present, are a collection of strong women fighters, cast as much for the abilities as they are for their past roles, providing a fun resonance. Lena Headey (Fighting With My Family), Michelle Yeoh (Boss Level), Carla Gugino (The Space Between Us), and Angela Bassett (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) make an impressive set of co-conspirators. And each gets their moment to shine. Paul Giamatti (I Think We’re Alone Now) adds a small bit of patriarchy for them to respond to.

This isn’t a perfect film. As I mentioned, the energy and timing are off for the first third to half. However, it does come together and has room for more stories. Much like John Wick, there is ongoing potential as the various levels of the onion get involved. For a bit of mayhem and girl power, spin this one up and enjoy the carnage.

Gunpowder Milkshake Poster

Vanguard

[3 stars]

I came for the Jackie Chan (The Foreigner) and stayed for the fights and action. Really, there isn’t much else in this latest Stanley Tong adventure. The story is standard and the dialogue (in a multitude of languages) is neither clever nor surprising. And, just as often, delivered with the emotional truth of a large pine tree as anything else. There isn’t even much of the trademark Chan humor.

But the fight choreography is pretty wonderfully conceived. Even the wire-work and CGI moments are fun. But there is plenty of honest work in there too. And it’s visually pretty amazing as it globe-trots through various continents.

What was also interesting was how loaded with cliché and Chinese propaganda the script was. Chan, as a Hong Kong native and with a movie that was finished just as China was locking down, headlines this flick that is arguably a slap at his roots. While Chan is only acting in this film, I was surprised he stepped into it…though I’m sure it had something to do with how previous collaborations with Tong’s helped launch him out of Hong Kong and into the world with movies like Rumble in the Bronx.

This is an entertaining diversion if you like the genre, but this isn’t a good film. Settle in for the eye candy and athletics, but check your brain and emotional critic at the door.

Vanguard Poster

Castlevania

[3.5 stars]

Honestly, I thought I’d written about this series in the past; I’ve certainly talked about it to folks. Now that it’s wrapped up, I guess I can tackle it all at once.

Based on the video game by the same name, there is little doubt as to what you’re jumping into here: Vampires. Lots of them…and magic, demons, armies, religion, well, you get the idea. A revisionist medieval tale that features Dracula. The target audience here is decidedly adult. It’s not even a little bit kid-friendly and honestly a bit over the heads of most teens to boot. And it’s frankly jaw-droppingly good at times, and just shocking at others. The voice talent corralled for the series is top notch as well.

The journey of the four seasons is more complex than you might expect. It grows from a single, tragic event and then unspools in multiple directions. All of it comes back together. The final season is a slightly rushed as it wraps up all the various threads, but how the pieces come together is really a thing of beauty. And all the bitter-sweet conclusions leave it all feeling fully satisfying and complete, if a tad manipulated at points.

If you’re looking for something different and really intriguing, this is a nice ride with a lot of meat to it, and not a little bit of blood.

Castlevania Poster

The Paper Tigers

[3 stars]

Hong Kong Kung Fu movies are for a very particular audience. This isn’t one of those in the Stephen Chow (Journey to the West) vein, but much more in the Bruce Lee or Chow Yun-Fat oeuvre. In his first feature as both a writer and director, Quoc Bao Tran draws on his love of that genre and delivers a solidly American version. And the movie is almost entirely told with a BIPOC cast, something he had to fight for when bringing his story of aging disciples regaining their mojo to fight an evil to screen.

The trio of washed-up fighters centers around Alain Uy (Helstrom), who provides the broken heart of the clan. Along with Mykel Shannon Jenkins and Ron Yuan (Mulan), the three struggle with the murder of their Sifu and must come to terms with their past, each other, and themselves in order to win the day.

There are others, both from the disciples’ past and present. Primarily, Matthew Page, who plays it so over-the-top as to be distracting. But then there’s a host of faces and solid fighters that you’ll recognize if you follow these kinds of flicks and I’m not going to spoil them here. Though Ken Quitugua, as both stunt choreographer and character, is worth mentioning as someone new to watch for down the road.

The end of the story is also about what you’d both expect and hope for. But I do have to say I found it ambiguous, at best. There is a moment in the ultimate fight that left me with a huge question mark. I don’t know if that was my over-active imagination or a choice in the story. I still keep turning it in my head to make the most sense of it. If there is anything I’d like to talk to the director about, it was that moment. Well, that and some of his parenting choices in the tale.

The journey has broad humor, broad realizations, imperfect choices, and surprisingly rapid returns to ability (though not in all cases). It isn’t entirely credible, but it is within the bounds of the genre and satisfying.

If you love Kung Fu, this is a worthy entry into the canon. It is also a great first showing by Tran, with a lot of promise of what may yet be to come, outside of his own stunt choreography efforts.

The Paper Tigers Poster

RoboGeisha

[2.5 stars]

Every bit as silly and bloody as you expect from the title…and, yes, it is bat-shit crazy. It is, in fact, so bizarre that it was even more fun to watch with the badly dubbed English 5.1 track (rather than the original Japanese stereo with subtitles).

Truthfully, I can’t defend this movie on any level. It isn’t quite “so bad it’s good” like the old Ed Wood films. But it isn’t so full of itself that isn’t also punching itself in the face consciously. Writer/director Noboru Iguchi is clearly a prolific, gonzo creator. He has no boundaries and an evil sense of humor.

So, I admit: I laughed a lot. I hope it was in places Iguchi intended. But I can’t say I’d seek out any more of his work. One was enough. You may find him more to your liking.

RoboGeisha Poster

First Love (Hatsukoi)

[3 stars]

Ah, the bloom of young love. Takashi Miike (Blade of the Immortal) is one of the few directors who could take a sweet romance as the spine of a black comedy drenched in blood and make it work. And he took Masa Nakamura’s (The Bird People in China) script and did it in style, giving us real characters and drive amid the battles between Yakuza, Triad, and various other elements.

Masataka Kubota is caught up in the center of the storm that Shôta Sometani starts in motion, and which kicks Becky into overdrive. The plot goes somewhat as you expect, if you expect a farce resolved in sword and gunplay rather than the slamming of doors and marriages. But Miike takes his time with the quieter moments as well, which makes this a bit more than you might expect, even if it is solidly between the lines of its genre.

If you like Miike, you’ll enjoy this romp. If you’re not familiar with his work, this isn’t a bad place to start. This is one of his modern settings, and less fantastical, but it definitely retains the dark heart that beats in everything he puts to screen. And if you are new to his work, just know it’s OK to laugh. In fact, it’s intended.

First Love

6 Underground

[2.5 stars]

Has there ever been an  explosion, car chase, quick-cut, battle, or inappropriately stupid joke Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) didn’t like? The answer is “no” to all these (again) in this hyper-charged action/adventure that went straight to Netflix.

Now the truth is that you’ve likely already seen this one…I know I’m way behind the curve. As much as I was looking forward to Ryan Reynolds (Pokémon Detective Pikachu), having Michael Bay in the driver’s seat was not encouraging me. And, as I expected, the result was uneven and beggared credibility at just about every turn. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining, particularly if you just wanted to turn off your brain and watch some very long and spectacular car chases and fights, but it wasn’t a great movie or one that required more than a single viewing.

The sign of a good action/adventure is that you want to see it over and over again, not just for the visuals, but for the personalities (if not also the story). Compare this to the even more recent Extraction on the same streamer. Sure it was action-heavy, but even with a less complicated plot, it has more complete characters; people we want to see again. And, in fact, that movie has a sequel in the works.

Adding to 6 Underground’s challenges, forgetting how it was handled by Bay, the script was surprisingly weak given that it was from the same team that brought us Zombieland: Double Tap and two Deadpools, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese. Then again, they also brought us Life. Bay’s primary weakness is that he doesn’t recognize issues in the scripts he’s using because he’s just focused on the next big visual. He creates a pastiche rather than a story, from which he hopes we’ll knit together a narrative in our own minds while he worries about the pretty pictures.

Reynolds, though the binding thread of the story, is really part of a ensemble. Mélanie Laurent (Now You See Me), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Bless Me Ultima, Widows), Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody), Adria Arjona (Good Omens), Corey Hawkins (Kong: Skull Island), and Dave Franco (The Little Hours) complete their gang. While each, generally, has an amusing and entertaining character, there is little connection between them, even when they are being physically intimate. They’re just “types” and sounding boards for the plot and action.

Against them are a pair of brothers. Lior Raz plays a suitably horrid dictator, with his moderate brother Peyman Maadi (A Separation) as the semi-willing pawn being pushed into place.  These two probably have the richest characters in the entire movie. They have levels, conflict, and history. Heck, they even get actual endings and evolution, which is more than I can say for the good-guys team.

For a night of empty entertainment with some very expensive action gags to carry it along, this could be your go-to. If you want an actual movie, you probably want to look somewhere else.

6 Underground

Shadow (Ying)

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Yimou Zhang (The Great Wall) brings his sense of production and action to this court intrigue with umbrellas. That isn’t, “he does it with umbrellas,” but rather that it is a “court intrigue with umbrellas.” Really, that will make more sense when you see it.

Chao Deng (Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame) does an amazing job of playing the two roles of a man and his double. The distinction between the two is complete, though admittedly helped by the forced nature of one of them. Li Sun and Xiaotong Guan provide Deng a nice backdrop along with the slightly extreme Ryan Zheng (The Great Wall). But the story is more subtle than you expect, especially by the end. While the characters are in some ways fairly stock, each has layers and moments that break those boundaries.

Shadow isn’t brilliant, but it is gorgeous and intriguing. It keeps your interest and continually surprises both in plot and visually. If you enjoy Chinese cinema, and Yimou’s work in particular, it is a nice addition to his opus.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

[4 stars]

Watching the animus between Dwayne Johnson’s (Fighting With My Family) Hobbs and Jason Statham’s (The Meg) Shaw through the Fast & Furious franchise has always been entertaining, but it also got a bit tiring. It was just so forced and so over-the-top. This latest installment to the franchise gives the characters space to breathe. Sure the one-liners and fights barely stop between the two, but the story actually builds a relationship between them that allows the jokes and slams to continue, but now in a more believable way. “Believable” is, of course, a relative term in the world they’ve created, but compared to other stories in the franchise, this one felt more complete amidst the insane fights and stunts.

Part of the reason is that it is hyperfocused on only two of the characters we follow. And, added to that mix for tension, they found a great female lead to join them in Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and a great villain in Idris Elba (Luther). There are also several surprise cameos to help tether the story to the main franchise.

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed at this point in my summer. It is a great popcorn film with just enough story and character to allow me to enjoy it without having to forgive it. I wish more of the F&F films had as much meat on them, but they’ve become thin excuses for huge stunts, bad jokes, and little else. Whether this latest becomes a bridge for the plot there, which appears a possibility, or perhaps elevates the stories a bit more remains to be seen. For that matter, whether these characters return to the franchise proper or not is still not known, but it was great to see them on their own adventure.

As you can imagine, yes, you should see this on the big screen if you have any interest at all. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) continues to improve his directing skills without losing his stunt edge. And Chris Morgan (The Fate of the Furious) who has helped turn the F&F franchise from pure car show to something more with his scripts is exploring his characters more. We’re still talking just serious summer fun, but that’s fine. And, should you go, watch through to the end of the credits. There are several front-loaded scenes and one at the end of the roll.

 

S.M.A.R.T. Chase

[2 stars]

I would have hoped that the director of the clever and intense Marcella, Charles Martin, could have produced a more watchable action/suspense story. The script certainly didn’t help the problem. Even with Orlando Bloom (Unlocked) in the lead, the story is barely watchable and completely and utterly unbelievable. Even the chases and fights are less than totally engaging in the way they’re filmed.

Hannah Quinlivan (Skyscraper), Simon Yam (Man of Tai Chi), Lynn Hung (Ip Man), and relative newcomers Jing Liang and Lei Wu all do their best. However, the struggle with language is obvious, which likely caused changes in the script for ease. Also, the halfway split between Western and Shanghai styled films leaves the movie with little solid ground. It is neither with enough plot for one nor broad enough for the other. Ultimately, this flick is just a set of relatively boring chase and action scenes despite some real potential in the plot. Best to avoid this one unless you absolutely must see Bloom in everything he does.

S.M.A.R.T. Chase