REVIEW: THE MEG (2018)

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THE MEG (2018)

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Flick is based on Steve Alten’s book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (review HERE) about a giant prehistoric shark discovered deep below the ocean depths. The film starts out with Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) on a deep sea rescue mission, when something huge attacks his sub. He is forced to leave two comrades behind, though saves the eleven survivors. Five years later he is a guilt-ridden drunk on a beach in Tailand when his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee)…who was a reporter named Maggie in the book…becomes trapped in a sub investigating a warm water system underneath a silt cloud, deep at the bottom of the sea. He joins the rescue team at the Mana One research platform and soon discovers the cause of the accident is an enormous prehistoric shark…a Megalodon. The survivors are rescued, but now the Megalodon has followed them up to the surface and Jonas and the Mana One team must battle a predator that hasn’t inhabited these oceans in millions of years.

Jon Turteltaub directs this adaptation after schlockmeister Eli Roth left the project. The script is by Dean Georgaris and Jon and Erich Hoeber and not only takes considerable liberties with Alten’s original story, but also dumbs down science that was already presented in a digestible manner. It also changes everything Japanese to Chinese to please Chinese co-producers, such as turning Jonas’ future wife Terry Tanaka into Chinese divorcée and single mom Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing). It now almost seems like an Asian production with a lot of dialogue coming with subtitles. Changes aside, there are a number of things that keep The Meg from having real bite. One is Turteltaub’s by-the-numbers direction which does not have nearly enough fun with the scenario. It’s Jason Statham vs a giant prehistoric shark, take the ball and run with it. The film should have been a lot more fun…or at least far more suspenseful. Turteltaub doesn’t exactly build much suspense either. Another thing is that the monster shark isn’t really given much of a threat factor, as the film’s PG-13 rating neuters most of her carnage…though Jaws did a lot with a PG rating, so it’s not just the lack of gore…and she only briefly encounters civilization and population. There is also no sense of wonder given to her or the underwater lost world she comes from. We don’t get a sense that this is a creature that time forgot. She’s just a big shark. The book took more time in her original surroundings so we understood her existence as a dinosaur more clearly. Finally, the script has some very dumb dialogue and is as cliché as a nature run amok movie can get. It’s no better than any of the SYFY channel shark themed movies that have been cranked out like cheap cars over the last few years. For this to stand above, it should have followed the book a bit more closely, as it streamlines the story too much. It’s also confusing that they left out a major plot point which easily set up a sequel…and we know Hollywood loves a sequel, especially if this makes money. What does save this a bit is that there is an action-packed last act and weak script and lackluster direction aside, it still entertains and it is still Jason Statham vs a giant prehistoric shark, after all. It also successfully restructured an ending that worked on paper, but would have been very difficult to film. What they came up with keeps the essence, but works much better for film. On a technical side, the flick is well made and the CGI shark is serviceable, though never really as frightening as she should be.

The cast are fine. Statham works well as Jonas Taylor, though his whole guilt issue gets abandoned pretty quick and he sobers up just as fast. He is a reliable action hero and if anyone can battle a massive sea predator, Statham is at the top of the list. He’s charming and handles the physicality of the role well. Li Bingbing is a solid love interest/heroine and gets to shuffle back and forth here from damsel in distress to action hero and does so, well. English is not her first language so some of her line delivery is a bit awkward, but she does well enough to be likable as Suyin…and looks damn fine in a wet-suit, too. Rainn Wilson is OK as Billionaire Jack Morris who was not in the book. It’s a very stereotypical and cliché character that appears clueless, but turns into a real douche just when you expect him to. Rounding out the leads is Winston Chao as Suyin’s father Dr. Minway Zhang, who was Masao Tanaka in the book, and cute little Shuya Sophia Cai as Suyin’s daughter, Meiying. As the “precocious child” she could have been far more annoying.

Overall, this novel adaptation was entertaining, but could have been a real blast with a director who appreciated the scenario and a script that kept the book’s sense of wonder and the savage aggressiveness of it’s title creature. The film is cliché and turns what could have been a real nail-biter into a routine creature run amok movie. There is plenty of action, the second half livens up quite a bit and Statham works as the flawed hero and that keeps us from getting bored. The most puzzling thing about the film is that it leaves out a major plot point from the book that easily sets up a sequel…as book writer Steven Alten has fully taken advantage of. Fans of the book will probably be disappointed, but as a bargain matinee it entertains well enough.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) megalodon teeth for an action filled second half and Li Bingbing looking mighty fine in her wet-suit.

 

 

 

 

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BARE BONES: 7 GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB (2018)

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7 GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB (2018)

Chinese/Australian action adventure is also known as Guardians of the Tomb and Nest and is a dull movie that is basically Indiana Jones meets any random SYFY nature run amok flick. Story finds intrepid adventurer Luke (Wu Chun) disappearing while searching for an ancient elixir of eternal life in a giant underground tomb in China. His scheming employer Mason (Kelsey Grammer) convinces Luke’s sister Jia (Li Bingbing) to join the rescue team to be sent into the tomb to find him. What they do find is that the tomb is filled with a swarm of vicious and highly poisonous spiders and that Kelsey Grammer and producer/star Li Bingbing must have really needed rent money.

Inept adventure is directed by Kimble Rendall from a really bad script by he and Paul Staheli. The film seems made up as it goes along and just spins a web of clichés, almost as fast as our cheesy CGI spiders can kill supporting characters with their lethal venom. The spiders’ many abilities seem to be created simply to serve the purpose of a specific scene and director Rendall gets some really bad performances out of his cast, including Grammer and his leading lady, who have been far better in other projects. The FX are cheesy, the dialog awful, the sets are right out of any low budget Indiana Jones rip-off and even Kellan Lutz looks like he’d rather be someplace else. The idea of gorgeous Li Bingbing as an Asian Lara Croft is tantalizing and this flick ruins even that. A waste of time.

-MonsterZero NJ

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: DRAGON SQUAD (2005)

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DRAGON SQUAD (2005)

A Hong Kong actioneer with Michael Biehn, Maggie Q and Hong Kong Cinema legends Sammo Hung and Simon Yam that is also produced by Steven Seagal…sounds too good to be true…and sadly, to a degree, it kinda is. The before mentioned stars are not the main focus, only Biehn and Hung have considerable screen time. It’s really a showcase for a bunch of young actors playing a crack Interpol squad out to catch the bad guys. Maggie Q and Biehn are among the villains and Hung is the nurturing veteran cop while Yam is barely on screen as a harried police chief.  But we watch these Hong Kong flicks for action and while there isn’t as much as we’d like, the action there is can be quite bloody, in fact, unnecessarily so at times, but the Hong Kong cimema has always had a tendency for overindulgence and that’s kinda why we like it.

This action thriller is also slowed down by too much over-stylized camera tricks. Director/co-writer (with Lau Ho-Leung) Daniel Lee went to film school and wants everyone to know it. All the distracting camera work hinders the action at times and slows down the drama. Too many grainy black and white flashbacks or jittery hand held camera shots. It really slows down the pace. Scenes seem to take twice as long as they should. And the script likes to stop the story dead at times to focus on sub plots, like Biehn’s relationship with a gangster’s girlfriend (Li Bingbing). It’s important to the plot, but still seriously slows down a film that cries out for a quicker pace. Veterans like John Woo and Tsui Hark knew how to balance the drama and the action perfectly. Lee could take a few tips from those masters. Not to say this tale of Interpol cops vs. a squad of tough as nails bad guys doesn’t have entertainment value, it does, as it tries to be something in the vein of Michael Mann’s Heat. Lee does still succeed in pulling off a couple of strong shoot-out sequences (ex: an alley shoot out about 2/3 through) despite his over-stylizing everything and I dug the blood-soaked final showdown. As usual with Hong Kong flicks, there is some beautiful cinematography, this time by Tony Cheung.

In the end, it still falls very short of some of the more classic Hong Kong action flicks like Hard Boiled or Infernal Affairs. Not great, but there are worse ways to spend an evening and certainly worth a look if you are a Hong Kong Action Cinema nut like me…and the cast is worth watching it for alone, even if it’s far from perfect.

2 and 1/2 bullets.

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: 47 RONIN and THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM

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This weeks double feature consists of two Asian set action adventures that feature heroes from the West. One in feudal Japan with Keanu Reeves and the other set in ancient China with Michael Angarano. Both also are filled with fantasy elements and magic characters and plenty of martial arts action and swordsplay, not to mention renown Asian actors such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Enjoy …

 

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47 RONIN  (2013)

I enjoyed this film which, sadly, bombed at the box office and though it isn’t a great movie by any stretch, it was entertaining and had some nice fantasy elements mixed in with all the action. The story focuses on half-breed servant Kai (Keanu Reeves) who, along with 46 masterless samurai, fight against overwhelming odds to avenge the wrongful death of their lord. The vile and ambitious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) has used the power of witch Mizuki (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi) to cast a spell on rival Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) causing him to attack Kira in the presence of the visiting Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and thus dishonor him. Asano commits seppuku (ritual suicide) to save the honor of his people, but Kira is granted control of his clan and the hand of his daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki) in marriage. Asano’s Samurai are expelled and are now dishonored as masterless Ronin. Kai, who is rumored to have been raised by demons and has always loved Mika, is sold into slavery. Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the lead samurai, bides his time and one year later, frees Kai and rallies the Ronin to attack lord Kira and free Mika and avenge Lord Asano’s death… all against the Shogun’s orders. It’s only 47 Ronin against a 1,000 soldiers and one powerful witch, but against these odds, the 47 warriors valiantly choose to wade into battle to get their revenge or die trying.

47 Ronin is a fictional story by Chris Morgan and Walter Hamada based on real events from Japanese history. As directed by commercial director Carl Rinsch, from a screenplay by Morgan and Hossein Amini, the film is moderately paced, but I liked that it took time to tell it’s story and didn’t rush into it’s climactic battle. Rinsch handles the large scale of the film well for a first-time feature director and seems to have a nice visual style to go with all the fantasy elements and the exotic setting. There is plenty of well-staged action peppered throughout and the heavy fantasy elements…as there are demons and a powerful witch involved in this story of honor and revenge…are mixed in well with the drama. Character development is a little on the weak side. We get to know the characters a little, but with 47, only a few get proper attention and even some of those we could have gotten to know better. Despite star billing and a central role, Reeves’ Kai is not the only character focused on and that helps make this more of an ensemble piece to a degree and less Reeves’ show. The cast are all quite good including star Keanu, who plays a noble character who just wants to be recognized fairly by the samurai and will do anything for the woman he loves, despite that she is out of his reach as a Lord’s daughter. The film is in English and the Japanese cast are all well spoken, perform well and there are many recognizable faces from current Japanese cinema. The budget is lavish as are the settings and SPFX and the action scenes have some nice energy and are excellently choreographed. I’ll admit the story could have used a bit more dramatic strength and the end conflict is exciting though, over a little too soon, but it is still an enjoyable action/fantasy with some nice old fashioned charm.

So, in conclusion, 47 Ronin is not a masterpiece and maybe not something all that memorable, but it is a well-made and entertaining enough adventure with some fun fantasy elements and exotic locations to give it a little something different. The action moves and while we could have used a little more character development and the story could have used a bit more weight, it was an entertaining 2 hours and I had a fun time with it. Go in with moderate expectations and it can be a pleasantly surprising flick and an entertaining watch. Certainly nowhere near the disaster it’s poor box office would lead one to believe.

Rated 3 (out of 4) samurai swords.

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THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (2008)

Sure this flick has a heavy Karate Kid vibe, but we get Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the beautiful Li Bingbing as a villainous hottie so, why complain if we have seen this kind of story before. Charming and fun fantasy adventure has martial arts movie nut Jason (Michael Angarano) buying his favorite movies from old shop owner Hop (Jackie Chan) and finding a peculiar staff in his shop. When thugs force Jason to help them rob Hop’s store, the injured Hop tells the mortified and regretful Jason to take the staff and return it to it’s rightful owner. Jason is thus transported into a fantasy world in ancient China where he meets a drunken martial artist named Lu Yan (also Chan), a noble monk Sun Wukong (Jet Li) and pretty Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) who all agree to help Jason return the staff to The Monkey King (also Li), who is the staff’s rightful owner and is being imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). But to get the staff back to The Monkey King, Jason and his new friends must battle the powerful Warlord, his army and a very deadly witch (Li Bingbing), who all wish to see that the staff never sees the Monkey King’s skilled hands ever again.

Despite the cliche’ story and some very familiar plot elements, Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) crafts a really entertaining martial arts fantasy that is loaded with charm and filled with martial arts action. There are plenty of fantasy elements too, in John Fusco’s script, from a story by Wu Cheng’en and Minkoff really captures the look and style of one of the martial arts fantasy films that Hong Kong cinema is famous for. Aside from numerous scenes of hand to hand combat, we get characters imbued with magic, who fly and cast spells, all presented with some very solid SPFX and fight choreography. Obviously, the main attraction is seeing Chan and Li working together and the two do have a great on-screen chemistry and camaraderie that goes a long way to making this flick so much fun. Their scenes together really crackle with energy and they seem to really enjoy working together, which I hear they did. Both are a lot of fun in their dual roles, especially Li’s whimsical Monkey King. Lead Angarano holds his own as the naive outsider who learns not only martial arts, but to believe in himself. Cliche’, yes, but it still works. Yifei is pretty and proves a resourceful heroine as the vengeful Golden Sparrow who seeks to destroy the Jade Warlord, but succeeds in catching Jason’s eye too. Chou is a solid villain though one stereotypical of these kind of films and Bingbing is having a blast as the evil and powerful witch Ni-Chang, who is as beautiful as she is deadly. The fun cast also helps make this a treat.

All in all, I like this film a lot. I am a hug fan of Asian cinema, and that certainly includes Hong Kong martial arts fantasy epics and this film captures the spirit of those movies very well. It mixes the traditional format with a underdog/fish out of water story for a really fun and colorful fairy tale-like movie, of a meek boy who becomes a heroic man. Sure we know he’ll eventually face those mean thugs from Hop’s store again, but we still eagerly anticipate it, despite it’s familiarity and the film is so charming and fun, we can forgive the age old story and oft-told story elements. When all is said and done, we get two martial arts living legends together on screen for the first time and, if that’s not enough, a couple of very pretty Asian actresses who are as easy on the eyes as they are dangerous with their fists and feet. That’s more then enough to get me in a seat! A fun martial arts fantasy flick.

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Chinese swords.

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

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DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

As a sequel has been made to this 2010 Hong Kong fantasy film and I am going to attempt to catch up to it real soon, I decided to post a review of the original Detective Dee adventure from renown Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark…

Legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark returns to the director’s chair and brings along his trademark sumptuous photography and martial arts action (directed by another legend, Sammo Hung) in a martial arts mystery that evokes the Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s… although never quite equalling it. Phantom Flame tells the story of imprisoned Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a Sherlock Holmes-like crime solver based on a character from Chinese literature, Judge Dee… who is based on a real-life person from Chinese history, Di Renjie. Dee, a former royal detective imprisoned for trying to start a rebellion, is freed from jail to solve a mystery involving the spontaneous combustion of some gov’t officials on the eve of the appointing of a new empress (Carina Lau). And what Dee finds is a devious conspiracy where people and things are not what they appear and his very life may be in danger for uncovering it. Can he expose the nefarious plot or will this become his last case? Hong Kong flick is certainly entertaining and there is enough action and intrigue to keep one involved and interested. Tsui Hark brings his patented mix of martial arts and fantasy to the screen with some beautiful visuals and impressive SPFX but, he never quite gives the film the energy that made his past classics like Once upon a Time in China and the Chinese Ghost Story series so special. This isn’t to say the film is not well made, it is. The production is quite lavish and every shot of the film looks beautiful. And it’s not to say the action isn’t fast paced and fun, it is as well. Some of the action scenes are quite fun. It just seems to be missing something that would elevate it and really make it a special treat. Maybe it just doesn’t quite have the magic of the master director’s earlier classics. The cast under Hark’s guidance certainly do a good job, especially Hong Kong star Andy Lau as the formidable Dee and stunt coordinator Sammo Hung keeps things moving when directing the action but, the film never reaches the intensity or livliness that made Hark a household name among Hong Kong film fans when the new wave Hong Kong cinema hit in the 80s and Hark was at the top of the wave. It’s still a good flick. It is certainly entertaining. It’s just not quite as special as we’d like it to be, considering who’s behind the lens and what he’s accomplished in the past. I still recommend it for Hong Kong cinema fans as even when Hark isn’t at his best, his films are still entertaining and Dee is entertaining. Also stars renown Chinese actor Tony Leung Ka-fai and the beautiful Li Bingbing as Dee’s assistant, a woman skilled in martial arts and possibly with her own agenda.

3 battle axes.

13th warrior rating

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