Saturday, September 22, 2012

Flick: The Raid Redemption and Dredd (2012)

Law enforcers trapped in an apartment building controlled by a vicious crimelord need to fight their way out.

Depending on your movie selection this weekend in KL, this description could be applied equally to Gareth Evans' Indonesian action scorcher The Raid:Redemption or Pete Travis' Dredd , the recent and second screen incarnation of the iconic Brit comic dispenser of instant judgement.
Disregarding any plagiarism on the part of either filmmaker, both movies can be enjoyed as the purest distillation of the action movie, genre exercises done right thanks to it's makers' unswerving commitment to delivering what movies like these need: balls to the wall action, with tension ratcheted up by repellant villains capable of meting out slow and sadistic punishment and heroes' who absolutely WILL NOT stand for that shit, although their motivations differ.
For SWAT member Rama (Iko Uwais) in The Raid, it's a matter of survival pure and simple. With his team largely decimated by the ambush orchestrated by drug lord Tama in the decrepit tenement he controls via close cicrcuit cameras, intercoms and boy spotters, Rama's raison d'etere isn't so much the  apprehension of Tama and his vicious horde as it is to just get the fuck out of there in one piece, and if that means laying the smackdown with his deadly fists and feet of fury and littering corridors with the maimed carcasses of assholes who become obstacles to that objective, then so be it. Evans' and Uwais' second outing after Merantau Warrior is a balls-to-the-walls adrenaline shot to the veins of the most jaded action movie fan. The fight scenes escalate in complexity and brutality culminating in a 2- against-1 scrap, the twist here being that it takes the combined skills of Rama and Brother-Turned-Bad Andi (Donny Alamsyah) to take on Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian, also the movie's co-fight choreographer alongside Uwais), a stone cold fighting machine who likens pulling a trigger to "ordering take out" and can still dispense punishment with shards of a broken fluorescent tube sticking out of his neck! The plot is inconsequential (some tosh about the raid itself being a set up, police corruption, Good Brother vs Bad Brother Bollywood drama blah blah) and the acting purely serviceable (the thespic skills of a Crowe or a Bale isn't required here). The Raid Redemption is carnage served straight up. Neat, 2 cubes and hold the water please.

Tony Jaa's Ong Bak set the bar and standards for a new era of bone-crunching martial arts in 2008. With Jaa supposedly back filming a sequel to Tom Yum Goong after a self-imposed exile following the stresses of shooting Ong Bak 2 and 3, he'd best remember: The bar's now been set even higher.

For Dredd (Karl Urban) - judge, jury and executioner of an urban law enforcement unit called Judges in a futuristic, dystopian concrete jungle called Mega City One-the motivations are even clearer. He's there to take down Ma-Ma (Lena Heady), scarred former hooker, current gang boss and landlord of Peach Tree, a high rise slum doubling as a manufacturing base for Slo-Mo (the current "hot" narcotic on the street, enabling users to view time at 1% of regular speed) and if he has to fill up stairwells with bullet-ridden bodies of minions promised a bounty for his head and that of rookie Mutant Psychic partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on his ascent to the Penthouse Lair of the Drug Queen, then so be it.

Under siege, sealed off from the outside with no chance of back up and facing resistance from seemingly every block dweller, Dredd's response is a simple warning:

"In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law... I am the law."

Travis' remake rights all the wrongs of the pathetic Sly Stallone attempt in 1995. The screen Dredd is now the closet approximation to his comic book avatar; a stone-cold dispenser of justice, a merciless and remorseless enforcer of the law and most important of all, he NEVER removes the helmet this time, leading Urban to deliver the finest mouth-and-chin based acting since Peter Weller in Robocop. And it's solid R-Rated action all the way, with enough head and body shots to satisfy the most avid gamer, a good chunk of it delivered in glorious slow-motion to approximate the POV of junkies after a shot of Slo-Mo. And I liked the fact that the thankless sidekick/rookie role here is actually a terrific asset to the unstoppable Dredd, her psychic abilities coming in handy when anticipating violence and extracting information from inside the heads of suspects. Apart from a slightly underwhelming climax, Dredd hits all the right notes and unlike the 1995 travesty, this time I can safely say: Bring on the sequel!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Flick:Rob Roy

Released the same year as Braveheart, Rob Roy is in many ways the anthithesis to Mel Gibson's rousing epic.

Rob Roy's issues are personal, William Wallace's public. The former fights to avenge his honour, whereas the latter takes up arms for his land.

Clarion calls of "FREEDOM" have no import in Rob Roy, whose titular Highlander's (Liam Neeson, Jedi Knight in a kilt) most pressing need is the housing, clothing and feeding of his family and clansmen.

It's the early 1700's and the kingdoms of England and Scotland have both been unified, although that hardly lessens the traditional disdain that dandy Englishmen like the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) bear for their Celtic cousins along with a deep seated suspicion that the Highlands are scattered with Jacobites (sympathisers of the deposed Stuart monarch James II).

When Rob asks for a thousand pound loan to herd and sell cattle to raise cash from Montrose, his scheming nephew Archie Cunningham and aide Killearm (Tim Roth and Brain Cox, both of whom chew and steal their scenes with effortless ease) steal the money by killing and framing Rob's best friend, Andy McDonald (a miscast but mercifully brief Eric Stoltz) for the theft.

When Rob refuses to denounce the Duke of Argyll as a Jacobite on Montrosse's request in exchange for cancelling the debt, the stage is set, like all movies featuring a Scottish hero, for an unleashing of English brutality with all the traditional boxes of large scale slaughter, house burning and female violations dutifully checked. Bloody reprisals on the way to a climactic showdown between Rob and Archie follow.

If it lacks the expansive sweep of Braveheart, Rob Roy more than compensates with a central relationship, that of Rob and his strong wife Mary, that's genuinely moving and engaging. See in this yet another counterpoint to Braveheart, where women (both living and dead) merely function as catalysts for a call to arms and visions of sanity to cling onto in the midst of torture.

Rob Roy is in many ways, the anti-epic. The panoramic vistas and battles are accounted for, but it's struggles are deeply personal and above all, it's a charming love story between a man and his wife.

Terrific performances, sharp dialogues and a memorable villain make Rob Roy a winner.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Expendables

Any objectivity I would have had watching The Expendables was obliterated years ago, thanks to a wasted adolescence devouring practically the entire Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Van Damme/Seagal/Norris ouevre of undiluted carnage.

They were simple (ok, often stupid) but they served you their action straight up, unencumbered by pseudo-philosophical ruminations or the need to piggy back on popular comic-book mythologies. It was a time when the idea of Keanu Reeves or Matt Damon kicking ass and taking names (or for that matter James Bond moping for 2 movies over some chick who fucked him over) most likely existed as a stupid joke in my wasted brain.

The Expendables is a glorious throwback to that era and that's probably the only way you're ever going to derive any sort of enjoyment from it.

Needless to say, it effortlessly located my viewing G-Spot and I probably watched it with a stupid grin plastered on my face throughout it's running time.

It, quite naturally fell victim to it's own All Star line-up. There simply wasn't enough time to showcase everyone, but Stallone deserves a solid 'A' for effort. He wisely gives Statham ample screen time (he's the only one in the group with a career trajectory currently pointing north), and gives everyone their 2 minutes under the spotlight thanks to action scenes that exist for no other reason than to have these titans go at it, WWF style (Li Vs. Lundgren! Austin Vs. Stallone!Austin Vs. Couture!).

I wish Sly had eased up on the Mike Bay-style edits thoughs would have loved the fights to linger on my visual cortex for more than 1/2 a second, located somewhere in the movie's numerous fights is a Statham-Li tag team move that I'll have to wait for the DVD to fully enjoy.

And is it just me who thinks Mickey Rourke just ambled over from the Iron Man 2 set to this one?

The one scene that surprisingly didn't work for me (most likely on account of it being built up way too much) was the cameo featuring Planet Hollywood's major shareholders. It all seemed too forced, with Arnie at his absolute smirking worst.

It's cavalier treatment of women is de rigueur for movies like this and I doubt if the writers know or even care about the irony (it's probably too stupid to) of a script that posits a woman as the salvation point for these jaded warriors while also subjecting her to the film's nastiest torture sequence not to mention having Statham's character excoriate his girl for taking up with a loser while he exercises his right to disappear for long stretches of time without telling her.

God, I love the '80s!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


A good remake should respect all that was good about the original, tweaking the formula just enough to keep it fresh wthout obliterating everything that worked the first time, not to mention the goodwill of returning fans.

As much homage as reboot, as well as a sequel of sorts to John McTiernan's impeccably crafted 1987 actioner, the Robert Rodriguez-produced and Nimrod Antal (Vacancy, Armoured)-directed Predators gets it right.The movie's numerous and respectful hat-tips to the original hit all my viewing sweet spots, thanks to an annual habit of popping the Arnie original into my DVD player for a spin.

-A high jump off a cliff into a river

-An army of bad-asses emptying their formidable weaponry against an enroaching threat (Yup, Ole' Painless makes a comeback).

-A ripped to hell hero smearing himself with mud to avoid detection.

-Said hero crawling in pain after a brutal beating from his otherworldly nemesis.

-A victim making his last stand (although, in this version, he goes down carving a healthy chunk of Predator-meat).

While it's reverential references are largely based on the original Predator, it cribs enough from the sequels to liven up proceedings, especially in mixing up it's motley crew of mercenaries with members of the criminal fraternity (shades of Predator 2) and featuring a dust-up between 2 Predators from rival tribes (from the now hopefully defunct Alien Vs. Predator films).

Parachuted into an off-Earth game preserve, a group of hired killers need to stay one step ahead of the dreadlocked, mandible-mouthed, heavy heat packing and invisible uber-hunters, easier said than done when their de-facto leader has self-preservation high on his agenda and their numbers consist of a Yakuza enforcer, a death-row inmate who dreams of raping women and a doctor clueless in the arts of combat and evasion (or is he?) not to mention Danny Trejo.

Speaking of Trejo, his rather wasted role and a thoroughly pointless cameo from Laurence Fishburne are the only damp spots in this otherwise crackling actioner (you have both Machete and Morpheus at your disposal and all you can give them are dismal cameos?)

The action's good, the effects decent and the acting perfectly serviceable.

Brody's certainly no Arnie.....

...but he brings a thinking man's gravitas to the role.

Predators is a perfect afternoon's popcorn view and rejuvenates a franchise that was pretty much three quarters of the way on the slide to mediocrity on it's way to a blisfull oblivion.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tome: Shogun

Shogun Shogun by James Clavell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You either buy into the epic romanticism of Clavell's mammoth (in size and popularity) bestseller or you don't.

Historical verisimilitude isn't the agenda here. You get the trappings of period flavour, but Clavell's 16th Century Japan is mere backdrop to the myriad sub-plots of Byzantine political manueverings, jockeying for prime trading monopolies, war plans and an inter-racial love story strung along the key plot thread of a ship-wrecked Englishman's gradual assimilation into the society and impending battle between 2 rival warlords in Feudal Japan.

Re-reading snatches of Shogun after a 20 year gap still shows it to be an incredibly engaging yarn, and hardly colours my long-time belief that Clavell was a master-story teller with a knack for sustaining engaging narratives over an intimidating length of pages.

The history is there for colour, but what Clavell largely delivers, much like Ken Follett's The Pillars Of The Earth, is pure Medieval Soap Opera.

The dichotomoy of a rigid society of equisitely cultivated rituals and manners with a penchant for sudden vicious brutality is conveyed engagingly enough through the eyes of a befuddled John Blackthorne, later to be dubbed Anjin (Pilot)-San owing to the sheer "unpronounceability" of his English name by Japanese tongues.

But less one feel tempted to castigate Clavell for the exoticism of his subjects, note that while Blackthorne is positioned as the story's token hero, as the book progresses, he becomes one of many pawns on the strategic chessboard of the brilliant and charismatic Yoshi Toranaga as he jockeys for power against key rival Ishido for the position of Ultimate Commander, the Shogun.

Deliriously entertaining for much of it's colossal length, Shogun's still the Gold Standard by which I measure Far East epics for their sheer readability and entertainment factor and Clavell was simply the best at delivering them.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Flick: Universal Soldier:Regeneration

I have no issues with fading action stars taking long dormant franchises out of mothballs to jump-start their flagging box-office fortunes.

It's, after all, given us the slightly under-whelming but entertaining Indy 4, the poignant Rocky 6, the visceral Rambo 4 and kinetic Live Free or Die Hard.

And now we have Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, doyens of low-rent actioners for much of the late '80s to mid-'90s cinema( currently doyens of low-rent actioners released directly to DVD) saddling up for a rematch of their burly barnyard brawl in the Roland Emmerich-directed 1990 action hit Universal Soldier.

But fans expecting Regeneration to be the vehicle that finally hauls these ageing Euro Hunks out of the murky depths of DVD Dungeon should check their expectations at the door.
It takes a full hour for Van Damme to swing into action and Lundgren's appearance amounts to little more than a cameo.

As for the much anticipated, hyped and awaited Dolph-Damme rematch?
It's pulverisingly brutal stuff...for all of the 2 minutes it lasts.

The plot, for those that actually need one, is about a disposed Russian general and his army who kidnap the children of the Soviet Premier and hold them captive at the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear plant (yes, that Chernobyl), threatening to both kill his hostages and unleash a nuclear Holocaust if his political allies aren't released from prison.

The US army is called in to help (big surprise), and they come with an elite cadre of fighting fit men, including 4 UniSols i.e Universal Soldiers; regenerated former corpses tweaked and honed to near indestructible fighting capability.
But their first incursion into the plant for a rescue mission is soundly thwarted, courtesy of the baddies' Secret Weapon: A souped-up UniSol Ver.2 (UFC alumni Sergei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski, displaying the personality of a lamp-post but a brutally efficient fighter), created and maintained by a defecting and mercenary scientist who also has his own "Insurance Policy" against the rebel general, a re-cloned former UniSol Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren).
With a sizeable chunk of their force massacred not to mention their UniSols permanently decommissioned, the military authorities yank their last surviving UniSol Luc Devereaux (Van Damme) out of retirement and some cosy rehabilitation therapy in Switzerland to take out the bad guys.

The filmmaker's decision to ignore events in the second film may sit well with those who feel every available copy of Universal Soldier:The Return needs to be hunted down and burnt along with the original negatives, but as one of the 10 people on the planet who genuinely enjoyed it's absurd cheesiness, Regeneration seems dark and dour by comparison, thanks to a spare, minimalist approach taken by director John (son of Peter) Hyams that echoes the John Carpenter actioners of the '80s like "Escape From New York" complete with a thumping electronica score. It works for the script's sombre mood and complements the fast, furious and effective action set pieces.
But the drawback is you get a Devereaux leeched of much of his humanity (which, after all, was an underlying theme of the first 2 flicks), Van Damme's natural charisma buried beneath a perpetually sullen demeanour that tends to give credence to rumours that he was strong-armed into the role owing to contractual requirements.

And shoe-horning a 10min Lundgren cameo just to insert him into a fleeting fight scene with Van Damme is Fan Bait of the worst kind. But kudos to Drago for investing his all too brief screen time with a delicious reprise of his unhinged soldier, An Andrew Scott re-cloned complete with his homicidal psychosis intact, and more's the pity he didn't get to pull Chief Baddie duties.

For action junkies, Universal Soldier 3 is definitely worth a spin on their players, thanks to Hyams' slick choreography of the action scenes. The fights, executed for the most part by genuine exponents, is thankfully free of much of the hyper-edits and shaky-cam effects that litter action movies nowadays. One hack-and-slash scene featuring a Van Damme on Berserker Mode armed with a Hunting Knife is especially cool. The Pit Bull lays on some lightning fast combos of kicks and punches (but I still miss the hamming Bill Goldberg and the panther-like grace of Michael Jai White from The Return) while the Van Damme-Lundgren bout features some of the best property-destroying mayhem since The Bride and Elle Driver ripped apart a trailer in Kill Bill 2.

The ending blatantly sets up another installment that from the looks of it will star one of the American soldiers (also played by a martial artist whose name I can't be arsed to look up) killed in action and all set to be resurrected as a UniSol.
I'm not looking forward to it.

Put the UniSols back on ice. This franchise is done.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tome: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Stieg Larsson's first book in the Millennium trilogy is a curious hybrid.

One the one hand, it's a corporate thriller about the attempts of discredited journalist Mikael Blomkvist to expose the shady financial dealings of corporate financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom.

On the other, it's a riff on the traditional village-based murder mystery canonised by Agatha Christie, as Blomkvist is hired by industrialist Henrik Vanger to uncover the mystery behind the disapperance of his grand-niece almost 40 years ago from the sleepy hamlet of Hedeby.

Meaning, it may be set deep in the Scandinavian hartlands and feature characters with names like Lisbeth, Mikael and Hans-Erik, but at heart, The Girl With The Dragon tattoo is thoroughly English in it's murder mystery and wholly American in it's thriller elements of serial killing and corporate skull-duggery.

Trouble is, it doesn't transcend it's dog-eared antecedents to deliver anything remotely refreshing.

The mystery sets up a deliciously traditional framework of a sprawling, squabling and nasty family most likely neck-deep in collussion in the disappearance of one of their own. But Larsson never exploits this by giving any of them significant roles. The 2 thoroughly unpleasant members of the Vanger clan, Henrik's ex-Nazi brother Harald and Isabella, Harriet's cold and calculating mother are reduced to cameos.

And when the mystery morphs into a serial killer tale replete with torture room basements that climaxes with a most unsatisfactory end for it's depraved antagonist, it's hard not to wonder what the fuss over this book is all about.

Once the Harriet Vanger mystery is resolved, the book then switches gear for the next 100 pages to detail Blomkvist's elaborate plan to take down Wennerstrom, a plot thread resolved equally unsatisfactorily.

What keeps this 600 page tome (barely) afloat are it's 2 leads.

Blomkvist is an amiable protagonist with an enviable talent of getting women, be it much married colleagues, 53 year old headmistresses or rebellious hackers dropping their knickers within days of coming into contact with his genial, easy-going and non-judgemental demeanour.

The titular girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is deeply scarred, sociopathically obsessed with control and a gifted researcher possessing a violent temper. She is the book's only fleshed out and intriguing character and her troubled past is something I hope Larsson has expanded on in the subsequent 2 books.

Larsson's agenda seems clear given his tendency to open each of the book's various sections with a statistical bulletin on female abuse in Sweden and the fact that apart from Blomkvist and males above 70, men come off as world-class turds in his book. (The book's Swedish tile is "Men Who Hate Women"). But one sincerely wishes that the sermonising came in a more attractive package.

A mystery that never quite engages and a thriller that doesn't quite thrill, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo doesn't kick-off the Millenium Trilogy on a high note.

One hopes the subsequent installments are an improvement.

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Tome: The Cold Six Thousand

The Cold Six Thousand The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
James Ellroy's second volume in his USA Underworld trilogy follows the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and culminates in the killing of his brother Robert and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King. Once again told through a 3-man arc (returning American Tabloid alumni Pete Bondurant and Ward Littell and newcomer Wayne Tedrow Jr.), The Cold Six Thousand, is a massive, demanding read, hardly helped by Ellroy's pared-to-the-bone prose and a plot that isn't so much labyrinthine as it is a literary hydra, where the closure of one strand merely results in the sprouting of 2 more cogs in an incredibly complex wheel of murky dealings, shady alliances and tangled sexual politics.

Ellroy's massive, grimy canvas now takes in the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, the former exploited by nefarious CIA operatives to run a drug manufacturing and exporting enterprise, with profits being funneled into training camps for mercenaries to for yet another planned Cuba invasion to topple Fidel Castro, while the latter prompts the ever-scheming J.Edgar Hoover to launch a cointelpro to discredit the movement.

Mixed into this turbulent stew is Wayne's misplaced hatred of Black people and it's attendant guilt when his wife is brutally murdered by a black felon he let escape, Ward Littell's gradual unraveling by guilt and remorse over his collussion with Hoover to discredit King and the Mob to fleece the reclusive Howard Hughes in Las Vegas and Pete Bondurant's gradually disintegrating marriage to Barb Cathcart.

Not the easiest of reads but a must for fans of Ellroy's revisionist American History and it's deeply flawed facilitators.

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