Heroic Trio

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I usually start watching this in a sense of disbelief, since it’s certainly not the most immediately convincing of movies. However, there’s a point near the middle which has in quick succession an amazing action sequence and two revelations, one touching, one tragic, and I realise that I am, yet again, utterly buying into the characters, storyline and setting. Disbelief simply ceases to be an option, and by the end, I know why this is among my all-time favourites, not just in the action heroine genre, but among all cinema.

While you can’t pin this down into any genre, it’s probably the intensity which carries the film. No-one does anything in half measures, be it love, hate, kidnap babies or eat their own severed fingers. The film captures the comic-book at its most primordial: good vs. evil, told in bold strokes and capital letters. SHAZAMM! “Evil”, in this case, is a demonic eunuch – looks male, sounds female – who is collecting baby boys whose horoscopes have them destined to be emperors, in order to rule and, er…the usual bad guy stuff. He is assisted by Invisible Girl (Yeoh), whom he has brainwashed into stealing an invisibility cloak from her inventor husband. It doesn’t work in sunlight, however, which is the only thing stopping our villain from executing his plan.

For the forces of good, we have Wonder Woman (Mui), a policeman’s wife with a secret identity, and Thief Catcher (Cheung), a bounty-huntress who gets involved after she accidentally kills a baby while trying to lure the kidnapper out. She and Invisible Girl were childhood pals, and also knows that the three must join forces to have a chance of stopping the Big Bad. The casting is perfect: Cheung the perky optimist, Yeoh the tormented control victim, and Mui the calm and quiet wife with a secret. [There are suggestions the three represent China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – which is which, I leave up to you] Credit is also due to the rest of the cast, notably Wong as the wordless evil henchman, with a taste for self-cannibalism, small birds and a fatal flying guillotine.

The action, choreographed by Chinese Ghost Story director Ching Siu-Tung is also spot on, though one suspect doubles were used for chunks. Particularly at the finale, there are times when the effects do over-reach themselves, and a little less ambition might have been wise. But the fact that everyone takes it completely seriously helps a great deal, though there are still question-marks over the plot: are the baby hostages safely rescued or not? At one point, Thief Catcher chucks a few sticks of dynamite into the villain’s nursery, saying the infants are hopelessly corrupt – not something you’ll see in any Hollywood movie! But at the end, the TV shows parents who look rather happier than you’d expect if they were being handed a plastic bag full of bits.

Still, it’s not often a film manages to run the entire gamut of emotions. Inside 87 minutes, you get laughter, tears, moments both “awww” and “eugh – gross!” (that’ll be Anthony Wong), thrills, chills and enough flamboyant style to power several graphic novels. It wasn’t that big a hit at home, taking less than HK$10 million at the box-office (in comparison, the biggest Hong Kong film of 1993, Stephen Chow’s Flirting Scholar, took over HK$40m), but its cult status in the West is entirely justified. Be sure to avoid the horrific dubbed version though – indeed, be sure to avoid the horrific trailer too.

Dir: Johnnie To
Stars: Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Wong

Underworld

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“Vampires and Werewolves and PVC, oh my!”

The day before this opened, we watched a “documentary” on AMC, entitled Fang vs. Fiction: The Real Underworld of Vampires and Werewolves. Quotes used advisedly, as they must be when the program interviewed someone who said he was a werewolf. Regrettably, despite our yelling at the TV, he refused to transform on camera, claiming it was too taxing. Wuss. What it did demonstrate was that the old stereotypes are alive and well – or at least undead and well. And so it is with Underworld: the vampires all dress in black, and mope around a mansion like 18th-century slackers. Not what I’d be doing if I was an immortal. Which is probably why I amn’t.

A bit of an exception is Selene (Beckinsale), a “death dealer”, part of a team of vampires who go out and hunt down werewolves – the two races have been at war for the past fourteen centuries. When she discovers a party of lycanthropes following a human, Michael Corvin (Speedman), she realises something is up, and uncovers a plot to create a vamp-wolf hybrid. She awakens her mentor, Viktor (Nighy) from his slumber 100 years too soon, which brings down the wrath of clan leader Kraven (Broly), who is ‘suspicious’ in more ways than one. Add her growing feelings for Corvin, and life is going to be kinda complex for Selene.

There’s a lot to admire about this film. Beckinsale is great, and the look of the film far surpasses what you’d expect from the budget ($20m) – it’s filmed in an almost monochrome way, and this makes sense, given it takes place almost entirely at night. The script holds together elements which feel supernatural, with a healthy dose of science: no garlic, no holy water, and no crosses here, but daylight and silver still do the job, however.

 What doesn’t work, on any level, is the Selene-Corvin relationship, which is never given any reason to blossom as it does. Worse, still, though the film is told largely from Selene’s point of view, at the end, it’s Corvin who has to battle against The Big Bad [and I’d best not say who that is; the film takes delight in pulling the carpet out from under the viewer]. Sure, Selene gets to deliver the coup de grace – and impressively so – but reducing the heroine to someone left holding her man’s coat, is mostly why this one doesn’t get our seal of approal. Making it even more embarrassing, by this stage, the hero looks like a blue version of the Incredible Hulk.

And that’s a shame, since the first half in particular is a joy to behold. It hits the ground running, with a subway shootout that will likely leave your popcorn quietly forgotten in your lap, and Selene’s independent and feisty streak is swiftly established, rapidly winning us over. Also worthy of praise is Nighy, who exudes exactly the sort of aristocratic grumpiness you’d expect from an immortal being who has just been shaken roughly awake. Neither Speedman nor Broly make any impression at all – the former is perhaps more forgivable (he’s a mere human, after all), but you’d expect a vampire leader to ooze charisma and personality. Or at least have one…

The most obvious influences are Blade 2 – not least in the Eastern European setting (for the dark streets of Prague, read the dark streets of Budapest; both are now overused, we need to discover a new continent or something) – and The Matrix, with Beckinsale dressing like Carrie-Anne Moss on her way to Goth-Industrial Nite. Plenty of slow-mo and wirework enhance the feeling that this is a particularly murky corner of the Wachowski Brothers world.

There are some plot points which are never quite explained. At one point, Selene hides Corvin in a safe house, which then mysteriously comes under attack from the lycanthropes. How did they know? Why the werewolves don’t take advantage of the daylight, and avoid moving around at night when the vampires are about? It probably also gets rather too embroiled in creating an entire society and culture for the vampires, explaining stuff not necessary to a 90-minute movie – that’s why it’s actually a 121-minute movie.

And, some lawyers believe, not an original one. Sony are being sued by game makers White Wolf, who allege 60 points of copyright infringement with their games. Personally, this sounds like a cheap publicity ploy, but to add to the tension, Beckinsale left the father of her child, Michael Sheen, who plays the head of the werewolves, and is now shacked up with the film’s director, Len Wiseman. Bet that made for a cheerful wrap party. Overall, this is disappointing – however, only slightly so, and for most of the movie, it’ll provide plenty to keep movie-goers with horror/action tendencies entertained. And we also got to see the trailer for Kill Bill and the sublime teaser for Resident Evil: Apocalypse (not what it appears at first!) – as female action heroine sessions go, a pretty good day’s work.

[A lot of people seem to come here looking for info on the weapons Beckinsale used in the film. From what I’ve been told, she used a range of guns, including a Walther P99 9mm and the Beretta 92FS and/or 93R’s. Hope this helps! :-)]

Dir: Len Wiseman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy

Ultraviolet

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“U’s the boss?”

By my reckoning, that’s now five straight big-budget action-heroine pics in a row not to be screened for critics: in addition to these two, add Domino, Aeon Flux and Bloodrayne. Yet this is, like the others, no real disaster: indeed, this is a luridly visual, CGI-overkill of a movie, which unfolds exactly like the comic-books used to striking effect in the opening credits, and wears its HK action (among other) influences on its sleeve.

Of course, it probably helps that we are big fans of Equilibrium, Wimmer’s previous SF-action flick, which achieved a cult following for its sleek style and innovative “gun kata”, a scientific martial-art designed to maximize both the efficiency and survival of its practitioners. Ultraviolet could be set in a parallel universe to that, where a disease has turned some of humankind into vampires, or “hemophages” as they’re called here. The rulers, led by Daxus (Chinlund), have developed a genocidal bioweapon, which Violet (Jovovich) has been tasked by her colleagues in the vampire resistance to steal or destroy. Only, to her shock, it turns out to be a child (Bright), which brings out her maternal instincts, even as both Daxus and her former allies now seek to destroy her.

As with Resident Evil, the main asset is Jovovich, who projects just the right mix of chic bad-ass – her belly-button gets so much screen time, it deserved its own credit – with wardrobe and hair changing colour in synch with her mood [and, I believe, it’s far more likely nanotech will be used for this kind of thing than, say, curing cancer] When her co-vampires prepare to take her on, pointing out they’re just as fast and strong as she is, her response is, “Yeah, but are you as pissed-off as I am?”. It’s hard to imagine any other actress who’d come out with such a cheesy line and get away with it.

Indeed, much of the film is similarly-targeted: her ability to drive her bike up and down the walls of skyscrapers is dismissed with a one-line reference to a “gravity leveller”. What? Exactly. This airy dismissal is the film’s way of telling you it isn’t going to bother explaining everything, and you’d better deal with it. In that way, it is perhaps more like Aeon Flux than Aeon Flux actually was, and the body-count is similarly hefty to the original MTV shorts. However, the PG-13 certificate leaves it all but bloodless, giving the battles about as much sense of danger as a video game. And, oddly, every shot of Jovovich appears to be in soft-focus, for no apparent reason.

Otherwise, however, the action is excellent, CGI enhancing the impact of the fights. There is a certain sameness, it must be admitted – Violet faces multiple opponents and kicks their arses from here to next week – but Wimmer takes this basic theme and runs enough variations on it that it doesn’t become boring. Visually, it is hard to work out where the sets stop and the plentiful effects work begins (to some extent, that’s true of the supporting cast as well, who don’t have really have much to do, and may be avatars). Either way, it looks fairly good, given the budget: as noted, it isn’t going for photorealism, though the motorcycle chase did look more like an Xbox game. But even little things like disposable mobile phones, indicate genuine thought has gone into the edges. Perhaps more so than the plot, truth be told.

However, if you’re looking for a cool, entertaining flick, this is the best action heroine to come down the pipe since…well, probably the last Milla Jovovich film. While studio interference may have hampered Wimmer’s creative vision (half an hour is rumoured to have been cut out – here’s hoping for an uncut DVD), it’s certainly not deserving of the 8% fresh score at rottentomatoes.com: as previously mentioned here, hell hath no fury like critics shorn of their free screenings. And in contrast, after 2200 ratings in the IMDB, 25.6% of voters gave it 8+ out of 10, so don’t just take my word for it. I’ll close with some comments from other, brave, reviewers who “got” it like I did – albeit partly to prove my enjoyment of this was not just a psychotic episode…

Peter Sobczynski: “The pretenders will bitch about ridiculous and over-the-top while decrying it as mind-numbing junk while the real film fans – those who realize that the line between trash and art is not as large or as distinct as some would have you think – will relish it for those very same qualities.” Kushmeer Farakhan: “Probably the first great Popcorn movie of the year. It’s not brainless and it’s not highbrow, it merely is what it is. A really fun action movie.” Brian Gallagher: “If you want some insanely innovative action, with a futuristic twist, Ultraviolet is right up your bullet-dodging alley.”

Dir: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Milla Jovovich, Cameron Bright, Nick Chinlund, William Fichtner

Thelma & Louise

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“Two Bitches in a Car.”

But to quote one character in the movie, “Bitches from hell“… :-) Guess a spoiler alert is needed, though I suspect 90% of readers know how this ends. Better safe than sorry though. That said, it’s possible to pinpoint precisely the pivotal moment in Thelma and Louise. A thug is raping Thelma (Davis) in the parking lot of a bar. Louise (Sarandon) comes out, sees the assault, and puts a gun to the attacker’s head. The man freezes, and Thelma wriggles away. But when he tells Louise to “Suck my cock!”, she guns him down anyway.

It’s a shocking climax to a highly disturbing scene. Writer Callie Khouri made a very conscious decision for the ‘victim’ – quotes used advisedly – not to be a threat when he dies, and it leaves the viewer with really only two options. Lose empathy for a character capable of such a crime; or, somehow, accept that it’s okay to shoot someone for what they say. [Rumblings of a previous incident in Texas are hardly a defence] To reverse things, any movie where the hero gunned down a mouthy woman would not, I feel, get an Oscar for Best Original Script, or be described as “empowering”.

This is brave, but seems designed to fit her agenda better than the needs of the audience. Indeed, much the same could be said of the whole script, which can be summarised in four words: all men are bastards. The problem is, cliches are cliches, regardless of what sex they are. Every man is reduced to a crude stereotype – mostly petulant boys – even Harvey Keitel’s stoic cop (with an Arkansas accent this Brit knew was lame) demands T&L do things his way. On the other hand, the script goes out of its way to ensure every woman is portrayed sympathetically, down to the truckstop waitress.

It becomes like having Andrea Dworkin yelling in your face for two hours, yet the film’s moral is that if women empower themselves, death inevitably results. Khouri seems to be saying, “You can only beat the system by suicide,” while the patriarchy watches from behind its sunglasses and firearms. We win, guys – now, let’s go back to our Bud and football, while the little ladies make us dinner. With such confused writing, little wonder one studio executive’s opinion, as given to Ridley Scott, was the quote headlining this article. Khouri, meanwhile, largely vanished until 2002’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. However, if you need proof that a mediocre script can be salvaged by acting and directing, this is it. Between them, Davis, Sarandon and Scott (plus cinematographer Adrian Biddle) bring incredible depth to the characters and their story. No further proof is needed than to contemplate some of the other pairings who were mooted for the film: Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer or, god help us, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.

I hadn’t seen this since its original release over a decade ago. At the time, I remember being more impressed by Davis’ performance; now, my opinion has changed, and Sarandon comes across better. This is partly because Thelma is such a dumb broad, who behaviour is initially more like that of a hormone-crazed teenager. Within hours of nearly being raped – hey, you go line-dancing, whaddya expect? – she’s virtually sliding off the car seat when she sees cowboy JD (Pitt, though the role almost went to another then-unknown: George Clooney). She knows he’s a criminal, yet leaves six grand on the bedside table for him to steal. Oops! Silly Thelma!

600full-thelma-and-louise-screenshotIt’s impossible to blame her for long, however, and the character development is fascinating. She starts the subordinate, but it’s Thelma who robs the convenience store to fund their journey to Mexico (a great place to escape male oppression…), locks a whimpering cop in the trunk of his car, and suggests they should die rather than tamely accept capture. While Louise initially seems to be the stronger, the cracks begin to show before long, not least in her near-hysterical refusal to enter Texas, regardless of the resulting detour.

These are two fabulous portrayals – unlike Khouri, fully deserving their Oscar nominations (the statue went to Jodie Foster for Silence of the Lambs) – which salvage potentially laughable moments with convincing emotion that blows away the script deficiencies. And in contrast to the grim ugliness of their predicament is the luminous postcard photography of mythic America, in the shape of oil-wells, ruler-straight roads, pylons and buttes, on their way to that quintessential American location, the Grand Canyon. [Actually Utah’s Deadhorse Point]

Certainly, it has to be considered one of the most important entries in the GWG genre, and despite its flaws, this film struck a chord which resonates even now. Perhaps its most powerful testament is a creepy little fact I found in Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon [Ghigieri and Myers, Puma Press, 2001]. It has been possible to commit suicide by driving off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for about eighty years. Almost one-third of all those who chose this method, did so in 1993, the year after Thelma and Louise came out on home video…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt

Alien

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“Feeling Alien-ated”

alien1The lack of a seal of approval here is less a comment on the quality of the film, than the fact that it only starts to qualify as an action heroine flick in the final twenty minutes. [Though for sheer influence, omitting it entirely here would be unthinkable] For most of the film, Ripley (Weaver) has been just another one of the crew; if you found someone unaware of the series, and showed them the first two-thirds, they’d probably have Dallas (Skerritt) down both as the hero, and the character most likely to survive.

But it is one of the central rules of horror movies – or, at least, good horror movies – that anyone can die at any time. This is a rule to which Alien adheres, and makes it as much an entry in the haunted house genre as a science-fiction film. True, it’s set in space, with the main threat an extra-terrestrial creature, but outside of these elements, and in both tone and structure, possesses little in common with contemporaries like Star Trek and The Empire Strikes Back.

Indeed, perhaps the closest relation this film has, is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Like Ripley, Bruce Campbell’s Ash (oddly, a name shared with the Nostromo crewman played by Holm) only assumes a heroic posture late in proceedings, forced by adversity to tap unexpected reserves of courage and strength. The movies also share characters trapped in a location from which they can’t escape, by a creature whose presence is in part self-inflicted, and at the same time wildly beyond their understanding. Their enemy is also pissed.

A plot synopsis hardly seems necessary, but here goes. [A spoiler warning is also in effect, albeit one probably relevant only for any Bantu tribesmen who happen to be surfing this site] The spaceship Nostromo, on its way home, picks up an unexplained signal from a planet and goes to investigate. On landing, they find an alien craft, and a lot of eggs, from one of which a creature leaps, attaching itself to crew member Kane (John Hurt). It later falls off, but not, as it turns out, until he has been implanted with a larva which bursts out of him during a meal, and scurries off into the ship. From there, it picks off the crew one by one, growing bigger and badder all the time.

Scott barely lets us see the monster for most of the film, probably a wise move given the budget, which at $11m was below average for the time, especially for a film with so many effects. While the designs, by Swiss weirdo H.R.Giger, are fabulous, their realization sometimes leaves a little to be desired. The scene of the critter scurrying away from Kane’s body is more likely to provoke sniggers these days, as are some of the model shots.

 It helps enormously having a great cast: Ian Holm and John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and of course, Sigourney Weaver, in her feature debut. They are a million light-years away from clean and shiny SF characters, and the film owes more to Dark Star than 2001. It does start off at a very leisurely pace, perhaps too leisurely for an informed viewer, who knows that almost all these lovingly-detailed characters are going to bite the big one before long.

alien2Once Kane gets infected, and especially after the alien gets loose, the pace picks up significantly, with tension being ratcheted to the max. The final sequences rank among the most memorable of all time, when Ripley realises all her crewmates are dead – it’s just her and the monster. And just when you think the film is over, with Ripley blowing up the Nostromo [in space, it appears, no-one can hear you scream, but you can hear a ship explode] and escaping by shuttle, clad in the smallest pair of knickers imaginable…it isn’t.

alien3The film’s most important contribution to the girls-with-guns genre was in creating a plausible heroine, capable of surviving through her own skills, rather than being saved by the macho hero. This was a cliche particularly relevant in SF films, where women were usually passive, and though Alien‘s place in that genre is questionable, as discussed earlier, it opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities. Without Ripley, there quite probably would be no Sarah Connor, Lara Croft or Sidney Bristow.

The director’s cut, released 25 years after the film’s initial release, isn’t as much an alteration as some – as with Blade Runner, Scott opted to trim as well as insert, leaving the new version almost the same length as the original. The main addition is a sequence where Ripley discovers the remains of two of her colleagues, cocooned in preparation for the next step of the alien’s life-cycle. Otherwise, it is simply a joy to experience this film in the darkness of a theatre, where its understated creepiness is undeniably at its most effective.

Its critical and popular acclaim – adjusted for inflation, it’s the best-grossing girls-with-guns film ever at the box-office – inevitably meant that a sequel would follow. While Scott would return to similarly empowering themes more than once, first in Thelma and Louise, and then, less successfully in G.I. Jane, the reins were handed over to another director, James Cameron. He took the franchise in a radically different direction, arguably to even greater success. But that’s another story…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

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“Old and Busted – New Hotness”

I feel a certain camaraderie with Arnie, since I’ve largely grown up alongside this series of movies, which is probably his finest work. I was at university when the first one came out; the second saw me living the life of a bachelor in London; and the latest installment finds me a happily married man in Arizona. Just as I’ve evolved, so have his opponents: they’ve become harder, faster and more difficult to kill; my sarcasm has been honed to a lethal edge, thanks to living with two teenagers and a pair of dogs.

One good thing about the series is that they haven’t rushed into quick-buck sequels – three movies over 19 years is unlikely to leave the audience jaded. It’s been more than a decade since the last part, leaving a lot of people wondering if Schwarzenegger could still cut it, especially after a slew of underwhelming films like End of Days and Collateral Damage. Those, however, required him to act: I’m happy to report there is no such pretense here, and the results are all the better for it.

The twist this time, and why it’s covered on this site, is that his nemesis is female. The latest model – an appropriate term given Loken’s background – is a T-X, and comes fully equipped with DNA-analysing tongue, throat-box modem, and a broad selection of interesting weaponry, though regrettably, we only get to see a couple in actual operation. They are, however, pretty damn cool.

The plot is effectively a retread of the previous entry, with John Connor (Stahl) a drug-confused member of the underclass since his mother died of leukemia (possibly Hollywoodese for “Linda Hamilton wanted too much money”). He goes on the run with former schoolmate Kate (Danes), whose father just happens to be the guy in charge of SkyNet. What are the odds against that? These two are supposed to meet and fall in love, but there’s a bump on their road to happiness, in the shape of a nuclear war due to start at 6:18 pm that night.

This romantic angle has all the excitement of a pound of herring, and may be safely ignored. What you’re here for is things hitting other things, and there’s certainly plenty of that. It is perhaps significant that the two best sequences largely eschew whizzy CGI, in favour of actual physical destruction. There is a fabulous chase, involving a mobile crane driven by the T-X, which for my money surpasses the summer’s other big helping of road-rage, served up in Matrix Reloaded. She demonstrates an almost human appetite for destruction that borders on endearing; such wilful chaos is likely counter-productive to her mission, yet she goes ahead anyway.

The other chunk that will stick in your memory is when the T-X and T-101 go toe-to-toe. No wirework, no Matrix-fu, just full-on, hardcore brutality, a brawl surely permitted by the MPAA, only because the two protagonists are robots. Walls, floors, urinals – all are just tools into which your opponent can have his/her head driven. Repeatedly. With venom.

One interesting point, is that nobody ever mentions the T-X’s gender. The concept certainly held potential for a lot of PMS-type comments, but save for one minor joke involving Victoria’s Secret, sexuality is entirely kept out of things. The T-X, with her impossibly perfect hair and the coolest red leather jacket worn by a actress playing a superviolent female robot since Eve of Destruction, just goes about her business like an evil babysitter.

After what had been a disappointing year for high-end action movies so far, Terminator 3 restores my faith in the genre. It may be a pip below the first two entries, since you get little in the way of intelligence or innovation, but it’s still a entry worthy of the name. Despite James Cameron being notable by his directorial absence, Mostow delivers everything you could want from a summer film. Here’s to Terminator 4 in 2010!

Dir: Jonathan Mostow
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes