IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: LEGEND OF THE FIST-THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)

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LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)

Over the last decade, legendary martial arts star Donnie Yen took over the Hong Kong action cinema, with Jackie Chan and Jet Li slowing down their film appearances, and he has certainly become one of their hardest working stars. Yen followed the acclaimed Ip Man series with this 2010 story featuring Chinese martial arts movie hero Chen Zhen, previously embodied by Li in Fist of Legend and before him, by the legendary Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury.

This film adventure of the classic character is directed by Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) from a script by Cheung Chi-shing and Gordon Chan. Chen Zhen is portrayed here as a World War I hero who returns home to find Japan planning to invade mainland China. Zhen becomes a masked freedom fighter, during Japan’s occupation of Shanghai, to thwart their efforts. Of course, there is treachery, femme fatales and legions of enemies in his way. As usual with these films, there is plenty of action, heart stopping stunts and beautiful women, all highlighted by some sumptuous cinematography from director Andrew Lau and Ng Man-ching.

While Legend of the Fist does indeed resemble a mix of Li’s Fist of Legend and his superhero action epic Black Mask, it is also colorful and entertaining enough to let it slide, as we are treated to a martial arts period flick filled with intrigue, action, betrayal and heroism. It’s a film that evokes the Hong Kong glory days of the 90s, one that is hard not to like, despite it’s derivative storyline. Flick also stars Hong Kong cinema beauty Shu Qi as a Japanese spy and legendary Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong as a club owner. A top notch cast. Yen himself choreographed the fight scenes. Familiar but fun.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 (out of 4) swords
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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

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THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

Chinese fantasy romance has a bit of a complicated story as it presents it’s tale of Lian Nishang (Bingbing Fan) who is a witch, known to the people in her surrounding kingdom as Jade Rakshasa, a Robin Hood like outlaw who protects the poor. She lives in a mountaintop fortress called Fort Luna and has shunned love until she meets handsome Zhou Yihang (Huang Xiaoming). Yihang is a Wudang priest who has recently become his sect’s leader and is treating the royal prince for an illness. When the prince is poisoned by an ambitious advisor, Yihang is blamed. When Nishang is defending some of her people, she is also framed for the murder of the local governor, who is Yihang’s grandfather…see, told you it would get complicated. Thrown together by fate, the priest and witch fall in love. But their romance is doomed to be a tragic one as murder, betrayal, treachery, witchcraft and an invading army stand in the way of true love.

The Chinese cinema has been churning movies out like this for decades, yet they still have yet to recapture the charm of the great Hong Kong revival of the 80s and early 90s. This flick is based on  Liang Yusheng’s Baifa Monü Zhuan, a novel which also served as the basis for the 1993 Hong Kong cinema classic The Bride With White Hair. This adaptation is directed by Jacob Cheung and credited to five writers, not that it’s a surprise considering how overloaded the story is. But Cheung still makes this a fairly entertaining flick with plenty of martial arts action and actually giving the romance between Yihang and Nishang some dramatic weight. The story may be overcomplicated, which is not rare with these types of films, but it still works to a good degree and Cheung and his army of writers do blend the melodrama, action and fantasy elements well enough that it doesn’t sink under the weight of all the plot details. Like most of these types of films, the action is staged well and the costumes and sets are quite extravagant. There are also some bloody moments as well and Ardy Lam does photograph the proceedings and settings quite sumptuously. Modern Hong Kong films have a tendency to overdo it with the CGI, but here it is used effectively and without relying too much on it as to make it overpowering. Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark serves as a consultant, which may be how the film does manage to juggle all it’s elements so well, as that was Hark’s forte as a filmmaker. Despite an overloaded story, White Haired Witch is still a fun movie, that may not be as charming as something like the classic, and far simpler, A Chinese Ghost Story, but certainly does still entertain.

The cast are all good and our leads, in particular help make this work. Bingbing Fan, who is known to American audiences for her appearance as Blink in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, is beautiful and enchanting as Lian Nishang. She is graceful in her action scenes and can project both a strength and a sensitivity whether she is defending her people or romancing Huang Xiaoming’s Wudan priest. As Zhuo Yihang, Huang Xiaoming is handsome, brave, noble and romantic. He makes a suitable suitor for Nishang and a suitable hero for our story. During a brief plot point of having to appear like he is betraying Nishing, the actor portrays well the pain in his eyes as he does so. The two actors have good chemistry together and it makes the romantic scenes warm and endearing and their relationship seems believable even with all the fantasy elements.

Overall, the film overcomes a very overcomplicated plot to still entertain. It has some beautiful fantasy imagery, some fun action sequences and a good cast to make the characters likable…or not, if in reference to our villains. Film would have benefited from a more streamlined storyline that could allow the centerpiece romance to have a bit more focus. It also could have left out some of the politics and a few extra and unnecessary characters, such as a solider and his little girl who don’t seem to serve a purpose. If you like the Hong Kong cinema or simply Asian martial arts period pieces, this is still worth your time and is never boring, though could have been something more special if not so cluttered.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 swords
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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: KILL OR BE KILLED and KILL AND KILL AGAIN

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Two martial arts flicks I caught at my beloved Oritani Theater back in the 80s. I recently revisited them again for nostalgia’s sake.

Kill or Be Killed

KILL OR BE KILLED (1977)

Despite the poster claiming it’s the “Greatest Hollywood Martial-Arts Movie Ever Made!”, flick is a South African martial arts movie that was filmed in 1977 and didn’t see a release until 1980…which is when I saw it. Story has a former Nazi, Baron von Rudolff (Norman Coombes) inviting martial artists to his desert castle. Included in the group is Steve Hunt (James Ryan) who is getting a little suspicious as to The Baron’s motives. It’s revealed he wishes to avenge a past disgrace on the perpetrator of that disgrace, Miyagi (Raymond Ho-Tung) by defeating Miyagi’s best fighters in a tournament. Hunt still thinks things are rotten in Rudolff’s castle and leaves with his martial artist, lover Olga (Charlotte Michelle). The Baron sends one of his thugs to kidnap Olga, though, and now Hunt must find his way back into Rudolff’s castle to rescue her…and does it by joining Miyagi’s team! Now it’s kill or be killed as Rudolff’s tournament turns deadly!

Directed by South African filmmaker Ivan Hall and written by C.F. Beyers-Boshoff, this is a very routine martial arts flick in every sense of the word. The plot has been done to death in the genre and the fights, staged by Norman Robinson and Stan Schmidt who also appear as fighters, are all fairly by-the-numbers. The film is slow moving, even at 90 minutes and sometimes resembles a home movie with it’s amateurish style and laughably staged scenes. There is definitely some entertainment here, but most of it is from how bad this all is. One can’t help but giggle at the model that is used for Rudolff’s castle, snicker at Hunt’s need to summersault often, and chuckle at the odd and uninspired training sequences…and if these are all expert martial artists, then why do they need to be trained? It’s a bit of a hoot at times, though not as much as we’d like it to be and takes itself a lot more seriously than it should.

Cast is pretty bland across the boards, though actor James Ryan does have a bit of charisma, despite not being much of an actor. I also remember reading, back in the day, that he wasn’t an actual martial artist, but a dancer and as such, he does mimic the moves very well. Charlotte is pretty and sassy as Olga, but is a damsel in distress for the last half of the movie. Coombes is a bland villain as The Baron and Ho-Tung isn’t much better as his adversary Miyagi. Rounding out is small person Danie DuPlessis as Chico, The Baron’s dwarf assistant who takes a liking to Steve, the only person that shows the little man respect. DuPlessis is likable despite being in a very cliché role and being humiliated often by the other bully martial artists.

Overall, it’s an OK movie that can be enjoyed more for laughs and nostalgia than as an actual martial arts flick. It seems to have a bit of a reputation, though not sure why. It was successful enough to warrant a sequel…which is our second feature…

 -MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 fists! (The rating is purely for entertainment value in this case, not film quality -MZNJ)

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KILL AND KILL AGAIN (1981)

Sequel is odd in that James Ryan is definitely supposed to be the same character from Kill Or Be Killed, but is called Steve ‘Chase’ in this movie. The film is a lot more fun as it takes a far lighter tone and serves up more of a James Bond-style adventure with Chase pitted against a megalomaniac. Story has martial arts champion Chase (Ryan) hired by the beautiful Kandy Kane (former Miss World Anneline Kriel) to rescue her father from the fortress of Marduk (Michael Mayer), a madman bent on world domination. Dr. Horatio Kane (John Ramsbottom) has been taken due to the fact that he has accidentally discovered a mind control formula when experimenting with making fuel from potatoes…not making this up! Ryan reassembles his old team of Hot Dog (Bill Flynn), The Fly (Stan Schmidt), Gorilla (Ken Gampu from The Wild Geese) and Gypsy Billy (Norman Robinson) and head to Marduk’s stronghold to take on his army of mind-controlled fighters…but Marduk is ready and waiting!

While it’s still not a good movie in a conventional sense, sequel is a lot more fun and even the fight scenes are a bit more energetic. Again directed, though with a much lighter hand, by Ivan Hall and this time written with a wink at the James Bond series by John Crowther. The pace is still not as brisk as an action flick like this should be and it is about ten minutes too long, but at least this entry is having some fun with itself, as opposed to the previous entry’s taking itself far too seriously. There is some outright comedy bits thrown in with the PG rated violence and Ryan’s team are almost out of a comic book themselves. The film is still low budget, but seems to have a bit more production value than it’s predecessor and Hall seems a bit more relaxed in the director’s chair, going with all the silliness, this time, instead trying to pass it off as a serious action flick as with KOBK.

Again, none of the cast are solid actors, but most get the material and seem to be having fun. Ryan once agin shows some charisma and also the ability to not take himself too seriously. Kriel is a pretty heroine who gets to kick a little butt herself. Mayer reminds one of Paul Bartel a bit and seems to be a bit of a wussy villain under all his bluster and that seems intentional. Flynn, Gampu, Schmidt and Robinson all have fun with their comic book-ish characters with Schmidt and Robinson once again choreographing the fights, as they did with the previous film, though this time to better effect.

Overall, it’s a lot more fun than KOBK, though could have used a quicker pace and a bit tighter edit. The cast and the director are having a lot more fun this time around and it makes a still bad movie a lot more entertaining to watch. When pairing both film together there is definitely some fun to be had even if most of it is unintentional. Despite the success of both movies, a Kill Or Be Killed III never materialized and it was the last we heard of martial arts champion and adventurer, Steve Chase (Hunt?).

 -MonsterZero NJ

3 fists. (The rating is purely for entertainment value in this case, not film quality -MZNJ)

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978)

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GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

After watching Expendables 2 and seeing Chuck Norris appear in his extended cameo as “Booker”, I decided to go back and revisit one of his early films, the one from which his Expendables 2 character’s name pays homage to…or is he playing the same character decades later?

Good Guys Wear Black may not be Chuck Norris’ first action flick, or his best, but it is the first one I saw (at the now gone Park Lane theater in Palisades Park, N.J.) and it not only started his career as an action movie star, but made me a fan as well. Sure his flicks are low budget and cheesy, for the most part, but as you probably know, if you visit here frequently, that is right up my alley.

The story starts out in 1973 and has a senator (James Franciscus) using the fate of a special CIA black ops team called The Black Tigers as a bargaining chip to appease the Vietnamese during war negotiations to get back US soldiers held as prisoners of war. The deal is simple, the senator arranges for the assassination of the Black Tigers by setting them up on a phony mission and the Vietnamese will agree to release the POWs. But Major John T Booker (Chuck Norris) and some of his men survive the ambush and make their way home. Five years later the surviving members start to turn up dead and Booker must not only must fight to survive, but find out, with the help of a sexy reporter (Anne Archer), who is killing his former team and why.

As directed by Ted Post (Magnum Force), from a story by Joseph Fraley and a script by Bruce Cohn and Mark Medoff, Good Guys Wear Black is a moderately paced movie that is far more thriller than it is action flick. Sure there are scenes that make good use of star Norris’ martial arts skills, but those scenes are few and far between as the film is far more interested in being political thriller which, in turn, forces the karate champ to be more of an actor than an action star at too early a point in his career. The action we do get is routinely staged and being a low budget film, is modest in scale. I can appreciate not wanting to stick Norris in a routine martial arts flick, but putting him in a Three Days Of The Condor type political thriller wasn’t the way to go either. Norris didn’t have the chops and is rather wooden. It doesn’t help that Post doesn’t seem to be able to drum up any real suspense or really draw us into Booker’s story either. Despite being filmed widescreen, the film is shot rather like a TV movie by DOP Robert Steadman and has a fairly unremarkable jazz infused score by Craig Safan whose gone on to do some decent scores.

The cast are all fairly unremarkable with veteran Franciscus being very by-the-numbers in his few scenes and only Anne Archer, giving her side-kick role a little sex appeal, seems to be trying. Norris is likable but wooden as stated and since there is nothing special about the choreography of the action scenes, he really doesn’t get to show us much there either. The film was a big hit anyway, so it gave Norris the opportunity to be in flicks that far better displayed his martial arts skills, such as in The Octagon two years later.

Overall, the flick has some personal nostalgia for me as it was the first Norris flick I saw…and in a theater. Otherwise it’s fairly unremarkable except for being the film that got Norris started as a headlining action star, after initial notice from his legendary on-screen fight to the death with Bruce Lee at the end of Return Of The Dragon (Way Of The Dragon). Norris is now considered an action film icon and I have enjoyed many of his movies, cheesy or not.

So I give this flick a little more credit than it really deserves for being my first Norris flick and the movie that got him started on his way to being an 80s action movie icon. Worth a look if you are curious, but really nothing to recommend other than for the reasons previously stated. Flick also features Chuck’s younger brother Aaron in a small role as one of the Black Tigers. Aaron would go on to direct a number of his older brother’s films a decade later and is an accomplished martial artist as well.

2 and 1/2 bullets.

last_stand rating

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976)

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MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976)

Master Of The Flying Guillotine is widely renown as one of the greatest martial arts films of the 70s era and maybe of all time. It is a cult classic and rightfully so, with not only presenting the traditional elements one expects in this kind of film but, some colorful characters and fantasy elements too!

The story has the Ching Dynasty leaders creating a new martial arts weapon, the flying guillotine, and entrusting this lethal decapitation device to the hands of blind master assassin Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kang), whose job is to hunt down any rebels and eliminate them. When his two disciples are killed by rebel leader, the One Armed Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, who also wrote and directed), he sets out to avenge them and thus the two are fated to collide… and do when a martial arts tournament inadvertently brings them together and sets them on their path to an epic confrontation… a path filled with bloodshed and treachery. One Armed Boxer might be able to defeat Wu Chi but, can he defeat the flying guillotine?

Guillotine is a lot of fun, especially if you are a fan of martial arts flicks from this classic era. Director, writer and star Jimmy Wang Yu brings all the martial arts action one expects and adds in some colorful and eccentric characters to populate the tournament where a lot of the action takes place. We get a Thai boxer (Sham Chin-bo), an Indian Yogi (Wong Wing-sang) and even the tournament president’s feisty and skilled daughter (Doris Lung) who all battle in the competition with an assortment of weapons and martial arts styles. It’s all very entertaining to watch as we wait for the epic showdown between blind assassin and one armed rebel leader. And when that finally happens, we aren’t disappointed. Yu keeps the action coming fast and furious and the different styles make for some varied fight choreography and his visual style is simple and well photographed in widescreen by Chiu Yao-hu. It’s a simple story and yet it is crafted to allow for a lot of variety in the action and characters and a lot of action, period. And most of all, it’s a good time. Add in a cool electronic score by Frankie Chan and it becomes a real martial arts treat.

The cast all perform their eclectic characters well, giving each there own style and personality. As the star, Jimmy Wang Yu makes his One Armed Boxer, who is a returning character from his 1971 One Armed Boxer, a nobel and humble man who is lethal when provoked to fight. And as his adversary, Kam Kang is a dangerous and heartless villain whose mastery of the flying guillotine makes him a formidable foe. The rest seem to being having a good time with their colorful characters and handle the fight choreography well.

All in all, this is a martial arts classic and if you are a fan of the 70s era martial arts cinema it is a must see. The film has everything you’d want in one of these flicks, action, drama and a variety of fighters and fighting styles and not without a little bit of humor amidst all the combat and drama. Add to that some wonderful 70s nostalgia from a type of film that they don’t make anymore and you have not only a bonfire classic but, a damn good time!

4 flying guillotines.

master of the flying guillotine rating

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REVIEW: THE RAID 2 (2014)

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THE RAID 2 (2014)

The Raid was a vicious and high intensity Indonesian action thriller about a squad of cops who raid a drug dealer controlled tenement building and become trapped inside, fighting tooth and nail to get out alive. The film, which I referred to as a “Shaw Brothers movie on crack… and lot’s of it.” was brutally violent, but had a ferocious energy in it’s action scenes and became a hit and a sensation with movie fans. Director/writer Gareth Evans now returns with a sequel that finds surviving cop Rama (Iko Uwais) on a solo mission that may turn into a suicide mission as well.

The film picks up where the first one left off with Rama being asked by a clandestine police unit to go undercover in a mob family to weed out corrupt police officers, including corrupt police commissioner Reza (Roy Marten), who are hindering the efforts of bringing down mob boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). This means spending two years in prison as ‘Yuda’ a small time thug, to get close to Bangun’s imprisoned son Uco (Arifin Putra) who he befriends and goes to work for upon release. Now deep undercover in Bangun’s organization Rama/Yuda get’s more then he bargained for as Uco and a sadistic gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad) plan a power coup that not only endanger Rama’s mission, but put him in the middle of a bloody internal mob war as well.

I liked this sequel, but not quite as much as I did the previous flick. Sure the film is filled with the hyper-active, savagely violent action sequences that this series is renown for, but at 150 minutes long, these sequences of video game style violence wear you out long before it’s over…though the climactic fight between Rama and an assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) in a kitchen is something to behold. Action scenes aside, the plot is basically a routine ‘cop under deep cover’ crime drama and without all the crazy kinetic action, the film would be rather unremarkable story wise. When it comes to the cop undercover elements, we’ve seen it all before, from the yearning for missed loved ones to the blurred lines of loyalty. But Evans keeps things moving and while it doesn’t have quite the lasting intensity as the original flick, it still has some ballistic fights filled with Evans’ furiously moving camera. He gives a lot of energy to the largely hand to hand combat scenes with a mix of dazzling choreography, dizzying camera work and over the top blood spattering. It is effective though, as stated before, it wears you down after a while. His story does give you moments to breath, though not for too long, but there are only so many smashed faces and so much spurting blood one can take before it starts to lose it’s effect. A scene in a subway car with a vicious female assassin (Julie Estelle) wielding two hammers against a squad of Japanese bodyguards is both impressive and mind-numbing at the same time. The brutality just catches up to you long before the last act. Evans does gives us quite the last act, though and despite being numb at this point to all the violence, I will admit that Rama’s infiltration of Bejo’s stronghold held some really amazing fight scenes that did manage to wake me up out of that brutality induced stupor. The previously mentioned kitchen fight is a classic and Rama’s battle with assassins Hammer Girl (Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) is not too far behind. Despite a familiar and often used plot and a little too much brutality and bloodshed, Evans overall gives us a sequel that is different, yet still delivers the action we expect…even if he goes overboard with the savagery of it all.

The cast are all good with Uwais being not only a noble and very likable hero, but an equally effective human chainsaw with his hands and feet. Putra is solid as Uco, a character that is frustrated by his father’s refusal to give him more responsibility in the organization and is so blinded by his ambition as to trust the slimy Bejo who is also effectively played with malice by Alex Abbad. Tio Pakusadewo is also good and almost likable as old fashioned mob boss Bangun who still operates within a code that many see as outdated. Roy Marten is seen briefly, but effectively as dirty police commissioner Reza. Rahman, Estelle and Yulisman make for some very eccentric and lethal assassins that provide some the film’s most vicious and impressive fight scenes. A good cast that helps give some depth to all the over the top action and keep up well with the frantic choreography.

In conclusion, I liked Gareth Evans’ sequel to his ultra violent hit, though I did feel it fell a little short due to a really long running time and being bludgeoned somewhat by all the savage and gory violence. Still, despite a routine story, there are some truly impressive fight/action sequences, including a climactic kitchen fight that is an instant classic. If you liked The Raid then you’ll surely enjoy this but, how much is up to you.

3 bullets.

ex2 rating

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)

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YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013)

Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame was a fun martial arts mystery and it’s success has inspired Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark to have another go around and this time he goes back to the character’s beginnings and create a prequel which portrays Dee’s first case as a member of the Da Lisi, the law enforcement agency of the city of Luoyang. He also has chosen to add a lot more fantasy elements this time as Dee’s first case involves a sea monster, a merman, a vile plot to poison Luoyang’s public officials, including the emperor, and a beautiful courtesan (Angelababy… which is the real stage name for actress/singer/model Angela Yeung). The movie opens as Dee (now Mark Chao) enters the city of Luoyang to begin work as an officer of the law but, right away he is thrust into a case involving the attempted kidnapping of courtesan Yin Ruijii (Angelababy) which becomes complicated when a mysterious ‘merman’ becomes involved. The case is also somehow linked to a massive sea monster that destroyed Luoyang’s war fleet and is being investigated by Dee’s rival Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) who thinks Dee is not to be trusted and would rather see him behind bars. The plot thickens as the city’s officials have been poisoned and somehow Dee mush earn his rival’s trust and find out how all these elements tie together before it’s too late. Dee prequel is not without it’s entertainment there is definitely some fun here but, it is also a lot more far-fetched then it’s predecessor and a lot longer as it is very plot-heavy despite the lighter nature of that plot. Hark seems to really go overboard with the sillier elements of the movie and equally so with the CGI effects and the film tends to be a bit overblown at times like his 2001 The Legend Of Zu which was in CGI effects overload. The previous Dee had fantasy elements but, they were grounded and restrained, here Hark really cuts loose and we get a film that is a lot lighter and a lot more cartoonish then the last movie. Aside from creatures and gravity defying foes, Dee also seems to have an ability that resembles ‘Spider Sense” as he can deduce complicated and detailed conclusions just by looking at objects and this ‘skill’ is vividly illustrated with CGI fueled sequences which make him appear borderline clairvoyant. It’s silly. The FX this time are mixed with some CGI being weak and some, like the film’s really cool sea monster, are excellently rendered. The film was obviously made in 3D and we get a lot of stuff flying at us and it is really distracting in 2D and the martial arts sequences are really over the top this time and don’t even try to seem somewhat grounded in reality. It just seems Hark went really overboard and at 133 minutes, he also stretches things out far too long and despite all the action and fantasy, the film seems very long-winded at times. The cast all perform well and while Mark Chao gives it his all as young Dee, he just doesn’t quite have the screen presence of veteran Andy Lau though, his Dee is likable if not a touch smug. The first Detective Dee was an entertaining movie and as a fan of this stuff, I did find much to entertain me here but, it is still an overindulgent, far-fetched and sillier step down from the first movie which, in itself wasn’t perfect and and would have been better served by a little restraint. Worth a look for Hong Kong film fans but, it’s a bit of a disappointment and just barely avoids being an overblown mess. Also stars Carina Lau reprising her role as Empress Wu from the the original Detective Dee, the only original cast member to return.

2 and 1/2 swords.

Dee 2 rating

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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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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978)

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THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978)

With the passing of Shaw Brothers Studios founder Sir Run Run Shaw, I thought I’d take a look back at one of his most famous classics and a film highly regarded by martial arts film enthusiasts as one of the greatest martial arts films ever made…

This martial arts classic tells the story of a village that has been taken over by oppressive Manchu warriors. A rebellion is brewing but, the Manchu’s are making a strong effort to squash it before it can overthrow them. Student Liu Yude (Gordon Liu) wants to get involved but, his involvement soon puts him on the run and hunted. Injured from an encounter with his Manchu pursuers, he finds himself going to the Shoalin Temple for help and once there, begs the monks to take him in as a student and train him. They reluctantly do and now going by the name of San Te, he trains and becomes their greatest and most skilled student and is granted the privilege of taking charge of one of Shaolin’s 35 chambers of training. But, San Te asks to start a new 36th chamber to train common folk in the ways of martial arts. His rebellious request gets him sent out to collect offerings as penance but, it also returns him to his village where he finds his fellow students and family dead and the rebellion all but, destroyed. Greatly skilled, San Te is now in a position to finally help his people overthrow and cast out the Manchu thugs once and for all… but, should he? We all know the answer to that question but, it sure is fun watching it transpire. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin… also known as The Master Killer… is widely regarded as one of the greatest martial arts films ever made and in regards to the spirit of these kind of films, it is. It has everything you could want from one of these flicks… an unskilled hero up against insurmountable odds, grueling training sequences where our hero slowly gains the skills he lacks, then his ultimate return to exact vengeance against those who wronged him and his people/family… and of course fights, fights, fights. In this, director Liu Chia-liang delivers all the above in exciting and dramatic style. We are treated to some of the greatest training sequences ever filmed and some really exciting and well choreographed fight scenes and all with a very colorful and grand visual style despite being on what must have been a very small budget. We are also treated to a really cool opening title sequence which perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the film. The cast are all good with star Gordon Lui leading the pack with a portrayal of a brash, angry and somewhat arrogant young man being gradually humbled and turned into a noble and strong warrior who seeks peace through the enlightenment and strengthening of those around him. Lui is considered a legend of the martial arts cinema and this film is why. He is also a skilled martial artist and his fight scenes show it. The rest of the cast do well in creating noble monks, rebellious villagers and evil villains accordingly and help bring this timed honored story to vibrant life. While it is a story told many times in martial arts cinema, this is one of the best examples of how it should be done. Despite the advancements in FX and technology, the expanding of budgets and overall progress the Hong Kong cinema has made since the prolific days of the 70s era, this film still holds up and with added nostalgic charm can proudly still be considered one of the greats. A must see for martial arts movie fans of all generations… and a hell of a lot of fun.

4 legendary Lius!

36th chamber rating

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