Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Firestorm (2014)

Director: Alan Yuen
Notable Cast: Andy Lau, Yao Chen, Gordon Lam, Hu Jun, Ray Lui, Phillip Keung, Kenny Wong, Oscar Leung, Michael Tong

The reach of John Woo has been pretty massive. Whether it’s in Hollywood or Hong Kong, his style of taking mediocre scripts and making them massively entertaining films has been a foundational move for action filmmaking. Going into a film like Firestorm (and no, this not the film with Howie Long), you almost have to assume that it’s going to be John Woo-ish. Which, of course, Firestorm is most definitely inspired by the gun fu, bullet ballet focus. Like many films that pull that direction Firestorm is hindered by a messy script, but the resulting cops n’ robbers entertainment that it presents is a blast to watch still.

Lui Ming-chit (Andy Lau) has spent a good portion of his career in Hong Kong trying to bring down the crime lord Cao (Hu Jun). After a vicious armored truck heist though, he might have the edge to get into the loop of the crime syndicate. How far will he go to take down his nemesis though? Will he risk everything he stands for?

"I have a mask and an uzi...do I look like I'm robbing anything?"
The structure of Firestorm is the film’s biggest obstacle on itself. To put it plainly, there’s too much going on. In essence, one is following two separate storylines. One for our police officer hellbent on bringing down the criminals and one for a recently released member of said criminal organization who has to figure out what his future holds. Both are intriguing, but both are too much for one film to handle. Each one has some solid emotional punches for their characters (although the subplot with Andy Lau and his ex-criminal friend and his daughter was impactful, it could have been emotionally devastating with a bit more time to embellish it), but the film has trouble balancing the two and still making a film that explodes with action. Director Alan Yuen does an admirable job with a majority of the film, but it’s simply too much script, too many characters, and not enough time for it to work with the intertwining stories like it could have.

Outside of that, Firestorm is a fucking blast. Alan Yuen does an admirable job with the action set pieces (although his transitions seriously need work) and the film is populated with strong charismatic actors to pull it off in what little time they have. The film is appropriately diverse in its action too. It has gravity defying fist fights on a platform between buildings, heists, cat and mouse chases, car stunts, and a massive Heat inspired finale with enough explosions and artistic bullet work to make the obvious inspiration, John Woo, blush.

"Cough it up, crook!"
Although I have seen better action cop thrillers this year with better scripts and more impactful writing, Firestorm is still a massively entertaining John Woo inspired romp. It has all the elements of a winning film, it just can’t quite get them to work together in a more cohesive way. If you’re looking for a solid gun fu film though, it’s hard not to recommend Firestorm even with its flaws.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Mystery Road (2014)

Director: Ivan Sen
Notable Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Tony Barry, Jack Thompson

One has to admire a person that damn near does all of the major pieces for a film. If I am not mistaken, Ivan Sen might as well have acted all the roles in the film as he not only write and directed Mystery Road, but he was also the editor, cinematographer, and composer for the film. Considering the high-end execution of this subtle and slow burning drama thriller, I have to commend this film for those looking for a rather atmospheric flick... even if the writing comes off as a bit predictable and it leaves some of the subtle subplots feeling unfinished.

Jay (Pedersen) returns to the small Outback town he grew up in as a detective with a new outlook on life. He doesn’t return under the best circumstances as he begins to investigate the death of a young girl left in a ditch. The locals seem hesitant to let him back into their affairs though and once he starts to dig; he uncovers a much bigger crime that might leave him buried in his birthplace.

Outbackin' it up.
One thing I do have to recommend about Mystery Road, it’s that the film certainly sticks with you long after the film is done. The story is fairly simple and Sen plays it with even less complication as he focuses on adding in more subtlety than explosive moments. This does hinder the film from reaching the heights of other crime dramas like Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River which feature those kinds of explosive performances and emotionally devastating endings, but the resulting execution for the film is pretty impressive. In fact, a lot of the plot is so subtle that minute details feel like they might play bigger roles later in the film like a forensic phone call that details about the weird genetics of the dog bite on the victim…which is more or less dropped to being visual cues later on. The attention to the small details of the dialogue did keep my attention front and center on the plot and it made the slow burn tempo still a riveting watch.

Partnered with some stellar performances all the way around, particularly from Hugo Weaving whose shady police character devours scenes whole, Mystery Road does have a lot going for it. The biggest issue that remains for the film though is the shaky third act. Not to give too much away, but the action oriented finale feels a bit out of the blue and many of these subtle characters are left without much of an emotional punch. The father-daughter storyline felt terribly underplayed and the finale made the missed opportunity even greater as the film plays up her ‘disappearance’ as something much bigger than it turned out to be. It simply plays out in the most predictable ways with far too many characters left to the wolves as the plot attempted to wrap itself up nicely.

Eye on the prize!
All in all though, I was particularly impressed with the sheer execution of the acting and meticulous attention to detail in Mystery Road. Sen has an eye from some subtle and impactful visuals and his character work is top notch, but the script could have used a few more drafts to flesh out more of the emotional aspects of the film. This is a director to keep an eye out for in the underground genre world as this film felt more like a test than a true attack on the art form he was attempting. Mystery Road might be flawed, but in many ways it’s these flaws that make the great aspects so appealing.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Eiko Taki, Miwa Takada, Mikijiro Hira, Kichijiro Ueda, Akatake Kono, Koichi Mizuhara, Ikuko Mori

“It’s not that I’m strong. It’s that they’re weak.” –Zatoichi

Considering that the Zatoichi franchise kicked off in 1962 and the ninth entry of the series dropped in 1964 (the fourth film in the series just that year actually), you just have to assume that there are going to be some lackluster entries. Not that Adventures of Zatoichi is a bad film overall, this series has yet to truly have a terrible film, but it is one that definitely plays it safe. For fans of Zatoichi it’s still a fine entry that contains all the elements we have come to love from these films, but the overall quality is a big step down.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu)has decided to visit a small village for New Year’s day, but on the way there he is asked by a stranger to deliver a note to a young woman in one of the inns. He accomplishes the task, but when he arrives he finds the town in dire tension from a corrupt magistrate. He also becomes involved in a murder mystery from another young woman who is looking for her father, the head of a village nearby that disappeared when coming to take to the magistrate. What Zatoichi will find is a conspiracy that digs deeper and weaves all of these issues together.

Long walks is how he gets all the girls.
Truthfully there are many things to like about Adventures of Zatoichi, but few things to love about the film. The plot is an intriguing intertwining of separate threads that build into one massive mystery, but its fairly predictable through. The fight sequences might be impactful and well choreographed, but they are a bit sparse and the director fails to capitalize on making them as memorable as they could be including the finale with the soft falling snow at night. There is intriguing subtext about fathers and their sons, but the film misses some of the stronger emotional beats for it – particularly when we start to believe that perhaps the local drunk might be Zatoichi’s father. So as you can see there is a lot of opportunity for this film to build on its basics, but it misses a lot of the punches it needed to rise about being mediocre.

Perhaps the biggest issue that I have with Adventures of Zatoichi though is the lacking antagonist for the film. Most of the other films feature a somewhat memorable and divisive ronin for Zatoichi to square off against in the finale. In this film, they tease a big rivalry between a new ronin Gounosuke (played with a vicious subtlety by Mikijiro Hira of Three Outlaw Samurai and more recently 13 Assassins) and each of their meetings is lightning dynamic…but alas, like all of the examples from above, it’s too rare. Even their battle at the end misses a bit of emotional punch from being too brief. With the two phenomenal actors in these roles, this is easily one of the biggest missed opportunities.

The father/son theme runs deep in this film.
For casual Zatoichi fans, Adventures is a safe and unoffensive bet. It’s certainly not as terrible as what many other reviewers and fans seem to say it is, but it’s definitely one of the weaker entries thus far in the series. At its core, Adventures really just lacks a distinct voice like many of the other entries do and unfortunately it undermines many of the better elements. It’s a decent flick, but hardly the best. 

Written by Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tekken 2: Kazuya's Revenge (2014)

Director: Wych Kaos
Notable Cast: Kane Kosugi, Gary Daniels, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rade Serbedzija, Kelly Wenham, Paige Lindquist

When it comes to video game adaptations, fighting games seem to be the most popular to be translated over and, generally speaking, most of them suck. For my favorite fighting game franchise, Tekken, the first live action film was a massive let down. The cheese and terrible acting hindered a potentially fun and action packed film and lead me thinking that it killed any potential for a film franchise from one of my favorite game series. I was wrong. Out of the blue comes Tekken 2: Kazuya’s Revenge (also known as Tekken: A Man Called X – whatever the hell that means) and I was actually excited again. Kane Kosugi as Kazuya? Gary Daniels? A less is more kind of plot synopsis? I was stoked to see what they low budget actioner could bring to this franchise. As it turns out, this film is actually worse than the first one. Worse. Way worse. Enough that I have to say it’s the worst action film I’ve seen this year and that’s saying something.

Kazuya (Kosugi) wakes up in a hotel room. His memory is wiped and a police unit is after him…on top of that he’s “saved” by Rhona (Wenham) and taken to The Minister (Serbedzija). The Minister enlists his service as an assassin in the city, but Kazuya is just starting to unravel his past…to discover what his future holds.

I'd pretend to have amnesia too if I signed on to do this movie.
I’m guessing that this film wasn’t written to be a Tekken film initially. The premise of a man suffering from amnesia being used as an assassin isn’t all that original…and the way that Tekken 2 goes about using it is about as generic as possible. So what if they named a few of the characters after the game fighters? It’s still a very basic story. The terrible storytelling doesn’t sell the entire concept either. We are introduced to a pseudo-post apocalyptic world with ‘districts’ and…stuff. Kosugi is given an amnesiac assassin where he rarely is given much to get emotional over outside of some awkward flashbacks and an ill conceived romantic subplot that features one of the worst performances from an actress all year. He sort of wanders around confused and gets involved with other characters that we don’t give two shits about. Gary Daniels returns as his character Bryan Fury from the first Tekken, not that you would recognize him as he doesn’t even look like the same guy, and he shows up for a paycheck and disappears after a couple of minutes of worthless story. Even at its basic foundations, Tekken 2 is a terrible film: uninspired and lazy.

It’s not like every straight to DVD action flick needs a great story and great acting to pull off an entertaining film though. Most of them don’t. Even in the execution though, Tekken 2 feels utterly tired and insipid. Director Wych Kaos (whom you might know as the director of the eye-gouging bad Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever) has no idea how to pace the film or give it the depth needed to even begin to sell its terrible script. The fight choreography might be just a tad better than the first film, but the lacking action in the finale, the disappointing match between Daniels and Kosugi, and the super serious tone of the film make sure that none of the action is enjoyable. I didn’t even have fun during this movie.

He's fighting in a generic set with generic baddies. Yawn.
As an avid Tekken and action film fan, I can’t recommend Tekken 2 to ANYONE. At least the first film had the sad ability to be unintentionally entertaining with its ridiculous concepts and silly fight sequences. Tekken 2 is a sad excuse for an action film that has no character work, a nonsensical and poorly structured script, and action that has no meaning or depth. Even if you remotely liked the first film, I will just throw it out there to skip this one. It’s not worth the time or effort.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Falcon Rising (2014)

Director: Ernie Barbarash
Notable Cast: Michael Jai White, Neal McDonough, Laila Ali, Lateef Crowder, Millie Ruperto, Jimmy Navarro, Masashi Odate

“God has nothing to do with this. You made your own choices.”

Michael Jai White has been dealing with TV and other bit acting parts for far too long. They’ve tried to give him franchises (Black Dynamite, Spawn) but continually they get shoved onto the back burner by studios. Luckily, someone seems to have their head on straight by attempting to give him one more franchise, but this time it’s a low budget old school actioner that wouldn’t require gimmicks or big bank rolls to get going. This film is Falcon Rising. While it’s not going to be winning any awards for its relatively basic plot line and old school 80s concepts, Falcon Rising is quite the entertaining flick hinged on some solid action set pieces that will have action fans clamoring for more.

John Chapman (Michael Jai White) can’t seem to cope with heading back to civilian life after his experiences in war. He struggles with purpose in his life and even though his sister (Laila Ali) tries to help, she’s so busy helping in the favelas of Brazil to always be there. When she is brutally attacked and left in a coma though, John takes it onto his shoulders to head down there and find out just who and why she was attacked. With the help of an old friend in the government (McDonough) he might just uncover a larger conspiracy at play.

"I'm here for some pain medication."
There can be a beauty to low budget straight to home video action films like Falcon Rising. Sure the budget obviously hurts the film in a lot of ways, particularly a film that tries to be as ambitious as this one, but the creativity in play with the execution and old school approach to its action lends itself to playing to its audience with a fair amount of confidence. At the foundation, sure the script is a bit cliché with Chapman looking to uncover what happened and having to essentially kick his ass to the top and a bit too much thought into the ‘conspiracy’ will unveil quite a few plot holes, but the approach is heartfelt and ultimately charismatic if that counts for anything.

Perhaps the biggest issue that Falcon Rising faces is just how serious it takes itself. It touches on a lot of bigger issues with its in-the-basics plot including police corruption, poverty, drug influence, and PTSD. At times the film wants to be a little bit First Blood and it doesn’t quite have the cast or script to pull it off. Chapman is a pretty strong character to build a franchise on (as indicated by its open ending and even the title Falcon Rising) and while it lacks some of the fun that Michael Jai White usually brings to these kind of films – the latter half gets much better and even has him dropping a few one liners – this debut for the character is a great kick off for all intensive purposes.

Ass kicking brought you by the letter "O" - as in, "Oh, shit."
As for the action, Falcon Rising delivers that in spades on all fronts. Director Ernie Barbarash is going to be one of those directors to be ranked up there with Florentine as one of the greats of underground action cinema (both Assassination Games and 6 Bullets rock hard) and the combination of hand to hand combat and gun work is pretty top notch for a low budget actioner. I do wish that Michael Jai White would have gone one on one a bit longer with Lateef Crowder (who played in both Undisputed 3 and Tekken as a highlight for throw-away roles), but the finale is still a blast.

Falcon Rising is not a perfect film and its writing can be a bit of a burden on all of the great aspects of the film, but the combination of Michael Jai White’s screen charisma, the action direction of Barbarash, and a focus on building a franchise make it one of the gems in action for the year. It’s not a film for everyone, but action fans will delight in all of its old school fist and gun glory. Here’s to hoping for a long lasting series!

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, September 14, 2014

TOP TEN: Godzilla Films

Godzilla: King of the Monsters...and franchises!

With the home release of Legendary’s Godzilla reboot on the horizon, we felt it was high time to build another Blood Brothers top ten list for one of our favorite franchise of all time. Prior to the release of the latest installment (and second American attempt at kick starting a US franchise for Big G), I blasted through all of the Godzilla films in an attempt to relive my youth and refresh my memory. As I went through the films, I ranked each one to create this top ten list. Included with each entry is a brief explanation of why it deserves to make the list and the best Godzilla WTF Moment of the film. I hope that our readers enjoy this list as it was a hard one to finalize for me due to my life long relationship with the King of the Monsters. If you agree or disagree, feel free to spit some blood in the comments section below with your bloody two-cents. Until then, enjoy Blood Brothers’ Top Ten Godzilla Films!



Perhaps my favorite era of Godzilla is the 2000s series, where continuity finally seemed to matter, the special effects were top notch, and the series decided to push a few boundaries by moving Godzilla away from being a full on good guy or villain as a character. After the disappointing previous entry, the series returns to one of its other iconic characters with Mechagodzilla for another epic showdown. While the concept of this one is fairly ridiculous, the focus on stronger character depth adds a more humane aspect to the kaiju proceedings…of which the final act is pretty awesome anyway.

09. GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (2003)


This direct sequel to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (and various other Toho films like Mothra) actually improves on many elements of the previous entry as it pulls further from some of the comic book lead characters and adds a bit more drama to the mix. Not to mention it’s always awesome to have Mothra involved again as a hero of sorts. The final act is ridiculously epic and worth the price of purchase alone.



Say what you will about the cheesy elements of King Kong Vs. Godzilla, but this film is a fucking riot from minute one. While I have only seen some shitty versions of the original Japanese cut of the film, even the American version (complete with the most watered down newscaster cut scenes known to man) is a blast to watch. Rarely does this film make sense thanks to some issues with the script and obvious attempts at just being outrageous, but this one has some of the most iconic moments of the series…even if that includes Kong being airlifted by weather balloons while drunk on berry juice. Not to mention you get to see Godzilla punch his way out of an iceberg.



This is easily the most controversial choice from the series to make my top ten list for the Godzilla franchise, but I’ll be damned if I don’t have a blast watching Godzilla: Final Wars time and time again. It throws in everything into the mix. Relentless kaiju battles for the last half, all of the iconic Toho monsters and freak plot progressions, martial arts fight sequences, motorcycle chases, aliens, enemies that morph into different forms, and super cheesy CGI mixed with the rubber suit vs model madness. It’s crazy eclectic, but it succeeds in a B-grade film sort of way to be so entertaining that it rarely pulls off of the gas pedal. For that, it ends up being one of my favorites and one of the most interesting entries into this franchise.




I love the look and arch-nemesis status of Ghidorah from the original series, but too often he was thrown in with not enough back story or as a filler enemy in later entries. For his debut though, Ghidorah is treated as a truly vicious and world ending threat for humanity and thusly, kaiju all over. This film also succeeds in its structure as we see other iconic monsters (Rodan and Mothra) having to team together to defeat this latest threat in the final act. It’s almost like the film plays out as a morality tale about putting aside differences for the betterment of our world and despite its somewhat silly ‘alien’ plot thread, works impressively as a science fiction tale. 

05. GODZILLA (2014)


While the reviews originally came out mixed for this newest slab of kaiju destruction at the hands of Big G, I loved it. It teases with the audience and really brings Godzilla bravely into a modern era, throwing in just enough references to previous entries for the fans and adding in some new material for the young folks unfamiliar with the franchise. While it’s the only full CGI Godzilla flick to make this list, director Edwards knows how to shoot an action sequence with kaiju for this day and age and the film has one of the best fights in the last act. Critics can bitch about all the writing issues they want, but I'm guessing that they haven't seen many of the other films to see how it fits into the franchise. I'm guess none of them really remember the horrid Godzilla Vs. Megalon.



For this entry, the series takes a darker and almost Lovecraftian turn. Destroyah might be one of Godzilla’s most vicious foes as he shifts and splits into various forms as unrelenting ass kicking. Not only that, but Godzilla is threatening to go all nuclear meltdown on us (giving him a smoky orange glow) and his now grown son – a story thread from the last few – is going to have to help him take out the new monster. The stakes are super high, the human element is one marked with panic, and the top notch costuming make this one a must see. This is one of the few Godzilla entries that even has a bit of a horror streak to it.



I’m not entirely sold on the original Godzilla series that lasted through the 70s, as one can see from this list, as that series focused more on making Godzilla a protector of Earth and heavily focused on science fiction aspects, but pitting Big G versus the ‘real’ protector of nature Mothra was an awesome idea. Mothra might have some hard to swallow fantasy aspects to it, but the resulting multi-tiered battles in the film make this one instantly memorable and well balanced with a human stance that would quickly get lost in the shuffle in later entries. It can be a bit cheesy, but the resulting mix of thematic moral lessons and kaiju throwdowns is worth it.


Coming off strong from his 90s trilogy of Gamera films, director Shusuke Kaneko takes his entry into the Godzilla franchise in wholly new directions. For Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (often shortened to GMK,) he establishes Godzilla as the ultimate bad guy – powered by the ghosts of those killed in WWII nonetheless – and humanity must awaken the three protectors of Earth to stop him from annihilating all of Japan. This entry is substantially darker, more violent, and heavier than almost any of the previous entries as Godzilla is fucking ruthless (pure white eyes and all) to the point that you’re not sure who will win at the end. [Spoiler] Particularly when Godzilla fucking executes Baragon at the mid waypoint. Nothing is safe in this film and the resulting flick is awesome kaiju ecstasy through and through.

01. GODZILLA (1954)

The obvious choice for the best Godzilla film to be made thus far, the original Godzilla still reigns supreme as king of the monsters. With remarkably little screen time to actually destroy things, Godzilla remains a heavy presence through the strong character actions and interactions as the symbolism of Japan’s fear about the aftermath of the nuclear destruction in WWII. Godzilla is less of a monster and more of a symbol in this film and it works in spades to deliver a thoughtful film that parallels reality with a giant monster film onscreen. It also has a very memorable city destruction sequence for those looking for some kaiju action.

Agree or disagree with this list? Spit some blood below and let us know which films you think should have made the Top Ten Godzilla Films list!

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Replacement Killers, The (1998)

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Notable Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, Kenneth Tsang, Jurgen Prochnow, Til Schweiger, Danny Trejo, Clifton Collins Jr

With the upcoming release of The Equalizer, I felt it was high time to revisit director Antoine Fuqua’s debut feature film The Replacement Killers. As a young man just discovering the brilliance of Hong Kong cinema in the late 90s and early 00s I was obsessed with this film. The combination of flashy American action style and the badassness of Chow Yun Fat really hit the spot. Rewatching the film as an adult has lead me to a few conclusions: firstly, the film is not as great as memory would indicate and secondly, the film is still utterly badass in many ways. Sure it’s a pretty simple film and it lacks some cohesive narrative at times, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I still was massively entertained by the entire thing. It might not be as classic as other Chow Yun Fat action vehicles like Hard Boiled or The Killer, but it’s still a blast.

John Lee (Chow Yun Fat) is indebted to Mr. Wei and he owes him three assassinations. The first ones are easy, rival gangsters in the US that don’t sport any threat to the gun fu talents of his double wielding handguns. The third however is a kill he cannot bring himself to finish and Mr. Wei is not happy with that. Now John Lee must get help from a rogue forger (Sorvino) to get out of the country before his replacement killers find him and make sure he stays…permanently.

Having Chow Yun Fat at your side means you're already winning.
Antoine Fuqua’s debut is, generally speaking, a mixed effort. The script is rather plain and there isn’t a lot of back story to build on for the various characters to have the emotional impact that they could have. Chow Yun Fat plays the vicious hitman with a heart…again. Mira Sorvino plays an edgy document forger that seemingly never has time to put on a damn shirt under her jacket. Yawn. At its core, this film is a pretty by-the-numbers action thriller that rarely inspires the kind of dedication that it could have with a bit more connection and depth to the various characters to heighten the situational tension. The narrative is predictable too which doesn’t help matter at all. Oh jeez, he has a change of heart and decides he needs to put a stop to the violence. Tell me more, movie.

The reason that this film is utterly badass is that it feels like the bastardized child between a 90s music video and a John Woo film. First time film director Antoine Fuqua owes a lot his style to John Woo for this picture (either that or the producers forced his hand towards that direction) and the resulting combination of bullet ballets and the bright colors and quirky side characters is something of the perfect example of 90s style. The film is littered with gun fights, done with the delicate balance of a dance ala Woo and Chow Yun Fat films previous like Hard Boiled, and The Replacement Killers keeps the pacing so quick and dirty that its hard not to just enjoy it for what it is as it vomits style-over-substance right in front of you. This film also has the benefit of having one of the greatest B-cult secondary casts of all time featuring the likes of Michael Rooker as the main cop and a set of villains that includes Kenneth Tsang, Jurgen Prochnow, Til Schweiger, and the ever awesome Danny Trejo. Trejo and Chow Yun Fat have a great gun battle on a fire escape in the final act that makes The Replacement Killers worth the watch just by itself.

Michael Rooker is always awesome...gun or not.
While The Replacement Killers is not a perfect film with its cliché writing and often muddled script, it does have the benefit of feeling like a music video version of a John Woo film. It’s littered with fun and charming B-grade elements (seeing Chow Yun Fat stop himself from sliding in a car wash with the barrels of his duel handguns for example) and for those looking for a solid enough revenge action thriller it’s a decent choice. It still gets a big old recommendation from me.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, September 7, 2014

November Man, The (2014)

Director: Roger Donaldson
Notable Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic

"This is my scenario."

Since leaving the world of James Bond after Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s career has been a roller coaster one where he has refused to be cornered into doing Bond knock offs. When the trailer for The November Man hit online, I was shocked to see a Bond-esque film featuring the enigmatic Brosnan drop…theatrically on top of it. Don’t let those adverts fool you though; The November Man is NOT a Bond knock off. In fact, it’s relatively far from it. This film is a throwback style spy thriller that earns its ‘R’ rating with violence and some darker thematic material. It’s plot and character heavy and it came as a complete and utter pleasant surprise.

Devereaux (Brosnan) has been out of the game for five years or so living comfortably in solitude in Europe. When his ex-handler comes out to give him an op at the request of a Russian woman, he can’t say no. Unfortunately, the job is massively complicated and Devereaux is quick to find out that he might just be a pawn in a much bigger game. Now he’s on the hunt for a woman who knows information about an upcoming Russian President elect and he’s being hunted by his own protégé (Bracey). Shit has, quite frankly, hit the fan.

Bullets kill people. So does Devereaux.
The best part of The November Man – and perhaps the most surprising – is how much of an anti-hero Brosnan plays in the role of Devereaux. Seriously, this guy is charming, as Brosnan always is on screen, but he’s a cold son of a bitch at times and it’s a delightful role that Brosnan seems to revel in with the film. Whether he’s dropping f-bombs, brashly party crashing on a strip club, or holding his protégé’s girlfriend hostage (the latter resulting in some of the best intense moments of the film), Brosnan is wholly up for the entire gig and plays the balance between cold killer and thoughtful hero with remarkable ease. If only his later Bond films would have utilized this more serious side of his acting abilities then perhaps he wouldn’t have been such a Roger Moore clone in the end. Luckily, this film makes up for a lot of it.

From there The November Man, like many of the newer throwback thrillers in the vein of Jack Reacher or Dead Man Down, caters heavily to a twisting plot painted with darker content. At times I was wishing that they would slow it down just a tad to give a bit more character work for the slew of characters in the film (his protégé Mason, despite the focus on him in the advertisements, tends to be one of the weaker characters overall), but the film moves at such a quick pace that rarely did I have time to notice the small things until well after the film had ended. The November Man does throw in plenty of action-oriented sequences to keep that pacing up and they work ridiculously well in the cat-n-mouse chase aspect of the film. Director Donaldson seems to know what it takes to make an old school written thriller like this appeal to a modern audience and he injects just enough pizzazz to keep the film a high-octane entertainer. There is even a pretty impressive fistfight between teacher and student in the final act that impressed the action fan in me.

Say cheese.
The November Man is the kind of film that probably won’t attract a lot of massive attention from mainstream moviegoers, but it should. It’s a well-crafted action thriller that earns its merits from great characters and a relentless pacing punctuated with some action set pieces. While I’m sure Brosnan won’t see the Neeson bump that Taken gave him, but The November Man remains one of the biggest surprise of 2014 and one that hopefully earn Brosnan another franchise.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

Director:Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Gen Kimura, Shosaku Sugiyama, Hizuro Takachiho, Nobuo Kaneko, Ikuko Mori

“You call yourselves human beings? So long as you can fill your own purses, you don’t give a damn what it might mean to someone else. Not even to an innocent child.”

When it comes down to it and your franchise is sliding in quality at a decent rate like Zatoichi had been for the last couple of films then go back to basics and find your footing. That is exactly what Fight, Zatoichi, Fight does. Despite its silly grindhouse sounding title, the franchise whips back to have Kenji Misumi, director of the first film, to helm this eighth entry and it reverts the style back into the character driven dramatic territory. It might not be the thrill n’ kill style that fans will have gotten used to with the last few films, but the thoughtful writing and impact is a welcome change of pace.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) continues to wander his way around Japan, desperately avoiding assassins at every turn. When a young woman traveling with her young baby son is killed by ronin who mistake her carriage for Zatoichi’s, Zatoichi takes it upon himself to deliver the baby to his father come hell or high water.

Dark alleyways will not help against a blind man.
When I first read that Fight, Zatoichi, Fight would essentially throw in the gimmick that our heroic blind swordsman would be hindered by a baby, I was skeptical. I figured it would end up much like the previous entry with its comedic focus and silly fight sequences. This is not the case with this film though. Misumi decidedly takes a far more dramatic tone for the film focusing more on how the baby affects Zatoichi’s character than using it as a gimmick for entertainment. It’s shockingly effective. Katsu once again owns these various scenes milking them for those long dramatic beats and tugs on the viewer’s heartstrings as he makes a connection with another human being like we have never seen before. The addition of a ‘nanny’ – a thief hired by Zatoichi to help him – adds to the emotional impact too in the end of the film as this rag tag family fights their way to deliver this child.

That being said, the biggest thing that does suffer from the new focus on characters and interactions is the finale. While the film does move briskly with plenty of fighting throughout, the last few films have really set a new standard for an exciting last act and this is where Fight, Zatoichi, Fight struggles the most. While the film has a lot of emotional impact in the last 20 minutes, the actual final battle seems a bit brief and lacks some of the creative spectacle that the previous films had. I mean, outside of Zatoichi having to battle while partially on fire.

A patchwork family.
While Fight, Zatoichi, Fight might not be the most exciting of films as it lacks a bit of the thrill n’ kill style of the more grind oriented entries, the return to character driven dramatic beats is a welcome change of pace and ultimately makes this eighth entry better than the last few. The emotions run stronger, Katsu delivers another memorable performance, and the film is paced damn near perfectly. Had the finale been a bit more intense, then this one might have ranked up there with the best. As is, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a strong entry moving in the right direction.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Monday, September 1, 2014

Need For Speed (2014)

Director: Scott Waugh
Notable Cast: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Michael Keaton, Scott Mescudi, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson

When it comes to film adaptations of videogames, I can’t say I necessarily have high expectations. When it’s an adaptation of a racing game, then color my expectations even lower than normal. These expectations might be the reason I was so pleasantly surprised with the quality of Need For Speed. It’s definitely not a perfect film, but when your core basis is a game where you simply outrace others and run from cops then most things are going to be an upgrade in quality. The film does tend to be a mixed bag at times as it blends the various aspects of race, drama, and action, but overall it does hold it’s own.

Tobey (Paul) has had trouble making ends meet for his garage and the late night races don’t quite do it. When an old nemesis Dino (Cooper) wants him to work on the a dream car for big money, he can’t say no…but things spiral out of control and it leaves Tobey convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. To prove his innocence when he gets out, he looks to challenge Dino to a race he can’t refuse…but he’s got a long way to go and a short time to do it in.

"Oh yeah, I'm in a video game movie."
I think the key to the success of Need For Speed lies in the hands of director Scott Waugh. As a former stuntman and stunt coordinator, he simply gets it when it comes to a film like this. Right away in the opening race sequence, it’s obvious that he has a knack for filming and owning action sequences with the night color palettes and smart camera work. None of that quick edit bullshit, he shows us objects moving through space and paces it perfectly. He does this consistently throughout the film, owning the car stunts throughout (explosions too!) no matter how ridiculous the script seems to get. By the finale, the biggest nod the namesake game franchise, I felt like he might be one of the best directors to hit the action scene in quite some time.

From there though, the film is a bit more hit or miss. Aaron Paul is given a character that’s almost too subtle with his under brow stares and lacking dialogue and many of the dramatic beats are a bit forced – particularly when it comes to his rivalry with Domic Cooper’s character Dino which includes a really awkward old girlfriend subplot that doesn’t really work. Luckily, Need For Speed seemingly knows this and doesn’t spend too much time with extensive character moments and keeps the pacing fast and furious (see what I did there?). The chemistry between Paul and Poots is fun and works much better than I would have ever expected and a silly running commentary from Michael Keaton’s reclusive racing host is B-grade hilarity. Where the film doesn’t succeed in deep thoughtful dramatic moments, it makes up for in fun charismatic streaks.

It's a car. It's a plane...nope, it's just a car.
While Need For Speed isn’t an Oscar contender, for a video game adaptation it’s one of the best. The pacing is strong despite being a bit overlong and Waugh takes a sub-mediocre script and makes it a fun and action oriented film that’s worthy of the namesake. This was definitely one of the bigger surprises for 2014 and one that comes with my recommendation for those who enjoy a good car film.

Written By Matt Reifschneider