Sunday, November 30, 2014

See No Evil 2 (2014)

Directors: Sylivia Soska, Jen Soska
Notable Cast: Danielle Harris, Katharine Isabelle, Kane, Chelan Simmons, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Greyston Holt, Lee Majdoub

I was not a fan of the first See No Evil. It was too silly, too focused on that early 00s slasher style, and hard to buy into with its generic characters. It was fun in that B-grade film sort of way, but I don’t drink enough to truly enjoy that film. Thusly, I was somewhat baffled by the announcement of the sequel almost a decade (?!) after the first. I was even more baffled by the slew of ‘scream queens’ that signed onto the film including the ever charming Danielle Harris and Katherine Isabelle. Then it floored me when I read that the underrated and super talented Soska Sisters would be handling the directorial duties. Could it be that See No Evil 2 would be the film I so wanted from the original? In a way, yes it is. It’s more serious and the adherence to slasher tropes certainly doesn’t invoke the eye rolling as the first one did. In another way, no it isn't all that I wanted as See No Evil 2 tends to flounder with the blend of artful atmosphere and classic slasher elements. In the end, it’s just a mixed bag.

The night after the events of the first film, our villainous monster of a killer Jacob Goodnight (Kane) is on his way to the morgue. Unfortunately for our graveyard shift workers looking for a slow night to celebrate the birthday of their colleague Amy (Harris), he isn’t quite as dead as he would seem. Now it’s a race for survival as the group attempts to get out of the morgue before Goodnight puts them all to sleep.

Victor Crowley couldn't stop her...good luck, Goodnight.
Initially, I was loving See No Evil 2. The Soska Sisters proved they could do heavy horror character work with their phenomenal flick American Mary and they pull from that guide book for the first third of this one. The two main characters are delightfully real and their chemistry onscreen is effective, adding some fun (if not rather cliché) dynamics to the group that fills itself out with fodder for the slaughter like the asshole jock brother and the skanky friend. However, the wild card in this set up is the quirky and screen devouring work from Isabelle whose awkward friend adds a bit of tongue-in-cheek oddity to rather serious proceedings. The Soska Sisters add just enough artful atmosphere and thoughtful translation to a generic script to set up the film for success. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully last. Despite some solid efforts to create fresh feeling sets in an obvious low budget/one building second and third act, the film quickly becomes redundant and trudges along. There isn’t enough of the religious subtext for Goodnight to give him that edgy element (although there is a rather intriguing scene where his flashbacks interrupt his killing of the skanky character – her name eludes me unsurprisingly – but the film misses out on this opportunity to run with it) and it succumbs to the slasher formula too much to be nearly as interesting as it could have been. If the first film was too silly, it’s at this point that See No Evil 2 became almost too serious and it makes some of the more fun moments in the kills and chases feel a bit awkward. If it weren’t for the last ten minutes of the movie (where it takes some fun wicked turns and ends on a much stronger note), the film would have never lived up to its set up.

She takes 'hanging out' to new levels.
Perhaps it was my lofty expectations with the Soska Sisters at the helm that lead me down a path of disappointment for See No Evil 2, but this long awaited sequel lacked some of the fun to be entertaining and missed out on too many opportunities to take the film to the next level. The onscreen ensemble did a decent job and the Soska Sisters obviously did the best they could with the generic script they had. In the end though, See No Evil 2 sort of stumbles after a strong start only able to recover in fleeting moments.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Outlaw Brothers (1990)

Director: Frankie Chan
Notable Cast: Frankie Chan, Yukari Oshima, Siu Chung Mok, Kiu Wai Miu, Sheila Chan

The work of Frankie Chan is not well known outside of the deeper fans of martial arts films. This is mostly due to the fact that he stayed behind the scenes as a director, composer, or a fight director. Outside of the villain role in The Prodigal Son and his directorial work on the mediocre Legendary Amazons, I can’t say I was fully aware of his contributions to Hong Kong cinema until I started doing some research on this film, Outlaw Brothers. This film, however, exists purely because of him. He directed it, choreographed it, scored it, and acted as one of the leads in it. While Outlaw Brothers has some issues with some of the silliness of the plots and surface level thinking, for Hong Kong action fans the film hits all of the right buttons.

James (Frankie Chan) and Bond (Siu Chung Mok) have created a very successful life for themselves by stealing high end cars as guns for hire. James, however, finds himself at a crossroads when a local and highly skilled police officer (Yukari Oshima) starts to investigate him for the car thefts. He decides to play a game of it and finds himself falling in love with the strong willed police officer and takes this as a sign to get out of the business. Not that it is as easy as it seems when he finds his sister is accidentally involved with a ruthless crime syndicate. Now he will have to take his street skills to the big guns to find a way out.

If that outfit isn't as 80s as it gets...
While the plot seemingly feels like your average comedic crime caper with a hero trying to escape the life for love and being repeatedly pulled back in, what makes Outlaw Brothers so much fun is just how ridiculously action packed the film plays out. Frankie Chan (serving as lead actor and chief fight choreographer) might lack a lot of the charm to pull of the some of the chemistry and humor of the film, but his fight work is fucking phenomenal. Blending traditional kung fu fights with some outrageous stunt work, this film consistently delivers on the goods. A broom sequence in the opening is vintage Jackie Chan style through and through in the blend of humor and ass kickery, the finale blends two fight sequences intercut with weapons and a questionable use of chickens, and a car chase in the middle portion features enough crazy dangerous stunts I’m shocked US safety laws allowed it to be shown even decades after its release.

The problem then remains that the film falters to take advantage of some of its assets to blend the action and comedy together. Namely it doesn’t give Yukari Oshima a very good character to be one of the leads. She has quite a bit of screen presence and her action sequences are a blast, but her chemistry with Frankie Chan is mostly miss and the romantic triangle is poorly arranged and often forced. The same goes for a lot of the other subplots included Bond and his girlfriend, the sister and her abusive husband, and the random emergence of the villains in the last half.

He's a huge fan of kung fu.
Luckily, Outlaw Brothers rides on its action and 80s silliness to still be a very entertaining film. Sure this 80s Hong Kong actioner has some pretty big issues with the writing and some of the subplot execution, but I still had a pretty massive grin on my face the entire time I was watching it. Even though the end product is hit or miss, Outlaw Brothers definitely makes me want to go start collecting some of Frankie Chan’s other stuff…which is recommendation enough.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)

Director: Akira Inoue

Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Norihei Miki, Mikko Tsubouchi, Takeshi Kato, Fujio Harumoto, Sachiko Kobayashi, Sonosuke Sawamura, Gen Kimura

“I don’t know who sent you, but you only get one life. You should guard it more carefully.” – Zatoichi

There have been many faces to the blind swordsman Zatoichi we have seen thus far. Zatoichi, the antihero. Zatoichi, the blamed. Zatoichi, the savior. Zatoichi, the father. Yet, Zatoichi’s Revenge showcases a rather new aspect for our lovable and overtly deadly protagonist: Zatoichi, the feminist. Now back in 1965 I’m sure that word didn’t have the meaning as it does today and I’m not here to get all political or stand on some sort of social soapbox – but again, it’s simply a new facet to the multitalented franchise and one that shows just how remarkable this series is in its tenth entry. And while Revenge lacks a bit of the emotional punch as some of the better films, the combination of thoughtful pacing, strong visuals, and well-written characters makes it one of the stronger entries.

The continually wandering Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) comes across one of his old homes, a town where he learned his massage trade from a kind old teacher. When he finds out that his old master has been killed and that his daughter has been sold into prostitution, Zatoichi uncovers a political and yakuza scheme that will have him on the run and fighting for the lives of a plethora of wrongfully indebted young women.

It's a trap!
When it comes down to it, Zatoichi’s Revenge is more or less another entry into the long running series. It follows the basic formula we have seen established by now with Zatoichi stumbling into a town full of injustice and having to draw his cane sword in defense of oppressed. At this point there is not a whole lot of surprises to be had, outside of perhaps his now standardized duel with a corrupt ronin occurring to kick off the third act instead of closing it, and Revenge sits comfortably for fans of the franchise. What does sell this film as one of the better entries is the strong execution from the director and in the writing.

Following the trend to be less grindhouse and more classic sword fighting film that the last few entries harkened back towards, Revenge layers on a more serious approach to the proceedings and director Akira Inoue. Inoue frames every shot as its meant to be a picture and his love of creating depth and layering elements by placing objects or people close and/or in front of the action on screen makes each moment a rather intriguing visual spectacle. This leads to some of the franchise’s more memorable moments like a running shot where Zatoichi rips through an entire ally in chase of two of the villains cutting down thugs left and right and it crafts the rather formulaic approach as something fresh.

The baddies are outnumbered.
This is blended with some fun and thoughtful writing that embraces Zatoichi as a simple, but overly clever hero. The title Zatoichi’s Revenge might indicate a more emotional and personal plight against the villains, but outside of the initial set up the film plays it a bit safer than that instead focusing on how the baddies try to frame Zatoichi into their own game. This does allow for Zatoichi to team up with a humorous dice thrower to help him on his way, a character that adds an intriguing father/daughter subtext that works with the main plot’s ‘daughter of his master being wrongfully sold into prostitution.’ While it is not quite the father/son dynamic we last saw in Adventures of Zatoichi, it’s a nice addition to the regularly paint-by-numbers plot of the film.

Zatoichi’s Revenge might not be one of the most daring films for this franchise as it plays it relatively safe with the plot and style, but the execution of the script and visuals makes it rise above its own limits in many ways. Director Inoue delivers a film that feels fresh despite its formulaic approach and the continued strong work by Katsu and the supporting actors makes this entry one of my favorites. This one definitely comes highly recommended. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort (2014)

Director: Valeri Milev
Notable Cast: Anthony Ilott, Chris Jarvis, Aqueela Zoll, Sadie Katz

Sometimes franchises happen for the most unexpected films. Had you asked me if The Fast and the Furious would have spawned six sequels when I saw in theaters ages ago, I would have laughed in your face. I feel the same way about Wrong Turn. Don’t get me wrong as the first one was a decent slasher gem and the second one is a grindhouse tongue in cheek blast, but after that the quality of the films tank hard. In fact, they are bad enough that I gave this sixth entry, needlessly subtitled Last Resort, a two out of five…and it was a substantial improvement over the last three sequels. At this point though, you know whether or not Wrong Turn 6 is the film for you so quality isn’t probably a huge issue.

When Danny (Ilott) and his girlfriend Toni (Zoll) are summoned by Danny’s long lost birth family to come inherit a retreat in West Virginia, they decide to check it out. Bringing out a loud of generic siblings and friends (read: fodder for the slaughter), they arrive only to find the massive resort being run by two creepy caretakers (Jarvis and Katz). What are the true intentions of this inheritance and how is it connected with the three vicious deformed killers in the woods?

Even if they die, they just keep coming back to make me review this shit.
Truthfully, if you go into Wrong Turn 6 looking for a relevant plot then, buddy, you took a wrong turn into the wrong franchise. At this point, the inconsistency of continuity between the sequels is laughable at best as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Wrong Turn 6 does try to make a rather memorable plot with its weird ‘welcome to the family’ kind of twist, but it’s continued adherence to slasher tropes certainly makes it about as predictable as possible. Wrong Turn 6 is boobs, blood, and butchery. That’s the essentials of its plot. Even then, outside of what seems like a lot of sex in this entry, the kills are rarely memorable and the special effects are decent at best.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t somewhat excited that Declan O’Brien would not be directing this latest entry. If anything, it was work of franchise newcomer Valeri Milev that injects a bit of new energy into this franchise. Not that the woods of Bulgeria (where this was filmed) look anything like the woods of West Virginia, but it seems like Milev is doing the best he can with what little substance he has in the script. In fact, there is a sequence with a monologue about deer hunting where Danny is bow hunting in the woods that is cut together with the death of a local sheriff that is probably one of the best scenes that this franchise has seen in decades. So it has that going for it.

Hold on! Let me take her place!
Other than that though, Wrong Turn 6 remains a generic and formulaic entry into a long buried franchise. Sure it’s a step up in quality thanks to Milev and some fun supporting performances (Katz and Jarvis seem to be having a lot of fun with their roles), but it is nothing to get overly excited about. I mean, it’s still the sixth entry of a slasher hillbilly franchise. So it’s not like I had a lot of hopes going into it to begin with. You either know if you want this in your collection or not before you see it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead (2014)

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Notable Cast: Vegar Hoel, Orjan Gamst, Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer, Ingrid Baas, Stig Frode Henriksen, Hallvard Holmen, Kristoffer Joner, Amrita Acharia, Derek Mears

The horror comedy genre owes big portions of its success to the groundbreaking work from both Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson (pre-Lord of the Rings). Their influence is a massive part of the material that Tommy Wirkola has put out in his career thus far. The first Dead Snow very obviously nodded to Raimi with its slap stick violence and atmospheric visuals, for example. For the sequel however, Wirkola digs up enough gore, humor, and over the top violence to kick it into the Peter Jackson homage territory. A move that not only makes a film that is funnier and gorier than the first, but one that just might be better.

Martin (Hoel) has barely survived the ordeal on the mountain against the army of undead Nazis, but a car wreck on his way down has left him hospitalized and under suspicion when no one believes that zombies killed his friends. That’s the least of his worries though after he finds out the doctors attached the zombie arm of the villainous leader Herzog (Gamst) onto his body and that the evil Nazis are on there way down from the mountain. With the help of some new friends from the Zombie Squad and a bit of supernatural strength from his new arm, Martin is going to have to take on an entire army…dead or alive.

"Look at all of those funny kills to come..."
The films of Tommy Wirkola certainly take a specific ‘taste’ from the viewer to enjoy. If you don’t find humor in horrible deaths, gratuitous gore, and non-stop violence then you might as well back off. If, however, you do find some humor in the vein of Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive, sit back and prepare for the laughter in slaughter because Dead Snow 2 is going to hit all the right buttons.

The film is set to a lightning pace. It starts off right after the events of the first film as zombies attack Martin’s car on the way off of the mountain and rarely does the film stop from there. While the first film took time to set up characters and atmosphere, Dead Snow 2 assumes you’ve seen the first one and keeps it moving at full speed from there. Sure, there’s a bit of story here or there as they add a few new characters to the mix, like the bumbling nerds of the Zombie Squad complete with Star Wars quotes or the arrogant police chief out to capture Martin, but it mostly happens at a full run…which adds to the frantic fun of the film.

He had to be 'axed' a question.
At the pace that Dead Snow 2 moves, the resulting blend of humor and gore has to keep up and Wirkola and company are more than inspired for the task. Whether it’s the intentionally ridiculous slap stick violence of Martin’s slave zombie who continually perishes and comes back to life or the intense reign of terror that Herzog and his zombies inflict on the villages they storm through with their tank, all of the proceedings blend humor and horror with relative ease so that even when something relatively terrible happens…it’s hilarious. The gore effects are top notch and the film takes an almost action like turn in the final act that’s punctuated with phenomenal stunts. There is a sequence where Herzog throws Martin through the ceiling of a house and he comes back down to roll down a flight of stairs. It might be one of the best stunts I’ve seen this year.

Heads up.
While some might not like Dead Snow 2 as much for its lacking ‘pure horror’ elements that the first film contained, there is so much fun to be had with the humor and high paced antics of Martin, the massive zombie riots, and general destruction of people that rarely did I have time to really compare it until it was done. It does take a certain taste of humor and horror to enjoy the film, but with its strong executions and relentless pacing it’s hard not to recommend this to everyone. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 16, 2014

6 Bullets (2012)

Director: Ernie Barbarash
Notable Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Joe Flanigan, Anna-Louise Plowman, Charlotte Beaumont, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Bianca Van Varenberg, Steve Nicolson, Uriel Emil Pollack, Louis Dempsey, Mark Lewis

The later years of Van Damme’s career are fascinating in many ways. An action star more associated with his off screen antics in the 90s and his cheesy films has seemingly found redemption in the last decade. Whether it be one of the more defining roles as the villain in Expendables 2 or the meta performance delivered in JCVD, the Muscles from Brussels has turned a leaf. Even in a low budget action thriller like 6 Bullets, Van Damme seems intent on adding that extra layer of ‘lost soul’ to a rather by-the-numbers flick. It works very well for him. Partnered with another solid directorial effort from Ernie Barbarash and a solid enough script, 6 Bullets ends up being a rather surprising thriller that had me hooked.

After his arrogance leaves a handful of innocents dead from his mistakes, an ex-mercenary turned detective for hire Samson Gaul (Van Damme) decides to give up his life to find a simpler one as a butcher. When a couple of American tourists lose their daughter to a people traffickers he decides to step back in for one last shot at redemption…and he might ignite a bigger fight than he was expecting.

More like spin kicking in the rain. Am I right?
I’m not trying to say that 6 Bullets is some kind of Oscar worthy film that no one understands. It has its issues, particularly when it comes to its obvious budget and some of the mediocre acting. All I’m saying is that for a straight to home video action thriller affair, 6 Bullets is easily a mark above the regular fodder in the game. It plays its action sequences more for impact of characters than for entertainment (which may deter some fans) and focuses more on the thriller elements. In fact, the opening action set piece that features Van Damme slashing and dashing his way through a brothel and then igniting all the cars in the parking lot with balls of flame might be interpreted as ‘old school Van Damme.’ Which is all the more reflected by his character’s remorse for that style of thinking as he becomes consumed with redeeming himself from his brash past in thoughtful and meaningful choices. Might be an indicator in itself for Jean-Claude about the entire Damme career if you think about it too much.

Not that 6 Bullets is a full on thinking man’s thriller. It follows a decently predictable path of twists and surprises that most fans familiar with the genre will be able to dictate by just reading the synopsis. It does touch on some decent fun here and there (is his friend in the police force a rat?!) with some fun secondary performances. Van Damme’s son, who has now been featured in quite a few of his more recent flicks, struggles a bit here and there but does a fine job in the end and the missing child’s parents seem to be a bit too knowledgeable in violence to be wholly believable. Like I said, it’s not winning any Oscars.

"Do you have time to talk about bringing Van Damme into your life?"
6 Bullets is just a fun film that does an admirable job at justifying some of its dramatic moments for a budget bin kind of flick. The action bits are well shot, the tension is upright to get the job done, and the film generates a solid role for Van Damme. I’m really starting to think that director Ernie Barbarash is a guy to really get behind when it comes to straight to home video action. 6 Bullets is just more proof of that.

Written By Matt Reifschneider 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

14 Blades (2014)

Director: Daniel Lee
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, Chun Wu, Kate Tsui, Sammo Hung

Sometimes being a foreign film fan can be a test of patience. For whatever reason, Donnie Yen has had a handful of films simply sit on the shelf for a US release and it makes fans a bit anxious. One of those was the pretty phenomenal The Lost Bladesman. The other one is the mixed results of 14 Blades, which, ironically, is the one of the two that finally saw a release here in the US. I had mixed feelings going into 14 Blades, particularly with Daniel Lee at the helm, and after the fact I feel even more torn. On one hand it’s an entertaining enough wuxia action flick, but on the other hand it’s utterly underwhelming with its predictable plot and often over zealous attempts at being epic – which is too often Daniel Lee’s calling card.

When the leader of a secret military unit Qinlong (Donnie Yen) is betrayed over the theft of a royal seal, he must dig into the mystery to uncover a larger conspiracy from royals in the Ming Dynasty. With the help of a delivery service team and rogue thieves, he will have to right all of the wrongs of his past and come to terms with his future.

That's one. 13 to go.
Initially, I was hesitant to even touch 14 Blades thanks to Daniel Lee. For as many films as he gets to direct over in Hong Kong, you would think that his style would grow on me. It still hasn’t. He handles action sequences as though he attempts at making every shot a statement of ‘oh man, that’s so cool’ versus thoughtfully looking at pacing and relevance to film as a whole. 14 Blades is guilty of all of his normal sins. Terrible CGI plagues many of the bigger moments, he overly relies on slow motion for pacing, and his ridiculous over the top moments are less jaw dropping as much as they are giggle inducing. A vicious witch like villain in the film plays out more like a final boss level in a video game with her tactics of floating, spinning, and undressing (?) which makes it unintentionally funny. What could have been a fun repeated battle between our anti-hero and the main antagonist plays out too silly and too overzealous in its attempts to be ‘cool looking.’ It’s a maneuver that bleeds too often into the rest of the film.

Normally, the fantasy elements and over the top epic attempts in storytelling wouldn’t bother me all that much. It’s a fucking wuxia film after all. Yet, the almost comic bookish way that 14 Blades is told repeatedly undermines the better elements. Donnie Yen as an anti-hero with a box of fourteen blades on his back? Wish I cared more about him so I gave two shits about his plight. A romantic subplot with the charming Wei Zhao? Wish there was more chemistry. A slew of quirky secondary cast including the scene stealing Chun Wu as a master thief? Wish they had more screen time to take away from the wooden romantic plot and predictable main story. It’s as if 14 Blades really wants to be a magnificent wuxia film with all of the right pieces. Too bad none of those pieces are nearly as awesome as they would read on paper or fit together in a flowing narrative.

Oh look, a pirate.
14 Blades is a film that entertains enough with some of its charming supporting cast and a decent enough performance from Donnie Yen, but the lacking cohesive flow, silly CGI riddled action set pieces, and over eager attempts at looking awesome make for a film that lacks the depth and execution to be one of the better modern wuxia films. Fans of Daniel Lee or Donnie Yen will probably still want to add this to their collection for various reasons, but those with a pickier taste in their foreign action cinema may want to hunt down and import a copy of The Lost Bladesman instead.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Director: Jack Arnold
Notable Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno

The classic Universal monsters of the 30s, 40s, and 50s have lasted a long time. Characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man have long endured decades of fans and spoofs. Yet, my personal favorite of the these iconic creatures is perhaps the most overlooked in many ways: the Creature from the Black Lagoon. While he was a bit late to the party, particularly notable as the last before the big boom of science fiction in the 50s, the first film of his shorter franchise is still a universally effective piece of cinema. The Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t all that original, especially when compared to the themes and structure of its inspiration King Kong, but the combination of Jack Arnold’s knack for simplistic narrative and focus on thrilling moments makes it one of the best that Universal ever released.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

John Wick (2014)

Directors: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski
Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Daniel Bernhardt, John Lequizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick

We’re fans of Keanu Reeves over at Blood Brothers. His contributions to genre film making as an actor (The Matrix, Speed) and as a director (Man of Tai Chi) are significant enough not to ignore, even if his acting can be less than inspired at times. Yet, I was inherently drawn to John Wick right from the start. After it ignited quite a bit of positive buzz on initial screenings, I was ecstatic to see the film. Now that I have seen it, I have to admit that John Wick lived up to all of my high expectations and then some. It’s simple, vicious, dark, and charming. Not to mention one of the most entertainingly violent movies I have seen all year. Seriously. It’s damn near Russian mob genocide onscreen. It’s just awesome.

John Wick (Reeves) is a simple man. After his wife falls ill and succumbs to the sickness, he is left with little in his life to love: his car and a young puppy that his wife left him on her deathbed. When a young Russian mobster breaks into his house, steals his car, and kills his dog, John Wick is left with only one option – to revert back to his old ways as an unstoppable killing machine.

It's going to be a dog day afternoon.
John Wick is the kind of film that purely knows what it is, both as a throwback film and as a statement to move action movies back to the core of what made them so enjoyable to begin with. Directed by two stunt guys (who are both trained stuntmen and fight choreographers), John Wick keeps it simple with the plot and characters to give us the excess of style and the visuals. Keanu Reeves is not an actor with a massive range and John Wick plays up that fact to make this his best acting performance in decades. The character of John Wick is a myth. He is a stone-faced killer where emotion only slips through in minute moments and the film spends a pretty substantial amount of time building that up in the first half. It also builds up just enough back-story (via montage) to make the audience understand (even if it seems petty on surface level) what the titular character is going to unleash in the second half of the film. While the idea of Russian mobsters killing a puppy and stealing your car might seem petty to some, we understand through subtle moments from Reeves and in the narrative that this is a man who does not care about a lot. When you take those from him, he will bring the fucking apocalypse to your front door.

This is NOT a style over substance film though. In fact, the two blend impressively well. It just so happens that the substance is inherently molded into the style, a move that was perhaps best known in the late 80s and early 90s through the works of John Woo. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski create a relatively simply and intriguingly fascinating universe that the film resides in. Rarely does John Wick spend justifying its quirky world where gold coins are used as assassin currency, an endless supply of half wit thugs line every corridor, and there exists a hotel where high paid killers can mingle without the burden of work influence. This isn’t an origin story for John Wick. If you don’t buy in, get out. Partnered with a deep visual style of neo noir neon lights and deep black shadows, John Wick is as visually appealing as it is straightforward in its narrative; a move that only enhances the richness of its simplicity. It’s a bare bones kind of film, but those bones are rarely broken by sticks, stones, or whatever one may have to say.

While the film itself is rather minimalist when it comes to its characters and plot, there is one thing that is excessive about John Wick: the action. Coming from stuntmen directors, I had high hopes for the action in the film and even in this element the film exceeds expectation. The influence of John Woo, beyond just the storytelling narrative, is massive here as the action piles upon itself in the second half delivering everything from martial arts grappling to gun fu to a car battle. That’s right. Not a car chase. A car battle. The violence is palpable in its delivery (there are so many head shots that trying to count them seems to be a task only for the most die hard of internet fans) and the relentless pacing of each action set piece in the latter portions of the film reach a fever pitch. Keanu Reeves seems up for the task in the film as the ‘bullet ballets’ and fighting continue to grow exponentially even if the highlight of the action comes from a vicious one man raid on a night club in the mid portion of the film.

A deadly weapon...with a gun.

For action fans, John Wick is not only a throwback to the golden age of beatdowns and bullet wounds, but it’s played with such artful skill that it’s hard not to love it through and through. One part neo noir, one part ‘heroic bloodshed,’ and one part early 80s Charles Bronson revenge thriller, John Wick is the best action flick of the year if not the best since The Raid. You owe yourself a favor to leap into the myth of John Wick.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Iceman (2014)

Director: Law Wing-cheung
Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Wang Baoqiang, Huang Shengyi, Simon Yam, Yu Kang, Lam Suet

When Iceman was first announced as a vehicle for Donnie Yen, I was stoked. I mean, the film is still a remake of one of my favorite martial arts flicks in the 1989 Yuen Biao flick Iceman Cometh (you can read my very favorable review of that film HERE), but it’s a story that could use a facelift and the combination of Donnie Yen, physical comedian Wang Baoqiang, and director Law Wing-cheung certainly had my attention. The original one was a film that caked on humor, heart, and charm to achieve it’s goals. Iceman, unfortunately, features none of these traits. In fact, it might be one of the biggest disappointments of 2014.

He Ying (Donnie Yen) is a royal bodyguard in the Ming Dynasty, but when he is framed for treason against the Emperor while transporting a supposed time traveling device he is caught in an avalanche with his pursuers. In present day, he is found frozen and an accident leaves him unthawed in a world he doesn’t understand. With the help of a young escort, He Ying decides its time to rectify his past by finding the time machine and setting things right.

Yen is shackled by more than just wood and chains in the movie.
Iceman is a film that’s half thawed. While the original played up some fun ‘fish out of water’ humor, focused on the love story, and boiled its action down to massive stunt sequences and classic 80s Hong Kong combat, Iceman forgets to do any of these things. The romantic subplot is there, but it’s rarely effective or thought out as the chemistry between our two leads is sputtering at best, the villains of the film are less villains and more or less comedic antagonists (which I am sure will be played up in the eventual second film as a twist on the story - more on that in a second), and the action to plagued by terrible CGI. For a fun concept, I spent more time meandering through the awkwardness of the narrative and horrified at the massive amount of special effects than enjoying the film as a light hearted action flick. It’s almost like no one involved in Iceman knew what the hell they were doing. So they decided to just throw a bunch of things in there together to see if it would work. It doesn’t.

As if the failed execution on hand isn’t bad enough, they decide to throw in more plot to complicate the narrative even more. The addition of a mysterious Simon Yam as a corrupt businessman who seems to want something from our lackadaisical hero needlessly complicates the film throughout and the twist at the end really doesn’t make any sense for this portion of the film. The charm of the original one was its back to basics approach. Why make this one so damn confusing?

Now I understand that this is only one part of a two part film. As was reported during the filming, the inflated budget of Iceman made filmmakers split the film into two parts and perhaps once I see the second part more of this film will a) make sense or b) feel complete. As is though, Iceman ends on an awkward note with its messy storytelling and still fails to find any sort of thoughtful execution to the action, characters, or plot. If I'm dedicated two hours of my life to this I still want some sort of fulfillment.

I appreciate that this character shows almost no emotion towards his new time era. It's awkward.
As is, Iceman is a massive missed opportunity. With all of the talent involved, one would think that there would at least be an entertaining film to be found in Iceman, but alas it’s mostly just uncomfortable. Donnie Yen seemingly forces his way to charm through his 2D character, his supporting cast seems to be battling the terrible CGI action set pieces and their own poorly scripted scenes, and the narrative is sporadic at best. Somebody better put Iceman 2 back in the microwave because this first film is not cooked through. Perhaps then we will get a filling meal out of this deal.

BONUS RANT: How can a film featuring Donnie Yen not feature a kung fu fight sequence until well over an hour into the film? I mean, that’s just poor thinking right there.

Written By Matt Reifschneider