Archive for February, 2011

Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Posted in Ang Lee, Cheng Pei Pei, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Reviews, Yuen Woo Ping, Ziyi Zhang with tags , on February 28, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Not since Enter the Dragon has a martial arts film literally changed the way martial arts films are viewed, and has raised the bar once again for martial arts films, and I do mean ARTS, because that what this film is, in story and view, a work that is artistic in every way. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most influential martial arts film to come out in quite some time…

The film opens with warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) sits with his long time friend and fellow warrior, and hopefully future lover Shu Lien (Yeoh), and confides to her that he is looking for peace, and wishes to give up his sword, the Green Destiny. It’s apparent right from the start that they are in love with each other, but neither of them act on their desires, hiding behind honor and duty, but now it appears that may change. Li plans to give the sword to their friend Sir Te, wanting to retire from searching for his nemesis Jade Fox (Pei Pei), who had killed his master years ago. It’s easy to tell that this is what Shu Lien has always wanted. So much is said here with glances and mannerisms. It’s a testament to great acting to watch everything said between them-and what goes unsaid.

We next meet Jen (Zhang), the daughter of Governor Yu, who is to be married to a man she doesn’t love. She confides to Shu Lien that she desires a similar life to hers, full of adventure and fighting, and freedom. In many ways these two opening conversations are the gears that turns the entire film. That night, a female assassin steals the sword, and what ensues is a stunning rooftop chase as Shu Lien tries to retrieve the sword, and it is here we get the first fight in the film, a stunningly fluid and graceful fight between Shu Lien and the assassin, and it is nothing short of a magical staging of movement and speed. The wirework here, as it will be for the entire film, is some of the best ever seen. The assassin escapes Shu Lien due to a third party taking an unsuccessful shot with a dart at Shu Lien.

Right before Shu Lien engages the assassin, Inspector Bo, a kind hearted man who shows that in order to fly around and do amazing things you have to be skilled in martial arts, and is in many ways the “normal” person we can relate to who is clearly outmatched by opponents who can defy gravity, sees two circus performers, a father and daughter, engage the assassin, and also finds that Jen was not in her room during the theft, follows the circus performers, believing that they know more than they let on, and he’s right, as he spies on them the next day, seeing them preparing weapons for some sort of upcoming battle.

Acting on her suspicions after hearing Bo’s report, Shu Lien visits Jen and marvels at how great her calligraphy is, and notes that it point to skills at swordsmanship as well. There are many martial art films that place skill in one as the same as skill in the other.

Meanwhile, Bo goes through the circus performer’s belongings and is caught by them, and they reveal that the father is Inspector Tsai, and along with his daughter are hot on the trail of Jade Fox, whom they believe is hiding among Governor Yu’s entourage. Li Mu Bai returns to Shu Lien, and hears that the sword has been stolen. That night Jade Fox attacks Tsai, his daughter, and Bo, who is more in the way than actually helping. Bo isn’t incompetent, but has no idea the level of skill it would take to beat Jade Fox. Li Mu Bai joins the fight, and Jen stops him before he can kill Jade Fox, and they escape, but not before Jade Fox kills Tsai.
Once again, this is a stunning fight. The choreography is smooth and the performer’s movements are perfect, and almost lyrical in its execution, but while hypnotic to view, the intensity is heightened, and I found myself not wanting Bo, of all people, to get killed. He runs through the choreography like a bull in a china shop, and that’s the point. This is also Chow Yun Fat’s first martial arts fight, I believe. It’s hard to believe that in real life he doesn’t know any martial arts. His movements make him look as if he’s always known it. Cheng Pei Pei does a fantastic job here, and it’s amazing to see her martial arts skills are still intact since audiences haven’t seen her in quite a while.

The next day Shu Lien visits Jen, and uses wordplay and a dropped cup to discover that Jen is indeed the thief who stole the sword. This was a duel of words, and Shu Lien won. That night Jen tries to return the sword, but Li is waiting for her, and engages her in a fight to test her skills, and take back the sword, which Li does. He offers to become her master, but she refuses and leaves. When she gets home, Jen throws Jade Fox, who had been masquerading as her nanny, out, Jade leaves, but not before threatening that she would teach Jen one more lesson in due time, feeling betrayed that Jen had studied the Wudan texts and left items out for Jade Fox. The student had become the master, and Jade would have none of it. Meanwhile Li takes back his sword, and has one last mission: to train Jen and take his revenge on Jade Fox. What follows is without a doubt one of the greatest martial arts films ever made, and the story may be the best as well.

This film is about two different kinds of love: the reckless kind we get into as youngsters, and the more reserved, mature love that can only come with life experiences, but the tragedy here is that Li and Shu Lien never consummate their love, and the words that hang in the air the entire film only come when it is too late. On the other hand, the love between Lo (Chen), a bandit whom Jen met long ago and fell in love with, and Jen is reckless, and ultimately leads to the trouble that eventually will destroy the lives of everyone else in one way or another.

Chow Yun Fat brings a calm, effortless performance as the stalwart warrior Li, who now wants to only lead a peaceful life with Shu Lien. Michelle Yeoh gives what may be her best performance as Shu Lien, and you can see that there is a fire that burns beneath her surface, almost hidden by layers of duty and honor.  Yeoh does so much by not saying anything, letting her facial expressions and movement show her feelings at any given moment.  Zhang Ziyi became famous after this film, and you can see why. She is terrific as Jen, and plays her as a dreamer who wants to be free, as all youth do, but is ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of her actions. Her face is also incredibly expressive, and her fire, unlike Shu Lien’s, burns at the surface, and she is determined to get what she wants, but is unsure how to do it. Cheng Pei Pei is also fantastic as Jade Fox, a vindictive woman who actually wanted Jen’s love, and while I knew she was bad, and she was, she wanted a daughter’s love, and is crushed when it isn’t given, which makes her a pitiable character.

Yuen Woo Ping is heralded as one of the greatest fight choreographers of all time, giving both Jet Li and Jackie Chan some of their best choreographed films, and proves once again that he is indeed one of the best with his efforts here, and while overall I’m not a fan of wirework, delivers some of the best I’ve ever seen. The fight in the bamboo trees between Li Mu Bai and Jen is one of the greatest cinematic scenes ever. The camerawork was impeccable, and the movements and fighting almost seemed as if if came from a dream, and the shot of Li Mu Bai standing on a branch, swaying to and fro effortlessly with the branch, is a stunning shot that you’ll remember days after you see it.  Ang Lee and cameraman Peter Pau made this film seem like a piece of moving art, and you would use words to describe this as you would of an elaborate stage dance: Beautiful, exciting, graceful, balletic, and motion that can take your breath away.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (10) Yuen Woo Ping makes what may be his best choreographed series of fights ever, and that’s saying something. There isn’t a single fight from big to small that wouldn’t be the end fight of many lesser martial arts films. It’s that good.

STUNTWORK: (10) The tea house fight was incredible, and it was the actual actors suspended so high during the bamboo forest fight. Everyone did a fantastic job, and the men and women who worked the wires deserved an Oscar of their own.

STAR POWER: (10) Chow Yun Fat is in top form here, as is Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi would go on to star in many more successful films, and Cheng Pei Pei shows she’s still got it.

FINAL GRADE: (10) As if there would be anything less? Ang Lee has made a martial arts film that will stand the test of time, and spawn a new genre of film that the likes of Zhang Yimou would take up the torch and run with it. Not only one of the greatest martial arts films ever, but one of the greatest films of all time.


Review: Tekken (2010)

Posted in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Cung Le, Cyril Raffaelli, Gary Daniels, Jon Foo, Lateef Crowder, Reviews, Roger Huerta with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Jon Foo, Ian Anthony Dale, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa (CHT), Kelly Overton, Gary Daniels, Lateef Crowder, Roger Huerta, Cung Le, Tamalyn Tomita and Luke Goss

Fight Choreography by Cyril Raffaelli

Directed by Dwight Little

Tekken is yet another stab at adapting a fighting video game into a movie in the mold of Mortal Kombat, once again using a relative unknown in the main role and surrounding him with a mix of decent actors and martial artists. Directed by Dwight Little (Rapid Fire) Tekken does a much better job in many areas than MK did.

The film begins sometime in the future, where large multinational corporations pretty much take over the world and run things. This group is known as the Iron Fist, which really should have set off warning bells in a bunch of folks, but for whatever reason didn’t. The United States is ruled by the Corporation Tekken, whose CEO, Heihachi Mishima (CHT), holds a tournament once every few years, the King of the Iron Fist Tournament, or Tekken, ‘cause the name sounds badass. Outside of Tekken City itself is known as the Anvil, where the majority of people live day-to-day, and the gangs rule all (kinda like Detroit. Just kidding, Detroit-ians!) Here is where Jin Kazama (Foo) works as a courier for the resistance, delivering high-tech equipment he’s probably had to steal, but he’s good at martial arts and parkour, so he usually survive his excursions, in a job that doesn’t sit well with his mother Jun (Tomita) who wants her son to think of other things besides earning enough money to live in Tekken City. Her wishes will fall to dust when she is killed in a Jackhammer raid by Heihachi’s son Kazuya (Dale), an ambitious man who feels his time has come to take over the company, and holds a dark secret.  Jin, with the help of fight manager Steve Fox (Goss) enters the tournament in order to fight his way to Heihachi and Kazuya, so he can take his revenge, but standing in his way is the current champion Bryan Fury (Daniels) a half-cyborg who hides this fact so he cannot be disqualified from the ring, and uses his superior body to mow his way through all opponents. Soon Jin finds that there is much more at stake than his thirst for revenge, as an entire nation looks to him for salvation…

Tekken succeeds in many respects where MK failed by having all of the fights be traditional martial arts contests, with no special effects and few wires. They didn’t feel the need to make sure each character pulls off their signature moves from the game, and while the game story is simply there to give some background between fights, Tekken does a good job of adapting that story within the context of a film.

Jon Foo does a good job as Jin. If you’ve seen him in his fight versus Tony Jaa in The Protector (he was the swordsman in the temple fight) you know he’s good, and he doesn’t disappoint. His acting starts off clunky, but improves as the film goes on. His acrobatics is fantastic, and he brings his all to each fight scene, of which he has many. He’s still a young man, and I expect greater things from him down the road. He’s got the looks and the martial arts skills and acrobatics. He just needs the right starring vehicle.

CHT is his royal evilness as always, and it’s funny that he’s played the main villain in the two major fight video game adaptations, this and Mortal Kombat. The man likes his video games! Gary Daniels does a great job as the arrogant jackass Bryan Fury, and even at his age can still bring the goods. Between this and the Expendables it’s been a pretty good run lately for Daniels. Cung Le also stars in what I believe is his first film, and he does a good job in a limited appearance. He’s currently working on his first full-on martial arts film, and his appearance here bodes well for that film. Luke Goss brings a cynical edge to the film as Steve Fox, and Ian Anthony Dale is a menacing Kazuya.

My lone problem with the film is that there are still too many actors who play fighters who in reality don’t know any martial arts. While Dale plays a good Kazuya, he doesn’t know any martial arts, but he is the dramatic final fight of the film, and the most disappointing.  The women are all there merely as eye candy, and none of them seem to know anything, even though Cyril Raeffaelli (District B-13) does a good job making them look as if they do. Dammit, since Cyril did the choreography, would it have been too much to ask for him to be a fighter in this film?  Lateef Crowder is showing up everywhere nowadays, but can he not get his ass kicked in every film he appears in? Here, Undisputed 3 and The Protector, he just gets owned, even thought he does get to pull off some awesome capoeira moves.

Tekken does a much better job in many respects than Mortal Kombat, but still suffers from having too many characters that need to have their “scenes” and the film has moments where are some quick-cut edits of fights, which drives me insane! Other than that, a fun b-movie style fight film.

(on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest)

CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Cyril does a good job with everyone, especially during the Jin versus Rojas fight, and the fight between Jin and Bryan Fury. He does an even better job with the non-martial artists. He could have had even more elaborate fights if not for that.

STUNTWORK: (7) They did a good job, especially making a lot of folks look good.

STAR POWER: (7) Jon Foo, Cung Le, CHT, Gary Daniels, Luke Goss, Lateef Crowder and more really prop this film up. Jon may be poised for great things, and the same can be said for Cung Le and Roger Huerta. This grade could go up in the future.

FINAL GRADE: (7) A bit better than Mortal Kombat, this is a fun b-movie film that does a good job adapting a video game, which is an accomplishment all on its own. The sky’s the limit for Jon Foo.

Review: Mortal Kombat (1995)

Posted in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Christopher Lambert, JJ Perry, Keith Cooke, Reviews, Robin Shou with tags , , , on February 9, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Robin Shou, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa (CHT), Christopher Lambert, Keith Cooke (cameo), Bridgette Wilson, Linden Ashby

Fight Choreography by Pat E. Johnson

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

For martial arts fans in the US, the early and mid 90’s were rough. Unless you knew a buddy who got the bootleg stuff from Hong Kong and Japan, you were left with Steven Seagal with the ever-expanding waistline, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, master of the ass shots and splits. In other words you were shit out of luck. There was cool martial arts to be found in video games, with Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat leading the way. Hollywood thought they would both make a good film, and they were half-right. Little did we know that Jackie Chan was about to change US cinema forever with Rumble in the Bronx a year later, but at that time we were given Mortal Kombat…

The film opens following three characters: Liu Kang (Shou), who wants to avenge the death of his brother Chen by the murderous Shang Tsung (CHT), Sonya Blade (Wilson) who is hunting a smuggler who killed her brother and has lured her into the tournament, and Johnny Cage (Ashby) a Van Damme-like movie star who enters the tournament to prove he’s the real deal. They make their way to an island owned by Shang Tsung (doesn’t the plot remind you of another martial arts classic?), and meet his fearsome fighters: Sub-Zero, a ninja who has perfected a freezing technique, and Scorpion, a ninja returned from the dead with a grapple claw and fire breath, which I hear is standard fare for all resurrected ninjitsu warriors. They also have to face Goro, a six-armed 7 foot tall muppet, and Reptile, a lizard who can transform into a ninja fighter. They are all from another dimension called Outworld, ruled by their master Shao Khan.

Our heroes are aided by Princess Kitana (Soto), the former ruler of Outworld, and Rayden (Lambert), the god of Thunder and Lightening, worshipped by the chinese monks for being a god of Thunder and Lightening. And a kung-fu master. And French. Liu Kang and his new friends soon find out they aren’t just fighting in a tournament, but are fighting for the fate of Earth, and each of them learn a valuable lesson about themselves in the process.

Yes, this is truly a silly film, but it’s still fun, probably one of the better video game adaptations done. They rip off the plot for Enter the Dragon wholesale, but hey, someone was going to eventually. Robin Shou does okay for Lui Kang, but his acting leaves a lot to be desired. His fighting isn’t so great either. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not bad. His kung-fu is technically good, but he doesn’t have the grace and speed of Donnie, Jackie or Jet. Everyone else is cut from that same Hollywood cloth of actors who don’t really know any martial arts but has a lot of stunt people doing it for them. In the case of Johnny Cage some of the stunts are done by JJ Perry, the fight choreographer fromUndisputed 2, and Blood and Bone, and Keith Cooke, he of China O’Brien.

The fights themselves are either pretty good or really weak. Sonya Blade’s fight is really weak, but Lui Kang versus Sub-zero and Reptile is pretty damn good. The best, in my opinion, is the fight between Johnny Cage and Scorpion. That has a great fight in Scorpion’s lair, with really good choreography, the best in the film. CHT brings the villany as he always does, and gives a decent fight to Lui Kang at the end of the film, but his-and Lambert’s scene chewing are the best moments of the film, aside from one last thing:

The Music. George S Clinton brought techno music to the attention of pop culture after being in the underground scene for years. Suddenly we became aware of acts like Orbital, Utah Saints, Massive Attack, Juno Reactor, and more. The Mortal Kombat theme itself wants to make you get up and smack someone. Think not? Listen to this:

Makes you want to jump up and give someone a tornado kick to the face! If anything, this film was a good mix of old school martial arts and special effects that had good and weak moments for both, but overall is an enjoyable film, but the soundtrack makes the film better than it actually is.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (7) Good choreography for an American film, and could have been better if the actual stars of the film outside of Robin Shou and CHT (I don’t think he knows much) actually knew martial arts.

STUNTWORK: (8) These guys had to hold up the actors who didn’t know martial arts and did a good job at doing so. The guy wearing the Goro suits deserved a raise.

STAR POWER:(6) CHT is money in the bank as always, and Christopher Lambert is always a treat. Robin Shou doesn’t have the charisma to be a big star. Everyone else is fairly forgettable. Some of the stuntmen in the film went on to bigger and better things.

FINAL GRADE: (7) One of the best video game adaptations ever, which is faint praise, but is a good check-your-brain-at-the-door film for martial arts film buffs.

Review: Blind Fury (1990)

Posted in Reviews, Sho Kosugi with tags , , , on February 3, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Rutger Hauer, Sho Kosugi, Meg Foster, Terry O’Quinn,

Noble Willingham, Randall (Tex) Cobb

Sword Fight Choreography by Stephen Lambert

Directed by Philip Noyce

Someone in Hollywood thought that the Japanese had a pretty good thing going with all of those Zatoichi films that have been a staple of Japanese cinema for years, and wondered how such a character would be received in the good old USA. Now for something like this to be successful would require an actor who can actually act blind and yet display a range of emotions and look badass dicing people up with a cane sword. And by people I’m referring to Texans. Luckily they found Roy Batty himself, the great Rutger Hauer (whose newest film, Hobo With A Shotgun, is currently making its way around the indie circuit.)

The film opens during the Vietnam War, the place from which all 80’s action heroes come from, and we meet Nick Parker, crawling through the mud, newly blind thanks to a Vietcong mortar shell. Nick is taken in by local villagers, and soon they decide the best way to help him deal with his blindness is to teach him kendo and turn him into a badass.

We fast forward 20 years, and we find Nick back in the states heading toward Miami, Florida to visit his good friend and fellow soldier (the one he was blinded trying to help) Frank Deveraeux (O’Quinn, yes, the dude from Lost) not knowing that Frank was not only divorced and moved from the address Nick has, but is in Vegas threatened with his life by a greedy casino mogul MacCready, who is so rich he doesn’t need a first name. Or maybe that was his first name? Either way he’ll need one soon since he’s run out of cash, and needs Frank, a chemist, to develop designer drugs for him. If MacCready actually knew his shit he could have just gone to the local college and hired some chemistry majors and paid them in pizzas and beer. No need to break the law that far. But of course in this film he’s a Texan, so breaking the law is a norm.

Anyway, Nick arrives at Frank’s old house and meets his ex-wife, Lynn, played by the always creepy Meg Foster (I’ll bet she’s a nice lady and all, and she is pretty, but the red hair along with the bright gray eyes…just gives me the hebbie -jebbies) and their 10 year old son Billy. Lynn informs Nick that Frank is gone, and soon the police show up, but they are actually MacCready’s men led by Slag (Cobb) a cigar-smoking douche who knocks out Billy and blows Lynn away with a shotgun. Nick takes action in a fast but fun scene where he introduces the fake cops to the exact opposite of life, but Slag gets away. Nick takes Billy away from there, and together they travel cross country to save Frank, but little does Nick know that there is a great challenger waiting for him at the finish line…

This a good, light-hearted action film despite the violence, which is mostly bloodless. Hauer plays Nick as a carefree dude. One of the worst things that could happen already has, so he doesn’t sweat too many things, and carries an air of confidence the entire film, even when he loses his cane sword. He’s a man who is humble and acquites himself as such, but dick around with him and you can meet his cane, or sword, or both. The rest of the acting is pretty shoddy although Noble Willingham makes a good Texas douchebag (he’ll reprise a similar role years later as the main baddie in The Last Boy Scout). Which, before I go any further, I have to take a bit of offense at the one thing I disliked about this film:

Texans are gun-totting inbred half-brained douchebags.

Which is entirely untrue as I’ve lived here for some twenty-plus years. That is not the way we are.

Texas are actually gun-totting, knifestabbing, sword-chopping, karate and kung-fu fighting smart-with-a-twang people who will greet anyone they see with a hello or howdy. Take our newest Texas Ranger and national mascot:

See? Decent fellow. Good guy. Invincible (Except when he meets Bruce Lee) Keep Slaughter in San Francisco in mind. If you ever come to Texas, particularly Austin, you’ll have a good time, and no one will try to shoot you and cackle like a pack of hyenas over your prone body. Unless you’re too close to the border to Mexico. Then you are on your own.

Anyway, the grand finale, involving dispatching dozens of Texans, we get the fight between Rutger Hauer and the greatness, Sho Kosugi. I wished this had been the quality of the fights the entire film, but for what it was was great. I don’t how much of the sword fight was Hauer and what was his stuntman, but a great job was done here. Sho brought a lot of menace to a short role, and their fight was a great swordfight, if shorter than I wanted it. Not Brett Ratner short, but still.

Blind Fury has a lot of fun moments courtesy of Rutger Hauer, and his showdown with Sho Kosugi is fast-paced and fun. The scene in the cornfield was quite a bit of fun as well. Too bad they never continued Nick’s story. It could have been our Zatoichi. Can we buy Rutger a sequel? C’mon Hollywood! If you can make a Yogi Bear movie…

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)

CHOREOGRAPHY: (7) There is actually a lot here, and it’s pretty fast paced, but a little too short, but then again, for sword fighting that’s appropriate. Lambert does a good job of staging the fights, and Noyce shoots it well.

STUNTWORK: (6) It looks like these guys did their homework, reacting just like you would see in a Japanese samurai film. The didn’t need to do too much in the sense of tossing themselves around, but did the job from an acting standpoint.

STAR POWER: (8) Rutger Hauer, Sho Kosugi and directed by Philip Noyce,who would go on to direct and produce many of the Jack Ryan films.

FINAL GRADE: (7) A fun and enjoyable B-movie ode to Zatoichi. Not a great fight film, but some decent Japanese swordplay for an American film.