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September 29, 2015

Black Coal, Thin Ice

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Bai ri yan huo
Diao Yinan - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

With a bad cold, trying to watch Black Coal, Thin Ice on the big screen at the Udine Far East Film Festival was less than ideal. While the momentum of the win at Berlin in January of last year has dissipated, the film can now be more widely seen with the home video version.

Diao's film has been described as film noir. As overused as that genre appellation may be, it is fitting here, with it's drunken ex-cop doggedly trying to solve a case, five years after a botched arrest, and his pursuit of the woman who is the possible link to several murders. The story takes place first in 1999, and primarily in 2004, in an unnamed city in northern China. Most of the action takes place during winter nights, where people meet in cheap restaurants, low rent dance halls, or little movie theaters on dark streets. As others have pointed out, the milieu here is not to different from that of the novels by James Cain's with their working class settings.

Wu Zhizhen may not be the most obvious femme fatale. Gwei Lun-mei is neither as exotic nor as glamorous as seen in several of her roles for Tsui Hark. Diao departs from convention as Wu is fairly ordinary in appearance. Lana Turner bared her midriff, while Barbara Stanwyck showed off her anklet. Gwei remains fully dressed, more so, in exterior scenes with a scarf around her face. For most of the film, Wu reveals little of herself, exposing only the smallest of parts that she chooses to be seen.

What is visible are the results of grisly murders, body parts that appear in the coal processed at different plants. Zhang, the cop on the case in 1999, now a security guard, has a chance meeting with his former partner, and discovers similar murders taking place five years later. He knows Wu is connected to the murders but he doesn't know how. As in classic noir, the two briefly become lovers, though everyone - the audience as well as the characters - knows nothing good will come of their liaison.

The Chinese title translates as "Daylight Fireworks", which becomes more significant as a clue later in the story. Diao has explained this original title as expressing the need for catharsis. Diao has also gone on record as having seen The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man and Touch of Evil while preparing his screenplay, an eight year effort. Unmentioned by Diao, but of possible influence would be two later films influenced by film noir, Band of Outsiders and Pulp Fiction. Zhang makes a return visit to the dance studio from an earlier scene. Given the chance to be appreciated, Liao Fan's wild, solo dance to contemporary Chinese pop music is as memorable as Anna Karina doing the Madison, or Travolta and Thurman twisting to Chuck Berry.

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Posted by peter at 03:27 PM

September 27, 2015

Coffee Break

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Gloria Grahame in Sudden Fear (David Miller - 1952)

Posted by peter at 10:17 AM

September 24, 2015

Man with the Gun

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Richard Wilson - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Man with the Gun begins with titles superimposed over a sheet of burlap, kind of like a film from Yasujiro Ozu. The similarity to Ozu is unintentional, but Richard Wilson's take on the western is to strip it down to the essential elements. There is a lot of empty space here. Wilson probably had a very modest budget, so he worked that in as part of the narrative, about a small town with a dispirited citizenry, bare trees, surrounded by flat, dusty plains.

Wilson's film is something of a companion piece to Invitation to a Gunfighter, with a professional gun man hired at the behest of the townspeople. Robert Mitchum's character of Clint Tollinger is what is termed a "town tamer". The deputy's badge gives Tollinger the right to start establishing a bit of law and order in a town mostly owned by the unseen Dade Holman. Holman's presence is felt by the thugs he sends to town to do his dirty work.

This was the directorial debut of Wilson, a former assistant to Orson Welles. Wilson also had a hand in the screenplay, and plays a bit with genre conventions. Tollinger is noted for wearing gray. That's a nice bit of shorthand, a visual queue for Tollinger's moral ambiguity, and seeming ambivalence. In the meantime, some of the bad guys can be spotted seeing the biggest hats, with oversized crowns and brims, that even a pimp from a blaxploitation movie might find in dubious taste. One of those hats is worn by perennial bad guy Claude Akins. Playing another of Holman's henchmen is Leo Gordon, who shoots a boy's dog in the opening scene. Somewhat less malevolent is Ted De Corsia as the proprietor of a small bar dominated by an absurdly oversized chandelier.

Photographed by Lee Garmes, the film provides some good examples of economical filming, especially in keeping two or more characters within the frame during conversations. While not as obviously showy as Welles could be, Wilson would seem to have taken what he's learned from Welles, especially in blocking his actors, keeping scenes of exposition visually interesting.

Wilson obeys some of the genre rules expected of a Hollywood western from the Fifties. It's hardly a spoiler to know that Tollinger is going to clean up the little town of Sheridan, or that he will finally reunite with his former sweetheart, now the town madame. The joys to be found here are mostly due to watching the cast of character actors, credited or not, such as Henry Hull as the talkative, if ineffective, sheriff, Jan Sterling is the woman from Tollinger's past, Barbara Lawrence as a dim-witted dancing girl, Emile Meyer as the town blacksmith. James Westerfield, as the mysterious Mr. Zender, is one of the several faces that will strike some as familiar, even if they don't know the name, as with much of the supporting cast. Some viewers will also recognize Burt Mustin, an actor often tapped as as the old man, as a hotel clerk. It would be a year later that Angie Dickinson would be formally "introduced" in Gun the Man Down. Dickinson, and her famous legs, are seen here as one of Sterling's dancing girls, Kitty. Dickinson is only seen for a few minutes, but it's no surprise that Samuel Fuller and Howard Hawks took notice.

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Posted by peter at 07:27 AM

September 22, 2015

The Destructors

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Robert Parrish - 1974
KL Studio Classic BD Region A

For those who saw this film outside of North America, the title was The Marseilles Contract. I wish I knew why the suits at American International Pictures thought calling this The Destructors was a good idea because it doesn't evoke anything, or at least anything pertinent to what's goes on here. On the other hand, maybe someone thought The Marseilles Contract seemed too much like The French Connection, which was pretty much the point. And while Robert Parrish's final film is no French Connection or, alas, a French Connection II, there are some moments worth checking out.

The story involves gangsters, cops and drugs, but also cars. And while there is nothing here that compares to William Friedkin's wild car chase in The French Connection, one of the best moments here is a race choreographed by Remy Julienne. What begins with Michael Caine and Maureen Kerwin trying to outpace each other becomes, at certain hairpin turns, a duet with the cars turning simultaneously, as they maneuver the narrow French roads. Eventually Caine and Kerwin get together in the flesh, but their roadside manners make for the film's most erotic scene.

Copper Anthony Quinn hires old pal Michael Caine to put a hit on drug kingpin James Mason. For the top lined stars, this was probably done for the paycheck. Better are a couple of French actors, two fairly familiar names, Maurice Ronet as a French cop working with Quinn, and best of all Marcel Bozzuffi, from The French Connection, as Mason's right hand man. Everybody gathers in Marseilles, where there's a big drug shipment due, with Quinn hoping to bust Mason.

Quinn and Mason share the screen near the end, briefly. Before moving to the director's chair, Robert Parrish was an Oscar winning editor. I don't know how much of that scene with Quinn and Mason was personally cut by Parrish, but the timing and coordination of the shots is superb. Without giving too much away, the scene takes place at a dance for French society hosted by Mason. There is motion in each of the shots making it crucial regarding where the two actors are in relation to each other within the crowded floor. The effect is as everything else was building up to this one climatic scene.

Almost as good is the scene with most of the principle actors shooting at each other. Again, there is the sense of space, of placement of the actors, and meticulous timing of each shot, both film and bullets. It is quite possible that the shaky cam chaos of more recent films makes a scene like this look better than it is for someone who prefers old style craftsmanship, but this is another moment that redeems the leisurely paced set up.

The Destructors was one of the few films written by producer Judd Bernard. Notable is that Bernard was the producer of two classics, Point Blank and personal favorite, Deep End. Also of note is a card game that Quinn walks in on, with a who's who of Paris based expatriates including Variety contributor Gene Moskowitz, author James Jones, and JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger.

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Posted by peter at 05:42 PM

September 20, 2015

Coffee Break

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Frieda Pinto in Trishna (Michael Winterbottom - 2011)

Posted by peter at 08:22 AM

September 17, 2015

The Satan Bug

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John Sturges -1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Made in between the more expensive and elaborate The Great Escape and The Hallelujah Trail, is this more modest produced thriller. Based on a novel written by Alistair MacLean under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, the action was moved from Great Britain to the U.S., mostly within driving distance of Los Angeles. Reportedly, Preston Sturges was distracted while making The Satan Bug as he was preparing The Hallelujah Trail at the same time. In retrospect, The Hallelujah Trail either should not have been made or had been directed by someone more adept at comedy. The source book as I recall was pretty good, though the set looks absolutely nothing like Denver of 1867. I suspect that as a reliable moneymaker for the Mirisch Company and United Artists, Sturges may have been encouraged to provide something for the studio pipeline.

The more literal minded will be disappointed to know that there is no Satan, and there are no bugs. The title comes from the naming of a chemical designed for biological warfare that theoretically is capable of killing all forms of life. The security at Station Three might have been state of the art for 1965, but it's not enough to stop someone from stealing a bunch of glass flasks, with the threat of releasing enough toxin to kill everyone in metro Los Angeles. It's a premise that could happen, especially with enough accidents that occur by people who are entrusted with hazardous material. Being 1965 though, most of the heroes are serious white guys in suits and fedoras.

The film is visually of interest in the first half hour or so. The titles, by DePatie-Freleng of Pink Panther fame, attempt to mimic the abstract symbolism of the animated titled by Saul Bass. The best part is when the close-up of the veins of a cartoon eye dissolve into an overhead shot of the forks of a desert road, with a lone truck cruising towards its destination. The secret lab is a collection of glass rooms, with the design enabling the viewer to see action in two different spaces simultaneously. There is also visual beauty in a crane shot with the wide screen filled with the pattern of the security fences outside the lab. An early scene with a hard working scientist is lit from below, giving the actor Henry Beckman the look of a character in a horror movie. A scene involving a shootout between the bad guys and the feds is unsurprisingly reminiscent of the several westerns by Sturges.

Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant provided a commentary track that mostly discusses The Satan Bug in relation to some similar films. What might, for some some, provide a reason to see The Satan Bug is the news that Pauline Kael claimed this was the worse film ever made. This isn't even the worse John Sturges movie ever made - that would be the overlong and unfunny The Hallelujah Trail. In retrospect, the cast is made of top billed actors whose glory days were in the past, and a few supporting actors who were on their way to big things on the small screen. Former television star George Maharis never achieved big screen success like Sturges alumni Steve McQueen. Anne Francis, who stepped in when Joan Hackett dropped out, plays the former girlfriend of Maharis. Unlike her pivotal role in Sturges' Bad Day in Black Rock, there's not much to her role here. Dana Andrews was reduced to supporting roles, while Richard Basehart became a character actor in too many films that wasted his talent. Ed Asner is here, with a head full of hair, as one of the bad guys, while James Doohan, his distinctive Scottish accent not heard, has a dialogue free role as a federal agent.

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Posted by peter at 07:19 AM

September 15, 2015

Angst

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Gerald Kargl - 1983
Cult Epic BD Region A

Maybe time has made Gerald Kargl's only feature film seem less transgressive than it seemed to be back in 1983. Kargl has gone on record as saying that if he had to do it over again, the violence in Angst would not be as graphic. I'm hardly a gore-hound, I don't look for films that deliberately try to shock an audience, but if something comes my way for review purposes, I'll do my best to give that film a fair shake. All things considered, I would have to say that those who banned or called to ban Angst over-reacted. Maybe because the film is based on true events, made by a young filmmaker, Angst was considered more extreme than the slew of cannibal and zombie movies also playing in theaters at the time.

Setting aside that Angst, German for fear, was inspired primarily by a then recent story of an Austrian serial killer, and that the viewer witnesses the murder of three victims, what Angst is really about is the sense of control. None of the characters are named, but for the sake of convenience, the killer has been referred to as K. Released from prison after ten years, and two murders, K's immediate thought is how to kill again. He has scenarios in his mind. What plays out is completely different, as the havoc of real life gets in the way.

The film is held together by Erwin Leder as K. There is voice over narration revealing his state of mind during the twenty-four hours or so that the story takes place. Observing people as possible prey, Leder looks positively feral. When the unexpected upends his plans, Leder's eyes convey total panic.

The cinematography provides a visual counterpoint to the narrative. Cinematographer Zbigniew has extended traveling crane shots with the camera looking over K almost like a god's eye view. Even the short bursts of K running through a forest have the illusion of appearing like a continuous shot. There are also floor level shots as well. We see extreme close-ups of eyes, lips, sweat and saliva. It should be no surprise that Kargl went on to make commercials for a living, in part because of the financial beating he took on making Angst, but also because this film demonstrated that, whatever one thought of the story and characters, Kargl's craftsmanship is unquestionable.

Most of the time, I prefer to let the film speak for itself. For those interested, the blu-ray comes with a forty page booklet about the making of Angst, and interviews with some of the talent, as well as information taken from newspaper articles on Werner Kniesek, the real life inspiration for the film. Bonuses include an introduction by admirer Gaspar Noe, and interviews with star Erwin Leder, as well as Kargl and Rybczynski. If that wasn't generous enough, there is also a commentary track by Kargl.

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Posted by peter at 03:04 PM

September 13, 2015

Coffee Break

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Liv Mjones in Kiss Me (Alexandra-Therese Keining - 2011)

Posted by peter at 07:48 AM

September 10, 2015

Extreme Asia: The Rise of Cult Cinema from the Far East

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Daniel Martin - 2015
Edinburgh University Press

First, a little clarification is needed. Daniel Martin's book concentrates on the theatrical releases in the United Kingdom of Asian films released by Tartan. For that matter, the films primarily discussed are several well known titles, The Ring, Audition, Battle Royale, This Isle and Oldboy. What is of interest here is some of the how and why certain films were chosen, how the Asia Extreme label developed, and how the publicity department influenced critical discourse and vice versa.

My own observation, having seen a good number of films on the Tartan USA label, is one of mixed blessings. Park Chan-wook probably owes part of his successful career to Tartan. Shinya Tsukamoto's films were made available. Another very successful Korean filmmaker, Kim Jee-woon was introduced via Tartan. And just as giant monsters and samurai provided a gateway towards looking at a broader spectrum of Japanese films, some of the Tartan titles provided an introduction to films from other Asian countries and artists we might not have known of otherwise.

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The Isle Korean poster

For some though, interest was primarily centered on the extreme. Some of Tartan's releases were not very good. What was also missed in the search for visceral thrills was some of the cultural context, such as in Kelvin Tong's The Maid which addresses the treatment of Filipinas employed as domestic help, or Perth, about a Singaporean taxi driver dreaming of Australia. Even without other factors that shuttered Tartan, the Asia Extreme label probably would have been killed off eventually due to market saturation and lessening interest.

What Martin discusses here is how some of these films were understood or misunderstood, either deliberately or by ignorance, citing British film critics from various print publications. For those with a longer view of world cinema, much of this will be of no surprise, with the past assumptions that a single filmmaker or a small group of directors represents a national cinema. Likewise, just as Donald Richie should not be considered the only word on Japanese cinema, I have to take issue with Tony Rayns acting as gatekeeper, even if he saw and wrote about many of these films first. Rayns is cited here for his criticism of Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. I've seen and liked Park's films from J.S.A on. I'm more ambivalent about Kim, preferring his earlier films, like The Isle, but my scorn is towards the alleged critics who failed to do research, and insist that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring is the work of a Buddhist filmmaker. And the other Korean filmmakers Rayns mentioned are worth seeing as well.

Martin gives examples of how specific films were marketed to different audiences, or in some cases, one film marketed to two different kinds of viewers. The book is not so much about the films as it is about how a certain kind of film was sold, an audience nurtured, and the ways in which the critical community was used in the marketing campaigns.

While Martin makes note of how the Asia label has been used to overlook the differences between different countries, the very brief section on Thai cinema is misleading. As Martin does only write about those films that received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom, his essay on Thai cinema is primarily about Bangkok Dangerous, made in Thailand, in Thai, but by the Hong Kong Pang brothers. Two true Thai films, Iron Ladies and Tears of the Black Tiger are mentioned, though neither were distributed by Tartan. The Pangs probably deserve a decent chapter here for their pan-Asian films, and Martin has a few words on The Eye, the film that brought them international attention.

While there is no book on Thai cinema on the level of Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson's classic introduction to Japanese film, Martin is unaware that there are at least two books that provide some information exclusively about Thai film in English, the mostly pictorial A Century of Thai Cinema by Dome Sukwong and Sawasdi Suwannapak, and the French-English Thai Cinema, a collection of essays from Asiexpo.

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Audition Japanese poster

Posted by peter at 09:12 AM

September 08, 2015

Morituris

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Raffaele Picchio - 2011
Synapse Films BD Regions ABC

I'm not sure what it says about me, or about this film, but I did not find Morituris to be any more extreme than some of the films that provided inspiration. "Banned in Italy"? I'm not denying that there's graphic imagery here, plus several moments that have the viewer imagining things most would rather not think about. Still, Morituris is slightly more restrained than several notorious films with "Cannibal" as part of the title.

As it is, Morituris is still probably of greater interest to certain aficionados, with a story that begins as something of an homage to Wes Craven, veering into something close to the spirit of Lucio Fulci. Inspired by a true incident that took place in Italy about forty years ago, the film first takes place inside a car, with three young men and two young women. They are driving outside Rome on their way to a rave in a forest. Everyone is laughing, drinking, with some imbibing of illegal substances. We don't know anyone's names, but we do know that one of the guys is able to drive a fairly nice car. The women are Romanian. Once the group is in the woods, there is no rave, but the five continue drinking around a small camp fire. One of the women goes off with one of the guys to a spot marked by Latin epitaphs written in stone. The woman describes the place as magical, and in a way, she's not completely wrong. It turns out that the guys intentions are less than honorable.

What takes place next might be comparable to Last House on the Left, as well as the several Italian films that took their queues from Wes Craven, sometimes casting House villain David Hess in these films. It is significant that the two women are Romanians. This part of Morituris might well be read as social criticism of the sense of class and privilege of certain Italian men. At one point, one of the men, certainly no older than their early 20s, mentions to the other that he is the son of a senator. The men may well be abusive of women in general, but there is the sense that the pair of women here are considered acceptable targets due to their status as cultural outsiders.

Where the title comes in is that morituris is Latin, roughly translated as "those who are about to die". It turns out that the gang is in a patch of forest claimed by a group of dead gladiators who consider anyone to be a trespasser that should be killed. It's never any explanation provided, and perhaps that's just as well. Where Fulci is recalled is that these reanimated beings are single minded in their pursuit of the five visitors, and their punishment includes beheadings, crucifixions, and the general ripping of flesh.

Whether Picchio has said anything of substance about evil in the world might remain the subject of debate. As a film that pays tribute to past horror films, Morituris is better than expected. Digitally filmed with a RED camera, this is a fairly polished debut feature, taking place almost entirely outdoors at night. I've seen a couple of other recent Italian films that claimed inspiration from earlier films, at least one which I gave up on after less than half an hour. The preview of Picchio's newest film, the English language, The Blind King, would indicate a genre specialist of promise.

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Posted by peter at 03:33 PM

September 06, 2015

Coffee Break

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Jessica Chastain in Lawless (John Hillcoat - 2012)

Posted by peter at 06:51 AM

September 03, 2015

The Honey Pot

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Joseph Mankiewicz - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In 1972, I had the opportunity to interview Robert Benton and David Newman in conjunction with the film they wrote, and Benton directed, Bad Company. They had told me that the character of the outlaw known as Big Joe was modeled after Joseph Mankiewicz, the director of their previously filmed screenplay, There was a Crooked Man. Prior to being hanged, Big Joe proclaims, "I'm the oldest whore on the block". That line was reportedly Mankiewicz's description of himself.

The Honey Pot bears the distinction of being the first theatrical feature Mankiewicz made following the debacle known as Cleopatra, and the last film with his name in the screenplay credit. There isn't the snap of back to back Oscar winning Letter to Three Wives and All about Eve. Still, there are moments, especially at the end, that it becomes clear just how personal this film is, an acknowledgment by Mankiewicz of his limits as a writer/director.

That the film is essentially an updating of the play Volpone is even stated within the film, starting with the Volpone character, here named Cecil Fox, watching a performance of the play, from his own box seat, a private show in an empty theater. Pretending to be dying, Fox hires sometime actor McFly to act as his private secretary, setting up a "performance" involving three former lovers who believe they are to be named as beneficiaries of Fox's estate in Venice, Italy. In several scenes, the Fox and McFly refer to the 17 Century play, comparing their version to that of playwright Ben Jonson.

Where The Honey Pot becomes personal in the intertwined themes of time and money. Early on, Fox declares that even if one is rich, you can never have too much money. And going back to Mankiewicz's quote, the question is raised as to what will someone do for money, especially for the promise of being extremely wealthy. The three women, former lovers, who come to Fox's estate each bring a gift, an elaborate time piece from different eras, an hour glass filled with gold, an ornate clock from the 17th Century, and a modern clock - more like a large glass brick with clocks set at various international time zones.

Time and money undoubtedly were on Mankiewicz's mind during the years he spent filming, and editing Cleopatra, a film already five million dollars in the red at the time he first took over production. As it turned out, just has the final version of Cleopatra had been taken out of his hands, so too was The Honey Pot, shorn of about twenty minutes of footage. Scenes involving Herschel Bernardi were cut, although his name appears in the final credits. The film concludes with the off-screen voice of the recently deceased Fox stating that life doesn't always follow the script one writes. In Joseph Mankiewicz's case, neither do some of his films.

One of the highlights is 59 year old Rex Harrison, as Fox, doing a solo dance in his bedroom, leaping on his bed, and across the room. The scene that follows, a conversation between Harrison and Maggie Smith, displays flashes of true affection the two had for each other. The device of the off screen voice, heard by Smith, and later by Harrison, was to be found in other Mankiewicz films. The Honey Pot also belies the assessment of Mankiewicz's films as being being a form of filmed theater. Dialogue driven, to be sure, and People will Talk could easily be the title of several Mankiewicz films. But between the camera gliding along with the characters, and close-ups that almost fill the screen, The Honey Pot is also decidedly cinematic.

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Posted by peter at 08:29 AM

September 01, 2015

Wolf Warrior

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Wu Jing - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

This may not have been entirely intended, but Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior made me think of that discarded Hollywood genre, the military adventure movie. Older cinephiles will have memories of a time, primarily from the middle of World War II through the mid-Sixties, when movies were made about men at war. These were not epics, but small or mid-range films more concerned with male camaraderie and fulfilling a mission. There was some acknowledgment of lofty ideas and ideals, but those were dispensed with in a sentence or two. Not to make Wolf Warrior seem like a much better film than it is, but in its own way, it's close to the spirit of a film from Raoul Walsh, with its hero who's known to operate independently of authority, but also knows when to pull for the group.

The film is about a group of soldiers, the elite of the elite, who in the midst of war game exercises find themselves in real battle with an army of mercenaries that work on behalf of a drug kingpin. The newest member of the Wolf Warriors, Leng, is a sniper who killed the kingpin's brother. While Leng is the target of the mercenaries, led by a former American veteran, known as Tom Cat, it's a battle between the two armies, finally ending with the inevitable encounter of the two enemies. For those looking for a display of martial arts between Wu and Scott Adkins, it comes near the end. Most of the fighting comes in the form bullets, bombs, and big explosions.

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There are a couple of moments that should have been reconsidered. Before fighting the mercenary army, a group of the Wolf Warriors encounter a pack of wolves. Aside from the wolves being mostly computer generated, the scene pulls the film into an unnecessarily supernatural direction. Also, it is revealed that the drug lord is working on some kind of bio-chemical scheme with some kind of formula that will attack only those with "Chinese genes".

I wish Yu Nan, who displayed her own martial arts ability with Wu Jing in Wind Blast, had done more than show up in uniform, as the commander of the Wolf Warriors. The film is essentially a vehicle of Wu Jing, and as such, is an improvement over Wu's directorial debut, Legendary Assassin. As the chief bad guy, Scott Adkins snarls, sneers and never bothers to disguise his British accent.

A sequel is promised at the end of the credits. Fortunately for those concerned, Wolf Warrior was a major hit in mainland China. The film was made with the cooperation of the Chinese military, and the nationalistic elements are not too different from what might have been found in a World War II era film from Hollywood.

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Posted by peter at 03:45 PM