Azumi

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“No matter how much I try to escape, I can’t avoid it… I am forced to kill.”

The moment that I heard this female samurai pic was from the director of Versus, I started drooling uncontrollably. [See the Trash City review for why] And if the end product is a slight disappointment, it is only because it doesn’t quite replicate Versus‘ imaginative splatter. Sure, the body-count is massive – it makes The Bride vs. The Crazy 88’s look like Lilo and Stich – but I wanted, and expected, arterial spray. Lots of arterial spray. However, in every other way, this is excellent.

Azumi (Ueto) is one of ten orphans, raised by a warrior (Harada) for a mission to slay the warlords who have thrown Japan into chaos. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, this won’t be easy. Indeed, at one point, Azumi abandons her samurai ways and tries to be semi-normal, joining the sole survivor of a travelling circus. This doesn’t work out, needless to say, leading to the quote above.

Cutting to the chase; the action is excellent, with several sequences which would be fitting climaxes to any other movie. When you see this one’s finale, you’ll realise why they’re not: Azumi’s master is captured, and an entire town of sword-wielding rogues and assorted scum is in her way, plus villain #1, a rose-wielding psychopath who dresses in white (Odagiri). Settle back, and pass the popcorn. While the swordplay itself is mostly nothing special (save one Very Special decapitation), Kitamura captures it beautifully, the visual highlight being a full circle around two characters – vertically. The sound is also fabulous; you could close your eyes and just listen to the battles.

Especially early on, the pacing is kinda slow (it is a 143-minute movie), but Kitamura’s fabulous sense of style means you’re never bored. The villains, in particular, are all larger-than-life characters and enormous fun to watch – for example the Sajiki Brothers, who attack anyone even faintly resembling their target. Curious to know the budget: I’ve heard both “low” and “high”, without specific figures. Certainly, it looks amazing, every bit the equal of The Last Samurai, though I doubt it cost a fraction of $140m. If any 2004 Hollywood action heroine can match Azumi, I’ll be very, very impressed.

Dir: Ryuhei Kitamura
Stars: Aya Ueto, Yoshio Harada, Joe Odagiri, Masato Ibu

Legion

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“Cheap TVM offers up its secrets before you even see it. Take them.”

Do not read the sleeve before watching this; idiotically, it gives away the whole thing, including stuff revealed in the last ten minutes. Also: yes, it is the Rick Springfield: Jesse’s Girl, Human Touch, and…er, that’s about it, in the most unexpected reappearance of an 80’s pop icon since a bloke from Bros turned up in Blade II. With these issues out of the way, the movie itself is set in the future, after six years of a war has led to stalemate. Agatha Doyle (Ferrell) leads a Dirty Dozen-ish group of criminal soldiers with nothing to lose on a mission to capture an enemy base. That part’s easy, as there’s no-one around – except for a pile of corpses. However, while they wait for reinforcements, someone/thing starts ripping our her troops’ throats.

Y’know, I always thought “legion” meant more than one. Not in this, which looks as if it were made for the Sci-Fi channel; just the one enemy, and most of the time all you see is his POV, looking like that of the raptors in Pitch Black. There’s much wandering around corridors, as numbers get whittled down to the inevitable survivors (identities also given away by the sleeve). It’s a minor shame, as the team are an amusing bunch of cliches, led by Corey Feldman as a computer hacker; the doctor (Audie England) was also entertaining, with loony lines such as, “The Angel of Death is my superior officer.” Otherwise, this gets less entertaining as it goes on, and while Farrell makes a good first impression, she’s swiftly reduced to bickering with her (steadily declining) force. On the whole, best cancel my first statement in this review: read the sleeve, and save yourself 95 minutes.

Dir: Jon Hess
Star: Terry Farrell, Parker Stevenson, Corey Feldman, Rick Springfield

Hooded Angels

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“Clumsy plotting damages interesting idea and decent acting.”

hoodedangelsAt the end of the Civil War, marauding gangs rage through Texas, raping and killing. The victims of one such raid fight back; three years later, they have become the Hooded Angels, a notorious and feared group of bank robbers led by Hannah (Stander). But on their tail is Wes (Johansson), whose father was an innocent victim in their original battle. He and his friends catch up with the women in a town where they’re plotting their next raid and, with painful inevitably, love blossoms between Wes and Hannah.

This mixes the highly-effective, and the embarrassingly crass and badly-written. The “three years later” comes as a surprise; worse still is the shock when you find out one character is another’s daughter. Credibility explodes entirely when Wes and Hannah go at it like knives, immediately after she reveals she killed his father, and isn’t sorry in the slightest. On the other hand, this is a Western without villains; both sides are portrayed with sympathy, yet without soft-pedalling the brutality, in particular when the women ambush a posse that is following them.

A clear leader in that category is Ellie, an insecure, psychotic lesbian, beautifully portrayed by Venter, avoiding the obvious cliches. Amanda Donohoe, another member of the gang, also turns in a good performance. Stander and Johansson are less effective: one scene will work, while the next will seem stiff as a board. Could certainly have been much better, yet in the end – at least, until the end, which struggles through gymnastic convolutions in order to make Wes come out clean – this has enough memorable moments to justify its existence.

Dir: Paul Thomas
Star: Chantell Stander, Paul Johansson, Juliana Venter, Amanda Donohoe