Archive for July, 2011

Review: Rush Hour 2 (2001)

Posted in Ernie Reyes Jr., Jackie Chan, James Lew, John Lone, Ziyi Zhang with tags , on July 26, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Ziyi Zhang, John Lone, Don Cheadle, Alan King, Roslyn Sanchez

Fight Choreography by Jackie Chan

Directed by Brett Ratner

Rush Hour was a massive American success, one that had, until this point, eluded Jackie Chan, who had moderate hits with his HK imports. Teaming him up with Chris Tucker, a loudmouth comedian who is both funny and annoying in equal measure turned out to be gold at the box office. So what’s new with the sequel?

Actually, more of the same, except worse.

Rush Hour 2 picks up not long after Rush Hour, and we once again join Lee (Chan) and Carter (Tucker), and the tables are turned, with the duo being in Hong Kong instead, for a little bit. Carter is on vacation, and is a bit upset that he’s been nothing but helping Lee with his cases, but things change when there is a bombing at the American embassy, and Lee is tasked with checking out the Triads and his father’s former police partner Ricky Tan (Lone) who may be involved. What they find is that the Triads are working with an American billionaire to launder fake money at a new casino in Las Vegas. Along the way they team up with a beautiful FBI agent (Sanchez) and face off with Tan’s right hand woman Hu Li (Zhang). The film takes them from Hong Kong, Los Angeles and then Las Vegas, leading to a showdown at the Red Dragon Casino.

The story is serviceable, but unlike Rush Hour, the comedy pushes the story to the side. That is because Chris Tucker is given a much bigger part than Jackie Chan, you know, supposedly the star of the film. Of course, this is because Brett Ratner had an agenda to make Chris Tucker a bigger star, and both this film and its sequel supports this thought, giving more and more screen time to Chris Tucker. This is done by actually having Tucker have actual action scenes, the place where Chan is supposed to dwell, and therein lies the problem. With the Shanghai films, Owen Wilson is content–and smart enough–to share the screen with Chan, not attempt to upstage him. Not so much here. And in this the film is a complete failure, because what was the last film anyone has seen Chris Tucker in not named Rush Hour?

For Jackie Chan and martial arts action fans, the fights are far below the standards of what we expect from a Jackie Chan film. Yes, there are some cool single moments, like Chan’s escape from the guards at the casino leading to his dive through a teller window, and the fight up the bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong, but the fights are too short and don’t allow for Chan’s full inventiveness to come to the fore. This is Ratner’s (who claims to be a fan of Police Story 1 and 2. Guess he never really paid much attention to the mall fight at the end of Police Story 1) take on martial arts films, than American’s cannot maintain their excitement at watching a fight scene longer than 2 minutes. That may be true for many USA films, but when you have inventive fight choreography, you can keep that excitement. Yuen Woo Ping, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen have been doing it for years, and it’s never hurt a film any of them have ever made.  My personal take is that Brett Ratner is nothing more than a studio hack, working for whomever on whatever project that has a name (Red Dragon, X-Men 3) because he is known for bringing his films under budget, but his films take no chances and rarely has much creativity or style. He also commits a cardinal sin of insulting his audience by staging many of the “outtakes” rather than actually having them come from some flub that truly happened.

This is also a film of missed opportunities. You have Ziyi Zhang in the film, and you relegate her big action scene to a fight versus Chris Tucker? Who the hell wants to see that? I think many were waiting for a big fight scene versus Jackie Chan, and it never happened. You have Ernie Reyes Jr. in the film, and what the hell does he do? He RUNS AWAY from Chan and Tucker, and leads them to the Triads, and that’s his lone scene. Hell, he had a bigger part fighting Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) in The Rundown.

James Lew, an always dependable stuntman and fight choreographer has a scene that lasts like 3 seconds. Jackie kicks him in the face and that’s it. The best fight in the film is Jackie Chan versus Don Cheadle. Don was a big Jackie Chan fan, and wanted to put his best foot forward. He spent months learning his Chinese, not just to say his lines, but to get the inflections and dialect correct. He also came in having learned some martial arts in anticipation of his fight scene with Jackie Chan, and really impressed Chan and the other stuntmen with how quickly he took to the fight choreography.

As an American action comedy film it works well enough, and came at a good time. It was just released shortly before 9/11, and in the days afterward people wanted to go see something they could use to escape their troubles for a few hours, and this film hit the spot while pretty much every other film was tanking, as they were more serious than what many American’s wanted to see. As a martial arts film, the criteria used on this website, it’s below mediocre. Jackie Chan is relegated more to the background and being Chris Tucker’s sidekick, and the fights are relatively generic, and Brett Ratner’s equally generic style doesn’t help anything. The lack of using his resources (Ziyi, Reyes Jr, Lew, Chan himself) is the most maddening thing of all.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (4) Chan isn’t given the chance to use his inventiveness to really cut loose with good fight scenes. The Don Cheadle fight was the best one in the film, and the scaffold fight was a close second. The rest is forgettable.

STUNTWORK: (5) Lots of green screen used for Jackie Chan this time around. He still does some awesome things, but not close to his Hong Kong work, but that’s to be expected doing an American film, I suppose.

STAR POWER: (8)  Chan, Tucker, Zhang Ziyi, John Lone, and Don Cheadle bring a lot of star power to this film. Too bad much of it was wasted.

FINAL GRADE: (5) Still funny, perhaps even more so than the previous film, but there are too many wasted opportunities and agendas at work to make this film stand the test of time.

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Review: Choy Lee Fut (2011)

Posted in Kane Kosugi, Lar Kar Wing, Sammo Hung, Sammy Hung, Yuen Wah with tags , , on July 20, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Sammy Hung, Kane Kosugi, Sammo Hung, Yuen Wah, Lar Kar Wing

Fight Choreography by Sammo Hung and Sam Wong

Directed by Sam Wong and Tommy Lor

Choy Lay Fut (also spelled Choy Lee Fut and Choy Li Fut) is a southern style of kung fu that emphasizes long range striking along with continuous and powerful hand techniques and fluid footwork. There have been very few films made about the form, and since it is the style I am a practitioner of, I was pleased as punch when I heard they were finally making a serious film about it. After seeing the film I must say…

…I’m still waiting for that film, ‘cause this ain’t it.

The film stars Sammy Hung as Jie Chen, a young man who live in the UK along with his Japanese best friend Ken Takeda (Kosugi). Both young men are living day to day in England with no real direction, but Jie gets a visit from his father Wai-Yip (Sammo) who is traveling the world bringing Choy Lee Fut to wherever he goes. After a long talk Jie decides to return home, and brings Ken with him, since Ken wants to study Choy Lee Fut. No sooner do they return to the family school than they find trouble when the current teacher, Wai-Yip’s brother Tin-Cheuk (Wah), a teacher and major pothead is being harassed by a local Choy Lay Fut corporation, Pan-American International,  to buy out the school, which has been given permission to buy the school from Jie’s father.  Jie talks their representative, Xia, into a duel between the two organizations, with 3 million dollars and ownership of the school itself in the balance. Things get complicated when Jie falls in love with Xia, and she may or may not feel the same way, but Jie, Ken, and senior teacher Si-Hai Ren find that they will have to train harder than they ever have before using traditional techniques versus the modern equipment and training used by the three fighters they will have to face…

If this film is about Choy Lay Fut, then except for a few scenes and moments it’s more about Jie trying to cultivate a silly relationship with Xia that could have been left on the cutting room floor, but takes up the majority of the film’s running time. The few moments that actually have to do with their training are okay, the best being the training sequence with the three masters, one of whom is Shaw Brothers star Lar Kar Wing as a Hung Gar master. Even this isn’t very well done, leaving us with a brief montage of their training with these masters, which really should have taken up a far larger part of the film. At least the music was cool in this scene. The only real fights come at the end of the film during the tournament, but these are horribly edited, and the best fight involves Kane Kosugi and Ian Powers, but even that is compromised in post-production. If the fight choreography is good, I sure as hell couldn’t tell as they went MTV crazy with the editing. Also, a fight between Yuen Wah and Sammo Hung takes place on a mountain with obvious green screens being the background for the fight. So they couldn’t find one damn real mountain in China to film on? Really?

Sammy Hung is okay, but has a looooong way to go before he’s anywhere near as good as his father. Kane, on the other hand, is every bit as good as you would expect, and is a better actor than Sammy. Both boys are still young, and can forge their own path in martial arts cinema, but they’ll need to get away from films like this. The script itself is terrible and only Yuen Wah’s fun character keeps things from going completely bad.

If you are looking for a film about Choy Lay Fut, you won’t find it here. Nothing about the form is explained, and it ends up being a film that has no heart, no character, and not much in the way of fighting, which is the cardinal sin here. Probably the most disappointing film of the year for me so far. It does have really cool soundtrack, however. If only more care had been placed into the film itself.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (4) Of all of Sammo’s films, this one has to be the worst. It’s hard to say who the real culprit is, Sammo himself or the editing, but both combine to make a really weak effort.

STUNTWORK: (2) Yeah. You won’t find much fighting here, so what do the stuntmen have to do?

STAR POWER: (7) Sammo Hung, Yuen Wah, Kane Kosugi, Lar Kar Wing should have been able to elevate this film. They couldn’t, and that should tell you all you need to know. Sammy was okay, but just barely.

FINAL GRADE: (3) This is a terrible film, more so if you are a martial arts film fan, and perhaps even more if you are a Choy Lay Fut practitioner. This may very well be Sammo and Yuen Wah’s worst film.

Review: Fighter in the Wind (2004)

Posted in Dong-kun Yang, Doo-Hong Jung, Masaya Kato with tags , on July 18, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Dong-kun Yang, Masaya Kato, Doo-Hong Jung, Aya Hirayama

Fight Choreography by Doo-Hong Jung

Directed by Yun-ho Yang

For years Hong Kong has ruled the martial arts movie roost, until the 2000’s, where many HK films were getting stale with the same old stories and actors now dancing around on wires. Luckily for us, other countries started to find their own voice in the martial arts film world, and now South Korea checks in with Fighter in the Wind, and with this film cemented their place in the new martial arts film regime. So how good is it?

The film begins as we find Choi Baedal (Yang) boxing in Korea when a Japanese plane flies overhead dropping flyers asking for any Korean who wanted to learn how to fly a fighter plane to come to Japan, where they will be trained and then asked to fight. Baedal welcomes this, and steals himself to Japan, where he meets Chunbae, a Korean street hustler who is being chased by a group of thugs who want their money back. They both hide in a Japanese cargo truck headed for the Aviation school, but find out that with the war ending, Japan wants its pilots to go on kamikaze runs. They refuse to fly, and are tied to posts during an American raid, and it is here that Baedal comes face to face with General Kato (Kato), a ruthless man who considers himself to be the best fighter in Japan. He makes a wager with Baedal: defeat him in a fight and he’ll let them go, lose and only Baedal would die, but it would be a horrible death. Baedal agrees, and is quickly beaten by Kato, but Baedal is able to do what no one has done, which was to actually land a blow on Kato. Amazed at this, Kato takes a sword, and as Baedal turns around slashes him with it.  This makes Kato believe that Baedal is a coward unworthy of the Japanese, and in the chaos both men are separated.

We pick up the story soon afterward, and Baedal and Chunbae operate a patchinko machine in Ikebukuro, and both men run afoul of the local Yakuza, whom are able to beat Baedel and embarrass him in a really crappy way that I’ll leave you to see. Chunbae and Baedel are saved by Bum-Soo (Jung) who was Baedal’s former Tae Kwon Do teacher when he was a boy. Baedel wants to learn martial arts from Bum Soo, who gives him a copy of Miyamoto Mushashi’s The Book of the Five Rings. During this time Baedel begins a friendship after saving one of the local geisha girls, Yoko (Hirayama), but it is not to last as a series of tragic events send Baedal into the mountains, where he undergoes a severe training regiment while reading the book Bum-Soo gave him. Months, if not years later Baedal turns up at various Japanese dojos and challenges their students to duel, and makes a name for himself first in Japan, and then the world. Kato, now the head of the Martial Arts Federation, tries to steer Baedel into a final confrontation, but there is one great fear Baedal has to get over first…

Fighter in the Wind is a terrific film about the creation of Kyokushin Karate. While there are not really any fantastically choreographed fights until the end, there doesn’t need to be. This is about one man’s journey from being brave but not having the ability to realizing everything he is capable of.  Dong-Kun Yang is terrific as Baedal, and makes his transformation from being a simple guy who wants to do good to being one of the toughest men to ever walk planet Earth believable. Masaya Kato is also great as Kato, a  proud man who is trying to understand exactly what Baedal is. While it may be easy to see Baedal as a human pincushion (I’ve never seen a hero get stabbed with a sword or knife so many times in a single film.) he’s the great enigma Kato is trying to unravel. The main theme of the film is celebrating the Japanese samurai spirit as embodied by a foreigner, much to the chagrin of the Japanese martial world. To the rest of Japan Baedal is a hero.

In regards to the fights, let me clarify a bit more. The fights are edited quickly, not quite MTV style, but close, but somehow it works here. The choreography isn’t meant to ape the Hong Kong style of fighting, settling for a more direct and brutal series of movements, which fits the Japanese fighting style, three moves and the fight’s over, which is closer to how it would go in the real world. The best fights are done through a series of montages that are really well done and showcase many different Japanese styles, like Judo, Ninjitsu, Karate, Jujitsu, and Kendo. The film is also beautiful to look at. Yun-ho Yang has a lot of really good shots and stages his fights against some truly beautiful scenery, and it isn’t hurt too much by the quick cut edits of most of the fights, which still complements the movements, and had me totally invested in each fight.

Fighter in the Wind is a terrific film showcasing the creation of Kyokushin Karate, and a look at Japanese culture and one man’s attempt to understand and harness the samurai’s fighting spirit. This is one worth the time to check out.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) The fights are not very long, nor do they have to be. Jung does a great job of understanding the speed and the power of kicks and punches of the different karate forms.The quick-cut edits actually find a way to work in tis film.

STUNTWORK: (8) The stunts are really well done, particularly toward the end. The stuntmen really allowed themselves to be thrown around quite a lot, and their reactions to punches and kicks were more believable than in many karate films.

STAR POWER: (8) Masaya Kato is always good to see as a villain, and Dong-Kun Yang is great, but it seems that the career of Doo-Hong Jung in front of the camera is really taking off after this film.

FINAL GRADE: (9) A really good film about a popular karate form that features good acting and a great story. There are few fights, but this film is about the philosophy behind the form itself, and that makes this a martial arts film that’s well worth your time.

Review: Shanghai Express aka Millionaire’s Express (1986)

Posted in Cynthia Rothrock, Dick Wei, Hwang Jang Lee, Lam Ching Ying, Richard Norton, Sammo Hung, Shih Kien, Wai-Man Chan, Wang Lung Wei, Yasuaki Kurata, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah with tags , , , on July 5, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Lam Ching Ying, Hwang Jang Lee, Yukari Oshima, Richard Norton, Cynthia Rothrock, Dick Wei, Shih Kien, Richard Ng, Yu Wang, Wang Lung Wei

Fight Choreography by Sammo Hung

Directed by Sammo Hung

Sammo, a fan of many westerns, had always wanted to do one himself, and decided to call on damn near every star at the time to be in his kung-fu/western mashup. The film was designed to be another Sammo Hung/Jackie Chan/Yuen Biao team up, but alas Jackie wasn’t able to be in it due to scheduling conflicts, but never mind that. Everyone and their brother is in this film, and Jackie being in the film would have robbed someone else of screen time, especially two newcomers, but more on them later.

Sammo plays Cheng, a thief, opportunist and sometimes pimp with big plans for his small hometown of Hanshui, plans the town is unaware of. He had to leave Hanshui after a series of good deeds gone bad, or bad deeds that had a somewhat noble purpose, depending on your POV. Well, Hanshui ran him out of town, but he has a plan to return and open up a casino/ secret brothel, but since Hanshui is a no where town with nothing more than a train track not far away, he had to do something to get the customers in, and has plans to blow up the train tracks just when the Shanghai Express, a train full of wealthy passengers, will pass, making them stay in the town to spend their money there. Captain Tsao (Biao), the former fireman now the law offical thanks to some of his not-too-smart comrades who decided to use a fire to rob a bank (Lam Ching Ying, Yuen Wah and others), knows Cheng and vows to break up whatever scheme he’s running…

Meanwhile a group of bandits that include Dick Wei, Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton plan to rob the train near Hanshui in an effort to help a mob family secure documents being smuggled out of China by Japanese operatives….

Also, Master Wong (Yu Wong) and his son, the great Wong Fei Hung, travel in the same car with rival Master Sek (Kien) and his son.

And…the group that robbed the bank in Hanshui plan to use the train to get away with the town’s money.

AND…quite a few more stories that will all come together in Hanshui, leading to a slam bang finale that features some fantastic fight choreography and some genuinely funny moments. Admittedly, the comedy can be hit or miss depending on whether you like the slapstick comedy that was pervasive in Hong Kong in the 80’s. Personally, most of it worked for me, especially the Richard Ng stuff. That guy is crazy funny:

He plays a lecherous douche who bounces between his wife and his mistress, both of whom are on the train. He has some fantastic stunts where he “trots” on the train cars, jumping from one to another with ease, and does the same later on the roof of a three story casino. His facial expressions are hilarious to watch.

The stunts are thrilling to watch, such as a series of impressive fire fighting stunts by Yuen Biao culminating in a jump from the top of a 3 story building to the ground…and lands on his feet. Wow. He really does get to cut loose, and Sammo lets everyone have their moment in the sun, from the comedians to the fighters. I have to give Yuen Wah and Lam Ching Ying credit-they were really game to become the two idiots they play. No fighting for them, but it’s still great to see them playing different roles than what I would normally see from them. Now, in a changeup from most of my reviews, because there are so damn many, let’s look into individual fights, eh?

Sammo Hung Vs Yuen Biao: Wow. This fight would be the showstopper of other, even very good martial arts films, but here it is in the middle of the film, which helps break up the comedy. Sammo and Yuen really bring it, and if you watch the first kick Sammo gives Yuen, that kick almost really took Yuen Biao out. Like really out. These two go at it, and the choreography is excellent here, and you can tell that they are actually striking each other, which is something Sammo demands of all of his action co-stars, but hey, they’re kung-fu brothers, so they know what to expect from each other.

Yasuaki Kurata vs Richard Norton: Yeah, it was really short, and Richard’s end is painful (note to self, never try to kick high on a short girl with sword.) but what was there was gold. Of course Richard says his classic line “Painful?”after he gives Kurata a nasty kick. Great blocking moves in this scene.

Yuen Biao vs Dick Wei: Oh. My. Gosh. This fight was incredible. Yuen Biao and Dick Wei blaze along their fight with pure speed and Yuen’s acrobatic stunts in this fight is stunning to watch. His spin off the balcony is legendary as writ in the scrolls. Wei’s punches were lightning fast and Biao even faster at dodging them.

Sammo Hung vs Cynthia Rothrock:  Yeah, this fight was cool, and it’s no wonder Cynthia became famous in HK cinema after this fight. She hung tight with the big man himself through his fight choreography that had him going from being Sammo to impersonating Bruce Lee. I was disappointed that one of her big kicks was actually done by Yuen Biao as her stunt double, but the rest is fantastic. Sammo really tossed himself around.

Hwang Jang Lee vs Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung: This the most hair-pulling of all of the fights in this film. It barely lasts a minute, when the reality is it was supposed to be the absolute show stopper fight in the film, but had to be cut for the running time.  What’s there was the beginning of something epic that gets chopped to about 30 seconds. Argh! Luckily Hwang does get to jack up a bunch of other guys, but this is still a great opportunity missed.

Yukari Oshima vs a bunch of sad bastards: Yukari showed off her stuff in this fight, and though she isn’t a kendo practictioner she made it look as if she were, and really had a good, if short fight scene.

Also I have to say I loved the fight between young Wong Fei-Hung and Master Sek’s son. Those two kids were great, evoking the classic Shaw Brothers style of fight choreography, and the parents’ response is a funny way to end the scene, as is the train ride where both masters get their shots at each other each time they enter a tunnel. I want to go back and say a thing or two about Richard Norton and Cynthia Rothrock. These films would pave the way for their American B-movies, but they really understood the Hong Kong style of fight choreography and were the few Americans and Australians to do so at the time (There were a few others, but not many. Karen Shepard and Peter Cunningham are some of the others.) They work really well with the Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao/Jackie Chan style of choreography that dominated 80’s HK films from the Golden Harvest camp.

This film is really a sampler kind of film. You get a full plate that has bits and pieces of everyone, and the whole will fill you up, but you wished you had more of this or that. I needed more Hwang Jang Lee and Yasuaki Kurata, and Dick Wei, but that is a small gripe in a film chockablock full of fights, at least in the last half of the film. The first half does contain enough goodwill and comedy to tide you over until then.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (9) Sammo does a fantastic job all around allowing everyone to show off their stuff and have their own “moments”. The fighting mixes being fast and fun with being brutal all at once.

STUNTWORK: (9) Fantastic stunts all around. The scene where the train stops is great, and Richard Ng really does a great job, and Yuen Biao takes it up a level with his acrobatics, especially in his fight with Dick Wei. Some of the falls are just down right painful to watch.

STAR POWER: (10) Did you see the cast list I put up there?!

FINAL GRADE: (9) One of the best martial arts westerns of all time, bar none. There aren’t many fights until the end, but the end fights are plentiful and well worth the wait.