Kickboxer: Retaliation – a year after killing Tong Po to avenge his brother’s murder, MMA champ Kurt Sloan is kidnapped and forced to fight a new underground deathmatch champion. After a dubious opening Bond-lite salsa dance / train fight, the film is rigidly punctuated with some outstanding action set pieces. The choreography in a couple of the fights is jaw-dropping, especially the single takes at the jailhouse (3 mins uninterrupted), and riverside rumble (inexplicably set to the Surfaris ‘Wipe Out’). The ‘Final Boss’ fight against Game of Thrones’ “The Mountain” is 20 minutes of bone-crunching savagery that reaches previously uncharted levels of OMGWTF twists and turns. Outside of the fights however, the film doesn’t feel particularly well put-together: the direction is weaker than the previous outing – jerking between various scenes, locations, filler Thailand Tourist Board type shots… and there’s no attempt at updating anything about the generic 80s action plot. Cast-wise, almost everything else is in the shadow of Moussi’s physicality and technical ability: Bjornsson is an intimidating force (when he’s not strumming an acoustic guitar for no reason!); JCVD’s charisma brightens up his scenes; Tyson hams it up and gets some laughs; but disappointingly, Christopher Lambert has nothing more to do than growl some threats and react to big hits (away from everyone else). What it lacks in originality and direction, Kickboxer Retaliation makes up by leaving no stuntman unscathed and no prop unsmashed; the fight scenes are top-drawer, and it makes you wish that Alain Moussi would get the chance to go toe to toe with the likes of Iko Uwais and Donnie Yen.
The Tournament: every 7 years in an unsuspecting town 30 of the world’s top special forces, serial killers, athletes and assassins fight to the death for a £10M cash prize. To get it out-of-the-way, yes, this film clearly borrows from the likes of Smokin Aces, Battle Royale, Series 7 etc etc. To ensure there’s some dialogue – in what would otherwise be a speechless film – the silly priest storyline is added, although it could have been just as easily done with two underdog killers teaming up. Given that there’s 30 contestants + others watching, characterisation is obviously very thin. Boring things aside, the action in this film is intense and very frequent – the highlight being a strip-club shootout/massacre with blood, guts and limbs flying everywhere. Nothing within the frame is safe, pedestrians, buildings, animals and vehicles (cars, jeeps and tankers all flipping and exploding at some point). Every five minutes there’s a big action scene, and most of it is of a very high standard. For a £4M movie to have such a decent cast, great action scenes and well-directed action (it’s his first film!!) – it’s nothing short of a miracle. Someone please throw more money at the director, Scott Mann to kick off his next project – it’s absolutely the best in class for mindless action; a bloody schlock romp for the guys, full of explosions, guns, blood and tits.
The Man with the Iron Fists: loads of warring factions descend upon ‘Jungle Village’ to snatch up some government gold. It could have just been the version I saw but parts of this looked re-dubbed and deliberately out of synch, with illegible subtitles barely peeking up from bottom? While that’s cute, all of the fancy tricks and money can’t re-create the cheese and charm of a low-budget kung-fu flick. Highlights of this film are the absolutely awesome wire-work, fight choreography, and ultra-gore – there’s more throat rips than MacGruber. There’s also a pretty good cast, with some familiar faces; Bond Baddie, Pai Mei encore, and Russel Crowe (‘Jack Knife’ – LOL!) clearly just there to molest hot-chicks – which will make you nauseous. RZA – a Badass black blacksmith with a penchant for Assassin’s Creed clothing and Jax from Mortal Kombat forearms – was alright, deliberately kept his bit to a minimum, which was a wise choice for a non-actor. The film looks solid – costumes, sets, backdrops – all make for popping visuals. The story was a little too convoluted and complex for the first-time director – but the wow-cast and action were distracting enough. From an action perspective, The Man with the Iron Fists has some great scenes, but as a ‘film’, it’s quite flimsy and superficial, and feels far like more of a continuation/extension of the running in-jokes that the WuTang clan have long had with olde, badly dubbed Kung Fu films. (See Kung Faux).
Safe: a former cage fighter has to save a gifted child from falling in to the hands of the Triads, Russian mobsters or bent cops. So here we are, another Statham action vehicle where he can kick ass, forget about the names and we all walk out of the cinema satisfied. Action-wise, there’s a few really good, bone-crunching – grab your arm / leg / nuts and shout ‘fuuuuu’ – fight scenes, however the biggest set-pieces are big, loud, well-handled, gunfights. Gruff Statham is as gruff as he can be, although his character is all over the shop: ex binman, ex cage-fighter, ex cop, potentially more dangerous… make up your mind! Other characters are all very dated action film stereotypes: Asians being either angry triads or good at maths; tattoo’d Russian gangsters called Petri and Sergi, and ruthless bent cops who will do anything for some cash-money. The story is just as ridiculous, but who really cares – it’s an action film, with plenty of action and a stunningly high body count. Other notes would be a groovy / old-fashioned soundtrack popping up in places, an Audi with Infinite boot space, New York looking shittier than ever, and the Americanized delivery of the line “I don’t collect garbage, I dispose of it”. Although I walk in to every Statham flick hoping he’ll pull a JCVD on us, Safe ends up being a pretty safe action film about a robbing a safe and keeping a girl (and the audience) safe. Sure it packs a punch and delivers some thrills, but it’s not even remotely interested in doing anything new or original, and neither is Statham at the moment.
IP Man (AKA Yip Man) [Blu Ray]: partial-biogaphy of grandmaster martial artist Yip Man, as he fights to protect his town through the Japanese invasion of 1937. This is a jaw-dropping homage to the old martial arts films; choreography, subtle wire work, sound effects and filming of the action. This all peaks during a 1-on-10 fight indoors, which is action-tastic, bone-snappingly brutal and phenomenal to watch. Storywise, the film starts off amazingly with random schools of martial artist groups challenging each other to fights, but as soon as the war / Chinese history kicks in it slows the film down to a crawl. Annoyingly, there’s random leaps forward in time about every ten minutes; is it a week, month or year… we don’t know. Outdoors the BD picture great, but inside it’s very grainy – and the entire second half (invasion) looks depressingly washed-out and devoid of any colour. Films that handle the Sino–Japanese war have a tough job, and IP man succeeded nationally (although falls down internationally) in doing this; because it’s over-sentimental – but you can’t hold that against such a nationally proud, historical piece. Overall, IP Man starts with a massive bang, but the entire second half becomes a bit of a struggle, although the great action will keep you in your seat.
The Expendables: A band of gruff mercenaries feel up to the task of overthrowing a corrupt Latin-American dictator. First thing’s first: this film has the action cast to end all casts – while it’s not 100% perfect, you just don’t see this many huge names in a film these days. It’s hard to describe but seeing star after star after star is spectacle in itself. Then there’s the action, which is awesome – and although CGI heavy, it’s great fun watching henchmen get mauled by fists, blades, bullets, fire and grenades; watching anything and everything get blown up; watching all the standout musclemen fight each other; and watching set piece after set piece. Little else is particularly noteworthy, but little else matters in a film like this; the script’s terrible laughable, the plot is contrived beyond belief, the acting’s utterly forgettable (everyone’s on auto-pilot) and even the ‘hot chick’ was a bit of a dog. Essentially a B-movie with an A-star cast and massive budget, this isn’t a homage to 1980s blockbuster action films, this is a 1980s blockbuster action film. It’s also an action film for action fans, and it does the big scenes way better than anything else I’ve seen recently. I laughed, I cringed, and I shouted ‘Holy Shit’ (usually while clutching a limb that’d just been snapped on screen) about 20 times. What can I say? I’m a sucker for big names, big guns, big explosions and big set pieces. Roll on the Expendables 2!
Piranha: (Piranha 3D – 2010) Spring break is ruined as an earthquake releases a massive school of 2 million year old cannibal super-piranhas into a party-lake!! The movie’s divided in to two parts: set up (nudity-fest and just enough gore) and bloodbath (gore-fest and just enough nudity). The cast is a who’s who of B-movie stars, all typecast and wafer thin characters; in saying that, Christopher Lloyd’s great fun, Ving Rhames is Ving Rames, Kelly Brook is ball-tighteningly hot and porn stars Gianna Michaels / Riley Steele also get their 3D lungs out – no complaints with any of that! The gore‘s decent enough; most of it is real effects so looks pretty good but the CGI is a bit rubbish and the underwater scenes look very dark with the 3D glasses on. The 3D itself is generally good if a tad sloppy – they clearly spent the most time on the buxom booty and a few cheap ‘poke outs’ and not enough time on the piranhas themselves, but on the whole it was decent. There’s a bunch of nice nods to Jaws, from the poster through to ‘the dolly shot’, when Brody realises what’s happening, and even the casting of Dreyfuss. My biggest complaint is that for the robbery extra cost of seeing a 3D flick it’s very short – although given that Piranha barely sustains itself for 75-80 minutes this may be a godsend! All-in Piranha’s everything you expect it to be: shallow and camp, but bulging with entertaining gore, red dye and constant nudity… what more could you want from a B-movie? Guilty pleasure of the summer.
Spartacus Blood and tits Sand: 150% testosterone-fueled 13-part swords and sandals epic – It’s essentially what would happen if the cast of 300 violated the story and actresses of BBC‘s Rome. I’ll get the controversial stuff out of the way first. Violence, there’s literally GCI bucketloads of flying limbs, heads, blood and teeth every time someone grabs a weapon – most memorable; a gladiator cuts a dead opponent’s face off and wears it as a mask in his next fight – awesome… just awesome. Secondly, Spartacus is a celebration of Skin; it’s a conveyor belt of gratuitous Spartan chests, fake and real breasts, naked men fighting, women getting rammed, guys getting tugged off and gay gladiators bumming each other – most memorable; Lucy “Xena Warrior Princess” Lawless getting her gobstoppers out! Thirdly, the Dialogue sounds like 20 drunk sailors sat at a whiteboard and played the ‘best insult ever’ competition – some of the combinations are so imaginative and foul that they even impressed this sweary Scotsman. Controversy aside the actually story is so, so epic, and nowhere as linear or predictable as you’d expect – it twists and turns right to the last scene with endless betrayals, story developments and murders. The acting is also startlingly good given that there’s very few big names, so many characters, and everyone falls into either i) meat-head gladiators (for action) ii) sexed-up women (for skin) or iii) slimy political figures (for progressing the story). Other than a couple of slower episodes Spartacus is an absolute hit, that gets better as the series progresses: my lady even went from “this is so ridiculous” to a total convert, no mean feat for a series aimed at 15 year old boys! When the show works, it totally works – and if you can see past the gratuitous violence, skin and language – at the heart of Spartacus lies a compelling, well-written and well-executed story. Brilliant mix of drama, action and trash!
Hot Rod: a wannabe stuntman has to pull off the biggest jump in history to save his terminally ill step-dad; just so he can kick his ass and win his respect before he dies… Ace! This is one of the few comedies I’ve seen lately that remains consistently funny throughout, with too many laughs to list, and a great script’s that throws up obvious and subtle jokes. Some of the humour’s pretty silly and offbeat but works because of the deadpan delivery. The cast are great with Samberg as the standout (unfortunately the Lonely Island are unheard of in the UK). Danny McBride and his usual posse also put in some good face time, Isla Fisher‘s also on good form. The laughs slow up in the third quarter and a few of the visual gags are predictable but it’s forgivable because the retro 80s hair metal / synth music soundtrack that compliments (and compensates for some of) the humour so well. For me the entire film just worked, and the production values were great. It will get bashed by any serious movie goer but Hot Rod totally exceeded my expectations and was genuinely funny throughout. Will definitely be watching again. Cool beans!
Taken: (Extended ‘Harder’ Cut) a stupid girl runs off to Europe to follow a U2 tour, and if that doesn’t warrant getting kidnapped I don’t know what does! Naturally, her badass daddy (conveniently ex CIA covert / black ops) has to sort it all out. My favourite thing about Taken is that it has an amazing mix of action, drama and a no-brain story. It’s very realistic; the fighting’s well-choreographed but never really over-the-top, there’s also a great – no holds barred – authenticity on the human trafficking story. Despite seeing this a few times my heart still ends up in the stomach when Kim gets kidnapped. Above all that, Laim Neeson’s on top form, showing his acting and action abilities in equal measure. I guess the downside is that it doesn’t exactly make you want to visit Paris in a rush. Unashamedly in the same vein as Bourne, 24, Man on Fire-type movies but other than that, you can’t fault this much!
Kill Bill Vol 1: (Blu Ray) a former assassin and her nearest & dearest are murdered; she survives and sets out for revenge – big time. Although his style’s not for everyone this Tarantino flick works the audience like no other. It has style in excess as it flips between live action and anime, the past and present, colour and B&W, tranquility and hyper violence… There’s also a load of retro & chic elements such as the unnecessary censorship of The Bride’s name, yellow jumpsuits, and who doesn’t wiggle their big toe when Uma wills herself on? With all the style, story, great soundtrack and violence it’s easy to overlook Uma’s talent, covering everything between ‘broken woman’ to ‘superwoman’ without raising a single doubt. It’s very heavy on the homage, but doesn’t take itself seriously – what with the limbs flying everywhere as the bride breakdances with a sword in hand! The trademark unnecessarily long dialogue is toned down a bit and the middle part with Hattori Hanzo feels a tad stretched. The music builds up so much tension before the fight scenes and technically the film’s outstanding: the swooping single shot between the main room and toilets (twice!) in the House of Blue Leaves seems effortless. The consistently vibrant picture and near-flawless audio on this Blu Ray make it 100% worth the upgrade. If a gravity-defying swordswoman hacking and shooting her way through dozens of bodies is your thing, then look no further than this. Perhaps one of the best action films, ever.
Ninja Assassin: about a bunch of Ninjas that charge a fee for killing people, doh! It has to be one of the manliest-sounding concepts since Beef Jerky, Beards, Shark Curry and Handsaws. Action’s the only thing this really has going for it but even that’s not the best as it’s far too reliant on on CGI (pretty lazy with the lack of genuine stunts / proper effects) and some of the scenes just digress into a blurry mess. They did try with the story but every five minutes the ‘action klaxon’ goes off and someone, somewhere stylishly loses some limbs. The script’s absolutely terrible: full of clichés and naff lines. The characters are all fairly bland, especially the main – but it must be hard for a Korean pop star to pull-off ‘badass Ninja’ on the best of days. The whole SWAT Team VS Ninjas concept was pretty sweet, and it will want to make you get buff… big time. Unfortunately, it never really matched the suspense, shock, gore or action of the first scene! Definitely an action-fest aimed at guys!