The eighties had a lot of action heroes – enough for two tiers of them… enough to churn out B-movie action flicks in plain, twisted, ironic and even extra-toasty. Tier one included names like Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold. Tier two included the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and the star of Driven to Kill, Steven Segal.
Where Van Damme has re-invented himself through the very meta JCVD, Segal has, after trying to make movies that say stuff, returned to what he does best – revenge fantasies. Driven to Kill finds him playing a Russian writer named Ruslan who writes – as a former colleague [i.e. gangster] calls them, “snuff books” [presumably the Russian mob equivalent of The Mack Bolan, Executioner series].
You think I’d learn. Every time I check out a movie based on a videogame, I’m let down – sometimes to an extreme [like with Max Payne, DOOM and the original Street Fighter movie]; sometimes by the tiniest of margins. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is one of the latter.
Here’s a movie that features some of the wittier martial arts choreography to be filmed in the last few years, and there’s a clever – even wistful – parallel father/daughter arc that shows Chun-Li [Kristin Kreuk] to be treasured by her father [Edmund Chen], and Bison’s [Neal McDonough] daughter used solely as a repository for the last of the goodness in his soul.
Unfortunately, the film falls into the usual origin story knee-deep exposition and too little actual martial arts sequences. Performance-wise, the cast is pretty good. Kristin Kreuk is at least adequate as Chun-Li; Robin Shou gives Gen [her mentor] a combination of gravity and humor that works really well; Neal McDonough is suitably psycho as Bison, and the sly chemistry between Interpol agent Nash [Chris Klein] and Bangkok cop Maya [Moon Bloodgood]definitely adds to the mix. Only Michael Clarke Duncan [Balrog, Bison’s number one enforcer] doesn’t fit – more because of the script than Duncan.
Andrzej Bartkowiak’s direction is crisp enough but he simply has too much material to cram into the film’s ninety-six minutes. The result is a movie that does entertain on a basic level, but is missing the kind of pure excitement that it needs to reach the next level.
A retired spy’s daughter is kidnapped to be sold as a sex slave [the slightly skeevey part]. The ex-spy hunts the men who kidnapped her. As premises go, this one is simple, direct and a bit odd to find in a PG-13 film – but we are talking about a Luc Besson production, so maybe it’s not really a surprise.
What is a surprise is that Taken, co-written by Besson [Leon, The Professional and The Fifth Element] and Robert Mark Kamen [The Karate Kid, The Transporter], and directed by Pierre Morel [District B13], is better than the premise suggests. This mostly because it takes a bit of time to establish that our protagonist, Bryan Mills [Liam Neeson] has retired because he wants to reconnect with his daughter, Kim [Maggie Grace]. We believe him because we see how disappointed he is when her mother, Lenore [Famke Janssen] and step-father, Stuart [Xander Berkley] upstage him at her birthday party [he brings her an expensive karaoke machine, but Stuart gives her a horse].
When she and her mother persuade him to sign a waiver allowing Kim to go to Paris, his warnings of danger fall on deaf ears and – sure enough – she and her friend are kidnapped. Then comes the phone conversation we saw in the trailer – followed by Mills taking action. Although Neeson is not a small guy, he does a good job of making himself seem ordinary as he begins tracking down the kidnappers, but once he swings into action, he becomes a force of nature.
Morel keeps the action up front and his pacing builds as Mills works himself up the chain of command – starting with the spotter who set up Kim and her friend. The usual ingredients of a Besson production are here – fights, chases, explosions – but because we buy into Mills as a father, there is a little more gravity, a little more at stake than usual.
Taken is entertaining but, ultimately, reliant on one performance. If you buy Neeson as Mills, then you’ll enjoy the movie. If not, you won’t. I did.
The basic premise of the Transporter movies is, as noted above, taking Package X from Point A to Point B. What makes the series fun is the obstacles that pop up every time we see Frank Martin [Jason Statham] take on a new gig. In Transporter 3, Frank is unwittingly involved into helping an eco-terrorist named Johnson [Prison Break’s Robert Knepper, going from scuzzy and greasy, to silky and sly] blackmail a member of The Ukraine’s government into signing a contract that would enable him to have toxic materials dumped there on a regular basis.
How does he plan to do this? By kidnapping the minister’s daughter, Valentina [Natalya Rudakova]. How does keep the minister from finding her and thwarting his plan? Yup. By hiring Frank to take a package from just outside Marseilles to Budapest. Frank thinks the package is the bag in his trunk – but only for about as long as it takes to realize that she shares the same booby trap as him – a bracelet that will blow them up real good if they venture more than seventy-five feet from the car.
Director Olivier Megaton [there’s a good story behind the pseudonym – look it up online] brings a fresh zing to the franchise. His film has more of a staccato rhythm than its predecessors, and the bottom to the score literally rattles the theater. Cory Yuen returns to choreography the martial arts mayhem and gives us a look at why Frank’s wardrobe is so important to him.
Also as usual, stuff does blow up real good – just not Frank or Valentina. The special effects work is bigger and, and yet more delicately placed [in terms of timing], fuelling Megaton’s rhythms as much as Yuen’s fight sequences. Frank remains rather droll, looking more inconvenienced by his opponents than any danger – until he does finally catch up with Johnson, of course.
By limiting Frank to a set distance from his, Megaton and scriptwriters Luc Besson and Robert Kamen create a situation where Frank has to be even more creative in the way he handles problems – and it’s Statham’s wry presence that helps the audience to buy into the conceit. In Transporter 3, we get a purely fun flick to offset all the mawkish holiday movies and serious awards bait. It’s not brilliant, but better-than-average, propulsive fun has its place.
Pandas are perceived as being laid back, relaxed and just enjoying munching on bamboo shoots. Kinda like your fat, old uncle Kenny – only bigger and with fur. Casting a panda as a kung fu master is one of those contradictory images that just automatically provoke smiles and chuckles – if not hysterical laughter. Which is why Kung Fu Panda had to be more than just another animated movie. In order for it to work, the film would have to find a way to make us believe – in with excellent CGI – that Po [voiced by Jack Black], a poor panda working for his father in a noodle house, could make that leap to… wait for it… Dragon Warrior!
In anticipation of the evil snow leopard Tai Lung [Ian McShane] breaking out of the most secure prison in the country, Master Shifu [Dustin Hoffman] has trained the Furious Five – Masters Crane [David Cross], Mantis [Seth Rogen], Monkey [Jackie Chan], Tigress [Angelina Jolie] and Viper [Lucy Liu] – in hopes that one of them would be chosen to fulfill the prophecy of the Dragon Warrior and obtain the Dragon Scroll that would take them to an almost exalted level of martial arts mastery. Through a fluke involving fireworks and a chair, Po finds himself chosen to become the Dragon Warrior by Master Oogway [Randall Duk Kim] – and fierce lessons must be learned by all of them so that, when Master Oogway’s time comes, the Dragon warrior will be ready to face Tai Lung.
Kung Fu Panda is a small miracle in both character and animation development. The script, by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger [from a story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris] packs as much character into the film as action [and there’s a lot of action!]. Watching Po and his father, Mr. Ping [James Hong] deal with the changes in Po’s life are fraught with genuine emotion; the disbelief of Shifu and the Furious Five combine to make things even harder for the poor Po. The animation of the martial arts sequences add to the depth of the film with their intricacy and clarity.
Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have done a masterful job of matching voices to characters [Jolie and Liu especially, bring it – and Rogen, counter cast as the tiny Mantis gives his character a surprisingly supple quality] and staging both moments of frenzy and unexpected beauty [the passing of a key character]. Kung Fu Panda is a movie that might have been wholly summarized by its title, but instead is so much more. Thanks to the factors mentioned plus the unexpected range of Black as Po, this is a classic in waiting.
David Mamet has studied Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for several years and, with Redbelt, he brings this side of his life to silver screen in a story that features his usual briskly vulgar language and crosses, double-crosses and scams – only in the staging of a martial arts movie.
The protagonist, Mike Terry [Chiwetal Ejiofor], is an instructor/studio owner whose business is suffering and really only survives because of the income provided by his wife, Sondra’s [Alice Braga] boutique garment business. When he comes to the aid of a movie star, Chet Frank [Tim Allen], in a bar fight, he winds up getting sucked into a series of cons that result in his finally having to enter a mixed martial arts tournament to save his studio and his wife’s business – and that doesn’t even take into account the messed up lady lawyer and an unfortunate accident…
With Redbelt, Mamet does a better job as director than as writer. Sure, we’ve got the typical Mamet wheels-within-wheels series of scams/cons and double-crosses – and the film plays to the idea of purity of mind in martial arts versus the crass commercialism of professional mixed martial arts. Unfortunately, after giving us some extremely good set-up, Mamet allows the film to fall onto a kind of clichéd physical battle between Terry and the man behind the tournament – with the master of his art in attendance, no less. The film could easily have ended before the final scene, though. That was a bit too much.
Overall, though, Redbelt is better-than-average Mamet [which is better than most writer/directors best]. He gets fine performances from his cast [many of whom, like Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon and David Paymer] are part of his repertory company. He balances the dialogue and action masterfully, and has a knack for making the most of his small budget. Some mixed martial arts fans in the row behind me said “Awesome!” more than once during the movie, so I guess the fight sequences were as good as they seemed. Redbelt is one of Mamet’s lesser works, but it’s certainly worth checking out – even for those who don’t really care about martial arts.
For a long time, fans of martial arts movies have longed to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li do a film together. Well, even though Chan is noticeably a step slower, and the real hero of The Forbidden Kingdom is a time-traveling poor white kid from the present, the two still provide a lot of fun in a movie that’s a fun riff on a number of martial arts movie themes.