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Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge May 18, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

This third outing for Sonny Chiba’s Takuma Tsurugi comes as something of a letdown. Gone are the insanely gory deaths of the first two films, replaced by a lot of ridiculous leaping about. The fight scenes feel watered down too, with director Teruo Ishii more intent of finding interesting angels to shoot from than actually making the fights exciting.

Shigehiro Ozawa, who directed the first two films, seemed to take great delight in making Tsurugi a character who was hard to like, but Ishii wants to turn him into some kind of Japanese James Bond, rather than the cold blooded mercenary we’ve come to know. He even gives us a totally bizarre bad guy who dresses like a Mexican bandit and fires laser beams.

A sad end to what had been an enjoyable series.

Comic Tales: Superman IV - The Quest for Peace May 16, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 3 comments

Christopher Reeve’s reign as The Man of Steel comes to a rather ignominious end with this, his fourth outing. Not that Reeve is bad, in fact he clearly still had a lot of affection for the character, and the basic idea is a good one - Superman taking on an almost godlike role in order to save mankind from itself – it’s the execution that lets it down.

Sidney J. Furie was once a director with talent, producing, amongst others, The Ipcress File, here though he displays none of the flare he once showed. The Quest for Peace is the work of a talentless hack, the Superhero equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space but without that films charm. Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the world governments (and I mean ALL of them) say “gee thanks Mr Superman, without you to throw the nasty bombs into the sun we’d never have thought of getting rid of them”.

Rather than pit Superman against the world’s leaders, the filmmakers give us, once again, Gene Hackman as comedy villain, Lex Luthor. The problem is he’s just not funny anymore. Batman, Spider-Man, and The X-Men all get new villains in each new outing but it’s like Superman has only got one bad guy. Someone should really buy the producers of the Superman films some comics, after all Bryan Singer continued this preoccupation with the bald headed master of menace in Superman Returns.

Luthor isn’t the only villain though, but the less said about  Nuclear Man the better. Played by Yorkshireman Mark Pillow (with voice provided by Hackman) he looks like he’d be more at home in Spinal Tap. He does provided the funniest scene in the film though, flying off into space with Mariel Hemingway. Even little kids know there’s no air in space but apparently Hollywood filmmakers don’t.

It’s little wonder the franchise stalled for almost twenty years after this travesty, with Superman finding success on the small screen in the intervening years with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville. Maybe Last Son of Krypton isn’t cut-out for the bog screen.

I Spy: Thunderball April 22, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Thriller , 5 comments

Bond hunts for two stolen nuclear warheads and comes face to face with SPECTRE’s Agent 2, Emilio Largo . By this point in the Bond series the freshness had started to dissipate but there is still much to enjoy here.

As was becoming the norm with the series, the ability to deliver your lines was a secondary requirement to appearance when casting villains and Bond girls. Both Claudine Auger as the beautiful Domino and Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo were dubbed but Auger does what the producers wanted, namely show of her figure in a series of skimpy swimsuits, and Celi’s Largo would provide the basis for Robert Wagner’s Number 2 in the Austin Powers films.

By comparison with previous films in the series, Thunderball is a little light on action, but John Barry’s excellent score keeps the suspense mounting as it blends itself into almost every scene. And once the action does kick off we are treated to a superb undersea free-for-all, with the goodies and baddies conveniently wearing colour coded wetsuits to allow us to keep track (villains, sticking with tradition, in black and the good guys wearing orange but with white oxygen tanks). In fact it’s the undersea photography that’s the most striking part of Thunderball, giving the film more of an exotic feel than even Ms Auger could provide.

Sean may be getting a little bored with the part, craving something a bit more challenging (something he got with Sidney Lumet’s The Hill) but he still delivers the quips with panache and certainly looks the part. After one more film though, we’d be saying bye-bye Sean, for a little while anyway.

James Bond will return in You Only Live Twice

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Zatoichi the Outlaw April 20, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

This was the first Zatoichi film produced by Shintarô Katsu’s production company and it’s trying a little too hard to be a blind swordsman epic. The storyline is more complex than normal and there are a lot of characters to keep track of, all of whom have a significant part to play.

As is the norm for the series, Zatoichi comes into a town and sorts things out before going on his way. This time he leaves the workers with a benevolent boss (having killed the previous one) and a sword-less samurai looking out for their wellbeing. Or so he thinks. Months later he returns to find the boss was not as benevolent as he appeared and the sword-less samurai has been taken prisoner for trying to organize the workers (and inciting them to give up gambling and whoring and get to work in the fields). Of course Zatoichi puts things right, or as right as he can given some of the characters have already died, slicing up the bad guys before once again leaving town.

Zatoichi the Outlaw has all the things that have become familiar through the series, and I do mean all. The film feels like a compilation, sort of a Zatoichi’s greatest hits. We get the decent woman forced into prostitution, the noble samurai looking to make up for past deeds, the evil boss (in fact more than one), the crooked gambling den, and of course Zatoichi’s usual tricks, one of which starts the film, as he’s challenged to hit a target with a bow and arrow but asks for a smaller target first.

Apart from the sprawling nature of the story there’s something else that sets this apart from the rest of the series – the blood. Previous Zatoichi films had been pretty bloodless affairs with the sword fights memorable for the choreography rather than spurting arteries, this time we get severed arms, severed heads and blood aplenty, and yet the fights are far less exciting than before.

I’d have to say that this is probably my least favourite Zatoichi film so far but it may improve with future viewings, as it becomes easier to keep track of who’s who. Shintarô Katsu is, as always excellent, but he gets swallowed up by the film here, seeming more like one part of an ensemble cast rather than the star of the show.

Comic Tales: Fantastic Four April 17, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 3 comments

Anyone expecting the serious minded superheroics of X-Men, or the angst-ridden thrills of Spider-Man would perhaps have been a bit disappointed by Fantastic Four, but for me it does a decent job of capturing the fun tone of the original comic. The X-Men are outcasts from humanity, Spider-Man is a masked vigilante who does what he does out of guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben, the FF on the other hand are public figures, they don’t hide their identities behind masks, they’re celebrities and the film portrays them as such, or rather there evolution to celebrity status following the accident that gives them their powers.

The film’s heart may be in the right place, but its casting is a hit and miss affair. First the misses - Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards/Mr Fantastic and Jessica Alba as Sue Storm/Invisible Woman. Gruffudd lacks the presence for Reed Richards, the part calls for someone who can command the screen, whereas when Gruffudd’s with the other three he’s the last one you look at.

I like Jessica Alba, she’s undeniably beautiful and a capable enough actress given a part that plays to her strengths, said strengths not including playing a technobabbleing scientist. The film tries to get around this by that old standby when depicting intelligent characters – have her wear specs. Sadly this ruse doesn’t work, and Alba only gets to make an impression in the scene where she suddenly becomes visible in her undies. That she and Gruffudd have little onscreen chemistry doesn’t help matters.

Still, if half of the four miss the mark, the others makes up for it. Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing is the grumpy old man of the team, tortured by his disfigured appearance and the fact that, unlike the others, he can’t turn his power on and off at will. Yet for all his soul searching Grimm is the source of much of the films (and comics) humour, and Chiklis gets the balance right between tortured monster and comedy ogre.

It’s Chris Evans though who steals the film, could there be a more perfect actor to play Johnny Storm/Human Torch? The Torch is the one member of the team who relishes his new powers right from the start and Evans shows us that youthful exuberance and recklessness. He’s the member of the team the audience can best identify with; after all wouldn’t it be cool to have superpowers? Evans and Chiklis work well together, far better than Gruffudd and Alba, and do a credible job of bringing one of comics great double acts to the screen, in fact it’s their relationship that captures the essence of the source material best.

Julian McMahon, as the villainous Victor von Doom, doesn’t feel quite right. The character is far removed from the tyrannical despot of the comics, being instead a superpowered executive with a strop on, while the scorned lover subplot between him and Alba does nothing to strengthen either character. Plus I’ve always though of Doom as having a European accent but McMahon goes for an American accent (at least I think it’s meant to be American, although there are times he may be trying for English).

The film has a couple of decent action sequences but never really sets the screen alight. Even the climax is a little underwhelming, just when you think we’re going to get a real superhero/villain donnybrook its game over.  Of course this is partially down to budget, with the film costing half what Spider-Man 2 did, but I think it’s also due to the lack of experience and talent of the director, Tim Story. He may be an enthusiastic comic fan but he’s not a great action director.

For all it’s faults Fantastic Four is an entertaining film, one that occupies that middle ground of comic book movies – between classics like Spider-Man 2 and X2 and stinkers like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Watching the Detectives: John Wayne is McQ April 16, 2008

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Stan Boyle, a friend of Lon McQ’s, is found badly wounded and the veteran cop is convinced local villain Manny Santiago is behind it, so he goes looking for a little payback. When he’s chastised by his superior, Ed Kosterman (Eddie Albert), for assaulting Santiago, McQ quits the force and searches for evidence that will prove Santiago was behind the murder (Boyle dies in hospital), but he discovers far more than he bargained for.

A John Wayne film directed by John Sturges is an exciting prospect but sadly the finished article failed to live up to its potential. Had they made a western together instead of a modern-day thriller things might have been different but Wayne is too old, too fat, and too out of his element in McQ for it to really work. Wayne’s westerns of the ‘70s had him, for the most part at least, aging gracefully, with his roles in Big Jake, The Cowboys, and The Shootist fitting the actor perfectly. Yet both the contemporary films he made that decade, this and Brannigan, have him playing a cop, when a man his age would have been pensioned off. Brannigan is the more fun of the two, it at least knows it’s silly and plays on that, but McQ plays it straight and is much the worse for it.

The idea of not one, but two, women throwing themselves at McQ is just one element that doesn’t sit right with me. Far worse though is the scene where McQ supplies Myra, played by Colleen Dewhurst, with drugs. There is something so fundamentally wrong with this that it’s quite unpleasant viewing. I’m all for actors playing against type, but Wayne isn’t doing that, McQ is very much an old fashioned western-style hero, even delivering lines like “Badmouth Boyle again and I’ll kill ya!” which makes that scene feel all the more out of place.

It’s not all bad though, Sturges may have been near the end of his career but he could still craft a decent action sequence. There’s a pretty good car chase, only let down by the fact that Wayne looks uncomfortable in the Trans Am he’s driving. The big finale on the beach is a classic western shootout, with horses traded in for cars and a Wayne swapping his six-shooter for a MAC-10 submachine gun.

Plot wise McQ makes little sense (why on earth would anyone hide drugs in McQ’s car?), the performances are adequate at best and the action only sporadically exciting, and yet I’ll quite happily watch this again (and I’ve already seen it several times over the years). Wayne has captivated me since childhood, and I’ll happily watch classics like The Searchers and Rio Bravo regularly and lesser films like McQ every few years. I do draw the line at The Conqueror though…

I Spy: The Spy with My Face April 15, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, TV Reviews, Action, Thriller, Science Fiction , 3 comments

Evil organisation THRUSH (the series never explained what the acronym stands for) attempts to infiltrate UNCLE (that one stands for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement”) by replacing their top agent, Napoleon Solo, with a doppelganger. There aim is to crack an operation codenamed “The August Affair”, and get their hands on Project Earthsave, a top secret energy source.

Unlike Flint and Helm, The Man from UNCLE series played it (relatively) straight, at least it did until its third season. This “movie” is really a couple of first season episodes cobbled together, along with some extra footage that was a bit too risqué for television at the time. The film holds together relatively well considering, although it does plod a little in the middle. The series and these spin-off films would get better as the series found its feet. The villains improved as well, with some big name guest stars making an appearance. Here all we get is Senta Berger, who, while certainly not unpleasant to look at, isn’t particularly threatening.

Still at least Mr Smooth, Robert Vaughn, is on hand. Snappy dresser, seducer of beautiful women and no slouch when it comes to mixing it up with the bad guys, Napoleon Solo is America’s answer to James Bond and Vaughn is the perfect choice to play him. Here he also gets to play his double but doesn’t really get to have much fun being evil as he’s just pretending to be the real Solo.

David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin also seemed the more professional of the two, less inclined to let his libido lead him into trouble. Kuryakin must have felt a little inferior next to Solo but McCallum makes him the more likable of the two. You might want to be Solo but you’d rather have Kuryakin for a buddy.

Rounding out the regulars is Leo G. Carroll as Mr Waverly, UNCLE’s answer to M. He doesn’t really have much to do here, other than send Solo on his way but then that’s pretty much the nature of the role, just as it is with M in the Bond films.

With no sign of the complete series being released on DVD in the UK, and only available from Time Life in the USA (who won’t ship outside American) the only choice for UNCLE fans wanting a super-spy fix is the Region 2 box set containing five of the eight feature film versions. The film of the pilot, To Trap a Spy, isn’t included in the set, with things kicking off with this, the second movie, instead. It’s not vintage Man from UNCLE but it has some entertaining moments, with Vaughn and McCallum getting to grips with their characters. They’d become a better double act later on though.

Comic Tales: Superman III April 10, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Action, Science Fiction, Comic Book , 1 comment so far

With Superman II we got a blend of two visions - Richards Donner and Lester - and while the finished article wasn’t perfect it was certainly an entertaining ride. With Superman III we got the full undiluted Richard Lester and oh boy, was it bad.

Lester must have misunderstood when Ilya Salkind asked him to make a comic movie and made a comedy movie instead. How else do you explain Richard Pryor as one of the films villains? Or a credit sequence that’s akin to Benny Hill (and even features Bob Todd!)? The juvenile comedy runs throughout the film but the laughs are few and far between.

Of course Lester isn’t completely to blame, he was after all hired by Ilya Salkind, and it’s Salkind who’s responsible for the lower budget which doesn’t just mean special effects that are a lot less special, but a cut price cast as well. Why pay Gene Hackman a small fortune when you can get Robert Vaughn to play virtually the same part for a fraction of the cost? And while you’re at it why not do away with Valerie Perrine in favour of Pamela Stephenson? Margot Kidder not happy as Lois? Cut her part down to a cameo and introduce Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang to provide another love interest for Clark Kent, that’ll show Kidder she’s not indispensible. In every sense this is a budget Superman, an attempt to milk a little more money out of the Superman cash-cow.

Richard Pryor is painfully unfunny throughout the film; he’s so bad I almost wanted to stop watching to save him further embarrassment. Pryor was always a bit hit and miss though, so it’s perhaps not too surprising how bad he is here. Robert Vaughn does Luthor-lite, accentuating the silliness and cutting back on the menace (which is a shame as he could have made a good villain). Stephenson may as well have been grown from Perrine’s cells and any hint that there may be more to her character stays undeveloped.

Still there is one bright spot in the shape of Annette O’Toole. Her Lana Lang is a breath of fresh air after the bossy, rude and self-centred Lois. Here we have someone we can believe Clark could fall for. If the film had focused a little more on them and less on Pryor it would have been a better movie (not a good one, but better).

Instead we have Superman facing off against a super-computer for a tension free exercise in cheap special effects and panto-villany. Could things get any worse for The Man of Steel?  Well Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was only a few years away.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: Highlander April 7, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy , add a comment

Highlander was a big success, less for box office business and more for starting a franchise that to date includes four live action sequels and one animated, plus two live action TV shows and a cartoon. So how does the original hold up after more than 20 years? Not too well, to be honest.

The casting was always a little suspect – Sean Connery I can accept as an Egyptian (via Spain) because…well he’s Sean and has that hypnotic quality real stars have which stops you asking “Why does that Egyptian (via Spain) sound like he comes from Edinburgh?” This quality isn’t shared by Christopher Lambert, not an actor who would leap to my mind were I looking for someone to play a Scot circa 1536. Lambert’s limited range saw him rapidly descend from starring roles in theatrical films to straight-to-video fare. In Highlander he fails to convince as a Scotsman or as an action hero, with the sword fights looking pedestrian by today’s standards and never remotely life threatening.

Roxanne Hart is even less impressive than Lambert, showing zero chemistry with the films star (despite the obligatory ‘80s sex scene) and almost as little personality. Thank god for Clancy Brown, who, as the villainous Kurgan, just about makes the film watchable. He may have no depth as a character but as a display of comic book style villainy it’s great fun. He’s funny, he’s nasty, he’s just so much more entertaining than Lambert’s Conner MacLeod.

The biggest disappointment though was the films look. I used to think Russell Mulcahy’s film oozed style, and in truth it does, it’s just that said style is ‘80s pop video chic. One scene, where Conner walks outside after leaving Hart’s character’s apartment, overuses the smoke machine to such an extent that I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a foggy night or if the building next door was burning down. It’s no surprise now that Mulcahy’s career didn’t reach the heights I’d once expected it to, the film is all surface gloss and no heart.

And the payoff is, and has always been even when the rest of the film seemed cool, a complete letdown. “The Prize” turning out to be less of a lottery win and more the kind you’d find in a cheap Christmas cracker. It’s no wonder the sequels and TV series’ ended up being so contradictory of both each other and the original.

Some films stand the test of time, some don’t, Highlander falls into the latter category.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: SPL April 6, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Thriller, Martial Arts , 2 comments

Director Wilson Yip seems to have fooled himself into thinking he’s made a serious crime movie along the lines of Infernal Affairs but beneath the films highly stylised look is a decidedly simple story. When Wong Po has the key witness in a case against him murdered, Detective Chan dedicates his remaining time on the force to bringing him down. With his time running out and Inspector Ma set to replace him he decides to frame Wong for murder. But how far will he go to make sure the case is airtight?

 Simon Yam is good as Chan, although the story throws a little too much at the character (he’s got a brain tumour that’s killing him and a daughter he adopted from the witness Wong had murdered) instead of giving us a little more insight into what makes him tick. He clearly had a beef with Wong Po even before the witness is murdered but the script gives us no inkling as to why. Yam a great actor but he’s not given enough here to create a fully rounded character. His crack crime fighting team fair even worse, reduced to mere ciphers for the bad guys to pick off. Any attempts to make us care about them are so heavy handed that they almost have the opposite effect.

Yam is there to give the film some acting gravities while fellow headliners Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen dish out some action. Sammo Hung is excellent as the evil Wong Po, imagine a Chinese Kingpin and you’ll have some idea of the intimidating figure he presents. Yen on the other hand is the films most righteous character, as Ma he’s a man who takes responsibility for his actions and when he finds out about Chan’s plan to frame Wong he’s torn between two evils – letting a killer go or perverting justice.  Apart from a brief brawl early on though, anyone wanting to see the two martial arts legends going at it will have to wait for the action filled climax. In fact the film is heavy going at times as it edges to that inevitable confrontation and you start to wonder if it will be worth the wait.

Thankfully when the action finally kicks in it really delivers the goods. Before Donnie takes on Sammo he has to take out his murderous assassin played by Jacky Wu and their fight is one of the best martial arts scraps I’ve ever seen in a Hong Kong movie. Yen was the action director on the film and credit goes to him rather than Yip for this memorable face off. The Ma, armed with a police baton, takes on the blade wielding assassin in a stunning display of fight choreography and clever direction.

With Wu out of the way it’s time for the films main event – Sammo vs. Donnie. I’ve seen several Donnie Yen films but I think he looks better here than ever before, not bad for a guy in his mid-forties. He’s got ten years on Sammo though but the big guy still has what it takes. The pair deliver a bone crunching, furniture shattering fight that rounds the film out nicely but it doesn’t quite overshadow the previous battle between Yen and Jacky Wu.

The film throws in a surprise ending that’s completely unexpected, yet not inappropriate. It’s that ending, along with the two fights at the end of the film that make this a must see. If Yip hadn’t been taking things too seriously we might have had a better film instead of just a great final act.

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