January 5, 2016

Since their inception the movies have been obsessed with fists hitting faces. In the testing phases of Edison’s Kinetograph in 1891, W.K.L. Dickson shot footage of sparring boxers, cementing the sweet science as one of cinema’s enduring subjects. Though the medium matured, its audience (myself included) did not, and the appetite to watch performers sacrifice their bodies for our amusement has never abated. For a century filmmakers have been trying to capture the perfect punch in action movies, whether it’s in globetrotting blockbusters with CGI blood spurts or no-budget brawlers with practical squibs. There were plenty of worthy  efforts in 2015, and since it’s list-making season, below you’ll find my top ten action movies of the last year.


10. (tie) No Escape  (directed by John Erick Dowdle) and Survivor (directed by James McTeigue)

Pierce Brosnan has entered his dissolute character actor phase, and it is glorious. The first glimpse of it was in John Boorman’s Tailor of Panama (2001), in which he took the piss out of his James Bond character by playing this secret agent as a lazy, decadent fool. As he transitions out of leading roles and into the background, his characters get more seedy. In the critically reviled No Escape, Brosnan has a small part as a sex tourist in Hawaiian shirt and puka shell necklace (or so it seems) who helps Owen Wilson and Lake Bell spirit their family to safety after there is a violent revolution in an unnamed Asian city. The movie is bluntly effective, as when the parents have to engage in some kid-tossing off of rooftops, or when Wilson has to learn to kill a man with an office lamp. Brosnan is the reason for seeing it though, with his oily, self-destructive swagger and perpetual five o’clock shadow, he is something like James Bond after his fifth stint in rehab. It’s a character going through the motions of heroism because it’s what is expected, but all he really wants to do is embrace the death he’s been courting his whole life.

Survivor is preposterous nonsense, but it’s MY kind of preposterous nonsense. Brosnan is a shadowy mad bomber called “The Watchmaker” who wears those tiny jeweler eyeglass things and occasionally has a mustache. If that wasn’t enough, he’s being chased by U.S. immigration official Milla Jovovich, who spends most of the movie panting in exhaustion. She is framed-up as being an inside woman for a terrorist group, and is in turn chased around London and NYC by Brits and Yanks alike. Cast also includes Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett (!), Robert Forster (!!) and in his final performance (as a maniacal Romanian “pharmaceutical gases” scientist), Roger Rees.



9. Close Range, directed by Isaac Florentine

The latest collaboration of DTV dynamos Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins is a simple showcase for Adkins’ ability to kick people very hard. Adkins is an ex-soldier and an ex-con whose niece is kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord. So Adkins does what he must, in a series of fights beautifully choreographed by Jeremy Marinas of 87Eleven Action Design. You can read my full review of the film here.



8. Redeemer, directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

This Chilean revenge drama is straightforward pulp, superbly executed. It stars Marko Zaror as the eponymous avenger, a haunted man in a hoodie trying to expunge his past sins. He focuses his redeeming powers against an American Bro drug lord (a very funny Noah Segan), and a specter from his past known only as “The Scorpion”.  Zaror is a physical freak (he is Adkins’ main opponent in Undisputed 3), and the fight sequences are very technical MMA-based grappling that proceeds at a slower speed than most fight films. This deliberate pace really allows you to see the development of the attacks and counter-attacks, making the film a reliable tension and release machine.


Wild Card Movie (4)

7. Wild Card, directed by Simon West

A laid back Jason Statham product that is a remake of Burt Reynolds’ Heat. This one debuted on VOD in January and swiftly disappeared without a trace. But it finds Statham playing around with his persona, trying on different poses that never quite stick: grouchy office worker, shooting-the-shit gladhander, and depressive, melancholy addict. When he snaps back into Statham the cannonball, the fight scenes are choreographed by the great Corey Yuen (The Transporter), and they do inventive, violent things with ashtrays and butter knives. I also wrote about this one at length over here.



6. Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann

An impressionistic smear of our hyper-connected age, with gunfights. Leonine Australian hunk Chris Hemsworth makes for an unconvincing hacker, but this is a movie in which the small details seem absurd but the grand gestures are entirely, overwhelmingly convincing. Hemsworth is an imprisoned hacker who is sprung loose to help the U.S. feds track down a cybercrime network around the world. As Hemsworth moves from city to city, country to country, the borders seem to blur along with Mann’s woozy images.



5. SPL2: A Time for Consequences, directed by Soi Cheang

This won’t be released in the U.S. until later this year (by Well Go USA), but it has been out everywhere in Asia and has screened in festivals throughout 2015. SPL2 is a sequel to SPL (2005, aka Kill Zone), although it bears no relation to the original. The main protagonists Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung are nowhere to be found, here replaced by Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. Wu Jing is an undercover police officer in deep cover inside a Thai prison, while Jaa is a guard at the prison. Both of them get entangled in the illicit organ trafficking operation of Louis Koo. This is an anxious film wracked with paranoia, and director Soi Cheang (of the Milkyway productions Accident and Motorway) sustains a tone of barely contained hysteria. People are profitable bloodbags for Louis Koo, and the movie continually emphasizes the brute limitations of the human body.



4. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

This is the slickest entry on the list, a sinuous series of set-pieces that never bogs down in exposition. Tom Cruise gets stranger and more robotic each year, but the Mission: Impossible series keeps improving. I was particularly impressed with the assassination games during the opera, a complex minuet of overlapping POVs that provides one of the many tense standoffs between Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson, the MI5 agent whose motivations are at cross-purposes with the Impossible Missions Force. Ferguson slinks away with the movie, her lithe athleticism perfect for the film’s clockwork mechanisms.



3. Run All Night, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A chase film between two old men sapped of energy. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson play two buddies from NYC’s Westie gang who turn against each other because of the sins of their children. That is, Neeson’s son has murdered Harris’ son. Due to the personal codes of conduct buried in their genes, they must hunt the other down. Neither seems to relish it. Let’s call it a reluctant revenge film. So they trudge through the outer boroughs looking for a kill, and on the way pass through all their old haunts, which are also on their way out. It provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. I went longer on this film over here.



2. The Taking of Tiger Mountain, directed by Tsui Hark

This Chinese epic has grandly orchestrated ski fights and tiger battles, while the framing story deftly deals with the slipperiness of historical truths. It’s about a Communist army unit who infiltrates a bandit gang and brings them down from within, an old-school adventure told with wit and feeling. But the framing story does much to question the propagandistic value of the film inside. It’s a complex, hugely entertaining film that was a massive hit in China and deserves a larger audience stateside. I would recommend reading Grady Hendrix’s highly informative article for further context.



1. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

To Godard’s quote that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, I would add that you should also include a double-necked flame-throwing guitar.


September 4, 2012

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Car chase movies are necessarily clamorous things, as they orchestrate squealing rubber, huffing pistons and the screams of crumpling steel. Which is why Motorway (2012), the new film from Hong Kong director Soi Cheang now out on HK Blu-Ray, is so unusual. It’s a particularly quiet automobile action movie, focused on the finesse of driving. The defining technique of the film is a 90 degree hairpin turn executed at 8,000 RPMs but only 2 Kilometers/hr. It requires great power exerted with careful, slow consideration, which holds true for the film as a whole. Pared down to a sleek 89 minutes during a prolonged two-year post-production process, back-stories and subplots were removed in favor of a film with narrative lines as clean as the ’89 Nissan 240 SX S13 that the traffic cops are unable to stop.

Motorway is the second film that Soi Cheang has made for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Studios, after the elaborately entertaining assassin drama Accident (2009). Where that is a clever expansion of the hitman movie, with its complicated Rube Goldberg made-to-look-like-accidents killings, Motorway is a reduction. Each of its characters is reduced to genre archetypes, with the audience using its knowledge of previous car chase films to fill in their background. The main driver is Chan Cheung (Shawn Yue), a speed freak gearhead who also works for the traffic cops in Kowloon. His partner is Lo Fung (the ever stone-faced Anthony Wong), who is near-retirement but is still haunted by the  getaway driver Jiang (Guo Xiaodong) who escaped him decades previously. So of course that wheelman returns to Kowloon in order to spring his imprisoned pal  Huang (Li Haitao), in order to set up the heist of a large diamond.

They are defined by their jobs and the roles as established by previous films. The enigmatic Jiang is descended straight from Ryan O’Neal in The Driver, whose every press of the accelerator seems to assuage some deep existential dread, while Chan, with his souped up vehicle and late night drag races, is a fugitive from the hyperactive Fast and Furious series – a hot-headed punk over his head. But while the characters are familiar, the chase scenes are not. They are uncannily intimate affairs, always at night under flickering neon lights, and they are paced and fought like duels. Cheang makes much out of dramatic pauses and rests. Jiang is constantly finding holes in the city to rest in, from the back of a truck to the obscured spot in a parking garage. There is a sense of vehicles as an extension of their bodies, no more so when Lo Fung rolls down his window in an effort to hear his adversary more than see him, as the darkening night corrodes his vision. The repeated close-ups of the engine block throbs with the energy of a heartbeat.

It is a thrillingly organic film, in which the lines of a map which Jiang is tracing morphs into the lines of the road, of the car, and of the street. And all of this rather quietly rendered structure  does not diminish the impact of the chases. Using a camera attached  low to the ground,  Cheang and his cameraman capture the stunt-drivers locking horns through the streets of Hong Kong. I only detected CG in one shot, in which a car nearly tips over a cliff. Everything else was, at least in the movie-verse, authentic. Cheang told Edmund Lee at Time Out HK what he was going for:

I’m not exactly a fan of racing movies, but I have fond memories for the racing scenes in several crime thrillers, such as [William Friedkin’s] The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), as well as the likes of Ringo Lam’s Full Alert (1997). When you watch the old movies, you can actually feel that someone is driving the car; when you see The Fast and the Furious movies nowadays, you can’t help but feel that part of their beautiful [action sequences] have been animated. I really want to go back to the human dimension of driving. I want to find out who these drivers are as human beings.

You can sense the characters’ human qualities through their driving styles. Jiang is elusive and fond of trickery in his ancient S13, while Chan favors a more barreling forward damn-the-torpedoes style in the police sedan. Lo Fung is harder to pin down, as he is only given one opportunity to show his driving chops, called back to the wheel after decades of refusal. He prefers a more sensorial style, as indicated when he turns off the AC and lowers the window. But everything can fail, especially when one depends on machines.

For in Motorway crashes have devastating impact, the steel frames of cars as permeable as skin. The more the vehicles are mastered and become extensions of drivers’ bodies, the more vulnerable they become. Every protagonist is either bruised, battered or dead by the end, with Jiang’s rabbit-punches keeping Chan off-guard until a final showdown on a pier, in which both woozy fighters circle each other in a screeching pas de deux. Motorway is a brooding original which turns the manic breathlessness of a car chase into a subtle duel of personalities.


December 29, 2009


After a lengthy hold-out, I’ve galloped into the loving arms of Blu-Ray. It’s the right time to jump in, as the studios are (rather desperately) pushing the format hard, cutting prices across the board. You can pick up a player for around $150, with many library titles on sale for $10 (most new releases are set at $25). Starting in 2010, Warner Brothers will release every new theatrical release exclusively in “Blu-Ray combo packs”, which will contain the high-def disc along with the standard-def DVD (forcing consumers to buy the Blu-Ray and push them to upgrade). With HDTV prices finally starting to come down as well, Blu-Ray is finally a financially feasible option for cash-strapped cinephiles like myself.

I ended up purchasing a PS3 to pair with my Panasonic plasma in order to sate my long-suppressed video-gaming urges, as well as for its stellar Blu-Ray playback and new Netflix streaming capability. I flirted with the idea of an all-region player, as recommended by the folks at DVD Beaver, but wasn’t convinced there were enough region-locked releases to justify it, especially considering that the excellent Masters of Cinema series is region-free, as are all of the Hong Kong releases.  So while I’m missing out on gems like ITV’s The Red Shoes, I console myself with games like Metal Gear Solid, Netflix, and the rush of new domestic releases (Criterion’s forthcoming Days of Heaven and Bigger Than Life Blu-rays are especially tempting).

After dipping into some of the sales (I picked up The Searchers and Robocop on the cheap), I decided to check in on my favorite production company, Milkyway Image. Johnnie To’s stalwart outfit has been churning out inventive genre pieces since 1996, the kind of work Hollywood has forgotten how to make (aside from flukes like Armored). I sampled two of their recent releases on Blu (available at HK retailers like YesAsia).

Soi Cheang’s Accident premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and it’s a sleek paranoid thriller in the vein of Coppola’s The Conversation. The central gimmick has the obsessive-compulsive Brain (Louis Koo) lead a group of assassins (including Milkyway axiom Lam Suet) on murders that are staged to look like accidents. They build elaborate traps for their marks to waltz into, and their hands are clean. It’s the perfect setup for producer Johnnie To’s penchant for displaying process, the small details that build up to a murder, as he also shows off in Vengeance. I’m not familiar with Cheang’s work (he’s known most for his gangster film Dog Bite Dog), but he is adept with the Milkyway house style, which favors underplayed acting, minimal exposition, and a smooth delineation of space.

After Cheang sets up the group’s unerring precision in a bravura Rube Goldberg murder, he starts to expose the paranoia that drives Brain. His first action is to pick up a cigarette butt that “Uncle” (Fung Shui-Fan) leaves at the scene of their crime. He’s determined to erase any trace of their presence. When their next job goes tragically wrong, he becomes convinced it was the result of a conspiracy led by an insurance agent (Richie Ren). He then embarks upon an elaborate wire tapping scheme, moving into a unit underneath Ren’s apartment and listening to his every waking (and napping) moment. He even sketches the floor plan of his nemesis’ apartment on his ceiling.

Cheung , along with screenwriters Szeto Kam-Yuen and Tang Lik-Kei, withhold enough information to keep the truth of the matter ambiguous. Brain is either a canny chess-player – seeing many moves ahead – or an untreated paranoid schizophrenic – creating antagonistic worlds in his strained noggin. Louis Koo is perfect for the role, a blank slate of wiry tension and a football-field sized forehead that could contain multitudes of tortured grey matter. Cheung uses the motif of a solar eclipse to express the obfuscation of his mind’s eye, working multiple variations on the idea until the literally gut-wrenching climax.

Johnnie To’s latest film, Vengeancewas released last week on DVD and Blu-Ray by MegaStar (IFC has the film’s U.S. rights, with no release date as of yet), and it feels like a stand-in for the Le Cercle Rouge remake he never got off the ground. To’s love of Jean-Pierre Melville has never been so close to the surface. His protagonist, the mummified cool of Johnny Hallyday, is named Costello, just like Alain Delon in Le Samourai, and maintains his near-silent devotion to revenge, this time after the slaughter of his daughter’s family. But Johnnie To is also adept at wonderful scenes of hanging around, the interstitial moments between battles that To veins with humor and pathos. He surrounds Hallyday with his stellar repertory crew (Suet, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-tung are the killers Hallyday hires to help him, while Simon Yam is the flamboyant villain), and has them enact their usual honor-among-thieves routine, which I could watch until the end of time. Anthony Wong has perfected a resigned weariness that plays beautifully off of Suet’s overeager child and Lam Ka-tung’s suave clotheshorse.

Set in Macau and starring a French rock star, it continues To’s interest in cross-cultural exchange, and is perhaps a nod to his increased visibility in the Western world. The film mixes English, French, and Cantonese, and the issue of (mis)communication becomes a major theme. This is established early on, when his daughter (Sylvie Testud), unable to speak, uses a French newspaper to get her thoughts across (later there is a bravura shootout set among composted newspapers). Then he has to bridge the language gap with Anthony Wong’s gang, in which he switches to English. The final act of the film charts his communication with himself, as he loses his memory and tries to trigger it again with a series of note-covered Polaroids. The final shoot-out is a brilliant encapsulation of the evolution of this theme, as he chases a target whose facial features he repeatedly forgets. It is a scene of constant self-communication and negotiation, as he checks and re-checks the bodies of the assailants in his way. There is also a minor motif of eye-holes and eclipses, similar to those in Accident, images related to the opening-up and closing-off of sight – just another few layers of meaning to To’s incredibly dense revenge drama. The image on both releases is phenomenal, the shimmering pastel blues of Accident and the deep blacks of Vengeance rendered with depth and incredible sharpness. They have my strongest recommendation.