Archive for November, 2011

Review: Double Team (1997)

Posted in Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, Xin Xin Xiong with tags , on November 18, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Mickey Rourke, Xin Xin Xiong

Fight Choreography by Sammo Hung

Directed by Tsui Hark

Jackie Chan. That’s kinda what happened to JCVD and Steven Seagal. JC came along with Rumble in the Bronx, Jet Li followed and a new renaissance of kung-fu films hit US screens, and suddenly JCVD and Seagal found their careers on life support when Americans saw what they’ve been missing for the last decade and a half. To JCVD’s credit, he’s always wanted to make films like they do in Hong Kong, and here teams up with Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark for this film. Mickey Rourke was still on the “outs” with Hollywood at the time, so he was available. And then we have Dennis Rodman.

Dennis Rodman.

To wit I say: “Sweet Mary Mother n’ Joseph what were they thinking?!”

JCVD stars as French super secret agent Jack Quinn, a man who has disappeared to lead a boring life with his beautiful wife who is now pregnant with his first child, but as all secret agents find out, you can never escape the life, and is thrown right back in when he finds that terrorist Stavros (Rourke) has been found, and he’s been tasked with bringing him down. Quinn first goes to visit arms dealer Yaz (Rodman) for weapons. Kinda like a weird version of Q. Quinn and his agents ambush Stavos at a circus where Stavros is visiting his woman and son. Both are killed in the ensuing gunfire between the agents, Stavros and his goons (Don’t understand why he would bring his girlfriend and son to a public place where he’s just got to know an ambush is waiting for him) Things go really wrong, Quinn’s whole team is killed, and Stavros gets away, but not before injuring Quinn in an explosion.

Soon Quinn wakes up on an island–you know, the one where all secret agents go to when they screw up or retire and can never leave–and finds himself recovering, and plans his own escape off of the island when he discovers that Stavros has his wife captive. Quinn is able to escape and enlist the help of Yaz and some high tech monks, and attempts to save his wife and child from Stavros, who is looking for one last confrontation…

This is an incredibly silly film. This film tries to be part James Bond and part Lethal Weapon and fails at both. The story takes bits and pieces from those films, but isn’t able to form a coherent story. Tsui Hark has always been at his best when he has a good/strong script, and his camera angles and shots are vintage Hark, but the script here is not strong, and thus the direction isn’t, either. JCVD is not bad, pretty much playing the same kind of character he’s always played in his films. Mickey Rourke might’ve been good, but we don’t see enough of his character to know, except toward the end when he is reduced to nothing but a cackling villain. What we do get is lots of Dennis Rodman and bad winking at the camera jokes in reference to his basketball career. Ugh. First off, his acting is terrible. Really, really bad. Like bludgeon yourself with a mallet bad. Yes, he has a distinctive look, but he has the onscreen charisma of a gopher. In fact, the gopher from Caddyshack has more. Also, as someone who is not a basketball fan, the references got old really fast. This was obviously a ploy to garner a bigger audience for JCVD by teaming him up, but jeez, there was no rapper available? At least Seagal had that F***tard DMX. And don’t even ask me about the scene where Quinn karate kicks a tiger.

Sammo Hung tried to get the most out of JCVD, but his skills are just not up to par. I paused the film during several fight scenes that looked pretty good when I noticed that some of JCVD’s movements, well, didn’t look like anything I thought he was capable of. Turns out I was right. I was dismayed to see that a stuntman did many of the more complex movements and kicks, and not Van Damme. The best fight in the film is the hotel fight between JCVD versus Xin Xin Xiong, whom you may recognize as Clubfoot from Once Upon a Time in China 3, 4 and 5. The fight is chopped to hell to mask JCVD’s deficiencies, but still looks decent, but not as good as it would if JCVD had the speed to keep up with Xiong. The rest of the fights are forgettable. It looked like Sammo just gave up. The less said about Rodman the better. He’s no Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

It has been said that Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and John Woo made a gentleman’s bet that they could make a hit film with JCVD. We can safely assume that Hark did not win.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (4) Bless Sammo for trying, but he just couldn’t make the fights look more than just mediocre. I could tell the ideas for some good fights were there, but the skills of the stars prevented it from being fully realized.

STUNTWORK: (5) The work was decent, but nothing of note except that JCVD’s stunt man did a good job in some of the fights and acrobatics.

STAR POWER: (5) JCVD’s star was starting to fade here, and Rourke was nowheresville at the time, and the less said about Rodman the better.

FINAL GRADE: (4) Double Team is a film where the talent behind the camera couldn’t be realized in from of it, and Rodman ruins any goodwill the film might’ve had. One of the worst of Van Damme’s films.


Review: Armour of God (1987)

Posted in Jackie Chan with tags , , , on November 14, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Jackie Chan, Lola Forner, Rosamund Kwan, Alan Tam

Fight Choreography by Jackie Chan

Directed by Jackie Chan

By 1987 Jackie Chan was in the middle of a set of films that have since become classics of HK cinema, and finally decided that he wanted to make a film in which he could go on Indiana Jones-style adventures. Little did he know at the time that Armour of God would nearly become the vehicle in which he may actually meet God face-to-face, such as it were…

The film begins as Asian Hawk (Chan, with his coolest onscreen name) steals a sword from a group of…natives, for lack of a better word, that is part of the Armour of God, armor and weapons that were used during the crusades. The opening is a bit slow, but has a few good stunts, and a pretty nifty getaway plane. Soon Asian Hawk is back in Italy, where he bumps up the price of the sword in auction, and it is purchased by a woman named May (Forner). Meanwhile a cult that worships the Armour wants to steal the 3 pieces they don’t have, so their leader, who looks something like Dracula from a local theater group, has his men kidnap Lorelei (Kwan) who was Hawk’s old flame when he, Lorelei, and his best friend Alan (Tam) were all in a Partridge Family style band. Alan teams up with Asian Hawk, and together with May, who comes along to watch over the pieces of armor her father lends to them, go in search of the monks to save Lorelei and get the complete set of armor, but they have no ide what they are getting into. Killer monks, a hidden base, and a final battle involving some scary amazon women…

Armour of God really wants to be Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the worst possible way, and doesn’t come close, but it is a fun film despite so many cheesy moments. The cult is one of them. These are the cheapest looking monks in the history of monks, with 80’style hairdos matched with the bad acting that was so prevalent with Jackie’s international actors of the time period (and it is truly horrid in this flick). Of course, the script was put together, as many of JC’s films were at that time, around the stunts that Jackie wanted to do. Jackie does a good job being, well, Jackie, but is mostly the straight man to Alan Tam’s imbecile Alan, whose idiot and uncoordinated shenanigans wears thin after a while, but he does play the character well. It is odd to see Jackie giving most of the comedy to someone else, but there it is. Lola Forner does a pretty decent job, but Rosamund Kwan doesn’t appear nearly as much as I would’ve liked, and what time she does have isn’t doing much onscreen.

There are a lot of stunts, but there really isn’t any fighting until the end, when Asian Hawk faces off with the monks in a fight scene that is classic Chan as he flows like water with his movements as he downs all of the monks, and some nasty-looking falls and drops ensue, until the main event, Asian Hawk versus the amazon women, who put the hurt on him, and in high heels no less! The fighting is fast and furious here, and even if some of the women were actually some of JC’s stuntmen (he better had paid them extra) it still turns out a fantastic fight, which admittedly uses some light wire work for the amazons, but is kept to a minimum.

At the end we are treated to the bloopers, but this one features the worst blooper of all, as Jackie, during the opening sequence of the film, jumps from a 3 story castle wall to a tree branch, to another castle tower, but the branch breaks under his weight, and he plummets to the ground and bounces his head off of a rock. He is rushed to the hospital where he spends close to 3 days in a coma, and to this day has a hole in his head where there is no bone. This film was the first film he had ever cut his hair short in, and after this was so superstitious he vowed never to cut his hair that short again for a film. Of all the stunts he’s ever done, this is the one that almost cost him his life.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Good, but the lack of fighting really brings this grade down, but the fight with the monks and Amazons goes down as classic Chan moments.

STUNTWORK: (9) Jackie does what he does best, from the stunt that almost kills him to the crazy ass jump from the cliff all the way down to the hot air balloon.

STAR POWER: (8) JC was a superstar the world over, and Rosamund Kwan would forge her own name with Hong Kong films, and Lola Forner would have a good film and television career.

FINAL GRADE: (8) Armour of God is a good-but-not-great film that contains a few classic Jackie Chan moments that elevate it from being just another Indiana Jones ripoff, but the cheesiness almost derails the film.

Review: Bunraku (2010)

Posted in Gackt, Larnell Stovall with tags , , on November 1, 2011 by Michael S. Moore

Starring Josh Hartnett, Gackt Camui, Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd, Ron Perlman, Demi Moore

Fight Choreography by Larnell Stovall

Directed By Guy Moshe

When it comes to American martial arts films, there isn’t a lot of style to them, unless they happened to be full of wire-fu and computer effects (thanks, Yuen Woo Ping!) They are pretty straight forward, and the fight choreography ranges from outright insipid to pretty damn good. Larnell Stovall represents that “pretty damn good” for a new generation of fight choreographers that come from the Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2 & 3) tree along with JJ Perry, Steve Wang and others. Larnell even helped an actor go from the bottom of the heap to nearly nabbing the role of Spider-Man for the new film coming out soon. From Undisputed 3, Never Back Down 2,  to the Mortal Kombat Legacy series, Stovall is swiftly becoming the go-to fight choreographer, and he doesn’t disappoint with Bunraku, the most visually interesting martial arts films to come down the pike in many a year.

Bunraku begins as the narrator sets the stage for the world, one in which guns are no longer allowed, and in an unnamed town the people are ruled by Nicola, also known as the Woodcutter (Perlman) who rules the town with an iron fist, and has a group of warriors known as the Killers and his Red Army. Killer #2 (McKidd) is his main general, a  sadistic warrior who dispatches his enemies with cane sword. Nicola also has a mistress who has a backstory you’ll find out about as the film goes on, and her connection to the Bartender (Harrelson). Things seem to go hunky-dorey until two men arrive in town: A samurai with no sword named Yoshi (Gackt) who is looking for a medallion owned by his father, and the Drifter (Hartnett) a gambler who is looking to meet with Nicola for reasons to be revealed later. Happenstance brings the two men together, and both, for different reasons, fight to destroy Nicola and his hold over the town once and for all…

Bunraku is unlike any martial arts film to come down the pike in many a year. The backgrounds, just as the story, is all told through the prism of a pop-up book. The bold colors remind me of Dick Tracy, and the backgrounds also remind me of Sin City doused in crayola crayons. The narrator only adds to the feel, and the costumes are all western wear, so there is this spaghetti-western, samurai, martial arts mashup that never gets boring, even in the dialogue scenes, which you may have to rewind and listen to as you may get distracted by the colors and sets in the background. Guy Moshe does a fantastic job with every part of this film and keeping the story, look, and fighting within the style that permeates the entire film, and kudos for just making the film damn fun. Josh Hartnett is great as the Drifter, and while he doesn’t have the gravitas of a Clint Eastwood he does acquite himself well. He is surprisingly good in his fight scenes, but more on that in a moment. Gackt is new to me, a pop singer from Japan who is absolutely fantastic as Yoshi. He is the heart of the film, and the best fight scenes, and he really sells it all and has the movement and grace to show that he could have a future in these kinds of films if he chose. Ron Perlman is as good as always, but isn’t in the film all that much. Even less in the film is Demi Moore as Alexandra, who has an ultimately forgettable side story that doesn’t really have the payoff I would’ve liked to have seen. Woody Harrelson is, well, Woody Harrelson, but that is in no way a bad thing. Next to Gackt Kevin Mckidd really steals the show here, as the slimy yet charismatic Killer #2. While Ron Perlman doesn’t really fight in the film, McKidd gets a bunch of fights throughout the entire film, and does a great job with each and every one of them, which is impressive as I don’t think he knows any martial arts. That brings me to Larnell Stovall.

The fights in this are really, really good, and all of the Gackt fights are fantastic, especially his fight with Killer #4 and the final sword fight between himself and McKidd. The best Josh Hartnett fight is the one between himself and the gang of acrobat killers who ambush him, and the big fight between the townspeople (all of whom train in Japanese swordsplay) versus the Red Army, and even Larnell Stovall himself participates in this fight and an earlier fight versus McKidd. What I notice Stovall has is the ability to make people who don’t really know martial arts “speak” the language of it by relating it to simple movements they are already familiar with, and then finds a way to string it all together, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by Josh Hartnett and Gackt’s fights. Stovall also doesn’t deal with wire work, which I am thankful for. You’ll see none if it in this film.

Bunraku is a film that finally breaks the mold for American martial arts films, and Larnell Stovall continues to conquer the world of fight choreography, one film at a time.

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (9) What more can be said? Stovall gets the most out of his actors, and they respond with some of the best fight scenes this side of Hong Kong.

STUNTWORK: (8) The stuntmen do a great job here, particularly with the final group fights to end the film, and the acrobat gang fight versus Josh Hartnett. Good work here.

STAR POWER: (9) You see the cast list. Toss an appearance from Mark Ivanir (Gaga from the Undisputed films) and this is nearly gold. Gackt is a revelation, and I cannot wait to see where his career goes from here.

FINAL GRADE: (9) Bunraku is an exciting martial arts story wrapped in the trappings of a children’s pop-up book that thrills with great fight scenes and a career making performance by both Gackt and Kevin McKidd.