Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Yuen Woo Ping Spins The Colorful Tale Of A "True Legend"

By Scott Tre

Western audiences have been trained to value relative realism above all else, even at the sake of fun and whimsy.  Whether they realize it or not, this imposes somewhat rigid and artificial guidelines on genre film making.  The quality of a stunt or effect is judged on how "real" it looks as opposed to whether or not it facilitates adequate suspension of disbelief.  The same goes for explanations of the fantastic.  Western genre fans often require that everything be supported by airtight physics and exact science, not realizing that this to can take the fantasy out of "fantasy".  By contrast Eastern genre films have always remained stubbornly and comfortably in the land of make believe.

True Legend tells the story of General Su Can (Vincent Zhao).  After rescuing a prince from certain death,  Su  is awarded a governorship.  In order to assuage the envious feelings of his half brother Yuan (Andy On), Su requests that Yuan be granted the title instead.  Su leaves his military career behind, opting to become a family man instead.  He marries the beautiful Ying (Zhou Xun) and fathers a son named Feng (Li Zo, Suen Hanwen).  The three live in relative tranquility while Su trains vigorously in the art of Wu Shu.

A vengeful Yuan returns from his tenure in the military to take his place as governor.  He kills Su's father and holds Ying and Feng hostage.  Su confronts Yuan but is soundly defeated, as Yuan has mastered a supernatural martial arts technique known as the "Five Venoms Fist".  Yuan casts Su's limp body into the river.  A grief stricken Ying dives after him, leaving the young Feng at the mercy of his crazed uncle.

Ying nurses Su back to health in relative seclusion.  As his body recovers, he resumes training in hopes of one day defeating Yuan and rescuing his son.  During his daily workouts he begins to wander into the forest.  He returns every evening with fresh bruises and injuries and claims to be training with the Wu Shu God (Jay Chou) and an old drunken sage (Jay Chou).  Ying is made aware of the possibility that Su may indeed be going mad. Su insists that his sparring matches with mythical figures are quite real, and continue to venture daily into the forest in hopes of defeating them.  Then and only then can he go about the business of rescuing Feng and exacting justice on his half brother.

True Legend is the latest wire assisted marvel directed by the great Yuen Woo Ping, who has lent his martial expertise to many a western blockbuster.  Here, unrestrained by Hollywood suits or the cultural differences of the west, he constructs a colorful and vibrant fairy tale.  While not without its share of bloody violence, there is a certain lightheartedness that permeates True Legend.  As melodramatic as it is, it never takes itself too seriously.

The third act seems to belong to a wholly different film, and viewers may find themselves thinking that they missed something.  The transition is a bit rough, but once things settle a bit the closing act emanates a charm all its own.  The theme of boorish and arrogant westerners intruding on the eastern world and showing disdain for both China itself and "Chinese Boxing" are introduced.  While Ip Man 2 opts to do an eastern variation on the Rocky formula, True Legend remains steeped in more obviously mythic lore.

Yuan is a great villain.  He has the appearance of a Mortal Kombat character.  He has scaly armor sewn into his skin, and the deadly "Five Venoms Fist" allows him to infect an opponent with a potent toxin simply by touching him.  This supernatural ability adds real tension to the fight scenes.  Not only do you not want this guy to strike you, but you can't afford to even let him touch you.  In the context of the film, the character works well.  His  back story gives him solid motivation and his actions are believable.

It would be nice to see some truly convincing CGI in this sort of production.  The FX work on display when Yuan uses the "Five Venoms Fist" is adequate, but the virtual stuntmen during the opening battle scenes continuously threaten to pull the viewer right out of the movie.  The fantastical confrontations with the God of Wushu also have a glossily transparent sheen that ultimately proves distracting.  From a technical standpoint, this is the only element that's lacking.  

The fight scenes are shot in medium shots with lots of rapid movement, giving the action a comic panel feel.  The sound FX give each blow impact.  All in all the approach has a very 90's feel, harking back to when such films were still relatively new to western eyes.  The set pieces toward the end are inventive, combining elements of a three ring circus with that of "tournament"films in which fights take place in an arena in front of an audience.  Special mention should be given to the final confrontation between Su and Yuan, which takes place in the shaft of deep well. 

True Legend is one of the more enjoyable Martial Arts fantasy pictures to emerge in recent years.  It would be right at home during the golden age of the genre, when bootlegged versions of Hong Kong classics where washing up on Western shores with regularity.  It gives the imagination a good workout, and takes viewers on a ride through a world where all things are possible.  It's a place that your inner child will want to visit again and again.


"Predators" Proves Itself a Worthy Reboot

By Scott Tre

Eight people find themselves inexplicably thrown together in a mysterious forest.  Though they all arrived via the same means, none have any idea how or why they are in such a predicament, but all are warriors of one sort or another.  There is the special forces soldier Royce (Adrien Brody), who eventually emerges as the reluctant group leader.  Russian Spetsnaz soldier Nicholai (Oleg Taktarov) shoots first and asks questions later.  Mexican Drug cartel enforcer Chuchillo (Danny Trejo) wields twin Mp5's like a gunfighter out of the old west.  IDF Black Ops Sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga) is the most dangerous woman on earth when peering through the scope of her rifle.  RUF officer Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) cuts a stoic and imposing figure.  Death Row inmate Stans (Walton Goggins) is a incessant chatterbox who is nonetheless dangerous.  The seemingly mute Yakuza enforcer Hanzo's (Louis Ozawa) bewildered demeanor belie his skill with a katana.  Among these fearsome fighters, only the nerdy doctor Edwin (Topher Grace) seems out of his element.

Save for the disgraced doctor, this rag tag bunch of scrappers would seem well equipped to handle anything these mysterious forest throws at them. Alas, as they explore the terrain they realize three decidedly inconvenient truths:

  1. Their predicament is not a coincidence.
  2. The strange forest is actually a strange planet untold light years from the earth.
  3. They are being hunted like wild game by an unseen enemy

As these revelations gradually sink in, the group has little if any time to take stock of the situation and consider any options.  The mysterious hunters give relentless chase, giving the heroes no rest.  Royce, ever the loner, finds himself charged with not only surviving the game, but finding a way home.

Predators is both a franchise reboot and direct sequel to the original.  While it does not disregard to the continuity of the second film, it does not actively acknowledge it either.  The Aliens Vs. Predator films are thankfully discarded like dead carcasses on the side of the road.  Producer Robert Rodriguez and Director Nimrod Antal not only return to the franchises jungle survival roots, but pay loving tribute to the high concept Schwarzenegger vehicle by making Predators a virtual shot for shot remake.  The results are a decidedly mixed bag.

There are any number of call backs to the original.  The locale is the most obvious one, despite it being located on a fictional planet.  The scene where the commando unit joins Sergeant Mack (Bill Duke) in laying waste to an entire patch of jungle is referenced, as is Billy's mano-a-mano confrontation with the Predator.  The strains of Alan Sylvestri's theme music have been interpolated into the score.  Predators also shares the originals fetishism of exotic weaponry.  Royce brandishes an automatic shotgun with a drum magazine.  Nicholai wields a helicopter mounted Gatling gun not too dissimilar to "Ole Painless".  The parallels are endless.

The decision to plop these characters on another planet is a stroke of genius.  It effectively ups the stakes and delves further into the Twilight Zone atmosphere that was vaguely present in the original.  The concept of the original Predator would have been right at home as an entry of the classic sci-fi anthology series, offering an abject lesson in what happens when the roles of predator and prey are reversed.  Predators go even further into sci-fi territory, leaving the makeshift military unit no real escape, as a planet is a little harder to escape from than an  island.

Also interesting is the decision to make these characters of different "tribes".  They have no loyalty to one another, inviting the prospect of infighting that will only complicate the situation.  It's a rather cliched scenario, but it is tailor made for movies of this sort.  With the exception of the deceitful and self serving Dillon (Carl Weathers), the commando unit in the original had gone on countless missions together and where comrades in arms.  They clearly trusted each other with their lives.  The humans in Predators are mostly self serving and would feed each other to the wolves at a moments notice.  Again, hardly original, but it makes sense.

The dialogue seems half baked, consisting of every imaginable tough guy cliche.  Almost every exchange unfolds as expected, robbing many of the quips of their desired impact.  None of it is exactly cringe worthy, but it doesn't add anything to the proceedings either.  Just a little more imagination would have done the screenplay wonders.

Director Nimrod Antal is nowhere near John Mctiernan's skill level when it comes to generating suspense, but he's no slouch either.  The opening passages gain much from simply throwing the characters headlong into the situation with no explanations as to how they got there.  The effect is jarring and disorienting.

Adrien Brody is quite believable as Royce.  He seems to understand that being a good action hero is more about presence and personality than actual acting.  Lacking Arnold's physique, he opts for the silent but deadly shtick.  At times, he seems to be in an unofficial contest with Christian Bale for worst Clint Eastwood impression, but for the most part he doesn't allow himself to go too far overboard.  The original was selling the persona of Arnold as well as the premise.  Predators is smart enough to realize it doesn't have that caliber of star on its hands (though Brody is without question an immensely talented actor) and as a result does not function like a star vehicle.  

The Predators themselves seem a lot less deadly this time around.  In earlier installments it was established that elite commando units and heavily armed gangs/drug cartels were no match for one Predator.  Here, a small group of people with no connections to one another are able to evade more than one predator for an extended period of time.  It feels a bit inconsistent to say the least.  We aren't treated to any strange new weaponry of note.  Still, there is palpable tension whenever one of the dreadlocked warriors appears onscreen.  The pincers that guard their mouths form a fearsome "keep away" sign.  Stan Winston's original design is still every bit as repulsive now as it was in 1987.

Predators is a serviceable B-movie, even lower brow than the original.  It ambitions are meager when taking into account the considerable task it has in front of it.  The AVP hybrids have rendered the once potent franchise limp.  This stripped down reboot will provide a nice trip down memory lane for the faithful, but it could have been a bit more.  On that level, it is very similar to the best of the Planet of the Apes sequels.  It might not stand on its own and it might not hold up to serious scrutiny, but it still gets the blood pumping enough to register a pulse.  If only Rodriguez and Antal had really cut loose and had fun with the concept the way Stephen Hopkins did on the second film.  Predators will do for now, but it is a little too aware of its own legacy.  

Robert Freeman At Long Last Finds Happiness With The "Lovely Ebony Brown"

By Scott Tre

The love life of Robert Freeman has been a freak show of epic proportions.  The long suffering Huey and Riley have had a front row seat as Granddad's questionable taste in women has brought all manners of weirdos into their home.  While this has provided ample fodder for low brow humor, The Boondocks has had yet to show us what is driving Robert's bizarre forays into the modern dating scene.  "Lovely Ebony Brown" adds a bit of closure to the situation, as well as a silver lining (sort of).   

After many failed attempts at meeting women via online dating and social networking sites, Robert dismantles his Facebook page in disgust.  While jogging in the park with Tom Dubois and Uncle Ruckus, he sees his vision of perfection in the young and beautiful Ebony Brown.  He is immediately smitten.  Their first date confirms that she is indeed as perfect as she appears, but self doubt and second guessing prevent Robert from being truly happy with her.

"Lovely Ebony Brown" is the second episode in a row to focus on Robert Freeman.  It reveals a level of insecurity in the character that wasn't evident before.  For all of his wisdom and experience, Robert is prone to the same self destructive tendencies as the rest of us.  He searches for true happiness, yet he is unable to  enjoy it once he has it.  Ebony simply seems too good to be true.  The fact that she is genuinely into him brings all of his insecurities brimming to the surface.

The episode also features some sly commentary on the rather bleak outlook that many black men harbor about black women.  Ebony is beautiful, educated, accomplished and selfless.  The perpetually self hating Ruckus works overtime trying to convince the lovestruck Robert that such a black woman could never exist.  Riley also gives his granddad the worst advice imaginable.  As always, only the introspective Huey seems able to see the situation for what it is.  As far as pop culture references go, there is a sly jab at the museum trip in Ferris Bueller's Day Off that fits in perfectly with the story and themes of the episode.

"Lovely Ebony Brown" is both funny and unexpectedly touching.  Its central message proves useful not only for granddad, but for all of us.  Perhaps Robert has his hands so full with Huey and Riley that he never finds the time to examine himself and figure out what he really wants.  Such is the life of many of America's single parents.  Sometimes we are so focused on our responsibilities that we never bother to try and figure out what would make us happy, or what we would do once we attained the happiness we seek.