This may, or may not, be a momentous bang and/or whimper occasion. I can’t remember exactly when I started writing this column for the gone-and-might-be-forgotten (albeit, in some quarters, fondly remembered) Inside Kung-Fu magazine, but I seem to recall it was around 1991.
That makes it a nice round anniversary, since the final issue of IKF appeared in 2011, and I’m putting this continuing column to bed in 2016. Finally, after twenty-five years – mostly as a monthly celebration of kung fu films – Martial Arts in Media is dead … long live martial arts in media!
Don’t start celebrating yet. I’ll still be reviewing martial art movies – here, on the Comedy Film Nerds site (www.comedyfilmnerds.com), and definitely on my Prof. Ric’s Action Film Autopsy podcast as well as its website (www.actionfilmautopsy.com) and Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ProfRicAFA/?notif_t=page_fan¬if_id=1474479040699699).
In any case, the reason I’m not sustaining these regularly scheduled columns is not that I’ve grown tired. No, I’m ending this particular iteration for the same reason Chinatown movie theaters and video stores have disappeared. And it’s not, contrary to popular belief, that everything is being downloaded. If that were true, all movie theaters and DVDs would disappear. No, it’s because there’s simply not enough product to sustain them, and the product that remains is, to put it nicely, creatively compromised.
Given the realities of working in a film industry that is, on the one hand, monetarily mushrooming, but, on the other, heavily scrutinized and always at risk of censure at any point in the process, it’s little wonder what results are what I call EATS Films: Everything And The Kitchen Sink (yes, I know it should be EATKS Films, but obviously, EATS is catchier and more memorable).
Modern Chinese action films are huge, sugary confections full of color, costumes, characters, scenery, and special effects. They are massive eye candy. Mind candy? Not so much. And, again perhaps to contrary belief, even the most seemingly superficial, successful, superhero or sci-fi saga has at least some mind candy to keep audiences’ brains from freezing (as prime examples, the billion dollar-earning Captain America Civil War and Zootopia – both which offer far more than meets the eye).
Adding to Chinese cinema woes is the essentially gutted Hong Kong film industry. Since the return of the once-British colony to Chinese rule in 1997, fans have watched the slow choking of the mother lode of what used to run this engine. Production has been shifted north, and filmmakers have been – not even subtly – asked to choose sides … and woe be to the filmographies of anyone who chooses demo-crazy (sic).
The few paltry pittances that manage to emerge are pale plagiarisms of their former selves. There’s Mobfathers, which features the great Anthony Wong (one star who the powers-that-be seem to feel chose unwisely), but otherwise plays like a slapdash satire of the excesses from past Triad epics. Although directed by Herman Yau (Ip Man Final Fight), it seems to be a vanity project for star Chapman To (Infernal Affairs), who plays an underling so obsessed with becoming boss that he’ll take down everything with him if he doesn’t. Hmmmm … thematic metaphors anyone?
Then there’s Trivisa, a crime thriller anthology that producer Johnnie To used to give three fledgling directors and writers a shot before it was too late (reminding me of when the Shaw Brothers Studio seemed to give anyone a chance to direct a movie before they shut their film units down in, ironically, 1984). Frank Hui, Jevons Au, and Vicky Wong ran with it, making an interesting, and ultimately interlocking, fiction about three actual Hong Kong mobsters trying to pull off one last score on the eve of the 1997 handover. It makes for an interesting “what if?” peep of defiance, but that, sadly, is about all.
Both these films were overshadowed by their Beijing big brothers, but just about the only one that had any bite was Cold War II, the sequel to a crime-busting, flag-waving 2012 cop thriller (my review is here: http://ricmeyers.com/2013/03/09/martial-arts-in-media-313/). The core cast and crew is back to continue the story of competing police commissioners and the lengths one will go to keep the job and the lengths the other will take to do the job honorably. The icy stares of stars Aaron Kwok and (Tall) Tony Leung are put to excellent use, as is the deflating face and body of an apparently anorexic Chow Yun-fat (one star who reportedly chose unwisely but was forgiven for some reason … for now).
This suspenseful, snappy, thriller is not an EATS film. Instead, it represents an “everything old is new again” sub-genre: the NAP Film. Not Absolutely Propaganda (again, “Not Exactly Propaganda” might’ve been better, but that spells the less memorable NEP, unless you capitalize the “a” in “exactly”). Before Jet Li’s 1981 Shaolin Temple, everything made in China was propaganda, but that was also when Hong Kong was still under British rule. Now that China is a world economic power, it wants to have its Hollywood cake and eat it too. Hence the EATS and NAP films – international on the surface, but hewing to the party line beneath.
Cold War II benefits, however, by some crackerjack automotive and automatic weapon action sequences — credited to the great Chin Kar-lok, who excelled with both Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s stuntman teams, as well as starred in such keepers as Operation Scorpio. Ultimately I’m not sure whether I really liked this mix of Dragnet and the original Hawaii 5-0 because it was that good, or I enjoyed it because it seemed that good only when compared to everything else.
A prime example of both that “everything else” and the ultimate EATS film would be League of Gods, the crammed extravaganza the hyperthyroidism-afflicted Jet Li chose as his return to movies after three years (and the abysmal “comedy” Badges of Fury). Still on schedule to retire soon, I can only hope that L.O.G. gave him a good paycheck to finance his treatment, because this colorful, busy, anything-goes miasma — about a sexy snake demon trying to take over the world or destroy the world or something — feels like having Brillo-shaped cotton candy scraped in your eyes for two hours. It is very, very pretty but very, very, very empty, and, to add insult to injury (spoiler alert) ends on a cliffhanger … for a very, very, very, very doubtful sequel.
Sigh. You beginning to understand the reason I’m wrapping up this column? Even Chinese young guns do not hold out much hope. I was honored to be introduced to Sun Yue at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival, where he premiered his all but hand-made movie The Bodyguard (not to be confused with Sammo Hung’s My Beloved Bodyguard, which I reviewed in the now second-to-last Martial Arts in Media: http://ricmeyers.com/2016/05/30/martial-arts-in-media-spring-2016/).
Sun wrote, directed, choreographed, and starred in what he wanted to be the first of a new wave of China-flavored, hard-hitting, bone-crushing, badass action films in the tradition of Ong Bak and The Raid. Yue looks like a combination of Donnie Yen and Stephen Chow, and the film started in the same vein – combining a sharp sense of humor with some truly kick-ass conflicts. Yue revealed that a bunch of stuntmen, as well as himself, spent copious hours in the hospital, and the film leaves little doubt of that. When I showed an exclusive scene at my recent San Diego Comic Con Kung Fu Extravaganza, I had the audience shout “hospital!” whenever they thought a kick or punch resulted in the emergency room. If you made a drinking game out of it, you’d be dead of alcohol poisoning by the end.
But sadly, the repetitiveness of the fights and the increasingly unraveling story-telling creates a growing feeling of regret and disappointment. Except for the Jackie Chan-ish end credit out-takes, The Bodyguard, like Mobfathers, comes off as a promising, but unfinished, vanity project. If it ever comes out on DVD, however, it would make for a prime fast-forward drinking game movie night special. But be sure to have EMTs on speed dial.
But even all the preceding wasn’t the final straw on this column’s back. No, that would be Skiptrace, Jackie Chan’s latest, and the first that could be rated “T” for Tired — and graded with the number of bags you can count under Jackie’s eyes. Those bags, and Jackie’s exhausted demeanor throughout, aren’t indicative of his age (62), but of his apathy. If William Shatner could look good in Star Trek V, Jackie Chan could’ve looked good in Skiptrace. But he didn’t care to.
Instead, he seemed intent on accentuating his weariness — slowing down the action, the comedy, even his gait. He didn’t so much walk as shuffle. He didn’t so much run as shamble. Little wonder, since the whole movie was a retread – a geriatric, world-hopping version of Rush Hour that didn’t require Chris Tucker. Instead, Jackass Johnny Knoxville took on the fast-talking excess baggage role as a petty crook who stumbles onto evidence that would nail a crime boss who kept slipping out of aged cop Jackie’s clutches.
So from Macau to Siberia to Mongolia to Hong Kong they wander, being ploddingly pursued by both the Chinese and Eastern European mobs. There’s some swell sweeping cinematography and charming local color (including just what you were waiting for, a musical number … which was, btw, actually superior to most of the rest that goes on). At least the movie I saw was better than what the coming attraction trailer promised, which contained multiple cheap shot kicks in Jackie’s crotch — seemingly the sure sign that Chan is in his sixties. Billy Crystal did the same thing to himself in the abysmal 2012 Parental Guidance. Aging comic actors seem to think audiences find this hi-la-ri-ous! On America’s Funniest Home Videos, maybe. But in Billy or Jackie movies, it seems sad and desperate.
Thankfully saner heads (and testicles) prevailed, so the Skiptrace I saw was ballshot-free. And there was actually one nifty action sequence involving Russian nesting dolls, but otherwise, like Chinese Zodiac, this is another of Jackie’s Greatest Hits Compilations. As I watched with friends, I muttered the movies the fight scenes were lifted from. Armor of God and Miracle were just two of the most obvious, but I’m pretty sure there were hunks of Police Story and Project A in there as well. All slowed down, of course, but at least Jackie’s only borrowing from himself.
The final effect of the film, however, was one of beneficent patience. Good for you, Jackie. You made it all the way through the movie without totally embarrassing yourself. That’s nice. Here, you want some pudding?
Luckily, Jackie already has at least three more movies in the can (The Foreigner, Railroad Tigers, and Kung Fu Yoga) three more filming (Bleeding Steel, The Nut Job 2, and The Lego Ninjago Movie), and three more in pre-production (Rush Hour 4, The Karate Kid 2, and Shanghai Dawn)! Here’s hoping none of them are as enervating as Skiptrace.
Is that it? Am I done? Thanks for the past twenty-five years, everybody! Until my next single-film review or podcast, that’s a wrap! See you in the funny papers.
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