The Tournament (2009)

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“The exotic life of an assassin is all glamour and exotic places, e.g. all-expenses trips to Middlesbrough.”

Every seven years, thirty of the world’s greatest assassins gather together for a battle. The winner gets $10 million, while bettors view the action remotely and gamble on the duels, face-offs and bloodbaths which ensue. Each assassin has a tracker implanted, and has a scanner where they can see the location of any other contestants nearby. This time, it’s in Middlesbrough, England, with reigning champion Joshua Harlow (Rhames) returning after he it told the murderer of his wife will be taking part. One of the 30 dumps their tracker into an alcoholic priest (Carlyle), who is “surprised”, shall we say, to become the target for the other 29. Lai Lai Zhen (Hu) realizes he’s an innocent, and vows to protect him, while also trying to win the competition.

The concept is, of course, completely implausible, and if you can’t drive a bus and a tanker through holes in the plot, you’re not trying. There are far too many assassins, too: of the 30 listed, probably no more than half a dozen get any lines, so they’d have been better off shrinking the number and giving them actual personalities. What results is basically “kill porn”: a massive number of deaths, some impressive, a couple genuinely spectacular, but possessing no emotional content or resonance whatsoever. That said, this is by no means unentertaining. Hu (I have consciously got to stop myself from calling her “Cindy-Lou”) seems to be carving a niche for herself as a low-rent version of Lucy Liu, and the action here is decent, and undeniably copious.

It all builds to a massive chase on a motorway, which sees the bus driven by the priest, being chased by the tanker driven by Harlow, while Zhen fights off the parkour guy from Casino Royale, in, on and around the bus. Mann has clearly been watching all the right movies, and if he needs a trailer reel for a career as a second-unit director, then he should just pop the DVD in and leave the room for 90 minutes. The writers, on the other hand… It really took three of them to come up with this complete nonsense? What did they do with the rest of the beer-mat?

Dir: Scott Mann
Star: Kelly Hu, Robert Carlyle, Liam Cunningham, Ving Rhames

Hanna trailer

Might Sucker Punch have some competition on the Hollywood action-heroine front this year? Here’s the trailer for Hanna, which sees Saoirse Ronan in the title role, raised as a lethal killing machine by her soldier father (Eric Bana). After his former boss (Cate Blanchett) tracks him down, Hanna is captured, but escapes and “journeys stealthily across Europe while eluding agents dispatched after her.” Though director Joe (Atonement) Wright said, “I don’t think I would [describe it as an action movie]. It’s a fairy tale, action movie, drama…. It’s a really difficult movie to describe and I think it’s gonna be quite difficult for the marketing department to market.” Potentially interesting. Here’s the trailer: release is currently scheduled for April 8.

À l’interieur (Inside)

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“Some women will stop at nothing to have a baby. Whether it’s theirs or not.”

The ‘final girl’ is a well-worn concept in horror: the last survivor, typically the “good” girl, finally fights back against the assailant in the movie’s climax. It is isn’t normally enough to merit inclusion here, since it’s usually a relatively minor aspect of the film. Here, however, not only is it just about the entire film, the main theme – motherhood and the instincts it arouses – is entirely feminine. Aliens, and Ripley’s surrogate parenting of Newt, would be another example. And it’s also a rarity in the horror genre for both protagonist and antagonist to be female, but the threat here certainly deserves to be up there with Freddy, Michael, Jason and their cousins.

The action here does take place on a much smaller-scale, with the vast majority occurring in a semi-remote house. Sarah (Paradis – her older sister is Johnny Depp’s other half) is left alone on Christmas Eve, her husband having been killed a few months previously in a car accident. She’s about to give birth, but is more depressed by her current situation than delighted. There’s a knock on the door from a mysterious woman (Dalle); Sarah, suspicious, does not let her in, but it seems the woman knows Sarah and her history. The police are called but find no trace and leave. Later that night, the woman returns, and it’s soon clear she will go to – bold, underline please – any lengths to take Sarah’s baby.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is hardcore horror of the most unrelenting sort, completely unsuitable for those of a nervous disposition, and particularly pregnant women. In the 1980’s, Dalle was a sexpot, for her role in Betty Blue, but you can flush all memory of that down the toilet: here, she has a feral, near-demonic intensity, and god help anyone who is unfortunate enough to get in her way. Particularly the men, who are disposed of with complete dispassion and brutality; as the film goes on, her relationship with Sarah becomes complex, and more a case of, “I’m taking your baby, and we can do this the hard way or… Well, really, that’s all there is. Sorry.” Friends, family, even an entire patrol of cops – no-one can help Sarah. She’s completely on her own, and her fate is entirely in her own hands.

Somewhat inspired by the 2006 case of Tiffany Hall, who removed a foetus from her friend’s womb with scissors, the film escalates from a quiet opening, through tension, before exploding in a literal tidal-wave of gore, as the protagonist and antagonist battle each other. My sole complaint is a couple of incidents in the final act that seem to stretch belief, e.g. a character conveniently rising from the dead for another assault, though it’s a common complaint in this area. Otherwise, even though we are jaded fans of both genres covered here, this one will stick with us for a long time, and cements France’s place at the forefront of horror.

Dir: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Star: Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle

The Millennium Trilogy

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I think we know the exact moment we fell in love with the character of Lisbeth Salander, the central character both in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and the Swedish films based on the books. It would be the scene in the first film where she goes back to see the man who had been sexually abusing her. Little did he know, on her last visit, she had recorded the whole event. This time, she knocks him out, ties her assailant up, forces him to watch the video and then engages in a spot of amateur tattoo work, leaving him with “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist” etched permanently across his torso. Yeah. You go, girl.

Salander is not your typical action heroine: she’s 5’4″, weighs maybe 90 lbs dripping wet, and anti-social to a degree that may be pathological. But she possesses a mind like a steel-trap, impressive computer hacking skills, a steely resolve and a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who abuses women [the Swedish title of the first book and film translates as “Men Who Hate Women”, and misogyny is something of a theme throughout the trilogy]. This was demonstrated very early: at the age of twelve, and fed up of seeing her father hurt her mother, she doused him in petrol and set him on fire. Like I said: “zero-tolerance”.

We first meet Lisbeth in Dragon Tattoo, using her skills to conduct surveillance on Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist), a journalist who has just lost a libel case and is facing prison as a result. As a result of her report, Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to investigate the disappearance, forty years previously, of his niece Harriet, who was also Blomkvist’s babysitter. It has been nagging at Vanger ever since, and he feels his time is running out to find the truth. Reviewing the evidence, Blomkvist finds names and numbers in Harriet’s bible, but it’s Lisbeth, helping ‘remotely’, who cracks the code, revealing them to be verses from Leviticus about punishing sinners. The two gradually peel away the years to reveal the truth, a serial-killer whose crimes go back to just after the war – a truth that proves very uncomfortable for some in the Vanger family.

To some extent, Lisbeth is secondary to that plot, but she also has her own concerns to deal with. After the incident involving her father, she spent most of her youth under psychiatric observation. Even after release, she is still effectively ‘on probation’, under the control of various court-appointed guardians. The latest, a lawyer named Bjurman (Andersson) is a truly slimy jerk, who abuses his position to extract sexual favours from Lisbeth. After all, she’s just a little girl – what could she possibly do? See the opening paragraph for specifics there, if you’d forgotten.

Dir: Niels Arden Oplev
Star: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson

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The Girl Who Played with Fire

It’s in the second film, Fire, that Lisbeth really comes into her own. After a period traveling the world, she returns to Sweden, and pays a visit to Bjurman, who has been looking into tattoo removal – she warns him off doing that, threatening him with his own gun. However, she leaves the gun behind, and Bjurman then uses it to frame Lisbeth for the murder of two crusading journalists, who were working on a story exposing sex traffickers, and those using the women they provide, for Blomkvist’s magazine. With both the police, and the real perpetrators – the criminal gang who control the traffic – trying to track her down, Lisbeth is forced underground. Fortunately, Blomkvist is able to help, as Lisbeth turns the table and goes after the shadowy “Zala” who leads the crime syndicate.

There’s a number of very interesting aspects to the film, such as how Blomkvist and Salander don’t meet until the final scene – I can’t think of many other film where the two central protagonists do that [Heat comes close]. But it’s most memorable for the unstoppable force which Salander has become, utterly fearless, whether it’s taking on a pair of bikers or going into the heart of enemy territory. Even when you think it’s all over for her, she crawls her way back in a way which would make The Bride applaud. It’s curious, yet somehow entirely fitting, to see her as an updated, adult version of another Scandinavian literary and cinematic icon: Pippi Longstocking. Except, to steal a line from Romy and Michelle, she’s like a Pippi who smokes and says “shit” a lot.

Salander’s personality is abrasive, and she clearly has difficulty relating to people or showing them anything even approximating affection: the closest she gets is a bewildered silence. I think the only time we saw her give a genuine smile was in the third film, when she received news that someone she hated had been killed. And yet, people like Blomkvist warm to Lisbeth, initially pitying the circumstances in which she finds herself, yet eventually seeing the human beneath the multiple layers of defensive ice. Fiercely loyal to her (very few, admittedly) friends, and as lethal as a boxful of well-shaken, peeved rattlesnakes to her enemies, the second film proves her to be smart, and as quick with her fists as her brain.

Dir: Daniel Alfredson
Star: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Yasmine Garbi, Paolo Roberto

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

The third film, like the second, has Blomkvist and Salander apart for almost the entire movie; they meet only right at the end, in a way which is as low-key and unobtrusive as an Ikea coffee-table, yet somehow feels entirely appropriate. This time, their separation is because Salanger is in custody for attempted murder, following the events at the end of Fire. The secret group in authority, whose activities are in danger of being exposed, intend to avoid the embarrassment of a trial by getting Salander certified as insane, so she can be locked up as mentally incompetent. This brings her back to confront Dr. Peter Teleborian (Ahlbom), the man in charge of the institute where Lisbeth spent two years. However, Blomkvist asks his lawyer sister, Annika (Hallin), to take up the case. Can they reveal the truth before Lisbeth is committed to Teleborian’s sinister care one more?

While undeniably a good end to the trilogy, tying up the loose ends and dishing out justice in a solid, satisfying way, it seems a shame to have Lisbeth locked up for 95% of the film. This is much more a purely-investigative thriller than the first two, which were more action-oriented. Here, there’s a fight in a restaurant for Blomkvist, and Salander’s only action is an admittedly impressive battle in a warehouse against an unstoppable force. Much as at the end of the first movie, she doesn’t actually kill the opponent herself, though here, that would be more due to a lack of ammunition for her impromptu weapon. While a nice final act by which to remember Salander, it’s not representative of her more passive role in this entry.

The trilogy of books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, though sadly, Larsson didn’t see their success, as he died in 2004, before they were published. The success of the films, which have grossed a total of more than $210 million worldwide – a phenomenal sum for any non-English language series – has led to the inevitable Hollywood remake. Pause for eye-rolling here… Except, the American Tattoo does have David Fincher at the helm, so I’ll wait until seeing it – while, naturally, reserving the right to administer a good kicking in due course. The first pictures of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (right), don’t exactly inspire confidence, as she looks more like some kind of coked-up fetish supermodel than anything else. Daniel Craig plays the role of Blomkvist, which would seem to make him a bit more glamourous too.

I guess we’ll see, but Fincher and Mara will certainly have their work cut out. I can’t help thinking of the lukewarm remake of another, highly-lauded Scandinavian movie, Let the Right One In, and the overall history of such things is not cause for optimism. But even in a worst case scenario, we’ll still have the books and Noomi Rapace’s steel-cold portrayal. Wikipedia says that when Larsson was 15 years old, “he witnessed the gang rape of a girl, which led to his lifelong abhorrence of violence and abuse against women. The author never forgave himself for failing to help the girl, whose name was Lisbeth,” even though much of his life was spent fighting oppression, in various forms. But with his creation of a new style of heroine, one appropriate for the 21st century, Larsson has, unwittingly, perhaps achieved redemption.

Dir: Daniel Alfredson
Star: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Annika Hallin, Anders Ahlbom

Onechanbara: Vortex

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“…and now, everything bad about a movie based on a video game.”

If the original film was a pleasant surprise, being shallow entertainment and mayhem of the most fluffy kind, the sequel is a real disappointment. It doesn’t help that it behaves entirely as if the first movie hadn’t happen at all. Different director, different cast, and the story here fails to acknowledge anything that happened previously, dead people being resurrected with no explanation. Not that some of this makes all that much difference – one Japanese actress swinging a sword in a fur-trimmed bikini and cowboy-hat, is much the same as another. But the story is laid out here with a horrific lack of clarity that makes it perhaps the most confusing zombie film of all time. Yeah: it takes a special kind of talent to screw up “Dead come back, hungry, so we have to kill them.” Instead of focusing on essentials, the movie lobs in a bunch of tedious guff about Himiko, a new threat, who is seeking to use the blood of Aya and her sister to… mumble something mumble. If they ever explained it clearly, by that stage, I’d lost interest.

However, far and away the film’s biggest single mis-step is the director’s total obsession with splashing digital blood on the lens. Once or twice, it can be cute, in a ‘breaking the fourth wall’ kinda way. But here, every slice leads to you having to peer through a red fog for a bit. It gets old after about five minutes, and after 10, you’re wishing desperately for a pair of digital windscreen-wipers. Rarely has a visual trick been so badly mis-applied, through monstrous over-use. The only thing keeping the movie going is the basic concept, but the film proves that, yes, even with a film about a bikini-clad zombie-slayer, it is possible to go badly wrong. Chris may have snorted during the original, but only once: for the pseudo-sequel, it felt like the living-room had been invaded by a herd of buffalo, and I am largely with the derision being expressed. If they ever make a third, I’m only interested if the original director, etc. come back.

Dir: Tsuyoshi Shoji
Star: Chika Arakawa, Kumi Imura, Rika Kawamura, Akari Ozawa

Onechanbara: Zombie Bikini Squad

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“Because nothing says post-apocalyptic zombie killer like a maribou-trimmed bikini and a cowboy hat.”

The Japanese title Onechanbara [variously Oneechanbara], is a portmanteau word, combining “onee-chan”, which means “big sister”, and “chanbara”, the term for sword-fighting movies. But, since this aspect would be lost on a Western audience, who can blame US distributors Tokyo Shock for adding the helpful subtitle, “Zombie Bikini Squad”. Y’know, in case the sleeve left doubts in this area. It’s based on a very popular series of Japanese video games, which consists of the heroines, in a variety of costumes, slicing and dicing their way through an apparently endless line of the living dead. With admirable faithfulness to the source material, the movie also consists of the heroines, in a variety of costumes, slicing and dicing their way through an apparently endless line of the living dead.

There’s Aya (Otugoro), the stoic sword-wielding one seen on the poster, and Reiko (Hashimoto), the leather-clad one with the infinite-ammo shotgun. Along with fat sidekick Katsuji (Waki), they’re looking for Aya’s sister, Saki – and also Dr. Sugita (Suwa), the mad scientist responsible for the zombie outbreak which has swept the world, setting sister nibbling on brother, daughter on mother, etc. On the way to their goal, they meet other survivors, a zombie version of GoGo Yubari from Kill Bill, and several million gallons of digital blood, including a good chunk sprayed onto the camera lens. Now, I’ve never played the game at all, so can only assume everything makes perfect sense in that universe. Still, as adaptations go, this seems to capture the inherent spirit of mindless slaughter admirably, with Aya’s power-up the most devastating video-game weapon since the Defender smart bomb. I just dated myself horribly, didn’t I?

Anyway. Is it any good? Not by objective standards, no. But it is a hell of a lot of fun, soundly kicking the ass of the last two Resident Evil movies there. While the characterization is, of necessity, composed of broad strokes, that’s forgivable, and it touches all the necessary zombie bases e.g. a character who gets nibbled and has to be put down as a result. An escalating series of encounters helps provide copious action, and despite the clear CGI, this is well-staged and edited, with the actresses doing a more than credible job. Besides, Chris’s snort of disbelief when Aya threw off her cloak to reveal the fur-trimmed bikini was priceless.

Dir: Yohei Fukuda
Star: Eri Otoguro, Tomohiro Waki, Taro Suwa, Manami Hashimoto

Dirty Weekend

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“This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and decided she’d had enough.”

So opens this rare example of British grindhouse. We don’t generally do that genre – it’s just not us, all that violence. But there are odd exceptions, and this would be one. It’s the story of Bella (Williams), who relocates from London to the genteel seaside town of Brighton after splitting up with her boyfriend. However, her flat is overlooked by a window belonging to Tim (Sewell); he begins a series of increasingly-vile phone-calls to Bella, who is terrified at what might happen. A chance encounter with an Iranian clairvoyant (Ian Richardson – yeah, about that…) changes her ‘from a lamb to a butcher’, and she visits Tim in the middle of the night, smashing his head in with a hammer. Galvanized by this, Bella moves on to further “sanitation”, cleaning the not-so mean Brighton streets of other male scum. Meanwhile, a serial killer who preys on young women is gradually moving towards her location.

From the director of the controversial Death Wish, it’s as if Winner said, “Hah! You though that was bad? I’m going to make the heroine female and turn it into a war of the sexes, with every man a sleazy caricature. And it’ll include the Man from UNCLE as a perverted dentist!” It certainly turns your typical British film conceits upside-down, yet still retains that undeniable character: when Bella first sees Tim spying on her, she simply draws the curtains. Her transformation from mouse into avenging angel is impressively put-together, and no doubt Winner was influenced by Ms. 45, with Bella pulling on her stockings and acting out a gun-battle.

But the problem in this case is, Bella’s transformation doesn’t make a difference. In Ms. 45, the interesting moral dilemma was, that our initial sympathy for the central character proved misplaced, as she moved towards killing innocent men. Here, it’s just an ongoing series of repugnant, shallow stereotypes, and attempts to give them depth e.g. with McCallum, are a miserable failure. [Amusingly, one of the thugs she takes out in an alley would go on to greater things: Sean Pertwee has become a genre mainstay, in the likes of Dog Soldiers and Doomsday. Another, Christopher Ryan, was Mike in The Young Ones and has since carved a niche playing Sontarans in Doctor Who!] The subplot with the approaching serial-killer is a complete mis-fire too, and after achieving potential cult-classic level in the middle, it falls short. Still, it’s better than you might think, and is certainly one of a kind.

Dir: Michael Winner
Star: Lia Williams, Rufus Sewell, David McCallum, Michael Cule