Stiletto

starstarstarstarhalf

“Pretty good, but needs to get to the…ah, point quicker.”

Two gangsters are having a discussion in a sauna, when they are brutally attacked by Raina (Katic), the former girlfriend of one. The Mexican is almost decapitated; the other, Greek mob boss Virgil Vadalos (Berenger) is gutted, but survives. He vows to track down his ex-squeeze and unleashes his forces to do so. They include the near-psychotic Lee (Biehn), who has just returend from London with an even more insane sidekick, plus dirty cop Beck (Sloan), who owes Vadalos a favour, and is involved in the investigation from the inside. Keeping those aspects separate becomes more difficult, as the waters become increasingly muddied as more bodies show up, murdered with the titular weapon, the Mexican’s colleagues plot their own revenge, and there’s also the tricky matter of several million dollars in cash which has gone missing.

Quite an impressive cast of (admittedly, second-tier talent) assembled here: outside those already mentioned, Kelly Hu, Tom Sizemore, Dominique Swain, James Franco and D.B. Sweeney all meander across the screen. That, actually, is perhaps part of the problem here: it’s a movie that is likely guilty of trying to cram too much in. It feels overstuffed with both plot threads and characters, which leads to some underdevelopment of both, and that’s a shame, as there are more than enough interesting elements in both to hold your attention. Raina’s motivation isn’t revealed until well into the second half, but makes more than sufficient sense, and it’s wise of the makers to establish her bad-ass credentials right at the beginning. The violence to be found here is both startling and brutal – Lee’s fate is certainly one we’ll remember for a while.

However, as noted, the film seems uncertain of its grounding. Thst’s particular true during the middle, when Raina’s lethal force takes a back seat to the kind of criminal shenanigans, betrayal and back-stabbing with which we’re all overly familiar, and which is much less interesting. Debit points are also due for cover art which, as shown below, shows the heroine wielding a gun, definitely not her weapon of choice. I’m going with our pic on the right, as much more accurate. But, all told, this was better than I was expecting, and actually delivers on the spirit of the cover, if not perhaps the specific details.

Dir: Nick Vallelonga
Star: Stana Katic, Paul Sloan, Tom Berenger, Michael Biehn

Cherry Bomb

starstar

“More bomb than cherry.”

Cherry (Julin – yep, that appears to be her surname) is a stripper, whose life takes a turn for the worse when she is assaulted by five customers in a private room at the club where she works. The cops aren’t able to do anything, so she takes the law into her own hands, with the help of her brother (Rodriguez), who accidentally kills one of the perpetrators when he goes to demand help with Cherry’s medical bills – no prizes for guessing how that request goes. As the others realize someone is out to get them, and who that someone ins, they hire Bull (Hackley), a gigantic hitman, to stop Cherry before she gets to them.

It’s clearly attempting to re-create the grindhouse era, but wimps out on most levels – for example, Cherry is a stripper who never shows any significant flesh. That’d perhaps be forgivable, if Julin’s performance hit the required notes elsewhere, but it wobbles uncertainly from giggly schoolgirl, incapable of forming any kind of plan to violated bitch, capable of ramming a vehicle into someone’s head (in probably the film’s most impressive moment). The other performances are similarly shaky, with the possible exception of Manning as the club owner, who captures the necessary tone for his role. Hackley is so shamelessly channeling Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction it goes beyond irritating into amusing – then past that, back into irritating again [Chris wondered if it was a white guy in blackface, it’s so clich├ęd!]. The action is equally as mixed a bag, swerving from well-staged to sloppy, occasionally even within

The overall impact is occasionally effective, with a couple of scenes that deliver the necessary wallop. But too often, it feels half-hearted, like they had a vague interest in resurrecting the grindhouse era, rather than a passion or drive, and it’s certainly all but lacking the “grind.” While I’m all in favour of emphasizing the “revenge” over the “rape” aspects of the story, the latter is so toned-down and muted – the assault itself is barely shown here – that the justification for the former is almost non-existent. That makes it difficult for the audience to get on board, when the ends don’t appear to justify the means.

Wandering Ginza Butterfly

starstar

“More suited for ‘Cuties with Cues’ than this site.”

Nami is sent to jail for killing a Yakuza boss, and when she is released, returns to the Ginza district of Tokyo to live with her uncle, who runs a pool hall. She gets a job as a hostess in a bar, with the help of her new friend Ryuji (Watase), but the quiet life doesn’t last for long, even as she tries to help the widow of the man she killed – whose petition on behalf of Nami is what helped lead to her early release. For the local mob, in the shape of Okada (Nanbara) and his gang, are sniffing around the bar, seeking to take it over. To settle things, Nami offers to take on Okada’s champion at billiards, a challenge the gangster readily accepts, not realizing he has just been hustled, and that Nami is no mean player herself. Can she win – and even if she does, will Okada live up to his side of the bet?

While certainly fitting in to the overall themes of the genre, with a significant emphasis on revenge and its execution, this is another entry which downplays the more exploitative angles in favor of the dramatic elements. Put another way, if you want tits ‘n’ gore, look elsewhere. If, however, you want ten minutes of billiards with your heroine unconvincingly trying to imitate Paul Newman in The Hustler [a film whose poster can be seen lurking in the background during the match], this will be right up your alley. It’s only at the finale that this delivers; with the ever-loyal Ryuji at her side, Nami ploughs into the Yakuza gang’s HQ, to interrupt their group porno viewing, by releasing some of their other body fluids.

While Kaji possesses some undeniable presence, the script doesn’t live up to expectations, meandering off in directions that prove neither necessary nor interesting, and the billiards match – even with its bizarre drug-withdrawal subplot – is a poor substitute for action. The film was (inexplicably) successful enough commercially to lead to a sequel, which includes Sonny Chiba playing a comedic pimp – I sense this is likely not the best use of his talents, and won’t exactly be rushing to include it in this article.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Tsunehiko Watase, Koji Nanbara, Tatsuo Umemiya

The Holding

starstarstarstar

“Hell hath no fury like a mother defending her children.”

Cassie Naylor (Wareing) is struggling to keep her head above water on the farm she’s now running almost single-handed, eight months after her husband vanished. What the locals don’t know is that she buried him in a remote spot on the Derbyshire moors, with the help of part-time farmhand Cooper (Bradley), for reasons not initially clear. The arrival of a transient, Aden (Regan, looking not unlike a rougher version of Gerard Butler), seems like a godsend, and they agree he can work in exchange for food and lodgings. However, it’s not long before Aden’s less-desirable tendencies start to show through. While he’s fiercely loyal – dispatching anyone whom he perceives as a threat – he seems to regard Cassie and her two daughters as “his” family, and seems to know rather too much about them.

Clearly influenced by The Stepfather, this is still its own creature, with Cassie a strong, independent heroine of the first degree, who will do absolutely anything to protect her children, even if one is a Bible-thumper and the other an immensely-irritating teenage brat. Indeed, it’s probably important to note that [here be spoilers, highlight the text if you want to read it] all the women survive, and only men die. How much of this was the input of a woman director – itself, fairly unusual for the genre – is open to discussion. Another big plus is that the film doesn’t rely too much on the stupidity of the main characters, which is a common flaw; their behaviour here is relatively logical, though there were times when the victims did not take an avenue of escape that appeared to be open to them.

The look of the film is impressive, with a lush pastoral feel early on, that eventually turns into a dark, rain-drenched nightmare as things become bloody. However, the main strength are performances which are believable, on both sides of the fence, effectively ramping up the tension as the body-count increases. It builds to a satisfactorily invigorating battle, in which Cassie has exhausted all legitimate hope of rescue and is thrown entirely on to her own tenacity and survival skills. Ellen Ripley would certainly approve, even if here, the monster being opposed for maternal reasons has a human face.

Dir: Susan Jacobson
Star: Kierston Wareing, Vincent Regan, David Bradley, Skye Lourie

Mulan (live-action)

starstarstarstarhalf

“Joan of Arc, without the religion. Or stake.”

Inspired by the same poem as Disney’s much-loved feature, this has the same basic idea – a young woman impersonates a man in order to save her father from being drafted in the army. However, this takes a rather different approach, being much darker in tone, not that’s this is much of a surprise, I guess. It’s also a lot longer in scope, with Mulan (Zhao, whom you may recognize as the heroine/goalkeeper from Shaolin Soccer), rather than fighting a single campaign, becoming a career soldier and rising through the ranks as a result of her bravery in battle, eventually becoming a general, tasked with defending the Wei nation from the villainous Mendu (Hu). He has killed his own father in order to take control, and has united the nomadic tribes of the Rouran, amassing an army of 200,000 to invade Mulan’s home territory. She comes up with a plan to lure him into a trap, but when she is betrayed by a cowardly commander, things look bleak indeed for Mulan and Wentai (Chen), one of the few who know her secret.

Initially, I was rather unconvinced by Zhao who, being in her mid-30s, is a tad old to be playing the dutiful daughter. But given the longer view taken by the movie, the casting makes sense, and she ends up fitting into the role nicely; there’s a steely determination which develops over the course of the film, and by the end, you can see why she has become a commander. That’s one of the themes of the movie: duty, contrasted with the terrible losses war can inflict on a personal level, Mulan being largely powerless to watch as almost all her friends end up dying in battle. “I’ve fought battle after battle,” she says, “Lost one after another of my brothers, I really don’t want to fight any more.” There’s almost a neo-totalitarian implication to the final message, however, which suggests that everyone – even those who have sacrificed everything already – need to put aside their personal interests for the greater good of the state.

There’s a nice balance between the action and emotional aspects, but Zhao doesn’t actually do much in the latter department after the battle which gets her noticed. She’s broken out of army jail to take part, after confessing to stealing a jade pendant, in order to avoid a strip-search [death before dishonour]. After that, she’s more a leader than an actual fighter: heavy is the head that wears the general’s helmet is the moral here, and it’s driven home effectively enough, thanks mostly to Zhao’s solid performance.

Dir: Jingle Ma
Star: Zhao Wei, Chen Kun, Hu Jun, Jaycee Chan