Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Bangkok Dangerous opens with a sequence that feels like the introductory sequence to a video game (I’m thinking of something like Metal Gear Solid); we have a shadowy assassin in a heightened position fix a silencer to a sniper rifle and then take a kill-shot to a prisoner who is being questioned in an interrogation room with a large open window. All the while we hear the assassin, Joe played by Nicholas Cage, narrate everything on the voice-over with such soulful lines as “My job takes me to a lot of places... I work alone, I sleep alone.” Then he outlines the Four Rules to his line of work, which involves such standard hitman guidelines as Don’t Ask Questions and Erase Every Trace and Disconnect From Everyone. Anyone who has seen The Professional or any of the other thousand movies about lonely professional hitmen will know immediately where this film is going just from the first five minutes. Yes, Cage’s next job takes him to Bangkok where he will engage in some righteous kills while undergoing the heartwarming transformation that arises from Letting People In and Engaging In Human Contact and Friendship and Love and All Things Nice.

Cage is pumping out the crummy movies like a deluxe Reflex photocopier. Bangkok Dangerous is different though in that Cage is surprisingly restrained after memorable nutszoid performances in recent fare like Ghost Rider, Next and The Wicker Man remake. My friend, Cowgill, theorised that it was possibly because his character was a stranger in a strange land and Cage’s usual tendency to be a ham that alienates everyone around him was shackled by the fact that he was the one who was alienated by the glitzy sleaze of Bangkok (“If you want to find garbage, go to the garbage dump,” he narrates as he stands amidst the red-light district in a line of cultural sensitivity). It’s a languid, airless movie that slogs along with Cage mining his Trademark Intense Expression for everything that it is worth until the movie picks up when he becomes friends with Kong, a petty thief who he hires to help him with his assassinations, leading to a Karate Kid styled montage where he teaches Kong everything there is about killing a man (“You don’t pull the trigger, you squeeze the trigger...” etc). The second act takes a turn for the romantic (“The stuff for the chicks,” my other friend Seymour suggested) where a wounded Cage walks into a pharmacy and meets a pretty deaf mute female pharmacist who helps him in five minute wordless scene that I’m sure the filmmakers thought was pure Chaplinesque poetry. It’s here where Cage discovers Another Facial Expression and begins to smile and make puppy dog eyes at this love interest who is half his age. Basically from here on in Bangkok Dangerous turns into Lost In Translation but with gunplay.

Bangkok Dangerous is a remake of a Thailand film where the hitman was the deaf mute, which is an original touch that this version dispenses with. Both versions were directed by the Pang Brothers and they go for sub-par Michael Mann vision of Bangkok with flashes of John Woo mayhem including a two-gun shoot-out across a room filled with water bottles and a death scene where a henchmen who is cut in half by a hand grenade. The highlight of the film is an over the top sequence where Cage tracks one of his targets on thin boats down a river district that turns into a breakneck chase where the target gets wind of the attempt on his life and hightails it down the river while Cage jumps onto the street that runs along the river, steals a motorbike, rides after the villain on his jet-boat, jumps off the bike so that it runs into a gas tank and explodes, lands on the boat, uses the motor on the boat’s engine to sever the villian’s hand as he points a gun at Cage, and then Cage picks up the gun and puts four bullets through the dude. All the while, Cage is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a fedora hat and Elvis shades, sort of a quasi Hunter S Thompson look that he really should have stuck to throughout the rest of the film.

In the end, Cage sort of sleepwalks through the film and there isn’t much to distinguish it from the thousand of other films about professional hitmen who find love and redemption in the Last Job. We're a long way from the 'heights' of The Rock and Con Air in regards to the Nic Cage Action Movie ouvre...

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Future Bullshit: From Paris With Love (2009)

I had given up on John Travolta. His head had turned into a block of cheese and his acting had devolved into pure ham. But he's hooked up with producer Luc Besson who keeps pumping out Euro-based flashy action flicks like there's no tomorrow, to play a bald-headed bad ass in the following teaser:

I like how Travolta has reinvented himself here as a cross between Jason Statham, Michael Chiklis from The Shield and some kind of leather-wearing German electroclash producer.

Friday, 26 December 2008

10,000 BC (2008)

Roland Emmerich’s woeful prehistoric epic, which is about a young man from a noble tribe invaded by an evil horde, is not as good as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, also about a young man from a noble tribe invaded by an evil horde, but is better than Marc Nispel’s Pathfinder, again about a young man from a noble tribe invaded by an evil horde. At least in Apocalypto the actors cast were Mayan and spoke in their language. Whereas in 10,000 BC, the hero and love interest are played by white twentysomethings from the hills of California while all the supporting cast in the tribe are a mix of Asian and Maori people. And apparently prehistoric man spoke like how Hollywood producers thought Native Americans talked in Westerns from the 1950s. However, at least, you can see what is occurring in 10,000 BC unlike the awful Viking epic Pathfinder where everything is filmed through a keyhole in a mud hut.

10,000 BC features: weak CGI with actors running on the spot in a studio and then superimposed into a mammoth hunt composed using silicon chips; a reinterpretation of the Lion with a Thorn in his Foot fable where the hero saves a Sabretooth Tiger from dying and they become friends (I kept expecting the Tiger to start talking and cracking wise like in an Ice Age movie, voiced by Bobcat Goldthwaite more than likely); the awesome NZ actor Cliff Curtis wasted in a father figure mentor role; a creepy Egyptian ruler who is presented like he’s a Stargate alien but disappointingly turns out to be a crusty white dude; and an annoying mystical elderly woman in the tribe who psychically feels everything the hero does, so that when he is beaten up by Egyptian overloads, she gets a nose bleed.

In the end, stick to Conan The Barbarian if you want pre-medieval loincloth and decapitation action.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Mortal Kombat (1995)

The first image of Mortal Kombat is the New Line logo assembling itself and a voice screaming “MORTAL KOMBAT!” Cue the thumping trance theme to the movie, which caps off the title card with another “MORTAL KOMBAT!” shouted off-screen for good measure. I was struck by the thought that more movies should announce themselves in such a way, fully capturing the audience’s attention and reminding them thirty seconds in, “Yes, this was the movie I paid to see” (something like “SCHINDLER’S LIST!”). However, the title also needs to refer to an activity that is central to the movie’s plot so that characters will continually say every twenty minues, “Let Mortal Kombat commence!”

The plot they developed for this adaptation of the best-selling game, which I remember playing a great deal all the way back in high school, is a straight rip-off of Enter The Dragon with the evil Shang Tsung (played by the indomitable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) arranging an inter-dimensional tournament on his island, which is all a front for him to feed on the souls of beaten warriors. Who are our heroes? There is Sonya “I work alone” Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a Britney Spears lookalike CIA agent with an extreme pout and attitude to burn, but who looks really uncomfortable holding a gun or engaging in any of the fight scenes. There is also Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), a Jay Mohr type who talks like a sitcom character with self-aware dialogue like “This is the part where you’re supposed to fall over” and keeps complaining about his luggage and breaking his three hundred dollar pair of sunglasses and generally conforming to the Hollywood asshole actor stereotype he’s playing. Finally there is Liu Kang (Robin Shou), a doppelganger for Bruce Lee with his exposed pecs and black pyjama pants, but is defined by his feathered, blow-dried 1990s hairdo. Basically the 2D polygons that were featured in the game had more dimension than these characters.

The pacing of Mortal Kombat is pretty sluggish. All of the dialogue is exposition heavy like a soap-opera (“Princess Katana?” “Yes, the Prince’s adopted daughter” or “You killed her partner, didn’t you?”) that sets up who is who and what is happening within the first ten minutes. And YET there are countless scenes of characters talking to each other that go nowhere since there is no intrigue or complexity that can be developed with the plot. I was impatient like a thirteen year old boy who this film was aimed at - GET TO THE FIGHTING ALREADY! Once they do, it’s the slow and dull Hollywood version of martial arts before The Matrix made everyone hire Woo-ping Yuen to choreograph their fight scenes. What makes the fighting come alive is that the filmmakers continually score it with dated mid-1990s Eurotrash trance music, which basically resembles every one hit wonder dance hit from the time, such as 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limit’ or Sash’s ‘Adelante.’ Apart from this, Mortal Kombat’s best moments are when the director pushed a close-up into a character whenever they uttered one of the trademark catchphrases from the video game to the delight of fanboys everywhere: “Fatality!”, “Finish him!” and “Flawless Victory” are all said in the movie. Funniest of all is the mask clad, yellow vested Scorpion whose looped-in dialogue sounds directly lifted from an arcade game and is basically a series of commands towards his opponent’s movements (“GET OVER HERE!”). The vivid brutality of the video game, what with all the spines being ripped out and such, is toned down for a general audience so the worst thing you is an exploding skull that wouldn’t look out of place in The Goonies. There is also Goro, the monstrous Kombatant, who looks like a big piece of poo but with four arms sticking out the sides and whose special secret combo death movie is to basically club a guy over the head with his fist. Yet his secret weakness, which is exposed by Johnny Cage in one key fight, is that Goro does not like having his cock punched.

Best of all is Christopher Lambert as Lord Rayden who with his long-white hair accentuates his whiteyness as a Japanese God. I’m sure the producers cast him in order to invest their movie with a little bit of Highlander magic. Rayden is basically the Obi Wan character who keeps popping up and advising the three heroes that they are fighting for the fate of their world, using ominous lightning to emphasise his points, and, when needed, can change himself into Proton-Pack Light Stream Light Show in order to confuse and dazzle opponents. Actually Lambert’s best schtick is offering a lame line like “I don’t think so” and giving a trademark cackle, which he does about fifty times over the course of the movie.

Leaving nothing behind in the memory like an exit wound to the brain, Mortal Kombat is a landmark film for one reason and one reason only in that it introduced Paul W.S. Anderson to Hollywood, a British director who would go on to make further video game adaptations (Resident Evil) and films that felt like video games (Death Race).

Friday, 12 December 2008

Class of 1984 (1982)

It’s always a good strategy for a movie to begin with a set of statistics. That way what follows afterwards becomes believable. So, you say that X number of high school students were arrested that year but then you foreground that with, “American High Schools are not like the one depicted in this movie... yet.” Ah, so your movie is a chilling prognostication of the nefarious future. Well, I better pay attention then as this is one movie no concerned citizen could afford to miss!

Class of 1984 is the type of movie that will have ex-marine gym teachers with burr haircuts snickering to their placid, frumpy wives in the cinema, “What these hoodlums need is some discipline!” Yes, high school is a nightmarish post-apocalyptic war zone in the eyes of this movie. A new teacher named Norris (Perry King who with a beard looks like a soap opera version of Chuck Norris) arrives on his first day to find that teachers carry firearms in their briefcases and students have to pass through metal detectors to get to class (Are your minds blown already by how bad everything is?). All the well-meaning pacifist Norris wants to do is teach music class, but unfortunately his authority is threatened by a gang of punks headed by the obnoxious Steggman (Timothy Van Patten) who keeps shouting stuff like “I am the future!” and “Don’t you know I run this school?” Director Mark Lester (the genius who directed one of Arnie’s finest hours, Commando) does everything in his power to have you despise these no-good deadbeats: they give Heil Hitler salutes in class, they beat up a black drug-dealer in the bathrooms, they force a willing punkette who wants to become a drug-whore to strip naked in front of them, they spray stage blood in Norris’ face when he’s out walking with his pregnant wife, and they even shank a chubby Michael Fox (before he had a “J” as a middle initial) during lunchtime. Amidst all of this brutality there is an excellent scene where Steggman, threatening Norris during one of his classes, sits down at a piano and performs a soulful concerto to everyone’s wonderment. But before you’re worried that this is one of those inspirational, based-on-a-true-story movies where the teacher turns the bag eggs around through the power of a bull-horn and Bob Dylan lyrics, it’s only a momentary deviation from Steggman’s reign of classroom terror.

Morally dubious in its right-wing fantasy of uncontrollable teenagers, Class of 1984 is a satisfyingly repugnant action movie that tries to impart important lessons as it wallows in titillation and violence. This is the type of film where a straight-laced teenager tries cocaine for the first time and winds up taking a swan dive from the school flagpole. Yet it’s also the type of film where the attractive female member of Steggman’s punk gang quivers in sadistic, lesbian ecstasy whenever a female is brutalised by the other gang-members. You also have memorable moments such as when Fright Night’s Roddy McDowall, a long-suffering science teacher, flips out in a hammy performance and teaches a class by holding the students at gunpoint. In the vision of this movie, you’re either a good student who gets hassled by the bad apples or you’re a no good punk who deserves to die. Every time Norris attempts to have Steggman arrested for the multiple crimes he commits, the principal and the local cops say, “You have no evidence! He’s just a teenager!” (the commie bastards!) Before long, we’re talking Straw Dogs territory with Norris backed into a corner after they’ve raped his wife, forced to prove his manhood by fighting Steggman and his cronies in darkened school corridors while everyone is assembled for the band performance at the school concert. Particularly brilliant is when Norris uses the classrooms he hides in as weapons, such as running one evil punk kid’s arm through a wood shop band saw, an applause worthy moment of early 1980s grotesque violence.

Lester returned to the classroom with a sequel that I must check out called Class of 1999 (1990) where this time the punk teenagers are the heroes as the teachers are all crazy robots who shoot missiles at students in another chilling vision of the educational system’s future where Malcom McDowell is a high school principal!

Saturday, 6 December 2008

The Transporter 2 (2005)

The main reason I watched this film was hearing about the awesome sequence where Jason Statham finds out the bad guys have left a bomb underneath his car by glancing at the reflection of a water puddle underneath the automobile. They let him leave and they wait to push the trigger to the explosive device so as “to have a little distance” (that old excuse). Now instead of simply stopping the car and either running away or detaching the bomb by hand, Statham goes for a more direct approach. He has enough time to drive at top speed through a junkyard, spy a crane hanging in the air, launch off a ramp that was conveniently left there, spin the car in the air so that the undercarriage is exposed, let the crane hook the bomb off his car, and revolve the car enough degrees to land safely in time for an explosion to occur in the background. This is the highpoint of the movie and it’s just as ridiculously sublime to watch play out onscreen as to read about it in every review of the film.

The Transporter 2 features the return of Frank Martin (Statham) the SAS soldier turned chauffeur who in this movie has to rescue the annoyingly “cute” son of a Florida couple, the father of which is a politician fighting in the war on drugs (played terribly by Matthew Modine with frosted tips in his hair). The kidnappers are an annoying bunch particularly Kate Nauta, another gamine model that producer Luc Besson tapped to become the next Millia Jocovich, running around in upmarket lingerie shooting off hundreds of rounds using laser-scoped machine guns so that the male fans with subscriptions to FHM magazine can get their rocks off. She’s the one who gets the cheesy bad guy lines like when she’s shoots a poor nurse and a doctor barges in, “What’s the problem here?” “Me,” she says before she caps him. This is also the type of movie where no character can get into a car or open a bottle of beer without an extreme close up of the product’s label. Then you have Statham in the middle of all this who I think is the action movie heir to guys like Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris since he basically has one expression throughout every scene, a stern one that seems to take seriously every ridiculous, logic-defying action sequence he finds himself in the middle of; whether it’s launching a speed-boat onto the back of a yellow school bus or trouncing a roomful of heavies with a fire hose.

At 80 minutes length, this is a thankfully brief B-movie, which is largely forgettable but has enough bullshit moments to make it worthwhile viewing, particularly for Statham fans.