47 Ronin [mild spoilers]: follows a group of disgraced samurai as they set out to avenge their murdered master. As it’s a Hollywood film it obviously contains every single ‘western portrayal of Asia’ pitfall imaginable – everyone speaking ‘Engrish’, exotic mystique, ninjas/samurai everywhere, forbidden gaijin romance, cherry blossom, western warrior, kanji writing, tradition, tradition, tradition… Because of this – and given the foul reviews this received – I was expecting something woeful, but this is pleasantly surprising. The visuals are fantastic: it is a touch over-styalised – some parts feel like Sucker Punch set in feudal Japan – but the costumes, textures, sets, CGI backgrounds are all eye-poppingly sumptuous: it’s up there with The Fall’s immaculate design. Story-wise, other than a few swashbuckling & sword fighting action set pieces, this is definitely more of a drama than you expect: the story arcs are all fairly standard until the ‘happy’ ending – a mass samurai suicide instead of a mass criminal hanging – yay! The biggest complaint you hear about this is that it’s nothing like the original story: WTF?! This is a blockbuster movie… and there are so many fictionalized accounts of this tale that there’s a specific entire genre term for it – Chūshingura! The weirdest thing about 47 Ronin is that it plays to two wildly different audiences – it’s half respectful and traditional samurai movie; and half Game of Thrones style middle-earth mayhem (battles, questing, magic & mythology). Overall, it’s an interesting, and beautiful, oddity that could have been great, but is by no means a terrible movie.
Chocolate: a retired loan shark falls ill, and her daughter goes out to get the money back to pay for the medical bills. Even though it’s clearly just an excuse for the action, the story is pretty bad, and was in the front seat for too long. Also the sooner Thailand realise that emotional scenes don’t have to feature slow motion filming and hammy cheap pop music, the better. What sets this film apart is the amazing action choreography, stunts and creative fighting. There’s five full-blown fights – Ice / Warehouse / Meat Factory / Showdown and Building – crammed with jaw dropping tricks and set pieces that most countries wouldn’t think about letting you try. As shown in the end credits the heroic (dumb) stuntmen here go through hell to get the perfect shot, and it pays off big time. Despite essentially having to play an autistic ninja, the lead girl does a stellar job and her stuntwork / fighting skills are immense – you can’t believe half of the things she’s doing. If you want to see a good story of vengeance and justice, Chocolate probably isn’t the best example, but if it’s insane stunts and action choreography a la Tony Jaa films, this hits the target.
The Legend of Drunken Master: [Region 1 Import] Apparently this was deliberately dubbed in retro ‘Engrish’, lucky for everyone there’s not much dialogue. It’s also unfathomably camp, and terribly unfunny but what this one makes in is the action, and this is action like you’ve never seen before. Every fight and chase scene is mind-blowingly fast and intricate, yet universally enjoyable. The martial arts, especially drunken boxing, are great fun to watch and the physical prowess of a young(ish) Jackie Chan really has to be seen to be believed. It would be forgivable to think he was superhuman but there is absolutely no CGI involved – even when he’s scrambling over the hot coals! In particular the fight with hundreds of hatchet men at the tea house is suspiciously similar to, but infinitely better than, the computer-heavy Agent Smith fight in the Matrix reloaded: mostly because of the bravest, or dumbest, stunt guys in the world. Health and safety officers would have had a field day on that set! The story goes a bit pear-shaped around the middle, but on the whole is one of the best old-school action films available. Jackie Chan’s finest hour?