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Rob-B-Hood (2006) July 24, 2010

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

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Louis Koo; Michael Hui; Charlene Choi; Yuen Biao  Territory: Hong Kong 

Thongs (Jackie Chan) and Octopus (Louis Koo) are burglars and safe crackers under the leadership of The Landlord (Michael Hui). The three come into the care of a small baby when The Landlord takes a big job from a high paying gangster.

This film was retitled Robin-B-Hood for the western market, and you have to wonder why they bothered – it’s a terrible title that fails to clarify the pun that straddles English and Cantonese and fails to make sense in either.  It’s best to just forget the title altogether.

Approaching Rob-B-Hood in the same spirit of all the other recent (i.e. within the last decade) films of Jackie Chan, I expected to enjoy it more second time around.  However, I have to admit the opposite is probably true.  I don’t like young children in movies at the best of times, and babies even more so.  And cute babies are the worst – there’s a tacit implication that only cute babies have any worth, and that if this young spud was an ugly little git, no one would care when he nearly bites the bullet in the final reel.  To say that isn’t really giving anything away – you always know there’s going to be grave peril and that the little blighter is going to pull through in the end.

Rob-B-Hood

Certain other things pissed me off about Rob-B-Hood.  The whole “two gay dads” routine brought back bad memories of Sammo Hung at his most abrasive and ignorant – is it really funny that two men should be in charge of a baby?  On a similar note, I still don’t know what all the stuff with the gay security van drivers is all about – I assume it’s a reference to some other work but it goes right over my head.

Thankfully, there are good moments.  Louis Koo is solid, Michael Hui is pretty darn funny (although it’s a shame Sammo Hung didn’t take part) and Yuen Biao has a great action scene.  It’s a crying shame he doesn’t have more screen time, as the scene where he and Chan get in a rumble in Jackie’s appartment is a definite highlight.  Chan himself shares screen time with his co-stars more than usual, and is best when in full action mode, despite a decent acting scene with his father (veteran Ku Feng).  The action scenes are…well…let’s just say they could be a lot worse.  Jackie is wired up an awful lot - even when you don’t think he needs to be – but some of the stunts look pretty impressive. 

It’s that damn baby I can’t get past though.  Speaking as someone who detested that bit in Operation Condor when the baby in the pram went into the traffic and Jackie heroically saved it, I did not relish the same idea stretched over a feature length movie, which is essentially what we have here.  And this is no ninety-minute quickie – Rob-B-Hood lasts nearly two-hours-and-fifteen minutes long in its extended cut.  This seems longer than necessary even for the most devoted Jackie Chan fan.

Kaiji competition - five copies to be won! July 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Blogroll , comments closed

KaijiOn July 26th Japanese anime series Kaiji is brought to life on DVD. The film brings together a young and talent cast who are famed for their roles in cult films Death Note, 20th Century Boys and Battle Royale; creating a gripping tale relevant to a generation lost in the recession. To celebrate the release of Kaiji we have 5 copies to give away.

Kaiji is the story of Ito (Tatsuya Fujiwara - Death Note/Battle Royale) who moves to Japan after graduating from high school. Unable to find a job and frustrated with society at large, Kaiji spends his days gambling, vandalising cars, and drinking. Two years later and his life is no better. A debt collector named Endo arrives to collect payment. She then offers two choices to Kaiji: spend 10 years paying off his loan or board a gambling boat for one night to repay his debt and possibly make a whole lot more. Meanwhile, the unscrupulous Endo is actually conning Kaiji, believing he won’t come back from his voyage. Kaiji is then up for the night of his life……

This competition is now closed.  But to order your copy, please click here.

For further information on 20th Century Boys or to order your copy of the trilogy, please click here.

A full review of Kaiji will be coming here soon!

Little Big Soldier (2010) July 14, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 2010s films , add a comment

Director: Ding Sheng  Starring: Jackie Chan; Leehom Wang; Lin Peng  Territory: China/Hong Kong

A lowly deserter in the Liang army (Jackie Chan) captures the general of the opposing Wei army (Leehom Wang) by playing dead and waiting to see what happened when the dust settled.  Planning to trade in the general in return for a discharge from the army, the former farmer and his captive cross the country, facing common foes, bonding and separating along the way.

It’s pretty safe to say the typical brand of Jackie Chan film is completely dead and buried, and what we’re left with is often confusing to the older fans.  However, Little Big Soldier is by some distance a more immediate and satisfying film than he has produced for a good many years.

A glance at the plot synopsis will probably make it obvious that this is little more than a road movie set in ancient China.  But actually, that is the movie’s greatest strength – the familiarity of theme lets the viewer just sit back and let things unfold in their own inevitable way.  Yes, the pair are enemies to start with, but gain respect and understanding from each other along their travels.  The simplicity of the plot I found refreshing after a glut of similarly-set period epics (mainly of which are excellent, I may add hastily).

Little Big Soldier

Little Big Soldier is a sight better than the trailer I saw, which I must say pitched the film as a serious period epic (Red Cliff, you have a lot to answer for!).  In fact, Little Big Soldier has quite a large comic element, although it never threatens to overshadow the drama.  The film works best when focussed on the two lead characters, and sometimes when the emphasis shifts on to the supporting cast, the interest dips a little.

I have to admit not being at all familiar with director Ding Sheng’s work, but he makes a good job on the movie, and the now-obligatory beautiful landscape shots look suitable impressive and breathtaking.  His film is certainly an enjoyable little time-passer, and while it is doubtful if it will shake the movie world to its very foundations, it is well worth a spin.

New Police Story (2004) June 24, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Action, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Nicholas Tse; Daniel Wu  Territory: Hong Kong

The escalating antics of a gang of video-game obsessed cop-hating criminals forces Inspector Chan Kwok-Wing (Jackie Chan) out of retirement.  The gang had turned the once-brilliant cop into an alcoholic wreck following a stunt that saw the members of Chan’s team killed one-by-one.  Blaming himself for their deaths, Chan must shake his guilt if he and his new partner Frank (Nicholas Tse) are to bring the gang to justice.

Following the law of diminishing returns, the original Police Story series ended with a damp squib with the lamentable First StrikeNew Police Story is then a reboot of the series and not in any way connected to the original.  It’s an oddity in the canon of Jackie Chan in that it is mostly serious, but some flashes of Chan’s trademark comedy do turn up later in the movie. 

At various points in Chan’s career, he’s tried to reinvent himself as a serious actor, and New Police Story is another such attempt.  Although his general acting ability can always be questioned, one thing is clear: Chan makes an exceedingly convincing drunk in this (and please, no “drunken master” comments!).  The scene where he staggers into an alley puking his guts up looks too damn convincing for my liking.  It’s gritty, grotty and horrible, and makes you think you’re getting a whole different Jackie Chan movie.

However, the odd thing is, just like all of the other pre-Shinjuku Incident Chan movies, things tend to settle down into a more familiar feel.  Although this never turns into a slapstick comedy, there’s one hell of a sight gag later on in the movie which you certainly wouldn’t have expected when you see the intro sequence.  Also, the rumour that New Police Story wouldn’t include much action (at least from Chan) proved unfounded.

 New Police Story

I’ve found that time and time again, I dislike Chan’s recent films a lot less second time around.  I was quite scathing of the film upon release, but have to admit I enjoyed it a lot better this time around.  I’m sure it’s all down to diminished expectations.  The movie has faults (there are some illogical moments and plot-holes) but is generally well made.  The bad guys tend to be rather two-dimensional and melodramatic for today’s taste, but can be overlooked if you’re just in the mood for mindless action.  In that regard, it’s actually quite close to a typical 80s Hong Kong action movie.

I doubt that anyone would rate New Police Story among the best Jackie Chan movies, but it can be quite good fun, and spotting references to the original series can also provide a distraction if you get bored.  As with a lot of modern Hong Kong movies, the unwelcome spectre of Product Placement looms large in the finale, and this does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth.  But I was surprised how much fight was left in the old dog with this, even if the rest of the cast don’t put in too much effort.  And it’s great to see Chan taking the bus one last time.

Operation Condor: Armour of God 2 (1991) June 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1990s films , 3 comments

Director: Jackie Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Carol “Do Do” Cheng; Eva Cobo De Garcia; Ikeda Shoko  Territory: Hong Kong

Despite failing miserably to retrieve the Armour of God from those wacky European monks in Armour of God, the Baron employs Condor (Jackie Chan) again – this time to liberate a cache of Nazi gold hidden in the Sahara desert since the end of World War 2.  However, various parties (including one of the original Nazis from the site and his henchmen) want it for themselves.  This time around, Condor is accompanied by three lovely ladies (Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo De Garcia and Ikeda Shoko), but instead of helping our intrepid adventurer, they often end up complicating matters…

Operation Condor was the sequel to 1987’s hugely successful Armour of God, although it the time-honoured tradition of western stupidity, it is often nowadays marketed the other way around.  After a decade of being able to take as much time and money as he liked to make his movies, Chan tops his directing career with what was, at the time, the most expensive Hong Kong movie ever made.  You probably wouldn’t be able to guess that fact now, as the effects and budget seem merely competent rather than outstanding, but it looked pretty darn spiffy at the time, I can tell you.  Sadly, after this film someone at Golden Harvest must have realised that they could make several times as much money if they made a Jackie Chan picture with a fraction of the budget and with more stringent time limits, and things were never quite the same again. 

So Operation Condor is the last of those Jackie Chan films that are just a complete joy to watch from start to finish (with one small exception that I’ll come to later).  It’s funny, exciting, and Chan puts on a hell of a show with his unique physical ability.  It’s been said before (mainly by myself) but it seems amazing that someone actually pulled off some of the feats Chan attempts, and in today’s CGI world it seems unlikely we will ever see the like of what’s put up on the screen here.

Operation Condor

The excellently choreographed action comedy sequences are fantastically intricate – from the adversary that keeps accidentally switching the lights on and off in Elsa’s house when attacked by Jackie all the way to the now-infamous Keaton-esque wind tunnel sequence that ends the movie.  The last fifteen minutes or so of Operation Condor really need to be seen to be believed, and the knockabout sight gags are definitely among the best ever put on the screen.

The supporting cast pretty much consists of Cheng, De Garcia and Shoko running around making things difficult for Jackie.  Their obvious dim-wittedness was a contentious issue with some at the time, but taken at face value, some of their skits are still pretty funny.  I think it was Bey Logan who described their antics as “three beauties in search of a brain”, and I think he pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one.  No, the only thing I have trouble with now in this movie is the inclusion of a “cute baby in peril” sequence tacked on to the motorbike chase section.  It’s corny, contrived and cringeworthy, but only lasts for about a minute.

Operation Condor isn’t a terribly sophisticated movie by today’s standards – one feels you can pick rather large holes in the plot without too much effort – but for sheer fun, there are few movies that can hold a candle to it.  And if I can chuckle away at it again now, nearly two decades after it was released, then that can’t be all bad, can it?  One curious thing I did notice: the Baron hired Jackie to collect the gems at the start of the movie and also hired Jackie to collect the pieces of the Armour of God from the first movie.  Jackie failed both times to bring back the goods.  Why the hell does he keep hiring him?  And what do you think his reaction would have been at what happened at the end of this film?  I guess we’ll never know.  Unless of course Chan finally decides to make Armour of God 3: Chinese Zodiac like he’s been promising for years.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?

One final word on the DVD releases of this film.  Obviously, the western release is to be avoided at all costs (no Cantonese track, and some versions are edited down).  The Hong Kong Mega Star release is awful (non anamorphic, grotty, lousy subs – just horrible).  I picked up the Korean Fortune Star release a year or so ago, and I’ve just got around to watching it.  It’s fabulous!  Properly remastered, anamorphic and with near-perfect subs.  It makes all the difference.  If you don’t own this slice of Hong Kong brilliance, you really should do. 

Sanjuro (1962) May 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshirô Mifune; Tatsuya Nakadai  Territory: Japan

A corrupt Superintendent holds a decent town Chamberlain captive, while his nephew and eight friends plot to free him.  They are aided, whether they like it or not, by ronin Sajûrô (Mifune), who quickly proves himself indispensable to the group.

I have to admit a slight disappointment with this workmanlike sequel to the superb Yojimbo.  Mind you, coming straight off Red Beard, and with a general feeling that everything Kurosawa touched in his monochrome period turned to gold, I perhaps had unrealistic expectations.

Sanjuro It’s certainly lively enough, and I would recommend anyone new to this film to pay very close attention to the opening dialogue between the eight young men as it provides vital information.  I missed the significance of this dialogue and found myself completely lost and having to go back and watch it again.  But that’s my own fault…

The film has more of an emphasis on action and has an undeniably lighter feel than its predecessor.  The character of Sajûrô is as unstoppable as he was in Yojimbo, and watching Mifune cut a swath through his enemies is as satisfying as ever.  And when he goes undercover to find more information on the captives, the drama does increase significantly.  Also, it’s interesting that the humour in Kurosawa’s films (when present) seems to have aged pretty well, as there are a couple of comic touches (particularly a scene where our heroes are forced to celebrate a victory in silence) that are still funny. However, I missed the weight and tension of Yojimbo, and while no Kurosawa film can be said to have been hastily put together, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going through the motions a lot with this film, which by all accounts he wasn’t.   

I do feel like Sanjuro will be a film I will appreciate better with time and repeated viewings, and despite my disappointment, I still actively enjoyed a lot of it.  Which does reinforce my unrealistic expectations theory.

Super Snooper (1980) April 26, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1980s films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Sergio Corbucci  Starring: Terence Hill; Ernest Borgnine; Marc Lawrence  Territory: Italy; USA; Spain

Conscientious cop Dave Speed (Terence Hill) accidentally gets irradiated with Red Plutonium in a government experiment while serving a routine traffic violation ticket.  The accident bestows super powers on him, much to the exasperation of his long-suffering partner Sergeant Dunlop (Ernest Borgnine).  The only problem is, Speed’s powers abruptly disappear whenever he sees the colour red…

This is one of those films that seriously wowed me as a kid.  So much so, in fact, that out of, say Jaws, Star Wars and Super Snooper, I would have had a tough time choosing my favourite.  I think the fact that the movie was not readily available on home video added to the mystique a lot.

Seeing it as an adult is a different experience altogether, and of course time has a harsh way of treating comedy sometimes.  Directed by Sergio Corbucci of Django and The Great Silence fame (two films I really must get around to re-watching and writing about at some point), there is a feeling that this movie was banged out quickly.  Certainly it had no budget to speak of.  But cheap quickies are often what this blog’s about, and Super Snooper remains a fun film if you have low expectations and don’t examine the cracks too carefully.

Super Snooper

Yes, there are some pretty glaring anomalies.  It strikes me as really odd, for instance, that after Speed’s accident, Dunlop is busted down to traffic cop and out directing cars immediately following his friend’s apparent death.  But I’ve come to accept such oddities as being in line with European sensibilities and just kind of go with the flow these days.

There are a few nods to Hill’s westerns with Speed’s love of cowboy hats and beans, and the knockabout humour is all present and accounted for.  The tale of Speed’s downfall is told in flashback (a device I have a particular weakness for, as regular readers will attest to) and you can’t help rooting for the guy.  As a side note, I happen to think this film had quite an influence on my views on the death penalty – how can such a nice guy as Dave Speed be on Death Row?  So file Super Snooper alongside The Green Mile in your video collection!

Super Snooper is only sporadically funny these days, but there’s still at least one belly-laugh in there and the hokey effects just add to the charm.  To say nothing of the catchy and damn impossible to forget disco theme tune.  Nostalia is what it used to be.  Almost.

My Name is Nobody (1973) April 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Non-Asian , 3 comments

Director: Tonino Valerii; Sergio Leone (uncreditted)  Starring: Terence Hill; Henry Fonda  Territory: Italy; France; Germany

“Sometimes you run smack into your destiny on the very road you take to get away from it.”  So says young gun Nobody (Terence Hill) to aging gunfighter Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) in the Leone produced My Name Is Nobody.  Leone also had a hand in directing this film about saying farewell to the old West, and his stamp is to be seen all over the movie.

This was the last western that Fonda appeared in, and was shot at the tail end of the Italian Western craze.  It’s therefore ironic (or incredibly prescient) that the film is about bowing out and riding off into the sunset in style.  When Beauregard first meets Nobody, he thinks he’s another young hotshot come to take him down, when in fact he is a besotted fan.  Nobody tries to persuade the gunslinger to go out with a bang by taking down the Wild Bunch (no, not that Wild Bunch), a group of a hundred-and-fifty bloodthirsty cutthroats who use the local goldmine to smelt their stolen gold.  Nobody doesn’t take no for an answer despite Beauregard’s disdain and apathy for his plan, and takes to dogging him with a mix of praise and provocation.

My Name is NobodyLeone’s involvement is evident right from the start of the film - a tense, long scene is drawn out involving little dialogue and lots of close ups of craggy-faced outlaws before a brief (blink and you miss it – I did) and brutal gunfight.  It’s hard to see at this point how the film ended up as a comedy, and that is perhaps the biggest criticism you can make of the film – the tone is quite inconsistent.  Obviously, Hill’s now established brand of physical humour and geniality was a box-office draw, but he sometimes feels out of place in the film, particularly as he is the titular character.  While inconsistency of tone is a mild complaint, the one thing I really objected to was the inclusion of a “slap fight” virtually identical to the one in Trinity Is Still My Name.  It smacks of laziness and unoriginality to lift a scene almost directly from a previous film, especially one that was such a hit.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy in My Name Is Nobody, especially if you like Italian Westerns.  Ennio Morricone, a man synonymous with Leone and the Italian Western, provides the score, and of course provides a fantastically memorable set of compositions.  The theme to the Wild Bunch (no, still not that Wild Bunch) is a little goofy, and includes a synthesized snippet of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.  It suffers the distinction of being catchy, memorable and annoying all at the same time, and was stolen wholesale for this Hong Kong film (mystery solved, if you skip to the last paragraph of that review).  Nobody’s theme, though, is simply brilliant.

My Name is Nobody seems to have been crafted with genuine love, and from the first few frames feels like a last hurrah for the genre.  While some might have preferred a less comic send off, the film has a valid message to deliver.  And humour has a way of tempering such devices as sentimentality, and I’ve seldom seen an action comedy film that handles emotion as well as this. 

Trinity Is Still My Name (1971) April 14, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, 1970s films, Non-Asian , 3 comments

Director: Enzo Barboni (as EB Clucher)  Starring: Terence Hill; Bud Spencer  Territory: Italy

The unlikely heroes of Trinity (Hill) and Bambino (Spencer) return in this fun but light follow-up to the immensely successful They Call Me Trinity.  There’s hardly any plot to speak of, but the film rips along at a brisk pace nonetheless.

Trinity Is Still My Name’s emphasis is very much on comedy, and some of it is still pretty darn funny.  The opening scene, where Bambino gets one over on four not terribly bright outlaws sets the tone perfectly.  In a set-up reminiscent of Blake Edwards at his best, Trinity then goes one better on the same outlaws – and then their parents go one better still!

Trinity is Still My Name

There are a few running gags as the duo hopelessly try their hands at becoming outlaws, and again, the humour has travelled surprisingly well.  But after about half an hour, a nagging feeling of there being something missing creeps in.  And after a while, I realised that there still hadn’t been any indication of plot or direction.  Instead, Trinity Is Still My Name moves from one comic sketch to another with hardly a moment to draw breath.  Eventually, there is a small attempt to add a story concerning some corrupt monks, but by then it feels tacked on and somewhat out of place.

Which is all a bit of a shame, because in many ways Trinity Is Still My Name is superior to its predecessor.  I don’t think anyone can say it’s not as funny as They Call Me Trinity, but as a standalone piece of work, it doesn’t stand up as well.

Red Cliff (2008/2009) April 12, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, War, Wuxia, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: John Woo  Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Zhang Fengyi; Vicki Zhao  Territory: China

red-cliff.jpgJohn Woo’s return to Chinese language film after an age of Hollywood films of diminishing returns was awaited with considerable excitement.  A favourite director of mine, I watched his Hollywood debut Hard Target with great interest – and then decided I wouldn’t bother with any of his others.  Having said that, there was never going to be any fear of me missing out on this sprawling epic split over two parts and promising battle scenes on an awesome scale.

The story of Red Cliff is simple and based on an actual event: in 208AD, warmonger Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) manipulates a child Emperor to invade two territories in the south, under the spurious excuse that they are going to renegade against the state.  The leaders of the two accused territories, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, form an alliance and attempt to battle off Cao Cao and his army, despite a lack of supplies and being severely outnumbered.  Liu Bei’s Chief Strategist Zhu-Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) step up to organise the resistance against Cao Cao. 

Released to great acclaim and phenomenal box office returns, I was nevertheless unmoved by Red Cliff.  I never fully engaged with the characters, who I found universally weak.  The majority of the dialogue is about battle formations, tactics and politics – which I felt was quite cold and showed very little of the emotional or human element of war. 

The much lauded battle scenes are indeed impressive, with some excellent CGI to add great scale and invoke a genuine feeling of awe.  However, the battle scenes go on too long.  And it’s really as simple as that – you really can have too much of a good thing.  Furthermore, John Woo’s style and his habit of overusing the zoom on close-quarter skirmishes feels a tad out of place in a third century setting. 

If it feels like the first part of Red Cliff has an over reliance on these epic battles, it comes as a small relief when things calm down a little in Red Cliff: Part Two.  John Woo has never been known as creating great female characters, and that is still the case for a large part here, but Vicki Zhao’s Sun Shangxiang is a small exception.  She takes it on herself to spy in Cao Cao’s camp, learn the strength of the enemy, and report back and I did quite enjoy this break in all the solemn political wrangling.

But as well as finding the characters uninteresting and the battlefield scenes too long, I could also tell where it was all going far too often.  And even the conclusion of Sun Shangxiang’s sub-story pays off in an extremely predictable and contrived way.  The much-anticipated naval battle, teasingly hinted at in the first film, is saved as a climax and is just as impressive and grand as you could want – and yes, it too overstays its welcome and gets dull.

I’ve yet to hear anyone say a bad word about Red Cliff, so it comes as a great surprise to me that I didn’t like it very much.  I mean, it’s almost heresy criticising John Woo, who, let’s face it, is an almost God-like figure in Hong Kong cinema.  But then I didn’t like The Killer either. 

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