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Slickers Vs Killers (1991) November 29, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1990s films , 2 comments

Director: Sammo Hung  Main cast: Sammo Hung; Carol Cheng; Lam Ching-Ying; Jacky Cheung; Joyce Godenzi  Territory: Hong Kong

“Success” Hung (Sammo Hung) is a top mobile phone salesman, hampered by new recruit Cheng (Carol “Do Do” Cheng).  One day, Hung witnesses a gangland murder, though his police officer wife does not believe him.  After another run-in with the killers, Hung goes on the run with his psychiatrist (Godenzi), his straying wife and her cop partner.

If I had a time machine that could only do very small-scale stuff, I’d go back to about the year 2000 and buy that VCD of Slickers Vs Killers that I always used to see but never bought because I was holding out for the DVD.  In fact, I’d buy as many copies as possible (especially on laser disc), come back to the present and make a small fortune on eBay.  You see, this film is probably the most hard to obtain Sammo Hung film post-1980.  It’s so hard to get, it isn’t even available on a pirated or “grey market” release.  I borrowed mine off a fellow fan (thanks again, by the way, if you’re reading this – you know who you are) to do this review.

The film is typical of the era, with Sammo’s character a Yuppie salesman.  We have the usual blend of gags and action scenes, but the focus is on comedy and in particular the mo lei tau brand of comedy that was just becoming mega-popular at the time thanks to Stephen Chow Sing-Chi.  The supporting cast is fairly decent thanks to Carol Cheng’s presence and a cameo by Richard Ng.  Jacky Cheung, however, hams it up beyond the ridiculous with his portrayal of a disturbed killer on the back of Bullet in the Head’s success.  In one scene he delivers a soliloquy that appears to be an attempt at grabbing a Golden Horse award and it’s so out of place in this screwball comedy that you start to wonder if his character was written in from another screenplay.  Lam Ching-Ying is also on hand, not as a Taoist priest this time, but as Jacky Cheung’s fellow killer.  Rounding off the cast is Sammo’s mistress and soon-to-be wife Joyce Godenzi as the protagonist’s psychiatrist.

Slickers Vs Killers

After Pedicab Driver, Sammo seemed to have had a crisis of taste, and I’d been warned a couple of times that Slickers Vs Killers contained more dubious material, in particular some dodgy comedy about rape.  Well, when the scene in question started (it’s convoluted, but in a nutshell Carol Cheng’s character thinks she’s been raped by Sammo) I have to admit I thought it was quite funny and reminded me of a similar scene in a Norman Wisdom film, believe it or not.  However, when the characters go to the local police station so that Cheng can report the “crime”, things start to get a bit cringeworthy.  I would like to think that even in Hong Kong in the early 90’s, a woman reporting a rape could do so in a private room where officers of both sexes couldn’t lean over to hear the lurid details and the accused doesn’t sit on a chair right in front of her.  Christ.  Anyway, this scene aside, the usual rules of Hong Kong comedy are in force: some of it is funny, some of it isn’t and some of it just doesn’t translate at all. 

The action scenes are pared down somewhat in this film to make way for the comedy.  What’s here is pretty decent, but don’t expect another Pedicab Driver.  I think the film could have done with a bit more Carol Cheng, and less of the fruitless relationship Sammo has with his insipid cop wife and her obvious lover-in-waiting.  There is a little tension in the final scenes of the film though, when the gang are hiding out in a deserted municipal building, but I must admit I got a bit lost at the end when even those on the same side started duffing each other up.  Having waited so long to see the film, it’s obviously never going to live up to the expectations one can’t help putting on it.  But I thought Slickers Vs Killers was reasonably entertaining; not as good as his late 80’s output, but certainly better than some other films he put out at this time.  I’d say it’s probably about on a par with Owl Vs Dumbo.

Chocolate (2008) on Blu-ray November 22, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Prachya Pinkaew  Main cast: Yanin Vismistananda; Ammara Siripong; Taphon Phopwandee; Hiroshi Abe  Territory: Thailand

chocolate.jpgSeverely autistic child Zen (Yanin) compensates for her inability to communicate by having supernatural reflexes.  Learning moves by watching a local Muay Thai boxing school, studying martial arts films and playing violent video games, she springs into action when her mother falls ill and she has to collect “debts” from nearby businesses.  However, old gang boss Number-8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) isn’t too keen on being left out of the action, and an old grudge with Zen’s absent father (Hiroshi Abe) resurfaces.

Despite what people are saying, I don’t believe Thailand is the new Hong Kong when it comes to action movies.  True, the level of sophistication is surprisingly high and the bodies are put on the line in a way reminiscent of Hong Kong in its 80’s gung-ho hey-day, but there has always felt like there’s something missing in the plot department.  Chocolate, however, is probably the best I’ve seen yet from the country.  The movie starts in a Johnnie To style with gangsters and gunfights, but essentially this is a full-on action movie – a fact that seems unlikely given the relatively actionless first half. 

“JeeJa” Yanin Vistmistananda (please forgive any typos or errors in Thai names – I really can’t get my head around them) is the star of this film that was apparently four years in the making.  Seeing her in action here I’d say she has a bright future ahead of her if she manages to stay unmaimed by appearing in films like this.  Director Prachya Pinkaew talks about finding a “female Tony Jaa” for the role, and I suppose the comparison is appropriate, although (Shock!  Horror!) there is quite a lot of wirework in the film.  Her character is reasonably complex seeing as she essentially can’t talk, and she relies on facial expressions to good effect.  Zen, a young girl with autism, has only her mother, friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) and a fondness for Smarties-like chocolates (hence the title of the film, I assume) for companions since her father was sent back to Japan by her pregnant mother.  Zen also references the greats of martial arts movies, most notably Bruce Lee (in an ice making factory, no less!) and Jackie Chan’s Armour of God persona when she pops her chocs in her mouth like the great Asian Hawk.

The film is a little lopsided in that the first half is relatively actionless, focusing on the activities of the nasty Number-8 and his band of cronies (including a flock of transvestite gangsters) and the struggles of Zen’s mother, who was involved in the gang before Zen was born.  Conversely, the second half is almost non-stop action as Zen goes on the offensive protecting her mother and raising funds to pay for her hospital treatment.  The setpieces come thick and fast, and if you’ve ever seen a Tony Jaa film, you’ll know what to expect of their quality.  I find the less exaggerated movements of the Thai style quite refreshing after watching so many Hong Kong productions.  The climax goes a little overboard in my opinion with the wires being pretty obvious (even though you can’t see them, you can sense their presence all too easily) but even this doesn’t hinder the overall effect of the film.  My only real criticism is the inclusion of a lot of sentimentality and melodrama, which I absolutely hate in action films, and the nagging feeling that there’s still something missing that could have given the film more of an impact.  The film ends with a showcase of grisly outtakes that would turn Jackie Chan green with envy, usually showing each mishap and injury from multiple angles.

The Blu-ray Disc from Showbox is a real disappointment, with a grainy transfer and a hell of a lot of noise on a lot of interior shots.  Prior to buying this film, I hadn’t read anything about the disc but reviews are slowly popping up and they tend to be rather dismissive of this problem (but do acknowledge it).  Admittedly, at other times (such as the last shot of the film with the wind turbine) the visuals are fantastic, but when there’s something brown on the screen (particularly interior decor), the screen breaks out in big blocky blotches.  Very annoying.  Oh, and the subtitles are a bit hit-and-miss as well (“Lot’s of money”?). The extras aren’t as good as they seem at first either; essentially they comprise of a bunch of short featurettes that duplicate themselves a lot and are very clip-heavy.  Oh, and one tip to Showbox Media Group: if you’re going to include an Easter Egg on your disc, do not a) highlight it on the back of the box so everybody starts exitedly looking for it and b) then make it a lame 20 second clip of one of the fighters breakdancing on set.  Incidentally, if you can’t find it and really, really like short clips of people breakdancing, you can find it by highlighting the film’s title on the main screen.  Yes, it’s that difficult. 

The Boxer From Shantung (1972) November 16, 2008

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 1 comment so far

Director: Chang Cheh; Pao Hsueh-Li  Main cast: Chen Kuan-Tai; Cheng Kang-Yeh; Ching Li; Ku Feng; David Chiang  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Ma Wing-Jing (Chen Kuan-Tai) is a penniless (but principled) worker from Shantung trying desperately to make a living in Shanghai.  He dreams of wealth and influence, and his dreams start to come true when he defeats a Russian wrestler in a prize bout.  He is also watched over by benevolent gang boss Tan Si (David Chiang), who starts Ma on the road to organised crime, albeit a kinder, gentler form of extortion hitherto unseen in Shanghai.  But not everyone is happy when Ma extends his empire and impinges on the territory of the Four Champions, who have at their disposal a lethal gang of hatchet wielding killers.

The Boxer From Shantung is a biopic-cum-kung fu movie, and I have to hold my hands up and say I know nothing about the real Ma Wing-Jing, despite his story being told more than once in popular Hong Kong cinema.  Even a search on the Internet fails to reveal much.  Apart from winning a bout against a Russian wrestler, I’m assuming everything else was made up until someone can tell me otherwise.

Although a bona-fide kung fu classic, The Boxer From Shantung falls down in several places.  The main problem is the editing of the non-action scenes, which is pretty dire.  There are great pauses between lines of dialogue, making for some very stilted exchanges that are quite uncomfortable to watch.  As we’re on the subject of dialogue, it has to be said that the script is pretty awful most of the time and about on the same level of a school play.  What really gets my goat is Ma’s continual gazing off into the distance saying something to himself along the lines of: “one day I will be somebody,” every few minutes.  Although this is nothing compared with when things finally start falling into place and Cheng Kang-Yeh watches Ma ascend the ladder of the dosshouse and proudly hammers the point home in case you had a head injury earlier in life and miss subtlety: “brother Ma is going up the ladder!”

The Boxer From Shantung

Childish scripting and bad dialogue aside – I’m really not sure how much involvement Chang Cheh had in this film – there are a couple of neat touches and fight scenes early on.  David Chiang’s Tan Si is a mentor/father-figure for Ma and is sadly underused (he was probably shooting fourteen other movies with Ti Lung at the time, so can’t be blamed personally).  His character is probably the most likeable of the lot, although I don’t buy the whole “kindly gang boss” thing as a rule.  Ma himself is not the most memorable character Chen Kuan-Tai has played.  The only attempt at depth is to give him a device – a cigarette holder – as a symbol of his success, much the same as the shoes in the Shaw Brothers-esque film Barefoot Kid twenty years later. 

The Boxer From Shantung 

What really makes this film is the final reel.  And by that, I mean that everything is forgiven the moment Ma steps into the Green Lotus Teahouse for a friendly chat with his rivals.  It’s here that Chang Cheh’s presence is felt as things turn into a bloodbath.  It’s worth mentioning that this was Chen Kuan-Tai’s first starring role, and this ending became a bit of a template for a lot of his Shaw films.  The action-packed finale is criticised by some as being unrealistic, a fault that seems redundant considering the flights of fancy that the genre usually takes.  Chen takes the Teahouse apart and paints the screen red with the blood of his victims in one of the genre’s defining moments.  One can only imagine what we would have seen if Bruce Lee had accepted the offer to work at Shaw and made a film under Chang Cheh.  As it happens, Chen Kuan-Tai was up to the task and it’s a shame his name isn’t known to a wider audience.

The Boxer From Shantung is an unbalanced film that really hasn’t stood the test of time when there isn’t a fight on the screen.  But when the action scenes start up, it becomes truly amazing. 

Kung Fu Hustle (2004) on Blu-ray November 7, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Comedy, 2000s films , 3 comments

Director: Stephen Chow  Main cast: Stephen Chow; Yuen Qiu; Lam Tze-Chung; Bruce Leung Siu-Lung; Yuen Wah; Danny Chan  Territory: Hong Kong

Pig Sty Alley is a small rural settlement on the outskirts of 1930’s Shanghai.  Insignificant, it is left to its own devices by the crime organisation known as the Axe Gang.  That is until hopeless wannabe gangster Sing (Chow) shows up and draws attention to the place.  However, the Axe Gang has its work cut out for it when gang boss Sum (Danny Chan) finds out that every inhabitant of Pig Sty Alley is a master martial artist, and to cross the Landlady (Yuen Qiu) is foolish to say the least.

Ever since 1995’s Sixty Million Dollar Man, it has occurred to me that Chow has been increasingly preoccupied with special effects, and Kung Fu Hustle was his most overtly effects-driven movie at this point.  The whole premise is pretty much a one-joke affair (the town full of supernaturally-endowed fighters) but, even though Chow stretches the material somewhat, the film is entertaining enough for the most part.

Sing having a bad day.

The film opens with quite a nasty bit of violence with the Axe Gang wreaking havoc in one part of town and killing without mercy.  This tendency to use violence in comedy is typical of Chow (see my comments on From Beijing With Love), but this is the first time I can recall Chow starting a movie this way.  Thankfully, the tone lightens considerably later on, but as usual there’s also some dark touches to the humour all the way through.

Sing is a hapless wannabe gangster trying to prove (mainly to himself) that he’s a ruthless criminal, but his crimes always backfire on him in spectacular ways.  In an inspired flashback to his childhood, he is duped by a beggar into buying a kung fu manual promising unbeatable power.  He trains, and believes that his Qi is so strong that he can disturb the leaves on the trees (the viewer realises, of course, that it’s just the wind) but this leads to a fierce drubbing that sets up the love interest character played by Huang Sheng-Yi.  This sub-plot manages to feel touching, superfluous and darkly tragic by turns and doesn’t really gel with the rest of the story.

Chow has imbued Kung Fu Hustle with an assortment of odd, wacky and just plain bizarre characters on both sides of the law.  The chain-smoking Landlady (who, I was surprised to learn, was one of the kung fu schoolgirls in Roger Moore’s second Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun) and her long-suffering hen-pecked husband (Yuen Wah) take centre stage, but there are all kinds of outlandish figures on the periphery too.  “The Beast” (Leung Siu-Lung) is suitably seedy and typical of Chow’s more unsavoury and surreal characters.

The film does turn into a special effects showcase at times, and the section where two guqin players attack the town goes on far too long in my opinion.  The humour seems concentrated in certain areas, a bit like the occasionally hilarious King of Comedy rather than Chow’s previous mega hit Shaolin Soccer.  The bit where Sing and his rotund sidekick start throwing knives around had me in stitches, as did the part where he calls out members of the town to fight only to find they’re not as puny as he thought.  The rousing score, played by a Chinese orchestra, is also worthy of note.  It sounds like a lot of the film’s budget went on the music, and it’s rare to hear such aural sumptuousness in a Hong Kong film.

The Landlady about to let rip.

 

I have to admit that Kung Fu Hustle, despite its technological proficiency and fitful hilarity, is not among my favourite Stephen Chow movies.  It relies a little too much on special effects setpieces to be a truly great comedy in my opinion.  Mind you, I can’t argue with the millions of people around the world who found it the best thing since sliced bread, and a more than worthy successor to Shaolin Soccer.  Me, I still prefer his more comedy-orientated films like Forbidden City Cop and Love on Delivery

The Region B Blu-ray disc from Columbia presents the film in HD, and it looks fine and a definite improvement over my standard definition DVD.  I’m a little confused over certain cuts and alterations made to the film in its Region 1 DVD release and whether the same tampering happened over here in the UK, but this edition seems complete and appropriately bloody.  This edition shines with a few good extras including a cast and crew commentary (including subtitles, of course), some outtakes and so on.  There’s a featurette that looks like it was a TV special and it’s a lot more entertaining than it sounds, recounting tales from the set about troublesome hair gel and giving before-and-after shots of the special effects scenes.  The best extra, though, is an interview with Ric Meyers talking about the film.  In it, Chow is noticeably uncomfortable and ill at ease for reasons that are not immediately obvious (possibly only through conducting an interview in English), but Meyers certainly asks a few good questions.  He starts by asking Chow about the violent and dark opening to the film, to which Chow seemed genuinely surprised.  This, to me, suggests that Chow really doesn’t realise that his films often have jarring and unpleasant juxtapositions of comedy and violence.  Elsewhere, he talks about the recruitment of Yuen Qiu, who is seen in the background of her friend’s audition video smoking and looking bored, and Yuen Wah, who Chow idolised because of his connection with Bruce Lee.  Chow also talks about the inspiration for the Axe Gang, which he took from folklore and from the classic Shaw Brothers film Boxer From Shantung (incidentally, the next film to appear on these pages).  Despite Chow’s discomfort, this interview is greatly informative and one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen on a Chinese star. 

Lam Suet-o-meter: low to medium.  Mr Lam in HD!  He plays a gang boss, a role he could play with his eyes closed, probably.  He has a few good moments before meeting an untimely, but funny, end.

(screenshots from a standard definition source)

Enter the Dragon (1973) on Blu-ray November 1, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1970s films , 4 comments

Director: Robert Clouse  Main cast: Bruce Lee; John Saxon; Jim Kelly; Shih Kien; Ahna Capri; Angela Mao  Territory: USA/Hong Kong

Renegade Shaolin monk Han (Shih Kien) has created a fortress on a remote island to produce drugs to sell to the world.  Every three years, a martial arts tournament is held on the island to recruit new heavies for the organisation.  Lee (Bruce Lee) is sent to bust the operation, and fellow martial artists Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly) join in.

There has probably been more written on Enter the Dragon in the west than on every other martial arts film combined.  Yes, it’s overrated, silly and can often be an albatross around the neck of genre fans, but that doesn’t stop it still being immensely good fun and one of the most re-watchable films I’ve seen.

Bruce Lee - the iconic shot

 

The plot is a thin reworking of Dr No, complete with digitally-disadvantaged villain, but with martial artists instead of James Bond.  The premise works surprisingly well – so well, in fact, that the idea has been used ad nauseum with varying degrees of success (see Kill and Kill Again).  You can almost smell the fear of the Warner Brothers executives at the thought of using an Asian star to carry the film, and so John Saxon is given co-lead credit and probably has as much screen time as Lee.  The unknown Jim Kelly is, by comparison, a much safer bet in third lead. 

What makes Enter the Dragon such fun, aside from its horribly dated dialogue, is the island fortress setting and the kind of male wish-fulfilment adventuring us men can’t help but love.  We’d like to be as virile and cocky as Williams, as cool and suave as Roper and as deadly at arse-kicking as Lee.  The script really goes to town to establish each character, from Roper’s hopeless gambling problem and the debts such a problem entails to Williams’ struggles with racism and his need for flight.  Each main character is given a comprehensive and entertaining flashback while they head across the Hong Kong harbour to the vessel that will take them to Han’s Island.

Roper - 'a woman like that could teach you a lot about yourself.' 

Han himself is a great cinema villain for an unusual reason.  Shih Kien didn’t speak a word of English and delivered his lines phonetically and stiltedly, later to be dubbed by an unknown actor.  The result is remarkable – his fragmented delivery lends a gravity and menace not normally associated with such throwaway baddies.  Remarkably, he was nearly 60 when Enter the Dragon was made and he’s still alive.  Regulars to Hong Kong cinema and TV from past decades will of course know him well as an actor equally comfortable in martial arts dramas or screwball comedies.

With all of the characters in place (along with Ahna Capri as the leading lady and love interest of Saxon – interestingly, Lee doesn’t get a look in with any of the ladies in the film), the film focuses on the tournament and Lee’s extra curricular activities in uncovering Han’s operation.  This is where Lee finally shines after playing second fiddle to Saxon somewhat during the first half of the film.  Lee’s demolition of O’Hara (Bob Wall) is a great scene, and probably my favourite of the film.  He expends little energy in finishing his opponent, and his moves are lightning quick.  Of course, the real showcase for Lee is the fight in the underground cavern where he takes on so many henchmen it’s pretty much impossible to keep count.  He first fights unarmed, then with a pole, two sticks and then with his signature weapon, the nunchaku.  It’s probably this scene alone that sealed the film’s fate as a classic in the west, where this sort of thing hadn’t been seen on this scale and with this intensity before.

While the film has a lot to commend it – the score by Lalo Schifrin is simply one of the greatest music scores of the decade – there are things that let it down.  The Williams character is killed off too early (I would have preferred it if he hadn’t been killed at all, to be honest) and the fact that Lee seems a little restricted than in his Hong Kong movies let the side down as far as I’m concerned. 

It’s interesting that most of the western cast and crew didn’t do much of note after Enter the Dragon.  Saxon became the kind of B-movie star admired by Tarantino, Ahna Capri went into TV work and Jim Kelly concentrated on his tennis career after making a series of increasingly bizarre action films.  Behind the camera, scriptwriter Michael Allin seemed to virtually drop off the radar and director Clouse was destined to try to emulate the film’s success for the rest of his career.  After producing the so-bad-it’s-great Bruceploitation movie Game of Death, he teamed up with another Hong Kong superstar – Jackie Chan – to bring us his first US movie.  However, despite another memorable jazzy score from Schifrin, a hit on the scale of Enter the Dragon continued to elude him, and his output outside of these films could never be considered high in quality.

Williams - 'too busy looking good' to realise he's about to get his arse handed to him. 

While I must strongly disagree with anyone who says this is the greatest martial arts film of all time (an accusation that is repeated in the press every single time this film is shown on TV here), there’s no doubt it had an impact, and that impact is still being felt today.  It’s eminently quotable, silly, fun and entertaining.  And now it’s never looked do good.

The Blu-Ray disc from Warner shows us the film in HD, and it looks pretty damn good most of the time.  The film looks remarkably good for its age and certain sequences, such as the banquet scene, reveal a lot more detail than standard definition versions.  Williams’ flashback scene appears blurred in places, but I’m assuming the fault lies in the source material.  Although there is no specific mention of it on the box, the version presented here is the same as the “uncut special edition” that appeared on DVD some time ago.  Which basically means the monk scene is included as well as his Obi-Wan-type voice-over near the end.  The extras from that release are included as well as a couple more.  The real gem is Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon, which is fascinating and contains a lot of footage I’d never seen before.  Anha Capri’s Super-8 footage is shown, which I’d heard about but never seen, and shows the cast larking about and Bruce warming up.  The famous incident with the glass bottles involving Bob Wall and Lee is dismissed almost entirely as a trivial episode hardly worthy of comment, which is interesting seeing as how elsewhere on the disc, Linda Lee Cadwell goes to great lengths to detail the incident and coyly lay blame (“someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do”).  It also shows a take of the first scene Lee shot (the scene in his room where the girls are brought in to him) and retells of his nervousness at appearing in the film.  The Linda Lee Cadwell interview segments (which, infuriatingly, have to be selected separately and can’t simply be played in order) doesn’t reveal anything if you’ve read her book, but it’s nice to hear the snake story told again.  The disc is rounded off with what looks like a promising feature-length documentary entitled The Curse of the Dragon.  Narrated by George Takei (John Saxon must have been busy elsewhere), I got as far as the opening voice-over proclaiming: “Before Norris, before Van Damme, before Seagal, there was only one master…” before switching off in disbelief.  Nevertheless, after so many releases, remasters and special editions, this is surely the definitive version of the film.  At least until the next definitive version shows up…!

(Screenshots taken from standard definition source)

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