It is seasons like these that the apocryphal “Chinese” curse “May You Live in Interesting Times” comes to mind (although generally considered a translation from the writings of someone like Lao-Tzu or Confucius, an actual Asian source has never be found … for all we know, it could’ve come from a Charlie Chan or Judge Dee mystery). But “These Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls,” from American revolutionary Thomas Paine, will serve just as well, considering the circumstances. As Hong Kongers stand up for their accorded rights against their freedom-shrinking post-1997 leaders, it is unavoidably shading their cinema as well – from industry feuds to the films themselves.
It comes as little surprise that schlockmeister-supreme Wong Jing would publicly side with the police over the protestors, since his oeuvre has been given a shot in the arm, and a clean bill of health, by the increasingly encroaching regime. In fact, he has publicly cut ties with multiple award-winning actor Anthony Wong, and threatens to do the same to any actor who supports the protestors.
The result are films that seem to either symbolize the conflict (most obviously the previously reviewed Firestorm) or skitter very close to being flat-out propaganda. If you’ll excuse the horrible stereotype, this time we have one from Column A and one from Column B.
From Column A comes 7 Assassins, which, although it came out in Asian cinemas the middle of last year, is finally making its way onto DVD, just in time to draw intriguing parallels. This Seven Samurai-esque saga was produced, co-directed, choreographed by, and co-stars Hung Yan-yan, who is best known as “Clubfoot” in the Once Upon a Time in China series. He uses it as a homage and reunion of many kung fu film greats, but, sadly, the parts are better than the whole.
Felix Wong (who played the butcher in Drunken Master II) here stars as an early 20th Century patriot trying to claim a homicidal prince’s hoarded gold to finance a revolution. Not only does he run afoul of the prince’s army, led by Ken Lo (Drunken Master II) and Dick Tei Wei (Dragons Forever), but also a greedy, bloodthirsty female bandit. Giving him sanctuary are, first, an honorable governor played by Ti Lung (Opium and the Kung Fu Master), then an entire town filled with past revolutionaries who just want some peace and quiet (yet still won’t back down against injustice). Sounding politically familiar yet?
Although it technically looks like a TV movie, and wastes too much time with soap operatics, it’s a hoot for fans who want to play a fun game of “Find the Old School Star” (as well as gasp at how they now look). Jockeying for screen time are co-director Eric Tsang (Bodyguards & Assassins), Max Mok (Once Upon a Time in China II), Michael Wong (House of Fury), Fung Hak On (Police Story), Waise Lee (Bullet in the Head), Kara Hui Ying-hung (My Young Auntie), Leung Kar Yan (Thundering Mantis), Mars (Project A), Simon Yam (Full Contact), and many others. It’s a decent time-filler, with some nice climatic moments, and that’s all.
Now, from Column B comes Z Storm (which jumps on the bandwagon of slipping “Storm” into the title – you can find two more elsewhere in this column), which might as well have been called South China Dragnet. Prolific (he’s done seven films in 2014 alone) Louis Koo stars as the “just the facts ma’am” head of the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), who is on the trail of The Z Fund — which is repeatedly called “the biggest financial fraud ever attempted in Hong Kong.” Michael Wong, who played a heroic priest in 7 Assassins, here plays the middle management mastermind of the glorified ponzi scheme being financed and protected by a shadowy bunch of international super criminals.
For most of the film, the cottage-cheese-brained “untouchables” of the ICAC are hopelessly outclassed by their manipulative, violent foes. In fact, if not for the “power corrupts” arrogance of Wong’s character, they might still be in the dark. Director David Lam, who was best known for such masterpieces as Hong Kong Gigolo and Water Margin Heroes’ Sex Stories, takes advantage of the political situation to create his first film in fifteen years. He does a fine job with all the new technology to make things look pretty, and this is an okay effort for folk who like police procedurals. But the entire ICAC squad (who actually line up side by side at the end to walk together into a noble future) might as well have started waving Chinese flags.
I wish there were more Chinese films to consider this season, because I don’t look forward to this next part. This next part finds me considering two American films I really wanted to like, created by several honorable, likeable, people I am big fans of. I know I could just stay silent and leave it at Column A and Column B, but I feel impelled to treat others the way I want to be treated – occasionally to my own alienation.
An explanatory digression: When I started my professional writing career forty (!?) years ago, I was never interested in pats on the head nor attacks. I was interested in finding people who knew more than I did and were willing to share that honestly. It was the only way to improve. So, even today, I still figuratively (sometimes literally) kiss the rings of those who are willing to help make my work better. So, to pay it forward, I try to do the same, which has made me some amazing friends — as well as some enemies, who, despite assertions to the contrary, seemed, in retrospect, only to want head pats (word to the “wise”: if you start defending your work, a] you’re not listening, therefore not learning, and b] you only wanted approval, not constructive criticism).
Digression done, tough love starting. Michael Jai White is a great, talented, guy. Both his Black Dynamite movie and animated show are extraordinary. But, as he flat-out stated at the recent screening of his new film, he has been told, to his face, that he’d be a major action star … if only he wasn’t African-American. At that same event, he revealed that he has started his own production company, which will hopefully beget films worthy of him. Because, sadly, Falcon Rising is not.
Michael plays John “Falcon” Chapman, who, at the beginning of the movie, is a suicidal ex-soldier with post traumatic stress syndrome. After an Above-the-Law-Steven-Seagal-esque scene in a bodega afflicted by the ubiquitous B-action film cliché of suddenly-attacking-asshole-crooks, Falcon’s social-worker sister visits (played by Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter). She involves him in a Brazilian conspiracy, and the film shifts to the fascinating favelas (the same locale as the start of the Ed Norton Hulk film).
There, wearing only a rumpled shirt, pants and black sneakers, Falcon, and the film, forgets all about the suicidal ptsd, and relegates Ali to a hospital bed coma, where she stays throughout – wasting a great opportunity for a climatic audience cheer during her third, count ‘em, third, murder attempt. But that’s not all the film wastes. The plot, such as it is, gets increasingly ridiculous, as the Brazilian chapter of the Japanese yakuza decides it wants to abduct the poorest and sickliest slum children for some unspecified reason.
At least this allows Michael and fight choreographer Larnell Stovall to mount some decent empty hand and weapon battles. Unfortunately, director Ernie Barbarash and scripter Y.T. Parazi don’t seem to know how to take advantage of, or capitalize on, that — creating another in a long line of “just-fast-forward-to-the-fights film.” The less you see of the rest of it, the better. Michael Jai White deserves better, too. Until that happens, however, take a look at Blood and Bone or Never Back Down 2 if you haven’t already.
Sigh. Okay, here goes. 87Eleven Action Design is a team led by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch that has contributed fine work to a wealth of Hollywood films. Their crowning achievement should have been John Wick, since they were in the director’s chairs, and could do what they wanted away from the limited knowledge and imaginations of the usual Tinseltown egos. But, much to my distress and disappointment, they seemingly decided to do much the same stuff as usual, apparently unmindful of what the greatest action films could teach.
As I sat beside Stephen Watson, world taichi champ, who had only attended the screening at my urging, I started making quiet excuses for the film’s choices because I wanted to like it so much. But as soon as the Russian mob villain described the title character, played by Keanu Reeves, my heart sank. Same mistake as the first American introduction of Chow Yun-fat in The Replacement Killers (which eliminated all substance to leave only superficial style). Film producers seem to want to make their protagonists the biggest s.o.b. in the valley so badly, they leave no room for development, growth, or audience involvement.
Wick is instantly deemed “The Boogeymen,” who accomplished an impossible mission, which, folks, establishes a skill level in the minds of the audience that he best live up to, lest you invite disappointment. Worse, the filmmakers start the action set pieces with the attack of a faceless dozen, who Wick does not dispatch with anything close to the skill level alluded to. As Stephe pointed out, “if the directors want the audience to think that Wick is rusty or suicidal, it is up to them to communicate that.” Maybe with intercut flashbacks to that otherwise unseen “impossible mission” to compare and contrast with his lessened instincts and reactions? Maybe with telling pauses, allowing his enemies to almost kill him? Nope.
Once the gauntlet is thrown down a half hour in (Wick’s house is invaded and the beloved dog his dead wife gave him is killed by the sadistic, spoiled son of Wick’s ex-Russian Mob boss), Wick just plows on, never changing his anger-and-muscle-driven gun/judo/mixed martial arts tactics, even after he nearly gets killed and captured. The script, credited to virtual novice Derek Kolstad, does create an intriguing criminal underground mythology, complete with a “safe hotel,” run by the glorious Ian McShane and managed by Lance Reddick.
Unfortunately, even that led to the dashing of my greatest hope as well as the final straw — the moment where I had to simply throw my hands up and stop defending. My greatest hope came in a mid-film scene where Wick is nursing his wounds in the hotel, aided by the establishment’s staff medical miracle worker – The Doctor, played by Randall Duk Kim. The same actor who voiced the kung fu master’s master, Oogway, in Kung Fu Panda.
Ooooo, oooo, I thought. He’s going to tell him, Asian stereotype be damned. He’s going to give Wick the hint that leads him on a smarter, more powerful path. He’s going to somehow show him how to fight more effectively and brilliantly and cleverly and delightfully – leading to fight scenes that will make the hitherto silent audience laugh, gasp, and cheer. But no. The Doctor just gives Wick some magic pills and leaves, never to be seen again. And the fights continue pretty much exactly the way they played out before (while Stephe continually whispered better, quicker, smarter, more powerful, more effective ways to do every move).
Now, the final straw. Virtually all Wick’s adversaries were essentially nameless, usually faceless, generic baddies … except one. That one was Adrianne Palicki’s “Ms. Perkins” — a freelance assassin willing to break McShane’s stringent on-site rules to kill Wick and collect millions of Russian Mob dollars. She was given several stand-out scenes, building up expectations of a “this time it’s personal” climatic blow-out.
Doesn’t happen. She is perfunctorily executed by four nameless, faceless, hotel employees for breaking the rules. And my hopes for the film were essentially executed with her.
SPOILER ALERT RESCINDED!
Wick carries on in his stolid, thoughtless, unimaginative way (complete with a cringe-inducing slo-mo walk away from an explosion), continually showing no signs of any smart or superior ability that would lead to accomplishing an impossible mission, let alone this one. But he does, thanks only to the script, in one anti-climax after another.
SPOILER ALERT REINSTATED!
At the finale, when Wick, against no real odds, decides to live on, he steals a pit bull from some sort of riverfront veterinary hospital to replace the murdered puppy his dead wife had bestowed upon him. The only irony in the final scene is that, unlike the wife’s puppy, this pit bull clearly wants nothing to do with Wick, straining on the leash to get away from him.
I had wanted to love this movie. I had wanted to feel like cheering at the end. But I, like the rest of the audience, just sat there. I think we all identified with the dog.