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. 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. Unnecessarily so at times, but the Hong Kong cinema 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. The script also 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.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) bullets.

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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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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE GRANDMASTER (2013) and IP MAN (2008)

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THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

I debated as whether to file The Grandmaster under the generic reviews section as I unfortunately saw the edited American 108 minute cut of the film and not the official Chinese version that runs 130 minutes. But it is still an Asian film and no Western footage added, just some removed…and while I am very much against editing foreign films for US release, upon watching this flick I can understand why they did it. Let me explain…

The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-wai’s telling of the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), Grandmaster of Wing Chun style martial arts and the man who taught the legendary Bruce Lee. I don’t know enough about his story to tell how historically accurate the film is, but it traces his life in Foshan, which was renown for it’s martial arts, through the Japanese occupation in the late 30s to mid 40s and finally to his settling in Hong Kong, where he opened a school of martial arts. And while the movie is sumptuously photographed and has some beautifully choreographed fight scenes, it is also a tedious and self indulgent film even at 108 minutes. First problem is that the narrative, at least in the version I saw, is more like a series of vignettes than a complete film. The film only barely follows a traditional storyline and then an hour in, it jarringly shifts focus from Ip to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) a female martial artist who once bested Ip in a friendly duel and has feelings for the married martial arts master. It flashes back to her feud and eventual duel with Northern rival Grandmaster Ma San (Zhang Jin) and stays with that till the last minutes where the focus returns to Ip Man in Hong Kong. The jumbled narrative makes it hard to become involved in the story and it doesn’t help that Wong Kar-wai has to present every other shot in slow motion, even during the non-fight scenes. It really slows the pace and just gets tiresome after a while. The same goes for the fights. The cinematography is beautiful and there are some gorgeous shots, but every other shot is either in slow motion…a close up of a shoe or drop of moisture falling…or a slow motion close up. The director’s overindulgence and over-stylizing brings even the martial arts sequences to a snail’s pace and removes any excitement from them. Also, there are a number of what you would consider key moments in Ip’s life that are presented as almost an afterthought, such as the death of Ip’s daughters due to the Japanese occupation and…the Japanese occupation. Again, I can’t tell if this is due to the editing by The Weinsteins or is Wong Kar-wai just not an effective a storyteller as he is at setting up his exquisite shots or filming things in slow motion.

He has a good cast, but for me, their performances were intense but flatlined. They convey the same emotions in each scene and while Leung and Ziyi are good actors, they never display the range they are normally capable of. It’s like the director wanted the characters to wallow in melodrama and thus the film overdoses on it and never does it draw us into their tales. Even when the characters are in a happier moment, they appear intense and sad. It overall makes for a tedious and meandering film despite the scenes of martial arts and Ip’s importance as a historical figure…and even when cut down to 108 minutes. And that’s why I hesitantly say, I don’t approve of The Weinsteins removing a good 20 minutes from the film, but I understand why they did it. The average American audience member reared on MTV and Michael Bay movies would have little patience for over 2 hours of slow pace and slow motion close ups. I understand, but still don’t agree with their cuts.

A beautifully filmed but tedious and over-stylized telling of the tale of a fascinating man’s life. I much prefer the Donnie Yen starrer Ip Man (review below) which is more of an action film that takes a lot of liberties with the story, but is entertaining and somehow conveys Ip Man’s historical importance a lot better and without being depressing and over indulgent.

2 and 1/2 throwing stars… a little slack cut for the beautiful cinematography and since I did not see the complete film.

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BONUS REVIEW

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IP MAN (2008)

Martial arts movie legend and real life martial arts master Donnie Yen really gets to show why he’s earned that status in this history-based flick and that, after so many years in film, he hasn’t lost a beat. Not only is this a feast for those who enjoy a good old-fashioned martial arts epic, but it is also an involving fact-based drama about real life Wing Chun martial arts Grandmaster Ip Man (Yen) among whose disciples is the legendary Bruce Lee himself. Wilson Yip’s action/drama focuses on the years during the Japanese occupation and mixes the action and drama perfectly as it portrays the efforts of the martial arts master to stand up to the Japanese invaders who are ravaging his land and abusing his people. We are given a strong villain in the Japanese, including their martial arts expert General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who we know Ip will eventually face one on one, and Ip himself is a strong and valiant hero to root for. The production is lavish and takes us back to another time and place and Wilson Yip does a great job balancing all the elements nicely and evoking good performances from all the cast.

Yen is a likable and noble hero as Ip Man and is still awe inspiring to watch in his action scenes. Ikeuchi makes a strong and powerful villain who can be cruel, but does have an honorable streak. And we even get another Hong Kong cinema favorite Simon Yam as Ip’s best friend.

Sure this flick is more martial arts action-ere than historically accurate drama, but the movie is filled with exciting fight scenes…choreographed by yet another Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung…and is dramatically sound enough for you to become emotionally invested in the characters and the story, whether it is really just a fictional telling of the story of a historical figure or not. A fast-paced action flick based on real-life people and events that does what it sets out to do…entertain…and it does that very well. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer this fun martial arts version to The Grandmaster’s over-indulgent, arthouse telling any day. A really good martial arts flick with Yen at his best!

3 and 1/2 swords

zu rating

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Once again director John Carpenter was ahead of his time with this spin on the type of SPFX filled supernatural/martial arts flicks that were being made as part of the revisionist Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s like Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain (1983). Unfortunately, like his masterpiece The Thing, Big Trouble failed at the box office and would only years later be recognized and loved for the classic it is. As an avid fan of Carpenter, I was there opening night in 1986 and my friends and I loved it and immediately started quoting characters and making references, years before it got the attention it deserved. I’m proud to have championed this flick from the beginning. I had yet to see Zu, but heard enough and saw enough from the film, to know what Carpenter was doing. The Hong Kong cinema wouldn’t catch on here in the US till the early 90s and sadly it was only then when movie fans realized that Carpenter nailed the spirit and frantic fun of those movies perfectly with this deliriously entertaining flick.

This martial arts/action/fantasy/comedy starts out with obnoxious but lovable truck driver, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) visiting his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) the owner of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When going to the airport with Wang to pick up his bride-to-be Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), Burton meets spunky lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and witnesses the abduction of Miao Yin by a ruthless Chinese street gang. Now the macho, but out of his element, Burton is pulled into a world of sorcery, martial arts and monsters as he vows to help Wang retrieve his fiancé from evil 2000 year old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) whose marriage to the green-eyed Chinese girl will render him corporeal once more and unleash him upon our world. Armed with his bravado, Wang, Gracie and good sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Jack enters an underground world filled with supernatural warriors and lethal creatures and faces the fight of his life but…”It’s all in the reflexes” for this wannabe hero!

Simply put, Big Trouble In Little China is an absolute blast of a good time with Carpenter at the top of his game delivering an action packed and FX filled adventure that is a delight from start to finish. He populates the film with some of the liveliest and most colorful characters in a Carpenter film and proves that the master of horror and suspense could also master comedy and fantasy too. Not to mention an exhilarating martial arts flick as well, as the movie is loaded with intense and thrilling action scenes to go along with the monsters and magic. And like the Hong Kong films that the script…by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, adapted by W.D. Richter…pays homage to, the movie perfectly mixes the hand to hand combat with the supernatural elements to provide top notch entertainment. Carpenter once again scores the film…and sings the film’s theme song with his band The Coup De Ville’s…and frequent collaborator and cinematographer Dean Cundey returns to give a sumptuously colorful look to the incredible ancient China themed production design and the perfectly framed shots by the master director. It’s a true Asian fantasy world they create beneath modern day Chinatown to match the ancient China setting that the films this is inspired by generally have. It may be Carpenter’s most elaborately staged movie up to this point with it’s spectacular sets, grandiose fight scenes, make-up and SPFX even with all the big action sequences and FX of his previous film, the sci-fi/romance Starman.  Carpenter gives it all a lightening fast pace and energetic intensity…as well as, a generous dose of wacky humor.

And as for the cast, Kurt Russell is obviously having an over-the-top good time with one of his greatest characters, the lovable lug Jack Burton. He’s an obnoxious legend in his own mind, but Russell makes him once of his most endearing portrayals and certainly one of his most quotable characters aside from Snake Plissken. The rest of the cast including Dennis Dun as the noble and love-struck Wang, Cattral as the adorable yet feisty Gracie, Wong as tour bus driver and sorcerer Egg Shen and Hong as the eccentric and powerful Lo Pan are all having the time of their lives with their comic book style characters and it really helps solidify the live action Chinese fantasy world in which the film is set.

Sadly under-appreciated at the time of it’s release, this film is now getting the love and respect it deserves and has a large and faithful following that will drop a quote from one of it’s many delightfully hilarious lines at any given time. It’s a funny, action-packed fantasy and simply one of John Carpenter’s best films in a versatile filmography. A real blast and one of my favorite movies. Also stars Donald Li as Wang’s bud Eddie and Kate Burton as naive reporter Margo Litzenberger. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Jack Burton T-shirt images (out of 4)!

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BONUS REVIEW

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ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983)

While I have not read a direct quote myself, it is said that Carpenter has stated that this film is the film that inspired the making of Big Trouble In Little China. It is certainly the most famous and closest in content and tone of the Hong Kong films around that time, so it’s easy to believe. Chinese Ghost Story wouldn’t be released until 1987 which would then be followed by an avalanche of Chinese fantasy/martial arts epics that continues even today, so Zu is a strong bet to be the film that writers Goldman and Weinstein and director Carpenter were trying to catch the spirit of. As I am looking back at Carpenter’s martial arts classic, I thought I would take a look back, as well, at one of the first of the new wave Hong Kong cinema to catch the attention of the West and bring legendary Hong Kong director/producer Tsui Hark and his sumptuous visual style to the film world’s attention.

Like the gangs in Carpenter’s classic, the ancient China set Zu features warring factions…designated by the colors they wear…all trying to take control of the Zu mountains. When fate separates soldier Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) from his troop, like Jack Burton, the over his head grunt becomes involved in a battle of good vs evil involving supernaturally powered warriors, both male and female, monsters, magic and powerful sorcerers representing both sides.

Though fairly low budget, Hark provides some spectacular FX filled battles, some very atmospheric and beautifully designed sets and settings, with some sumptuous and atmospheric cinematography by Bill Wong. The same kind of elements that Big Trouble in Little China is filled with. The production design is quite lavish with it’s massive temples and cavernous mountain passes and Hark also fills his movie with demons and monsters to go along with our heroes and villains and there are mystical battles and demonic possessions involving creature and warrior alike. The action is quite exciting as are the fantasy set pieces it is featured in and this is the first film to really put to use the rapid fire editing that would become a trademark of the Hong Kong cinema of this era and is imitated by so many of today’s filmmakers. The SPFX are well orchestrated for a low budget film and even employed Western FX masters Robert Blalack and Peter Kuran in creating some of visual artistry. The sets are also quite extravagant and really add to the film’s fantasy atmosphere which at times resembles an Asian themed Disney fairy tale with a dark edge. As with Carpenter’s film, Zu also has it’s share of laughs and comic moments to mix with the more chilling and thrilling sequences the film presents and let’s not forget it’s share of beautiful ladies such as legendary Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin whose gorgeous yet lethal Ice Queen, can charm a man or literally freeze him solid.

Sure, all these years later this charming Hong Kong classic may seem cheesy to some and does get silly at times, but to me it’s a nostalgic and really fun martial arts fantasy that inspired many a filmmaker and one of John Carpenter’s most entertaining flicks…not to mention getting the Hong Kong cinema back on the film geek map after the prolific martial arts films of the 70s ran their course. Also stars Hong Kong movie legend Sammo Hung and has fight choreography by another Hong Kong cinema legend, actor and choreographer Corey Yeun. A really fun movie.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 mystic swords (out of 4)…of course this film has a few of those, why wouldn’t it? zu rating

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