The Tournament (2009)


“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

Taking the Heat


“Because the more accurate, Taking the Luke-warm, wouldn’t exactly fly off the shelves.”

Michael Norell (Goldwyn) sees mob boss Tommy Canard (Arkin) whacking a debtor, but won’t admit it to the cops. However, when they look at the credit-card transactions, the truth comes out and Detective Hunter (Whitfield) is sent to retrieve the witness; Canard, thanks to a mole, also finds out and send his top hitman to ensure Norell never reaches the courthouse. A heatwave has simultaneously hit New York, leading to blackouts, gridlock and a breakdown in communications, so it’s down to Detective Hunter, back on her old stomping ground, to negotiate her way through the traffic jams and dodge the killers out to get Norell.

The IMDB states this 1993 film is a TV movie. Some language and one brief nude scene seem to argue against that, but with some minor trims, it could certainly play on television, and there are some aspects, such as the Patrick Williams original score, which appear straight out of TV-land. The story is hardly novel – Midnight Run is perhaps the best-known example of the ‘Protect the irritating witness’ thriller, and if you’re looking for a distaff version, In the Line of Duty IV has more martial-arts, courtesy of Cynthia Khan and Donnie Yen, than you could possible want. This isn’t up to the level of either of these, and barely scrapes by as an acceptable way to waste ninety minutes on a wet weekend.

The film does occasionally get away from the pedestrian, but the potential inherent in the scenario, as the city swelters and boils in the heat, turning into an urban jungle, is largely wasted. There are some moments which work quite nicely, such as Hunter and Norell picking their way through a booby-trapped drug den, but it’s largely predictable stuff, with the heroine and her charge initially bickering like cats and dogs, then – over the course of a mere few hours – falling for each other. For most of this, I couldn’t help thinking, Whitfield is no Pam Grier – though in her defense, few people are, and she does well enough, I suppose. If there’s nothing else on TV, it’ll do.

Dir: Tom Mankiewicz
Star: Tony Goldwyn, Lynn Whitfield, Alex Carter, Alan Arkin

Tank Girl


I now understand why this…ah, “tanked”

The creators of the Tank Girl comic once said: “It’d be cool if a bunch of tinseltown producers could get hold of her, totally misunderstand what they’re dealing with, ignore our advice, and bring out a movie that would bomb, alienate our fan-base, destroy the comic, and bankrupt the pair of us in the process.” Mission accomplished. I never really liked the original comic, but the anarchic appeal of a minor cult classic is almost entirely removed, in favor of a lead character who never gets beyond irritating. The setting is the same: a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water is almost entirely under the control of the evil Water & Power, headed by Malcolm McDowell. When his minions destroy the compound where ‘Becca (Petty) and her pals live, she is enslaved, but escapes with the help of Jet Girl (the then-unknown Watts) and teams up with the shadowy, feared Rippers to take on W&P.

It’s clear what the aim is here: one of those feisty, “riot grrls”, who takes no shit and kicks ass, right alongside men. Very cool. However, whether due to bad scripting, poor casting or rampant studio interference – most likely, a combination of all three – the results are dire. Without wishing, in any way, to promote violence towards women: ‘Becca would benefit from a good slapping, and is less an anarchic anti-heroine, than a badly-behaved nine-year old. Outside of McDowell, who could perform this kind of evil overlord role with his eyes shut, the supporting cast are forgettable, outside of Ice T, who simply looks embarrassed to be there, in his role as a mutant kangaroo warrior. I imagine his agent had some explaining to do after that.

There are only a couple of moments where the necessary surrealness peeks though, such as the perky musical number; more of this kind of delirious insanity, could have been a suitable replacement for the ‘drink beer, smoke tabs’ sensibility that characterizes the comic. Instead, this is neither one thing nor another, a self-conscious attempt to create a cult movie, that implodes in its own timidness. Bizarrely, Devo covered their own song, Girl U Want, for the opening titles, because the Soundgarden version was too expensive – and managed to completely screw it up, with a dirgeful rendition which sucks all the energy out. That largely sums up the disaster which is to follow.

Dir: Rachel Tallalay
Star: Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Malcolm McDowell, Ice T.

Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles


“Could do with some more action, yet still more than acceptable.”

The double-pilot. Probably deserving of a place on the FAQ is, “Why don’t you include Sarah Connor?” The reason is simply that she was a supporting character in the first two Terminator films; one essential to the plot, that’s for sure, but clearly over-shadowed by her male counterparts in both movies. The TV series finally moves Connor (Headey) front and center, and also adds an additional action-heroine dimension, in the shape of Cameron Phillips (Glau), a schoolmate of John Connor’s who turns out to be a new model of Terminator, sent back to watch over him. The show starts in 1999, a couple of years after the events of Terminator 2, but soon shifts to the present day; it thus largely ignores the timeline of Terminator 3, in which Sarah Connor was reported to have died of leukemia in 1997.

The concept, as explored in the first two episodes, is very familiar: Sarah must protect son John (Dekker), so he can lead the human resistance after Skynet declares war on us. Skynet sends its unstoppable robotic henchmen back in time to take him out, but she also has an unstoppable robot of her own – this Terminator is more advanced than Arnie’s, being capable of ingesting food. However, there is further development, with the interesting idea that the future John Connor has sent back other humans, to provide a support network for Sarah in her struggle. It is only brushed against in the opening two hours, but may be developed in further episodes. There is also an FBI agent (Jones), who has been hunting Connor since her escape from the mental asylum, and her former fiancee, on whom Sarah bailed.

Glau and Headey both have action experience, from their roles in Serenity and 300 respectively, and they bring the necessary resilience to the role. Glau has a balletic grace and flexibility which helps make up for her obvious lack of size, and while there is clearly some body-doubling done, it’s mostly well-handled and the editing of the fight sequences is above-average. We also liked the deadpan portrayal she brings to the role. Headey does not yet exhibit the ferocious passion which Hamilton brought to her role, so that’s something we want to see develop, and we also hope they do not get bogged down and become a ‘Terminator of the Week’ show. It seems that time-travel may be a significant part of the story, and this would open up an almost infinite range of possibilities. This was a solid, entertaining opening, and fingers crossed the rest of the series can build on the potential.

The rest of the series If there’s an unfinished feel to the show, that would be because it was. Thanks to the writer’s strike, the final four episodes never made it to the screen, and the storylines will be incorporated into the upcoming second series, confirmed by Fox in April. While not perhaps the makers’ fault, it undeniably had an effect, basically leaving us to turn to each other at the end [which involved a car-bomb] and go, “Is that it?” The rest of the series, however, wasn’t so terrible, though it did feel somewhat stretched. The main plot threads were extensions of the pilot: a) the Connors trying to stop Skynet from becoming active, in particular through locating a chess computer called The Turk, and b) evil Terminator Cromartie trying to stop them. There’s also c) an FBI agent (Jones) who is trying to piece together the pieces, trailing both parties, and d) the arrival of Derek Reese, the brother of Kyle and therefore John Connor’s uncle.

The extra time available to a TV series does allow for expansion, perhaps most notably that Skynet does more to try and affect the past than just send back Terminators – it is supposed to be a super-intelligent system after all. On the other hand, the action elements are significantly reined back, perhaps in association with budget restrictions. However, I particularly liked the SWAT assault on Cromartie in the final episode, set to Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around, which I’ve loved since they used it in the opening to the Dawn of the Dead remake. Needless to say, that goes about as well for the SWAT team as you might expect. Glau is particularly good, with her character actually developing in unexpected ways, such as discovering a taste for ballet.

However, there has been a fair bit of sniping regarding Headey, comparing her physical presence unfavourably (the word “weedy” gets used a good deal) with Linda Hamilton’s. Said one such critic: “There are two issues here: having a toothpick-thin, feeble-looking Sarah Connor is a crime against the iconography of the character; and presenting a clearly emaciated actress as a heroine is a crime against women.” Headey’s response was blunt and to the point: “It’s a TV show, for God’s sake!” – and I’m inclined to agree. We’re dealing with a series about time-travelling robots here, folks. If you seek role models for your body here, there’s probably no hope for you. Here’s to the second series, especially if there’s more ass-kicking from Headey and Glau.

Dir: David Nutter and others
Star: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Richard T. Jones

Taking Lives


“Another great concept is let down by depressingly obvious scripting.”

Rarely has a film started so promisingly, and gone so consistently downhill. The start is fabulous, with one of the most shocking moments I’ve seen…though if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have had it spoiled. But regardless, the first time we meet FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Jolie), on special assignment to Montreal, she’s lying in a grave. She is hard as nails, and takes absolutely no crap from anyone: her local friend, Captain Leclair (Karyo) hardly needs to bother protecting her, despite the nicely-handled cross-border tension. The case is that of a serial killer who, as the title suggests, inhabits the lives of his victims: the crack comes when his mother (Rowlands), believing him dead for two decades, spots him in Montreal by chance. However, the only other person to have seen the suspect is art-gallery owner James Costa (Hawke), but Scott starts finding her emotions getting in the way of her work…

Which is where the film loses its way, deflating like a leaky balloon. We are forced to watch the inevitable sexual tension between these two characters; seeing Scott go about her business would be infinitely less cliched and predictable. There is a twist that is so obvious you’d need to be unconscious not to see it coming – though I’d forgive you for falling asleep during the aforementioned sexual tension – and a final act that appears to have been taken from a bad 80’s slasher movie. These failings merely open the door for you to stare more closely at the plot, and you realise large chunks of it are on wobbly ground. For example, Scott deduces from a draft that a bookcase must conceal a hidden door: er, why not simply an A/C vent? Part Se7en, part Silence of the Lambs, this comes over as taking the less effective elements from each film, leaving the potential of a female Sherlock Holmes sadly under-realised.

Dir: D.J. Caruso
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Tchéky Karyo, Ethan Hawke, Gena Rowlands

Thriller: A Cruel Picture


“Lives entirely up to its Swedish title: Thriller: en grym film.”

Right from the first scene, depicting the molestation of a young girl, this is remarkably unrelenting stuff. 15 years later, the heroine (Lindberg), turned mute by her ordeal is kidnapped, turned into a junkie and forced in prostitution. Oh, and had an eye destroyed by her pimp (Hopf) – in loving, close-up, slow-motion that is rumoured to have involved a real corpse – after clawing the face of her first client.

Finally, it becomes too much, and she starts – with striking methodicalness – to prepare her revenge. She learns shooting, martial-arts and driving skills, and loads up with a sawn-off shotgun, as well as a handgun hidden in her hair, and goes around blowing away everyone she deems unworthy [Though how does she know where to find them? I imagine it’s not as if they hand out their home addresses…], before challenging her pimp to a duel in the bleak yet beautiful Swedish countryside.

The impact on Kill Bill, both in storyline and style (Elle Driver, in particular), is obvious – not to mention Ms. 45 – but Vibenius has a far less frenetic approach. Indeed, his style is so deliberate, you may be forgiven for dozing off, even during the fight scene, which uses such slo-mo as to become almost surreal. It’s a refreshing antidote to the MTV-style editing beloved by the likes of Alias. Less successful is the hard-core sex; while it certainly has an impact, it’s a double-edged sword, and is hardly necessary. Lindberg, clad in a long trenchcoat and colour-coordinated eye-patch is grand, and this is certainly unique. Fun? No. It’s hardly even entertaining, and must have freaked out the drive-in crowd during its mid-70’s run. But memorable? Sure. And ripe for a remake starring Christina Ricci? Hell, yes.

Dir: Bo A. Vibenius
Star: Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf
a.k.a. They Call Her One-Eye + Hooker’s Revenge

Trapped, the Crimson Bat


Later that same year (1969), Oichi was back in action, and at the start of Trapped, seems quite content with her life as a bounty-huntress. She has even adopted an orphan, just as she herself was taken in herself, but two things wreck this relatively happy situation. She discovers her protege is really a runaway, not an orphan, and consequently has to abandon her – again, as she was discarded. Worse yet, she incurs the wrath of fellow bounty-huntress Oen (Matsuoka), a kitten with a whip and pockets full of venomous snakes, who leaves Oichi for dead. Luckily, she is nursed back to health by Matsuka (Irikawa), a farmer who doesn’t care about her shady past, and Oichi discovers the joys of a simpler existence – specifically, one not involving the slaughter of criminals for cash. Of course, the inevitable eventually happens: local thug Bunzo (Abe) starts taking the locals’ rice stocks, with Oen closely in tow. No prizes for guessing that the quiet life isn’t going to last long, especially after Matsuka is manipulated by Oen into owing a gambling debt to Bunzo.

This is a fine movie, with Matusoka in particular a grand foil for the heroine, her hair covering one half of her face like a veil, and the other half usually displaying a near-psychotic expression. Oichi’s struggles to leave her past behind feel almost like Shakespearean tragedy, and the final shots of the film, while a sudden way to end, hint strongly at an endless, futile struggle. To paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a Samurai sword slicing up an opponent…forever. Downbeat? Hell, yes. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

The action is decent too, with Matsuyama definitely operating a step above her first outing; although these aren’t usually so much fights, more the swift dispatch of one or more opponents, that’s par for the chambara genre. Matsuka is somewhat of an enigma as a character – it’s hard to see why Oichi falls for him, and the whole “orphan” plotline is not well handled. In particular, it’s lacking any kind of background, to the extent it feels like an entire film was missing. The rest of the story though, is well-crafted and packs a solid wallop; you could certainly argue that this is the best flight of the Crimson Bat.

Dir: Matsuda Teiki
Stars: Yoko Matsuyama, Yasunori Irikawa, Kikko Matsuoka, Toru Abe
a.k.a. Mekura No Oichi Monogatari: Jigoku Hada

The Twins Effect II


“Film with the trajectory of a ski race; starts off high, goes downhill fast.”

I liked, and enjoyed the original film, and at first, this seems to have a great chance at surpassing it. The opening fight between our two heroines, one (Choi) a slave-trader, the other (Chung) an enforcer for the Empress, is a masterpiece that combines wire-work, CGI and gimmickry – camerawork from Azumi and what looks like a mutant Klingon batleth – to fabulous (if not fully convincing) effect. All this in a mythical kingdom where women rule, and men are reduced to “dumbbells”, while the cast includes both Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. Even if the connection to the original is tenuous at best, the potential here doesn’t need to be specified.

However, it all goes horribly wrong. Our heroines team up with a pair of jackasses, appropriately named Blockhead (Chen) and Charcoal Head (the talentless Fong, present only because he’s Jackie Chan’s son), and their presence sucks the life from proceedings. One of them – but nobody knows which one – is the ‘Star of Rex’, a future ruler who can defeat the evil empress (Qu Ying) with the aid of the sword, Excalibur. No, really; it must have been on loan from Camelot. As you can imagine, the film proceeds to implode with spectacular speed, a downward spiral that only briefly flattens for a duel between Yen and Chan – the former playing a character called ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. Oh, hold my aching sides. Even the finale is largely mundane, though the use of an icicle as a weapon by the empress did get our attention.

On the plus side, both Twins put in surprisingly solid performances – Choi, in particular, is much less irritating than before, though remains outshone by Chung. However, they still aren’t enough on their own to sustain a movie, despite the parade of celebrity cameos, especially when co-stars Chen and Fong are woefully short of the mark. With a $10.2 million budget, I just wish they’d spent a few more dollars on the script and some decent actors. Then, it might have lived up to the marvellous first fifteen minutes.

Dir: Patrick Leung, Corey Yuen
Star: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Jaycee Fong, Wilson Chen Bo-Lin

Twins Effect


“Vampires using mobile phones, with TV screens in their coffins? What is the world coming to…”

For something crafted largely as a vehicle for its two female, pop-singing stars (the titular Twins), this is much better than you’d expect – compare, say, any Mary-Kate and Ashley film. Sure, it’s dumb. Sure, it’s loaded with cheesy romance and totally unnecessary celebrity cameos. But it also has more fun with the vampire genre than any movie since the original Buffy, and the action, directed by the hugely under-rated Donnie Yen, is far superior.

Vampire-hunter Reeve (Cheng) loses his partner (an impressive Josie Ho) to a newly-arrived evil Euro-vampire after a brutal battle in a railway station. Her replacement is Gypsy (Chung), who has idolized Reeve for years. But meanwhile sister Helen (Choi) meets and falls in love with Kazaf (Chen – yep, all four leads’ names begin with Ch. You can add a Jackie Chan cameo too), a good vampire who won’t suck blood from unwilling victims. The evil vamp need Kazaf’s essence in order to walk in daylight, and it’s up to…oh, everyone else, to stop him.

The action movies in fits and starts; a great opening battle, an amusing Gypsy/Helen spat over a teddy-bear early on, which shows where this movie’s tongue is; and an extended final duel with the pair as our last hope, and which gained the film our seal of approval. It’s clear neither girl is an experienced martial artist, but 95% of the time, you can easily overlook this; the ever-wonderful Anthony Wong, as Kazaf’s butler Prada, helps keep the film grounded and outweighs the fact that Helen is an immensely irritating character. To quote Lars Von Trier, “Take the good, with the evil”, and here the balance is firmly for the former.

Dir: Dante Lam
Star: Ekin Cheng, Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Edison Chen
a.k.a. The Vampire Effect

Two-Gun Lady


“An old-school Western delivers a very pleasant surprise.”

Trick-shot artist Kate Masters (Castle) comes to a remote town with her show, raising suspicions among locals, who suspect she’s more than she seems. They are led by Jud Ivers (McDonald) and his family, who rule the area with an iron grip. This 1955 B-movie (in the original sense – it’s only 71 minutes long) crams plenty in, with almost everyone having secrets, good or bad. Castle makes a fine heroine, exuding strength but ultimately vulnerable, and is matched by the rest of the cast. Particular credit to McDonald, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, in her movie debut as Jenny Ivers; both bring depth to what could be one-dimensional characters.

This certainly has predictable elements (the fate of Jenny’s lamb is inevitable), yet punches surprisingly above its weight, with exchanges such as the following, on the nature of frontier justice:
    “You the sheriff?
    “No. Just the law…”
It does drag in the middle, thanks to a tedious subplot involving a US Marshal (Talman) out to get the Ivers clan, which reached its nadir in a very dull horse chase. There’s also a very odd part where Marie Windsor walks into a scene she’s not involved in, and leaps back, visibly startled – how that take stayed in the film beats me. But the finale, pitting Masters against the fastest gun in town, is very nicely staged, and will likely bring animal lovers everywhere to their feet.

Most remarkably of all, our 18-year old son, more used to Buffy and Alias, sat and watched this b&w Western, made three decades before he was born. And we weren’t even in the room. Praise, indeed.

Dir: Richard Bartlett
Star: Peggy Castle, William Talman, Ian McDonald, Marie Windsor