The Villainess(aka Ak-Nyeo, 악녀, 惡女). an elite assassin goes on a rampage to win back her freedom. This opens with one of the most intense and enjoyable rip-roaring action sequences in recent memory, where no fewer than 50 henchmen are dispatched in a 6-minute point-of-view frenzy of shooting / stabbing / and kick-punching – think of the Oldboy‘s infamous corridor scene, but from Hardcore Henry’s perspective! The film also ends with an equally-impressive action finale involving a bus and a lot of great stuntwork / choreography. It’s peppered throughout with shorter bursts of ultra-violent, and undeniably ‘cool’ blood-spurting over-the-top moments. As you’ve probably guessed, the action scenes are second-to-none… however, they only total around a quarter of the 120 minute runtime; which is a shame as the film if being sold as purely an action film in the same vein as The Raid (the UK poster namechecks Kill Bill, Nikita, John Wick, Hardcore Henry, and Hong Kong Era John Woo!!!). The problem with these comparisons are that – as an overall film – The VIllainess nowhere near as strong as those classics. It’s also lacking in originality in that you can see where shots / scenes / characters have been lifted wholesale from the aforementioned movies; for example, the lead’s backstory is identical to Oren Ishii’s of Kill Bill. The story jumps around the timeline in a manner that is unnecessarily confusing until the final act, where it all kinda (?) fits together. Despite being built from bits and pieces of other action flicks, the action scenes in The Villainess are still inventive, great fun to watch and the spectacle (+ “how did they do that!?” factor) of these alone should entice genre aficionados. It makes it all the more frustrating that these scenes are lost in a flabby, overlong, underwhelming, and melodramatic plot – which could have done with losing around 30 minutes to make it a tighter and more focused / straight-forward action film.
Bullet to the Head: a career hitman and police detective team up in order to bring down a corrupt politician. From the opening scene (and every other frame of the duration) this is 100% a shameless Sly Stallone action vehicle – making him out to be as cool and badass as possible for the duration – which, let’s face it, a 66 year-old action hall-of-famer, doesn’t really need to do. His voice sounds like a sub-sonic stroke victim – so close to requiring re-dubbing or subs. Almost every minor character (wannabe models and actors) seem to be using this film as nothing more than exposure. The action scenes are poorly handled; but even blurry focus, fast cuts and shaky cam can’t spice up what’s clearly shit fights! To make up for this Sly and Walter Hill cram as many other things from the action B-movie checklist as possible: big loud guns, sexy cars, booze, nudity, drugs, tattoos, broads and more fights – and it never aims higher than that. The bi-racial ‘buddy’ element (90% of the film) reeks of 1980s – and generates cheap ‘cultural misconceptions’ and ‘hilarious’ misunderstandings RE: opposing work-ethics. The final talking point is some in-yer-face product placement – namely cars and Bulleit Burbon. While The Expendables (& #2) takes everything that was awesome about 80s action films and cranks them up past 11, up to 15; Bullet to the Head feels like a typical action B-movie with one big star and half a budget, and in the end, it’s not a bad film, but despite their best efforts, this is nowhere near Stallone or Hill’s glory days.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale – something very Christmassy is buried under a mountain at the Russia/Finland border; when it’s dug up, everyone will believe in a very different Santa! The story is quite basic, but is laced with just enough crazy and black humour to keep you interested and watching. Nothing’s rushed and the story slowly plods along with plenty build up but not much action, until quite an absurd final 20 minutes, but hey – this is fiction! The setting, timeline and snow make the film quite Festive, but with the impending cluster-fudge and gritty Santa figures, you’d do well to keep away from the kids (something not right about hundreds of naked old men running towards a kid!!) There are also some strong Finnish political views and attitudes woven through the duration, but stick out a bit. Overall, it’s a good idea, and admirable execution but definitely hampered by the budget – especially the ending. While it’s another good twist on old tales, for me, this year’s winner of obscure Scandinavian folklore-based films goes to Troll Hunter! Rare Exports is a decent enough B-Movie, much like the secret cargo in the film, this will do better to remain underground.
The A-Team: a crack commando unit gets sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit; these men promptly escape and try to clear their name, by any means possible! It was an honourable attempt at a decent story, which was good in parts but landed somewhere between you’re average Seagal and Bourne Flick. You get what you see with the simple characters, but it’s hardly a character piece. Hannibal/Neeson looked uncomfortable throughout, but Murdoch/Copley picks up all the slack, and ends up the film’s real star. Patrick Wilson‘s also decent. The action was great, and should leave you grinning ear to ear because it’s cool & gratifying escapism (flying tanks, mad stunts, explosions, dogfights…) right up until the last big play where it got so ridiculous that CGI had to take over. We got a solid 3 months of hype in the UK so I wasn’t expecting much, but The A-Team is simply an enjoyable, over-the-top action film. Probably 20 minutes longer than it should be, but much better than expected.
Traitor: An Ex U.S. Military bomb expert gets entangled with some Islamic radicals and ends up in a terror plot. I hadn’t even heard of this as it probably got swamped under by the glut of newfangled middle-eastern war & drama flicks. This begins in Yemen and the first 30 minutes is dedicated to unraveling the enigmatic main character – pretty much the crux of the whole film. After a short ‘Arabs in Jail’ section the pot focuses on acts of terrorism in France and America. Other than some heightened drama towards the end the film juggles the old civil liberties Vs greater good dilemma, what it is to be a Muslim following the Qur’an today, and painting an accurate picture of terrorist activities in the Western world. Don Cheadle holds his own well as the only main but really just has to look solemn or the most part. Guy Pearce could have been anyone, playing the stereotypical “hot on the heels” cop. Ditto Jeff Daniels in his role. The film looks pretty good and has a few memorable scenes but just doesn’t really grab you; how do you connect with a guy who’s BFF is an extremist and is plotting to kill innocent people? Hyper topical terrorist thriller that you should only check out if you like this type of film.
12 Rounds: After accidentally killing a terrorist’s girlfriend the hero cop must save his own Mrs in a game of revenge when the baddie escapes from jail a year later. Before watching this I had the sentence “Cena couldn’t act his way out of a joke shop” already typed up; turns out he’s the best actor in the whole film, which doesn’t say much about anyone else. Aidan Gillen was particularly bad, sounding like Raab Himself doing a Tommy Lee Jones from Blown Away impression. Can’t say a good thing about anyone else, other than they pretty much killed what would have been quite a compelling story. It’s from the director of a Die Hard film and the producer of Speed so it’s all familiar territory: high-octane action, constant peril, tasks, explosions, black cop / white cop and ridiculously aware driving. The 5.1 soundtrack’s worth nothing because each crash will thump you in the chest. With the right actors behind it 12 Rounds could have been more memorable however it’s still a pretty decent balls-to-the-wall action flick, and it doesn’t try to be anything else.
Love Me If You Dare: Two children start a game that plays through both of their lives. As they grow up the game consumes them, eventually blurring the line between what’s playtime and genuine. Because of this the film is fully-stocked in the drama department, and it’s heightened even more by Cotillard and Canet‘s knockout performances & fantastic chemistry – especially as the game intensifies and the characters should become less likable. The film’s style slowly transforms from trippy and dream-like through to bleak and gritty, echoing the characters as they age from cute kids to jaded adults. The story and script are so poetic, stylish and quirky that it could only be French! A dozen versions of ‘La Vie En Rose’ dominate the soundtrack but it never gets boring – may have even subliminally got Marion Cotillard cast as Édith Piaf in her biographical film. The ending comes out of nowhere. and is quite bittersweet given the tone of the majority of the film, however the last few scenes leave a sweet taste in your mouth. Yes, they’re not role models and yes it gets silly at times but this is one of the most unforgettable romances I’ve ever seen. Definitely a Desert Island DVD.