September 6, 2011

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Under the cover of disrespectability, direct-to-video (DTV) action movies are quietly throttling their theatrical brethren. Despite having budgets one-tenth of studio spectacles, these DTV scrappers excel where it matters most: the craft of shooting a fight scene. As the enigmatic film critic/ex-con Outlaw Vern stated in his review of The Marine 2, “Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.”

Inspired, I watched Assassination Games (2011, on DVD/Blu today), Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Ninja (2009), where tussles are filmed to showcase the athleticism of the leads. The threadbare Bulgarian sets are coherently mapped out in master shots, so the close-ups of fist-to-face never throw off the geography of a scene. The camera generally keeps the combatants’ bodies completely in the frame, emphasizing a physicality generally lost in contemporary Hollywood (Jason Statham excepted), in which fights are reduced to a blur of cuts before a hired goon collapses. David Bordwell has identified this rapidly edited style as “intensified continuity”, an amplification of classical style that he places as starting “after 1960 or thereabouts.” These DTVers still fall in Bordwell’s post-1960s rubric, with shot lengths shorter than the classical era, but they offer a more authentic intensity, returning to feats of athleticism over editing.

The workhorses of DTV these days are Dolph Lundgren, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Christian Slater (who has 8 (!) movies listed as coming out this year), although Jean-Claude Van Damme is ramping up his schedule after his flirtation with respectability in JCVD (Lundgren and Van Damme will also cash a check for Expendables 2).  The only consistent indicator of quality, however, has been the presence of English actor Scott Adkins and Israeli director (and Power Rangers auteur) Isaac Florentine.  Both are trained martial artists, and their work together prizes lucidity of motion above all else (including the plot). In Undisputed II III, which I enthused about last year, Florentine used high-speed cameras to isolate Adkins’ attacks and reversals in an MMA-inspired fight tournament. Ninja, which was made between the two, brings their analytic fighting aesthetic to an urban setting (Sofia, Bulgaria rather unconvincingly standing in for NYC). They ditch the super-slo-mo, but keep the clean lines and camera distance, keeping Adkins’ body whole in the frame, like Fred Astaire demanded of his directors.

Adkins plays Casey, a military brat orphan raised in a Dojo in Japan. His nemesis is Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), another prized student with daddy issues. Desperate to knock off Casey to impress their Sensei (Togo Igawa), Masazuka breaches the Dojo’s code of conduct and is expelled. Naturally, he dons a vulcanized ninja outfit and becomes a top assassin for an evil corporation (who also operate a cheesy death cult of some sort). These B-DTV trappings are mere action scene delivery systems, and it’s best not to let Adkins emote too much (the most he can muster is a frown of mild indigestion), but once the flesh starts flaying, Ninja satisfies. Take, for instance, the first battle between Casey and Masazuka, at the Dojo. It begins in long shot, with the full width of the house visible behind them.  Florentine maintains the distance as the fight with wooden training swords commences. He only cuts in closer when Masazuka lands a couple of blows, a punch and a slice that shatters Casey’s fake blade. After each of these accents Florentine returns to the long shot, re-orienting viewers to the space. It is a quick but effective sequence, representative of their work.

This can be seen more spectacularly in a brawl in a subway car (caught at the mythical “Noble St.” stop), into which Casey and lady friend Namiko are chased by the evil corporation’s thugs. Here a long shot is impossible, so Florentine opts for measured pans up and down, and a more-frequent use of slow-motion. Every element is isolated and accounted for – you see every gun kicked away and every blow landed. Low angles predominate, in which the ceiling offers another claustrophobic foe. In one sequence a mirthless baddie tosses a civilian towards Casey, and he leaps to avoid her. Cut to him continuing the leap up and through a guard rail, a bit of impromptu parkour. He lands and then ducks as the jerk throws a haymaker towards the camera. Cut to a reverse low angle, and after another block Casey is kicked halfway down the aisle, and the camera follows him all the way as it hovers close to the ground. This is a few seconds of screen time and yet it thrills with its logic and effortless flow.

Logic is not something one would associate with the Universal Soldier franchise, but this Regeneration, the third entry (or fifth, depending on whether you count a few TV movies), is as relentlessly rational a movie about half-robotic super soldiers can possibly be. It “stars” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, although combined they don’t have more than 30 minutes of screen time. MMA fighters Mike Pyle and Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski, as Captain Burke and the robo-monster NGU, respectively, would get the box cover in an honest marketing campaign. But this is DTV, where descending stars cash checks for cameo appearances and top billing.

This adorable hucksterism aside, Regeneration is a bracingly brutal piece of work, with director John Hyams weaving his tracking shots through the post-Soviet rubble of  Chernobyl (again, shot in resourceful Sofia, Bulgaria). Instead of the detail-oriented approach of Florentine, Hyams opts for a kind of dystopic realism, the creation of the dust-choked atmosphere more important than the grace of an individual fighter. There are very few close-ups and a profusion of long, gliding takes. Peter Hyams (2010, Timecop), John’s father, is the cinematographer, and his technical chops and experience no doubt helped in creating these elaborate shots on a budget.

Its sci-fi trappings aside, this a straight-up kidnapping drama. The Russian president’s two children have been nabbed by an insurgent group, who then take over the Chernobyl nuclear plant and threaten to blow it up, along with the kids, if their fellow rebels in prison are not released. As it happens, they also have retained the services of Dr. Colin (a wonderfully neurotic Kerry Shale), who has the tech to produce the eponymous Universal Soldiers. The U.S. military gets involved, because that’s what they do, and create their own UniSols to free the kids. Van Damme is Luc Devereaux, an ex UniSol dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, who now lives in a mental health facility. Devereaux is dragged back into action, and Van Damme plays this broken down hero’s confusion with admirable vulnerability. Of course, once injected with the UniSol drugs, he becomes an insatiable killing machine, which in turn drains the last of the human out of him. It’s a surprisingly sad and despairing film, as much a reflection on Van Damme’s beat-up body as JCVD was.

The action is shot elegantly, never more so than in a minute-long SteadiCam take that opens the final act. Van Damme is blasting his way through the war zone, and sprints right. The camera races along with him. Two masked gunmen blast away in the left foreground, as Van Damme evades their bullets in the background. Then he leaps through a window and disappears. The camera follows the shooters in their confusion, until Van Damme bursts through a door and kills them. It’s surprising that the star is hidden from view in this manner, leaving the audience stranded with two villains, building a mini-drama out of his whereabouts. Instead of cutting to Van Damme’s hiding place, the Hyams clan opt to maintain the tension of the unbroken shot, which then continues. Van Damme pushes forward into building and stalks the hallway. As he inspects an adjacent room to the left, the camera does a 180 and picks him up as he re-enters, swinging right and left to capture the gunfights on either side. Peter Hyams continues these balletic weaves until Van Damme has slaughtered a small village. It is not triumphal but ruthlessly efficient.

Assassination Games teams up Adkins and Van Damme, in a touching DTV passing of the torch. Now, the film received a limited theatrical run in four cities, so it is technically not direct-to-video. However, it was shot in Eastern Europe (Bucharest this time), by DTV hack Ernie Barbarash, so it is at least spiritually direct-to-video, which is all that matters. This is the kitschiest of the DTV films I watched recently, but it still had its pleasures. Adkins plays retired hitman Roland Flint, who gave up his gig after his wife was attacked in the line of duty (she is played, comatose throughout, by Van Damme’s daughter Bianca van Varenberg). When he learns that the perpetrator, Polo (Ivan Kaye), is being released from prison, he re-enters the competitive assassination biz. However! Vincent Brazil (Van Damme) has been hired to kill Polo as well, and sullen stare downs ensue.

Barbarash does not show the visual flair of Florentine and Hyams, with bland, centrally framed (although still intelligible) set-pieces, but he has a playful sense of genre codes that enlivens the proceedings. Brazil is the effete assassin, who hides a secret ultra-modern apartment behind a bookshelf in his grimy Romanian walk-up. He has violins encased in glass, a pet turtle, and is fond of sharpening his knives topless. This is grandly ridiculous, although Van Damme is not one to camp it up. It’s a role that, from the current crop of DTV icons, Val Kilmer could have joyously hammed. Flint is a non-entity in comparison, a guy who loves his wife and not, apparently, much else. And with firearms his weapon of choice, Adkins does not get to display much of his uncanny athleticism, just his impeccable five-o-clock shadow. It’s a bizarre, amiable failure, too reserved to embrace its camp aesthetic, and unable to unleash the kinetic talents of its actors.

Admittedly I’ve only taken a small sample of direct-to-video titles, but there is more visual clarity in this group than in any English-language action movie I’ve seen the last few years (and I like the Luc Besson-produced titles like Taken, Unknown, et al.). The low budgets force producers to return to basics: showcasing the physical gifts of your leads and coming under budget. DTV movies sell based on the actors, so if they want to succeed they need to film them as legibly and forcefully as possible. And with low budgets, directors don’t have the time to shoot all the coverage that Hollywood directors engage in, which gives editors multiple shots and angle to play with in their action scenes. Here they keep film costs low, and give their cutters few options, but grateful viewers like myself far more.


December 31, 2013

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

The first Ninja (2009) was a broad comic book-style action movie, with a corporate death cult threatening the safety of NYC. Casey Bowman (Adkins) is the orphan raised in a dojo who tears down their international conspiracies with the help of fellow student Namiko (Mika Hijii). With its kitschy hooded villains and unconvincing Bulgaria-for-NYC locations, it’s more Adam West than Christian Bale, superhero-wise. If you are a cheese aficionado, it is a profound experience, but even if not, there are some miraculous fight sequences, including a closed-quarters slobberknocker in a subway car (which Jason Statham borrowed for Safe). For the sequel, they wanted to make “an old-school martial arts film”, as Adkins put it. This time around Bowman has married Namiko, and they run the Japanese dojo in which he was raised. A brutal attack destroys this idyll, and Bowman snaps, violently tracking down the drug lord Goro (Shun Sugata), whom he suspects of the crime. It’s a simple narrative line to hang a series of wildly inventive fight sequences on.

The revenge plot and use of ninjitsu is reminiscent of the Sho Kosugi ninja trilogy from the 1980s (Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) and Ninja III: The Domination (’84)). All three were produced by Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus’ Cannon Films, and it was Golan that gave Florentine his first directing job (Desert Kickboxer (’92)). Florentine even casts Sho Kosugi’s son Kane in a pivotal role as Casey’s enigmatic friend and rival Nakabara. Adkins comes out of a kickboxing background, so his version of a ninja mixes in showy kick acrobatics with the Japanese styles. His influences also differ from Florentine. While the Israeli-born director emerged out of endearingly slapdash Cannon Films canon, Adkins grew up idolizing Bruce Lee and Van Damme before turning to martial arts himself. A real student of the form, he listed his fight film favorites as Enter the Dragon, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master 2 and Armor of God. Their interests complement each other, as Florentine learned how to stretch a buck while Adkins studied how to make bodies look fluid on-screen.

In one interesting experiment they attempt a one-take fight scene, set at a rival Japanese dojo. Casey is there snooping out information on two local thugs, and takes out all five men in an unbroken forty second shot. It is not as ambitious as those of Tony Jaa in The Protector or Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy, but it serves a different purpose. This is not a showstopper but a scene-setter, displaying Casey’s easily snappable temper and setting up the array of fighting styles to come. He takes them out with brawling punches, soaring spin kicks, and a submission arm-bar. Adkins, who admitted to being exhausted after shooting seven takes of this, is a stylistic chameleon, with the looks and power of a brute force brawler but with the ability to execute nimble air strikes. With a handheld camera Florentine and his longtime DP Ross W. Clarkson float around Adkins, a member of the bout rather than an observer. The camera privileges the fighter, but also engages in its own choreography, dancing with the brawlers. Adkins mentioned this camera choreography as party of his fight film philosophy:

A lot of people, the way they get it wrong is they document the action, as if making a documentary. From that side, that side, and that side, with a long lens or whatever. That’s not the way to do it. You need to get the camera in, with the action performers, moving in unison with them, and the camera should be as choreographed as the performers are. You’re part of the action, not watching it from afar. That’s what good action filmmaking is all about.

Their showstopper in Ninja 2 is a barroom brawl that tips its cap to Drunken Master and Kickboxer. Casey is drinking himself into oblivion when a loudmouth drunk splashes him with booze. Needing little provocation, he proceeds to decimate every loser in the joint. Ninja II uses inebriated fighting to darker comedic ends than the Jackie Chan and Van Damme films. The Chan and JCVD personas have something of the beatific innocent about them, their moves very clearly for show – a performance. Adkins is a more brooding type, his most fully formed character the anti-heroic convict Boyka in the Undisputed series, who fights not to please, but as an instinctual survival mechanism. The same is true of Casey, whose only remaining identity is tied to the dojo and the study of ninjitsu (although the film shows only a smidgen of that form). In the bar he completely loses his self control, revealing himself to be nothing other than a very nimble town lush. But he does it with style. Florentine keeps the camera at a distance, occasionally isolating the more spectacular feats with cut-ins and slow motion. But every blow is visible, as his regular editor Irit Raz (Florentine always works with the same crew) cuts the sequence percussively, on every meaty kick or knife-wielding snik.

There are countless other memorable battles here, which is remarkable considering the restraints of time, money, and Adkins’ aching back, which he seriously injured on the set. But despite all the limitations of DTV productions, Florentine and Adkins are relentlessly pursuing, and have nearly perfected, a pure form of the fight film, returning the genre to its roots as simply capturing fine-tuned bodies in collision-course motion. Hopefully we get to see their next distillation in 2014, with the highly anticipated Undisputed IV tentatively slated for release.