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White Lion (2010)
WHITE LION is a 2010 South African movie about the life and adventures of a rare white lion cub who leaves his pride and must contend with the perils of the African veld, along with unscrupulous poachers and other feline rivals. Despite some hints of mysticism along the way, this is a very ordinary movie that comes across as a Disney film rather than something genuinely eye-opening like the classic BORN FREE.
The film features noted Shakespearian actor John Kani as the narrator and is set sometime in the mid 20th century, not that you'd know by the costumes and vehicles. It's the sort of plot less production that would work much better as a nature documentary, as the most interesting thing about the whole production is that it was filmed over a number of years, so you actually get to see the various lion cubs as they grow up.
Unfortunately, there's not much drama on offer here and sometimes the movie veers towards the twee. It's all very simplistic and the morals are painted in black and white which doesn't leave much room for interest; some of the supporting actors are also less than inspiring. Footage of the lions in the wild is all well and good, but I was hoping for much, much more with this one.
Dak ging to lung (1988)
Hong Kong cop action at its peak
TIGER CAGE is an ensemble Hong Kong cop film with much in common with the same era's IN THE LINE OF DUTY flicks. This one features Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Jacky Cheung, Carol Cheng and others as a team of crack detectives who take down a drug syndicate at the film's outset. The only problem is that some of the bad guys survive, swearing revenge on the cops who destroyed their operation.
What follows is a roller-coaster ride of a film filled with breakneck action and all of the wonderful martial arts choreography that you'd hope from the genre. This one's directed by Yuen Woo-ping and boy, does he know how to direct a proper thriller: there are barely any slow spots, just tons of action and action that drives the plot forward at that. It's one of the most purely entertaining Hong Kong thrillers that I've seen.
Cast-wise, I have to say that most of the leading members give more than impressive performances, not least an incredibly youthful Donnie Yen in what I think might have been only his second leading part. Simon Yam seems experienced and reliable even at this early stage of his career. Jacky Cheung acquits himself well in a role that Jackie himself could have played, and it's always a pleasure to see American bodybuilder Michael Woods on top form as a hulking henchman. TIGER CAGE is a film filled with twists, betrayals, stunts and incredible one-on-one fights, and Hong Kong film fans will be in movie heaven.
Tom yum goong 2 (2013)
Not as bad as you've heard
I'll admit from the outset that the first WARRIOR KING is one of my favourite films of all time; a top-notch martial arts epic that you can watch over and over again. It has everything I'd ever want from a movie, so this belated sequel had plenty to live up to. Inevitably, it simply can't hold a candle to the first movie.
But wait...everyone's panned this film, saying it's pretty terrible. I say otherwise. It's no WARRIOR KING, but it is better than the horrid ONG BAK sequels, at least. Sure, the power of the first film is diluted here with the needless and rubbish CGI effects, the unnecessary wirework and the greater silliness of the storyline, but at times there are flashes of the old magic.
One of the biggest disappointments is Tony Jaa himself. He's noticeably aged and just doesn't cut it like in the early days of ONG BAK. I expected more from him. Still, it's nice to have Thai film regulars like Petchtai Wongkamlao and CHOCOLATE's Jeeja Yanin on board, even if their screen time is limited. Unfortunately, somebody decided that the appalling rapper-wannabe-film-star RZA (THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS) would make a good villain, and boy, were they wrong.
Admittedly, WARRIOR KING 2 starts off on a poor footing; the whole look is incredibly cheesy, and that dumb chase seems to go on forever. But then things change, and after a time the plot melts away to leave the whole second half of the film one big action sequence. And this was the part I really enjoyed, laughing at the whole "all black guys are evil" theme, enjoying the unstoppable Marrese Crump, and taking delight in the fight choreography. This movie's no classic, but fans of the genre will probably enjoy it anyway.
Avalanche Express (1979)
A would-be epic Cold War actioner, AVALANCHE EXPRESS is one of those all-star-cast '70s disaster-style movies. This one's adapted from a Colin Forbes novel, featuring Robert Shaw (who died during production) as a defecting Russian agent who must flee on a train across Europe while being pursued by his murderous countrymen. Luckily, he has tough guy Lee Marvin on hand to protect him.
The film's directed by Mark Robson (who also died during production), who once upon a time made some chilly Boris Karloff flicks like BEDLAM and ISLE OF THE DEAD. Sadly, it's a bit of an inglorious exit for both star and director, as this is a strictly ordinary movie that feels strained throughout. The narrative veers between muddled and boring, which is never a good sign.
The calibre of the writing just isn't up to much, and while the various action bits are okay, they aren't anywhere near of a quality to make this a decent production. Instead we get a cast going through autopilot for the most part; Marvin is hardly stretched and Shaw is too ill to do much. Maximilian Schell is totally non-threatening as the villain (and what's up with that ridiculous disguise?), and the less said about Linda Evans's wooden turn the better. The most fun comes from seeing cult actors like David Hess and Claudio Cassinelli in minor parts.
Missionary Man (2007)
Low rent action programmer
MISSIONARY MAN is a straight-to-DVD action flick, directed by and starring Dolph Lundgren. The film's plot takes the form of a modern-day western, with the Native American inhabitants of a run-down town finding themselves oppressed by the self-appointed rulers who run the place with an iron fist. A Bible-thumping, motorbike-riding preacher (Lundgren) soon rides into town, planning to clean things up.
This is a low rent flick all the way, clearly inspired by the likes of Eastwood's PALE RIDER, although of course it can't hope to hold a candle to any of the "proper" Hollywood classics. Instead it's an ordinary little movie featuring no-name cast members and a handful of fight scenes that are hardly memorable. The best thing about this is Lundgren himself, more for his presence than his performance, towering over everything as he does.
Unfortunately, something went wrong with this film during the post production process, leaving it a visual mess. Almost every scene is too dark, the colours are gone and the whole thing looks drab and muted. The plot serves as a hanger for the fight action, but the choreography is poor and muddled. I expected more from Lundgren, I have to say; MISSIONARY MAN is distinctly humdrum, and far from the actor's best.
Psycho III (1986)
Undistinguished sequel that brings nothing new to the series
The PSYCHO films had a good run of luck; the first was, of course, Hitchcock's seminal classic, while PSYCHO II turned out to be a great psychological thriller in its own right. The third in the series, meanwhile, is utterly charmless, a simple retread of what's come before with little in the way of new material to distinguish it.
The story goes that Norman is back on duty at the Bates Motel, this time dealing with a bunch of newcomers, including a nosy reporter, a suicidal nun, and a sleazy wannabe musician. What follows will surprise no-one, with a few mildly gory murders mixed in with lots of mock-crazy psycho-babble.
Anthony Perkins is inevitably the best thing about this movie, as his performance as the disturbed Norman is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. And while I ever enjoy seeing Jeff Fahey in a movie, his character is just too sleazy and unlikeable here to be entertaining. The murders are subdued and the ending is entirely predictable, unlike in PSYCHO II. Sadly, PSYCHO III is the weakest yet and the first that shouldn't have been made.
HELI is a Mexican crime film marketed as a dark and disturbing thriller that reveals the terrible fall-out that follows on from an ordinary family falling foul of drug dealing gang members. What reviews also failed to mention is that it's rather dull and stodgy, for the most part.
The problem with HELI is the attempted worthiness; this was conceived as Oscar bait, so there's a level of stillness and artiness throughout. I don't mind arty films per se, but they have to be interesting enough to keep my attention, such as Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION. While HELI certainly has plenty of redeeming qualities, such as some quite stunning landscape cinematography, there just isn't enough story to sustain the running time.
The set-up of the film, introducing a poor family in rural Mexico, is okay as things go. Then things get very dark and harrowing with the crime story, including some unflinching torture sequences which offer the sort of stuff we've never seen before. It's truly shocking and easily the best part of the film.
And yet it seems to fizz out after that. The last act goes back to the sedate feel of the early scenes and it proves a real anticlimax compared to what's gone before. I understand the writer/director's intention is to depict the effect of trauma upon ordinary lives, but the characters just aren't interesting or likable enough that you care. HELI had plenty of potential, but that's the issue I had with it: I just didn't care a jot for any of those involved.
Wu du (1978)
Well-made Shaw Brothers martial arts drama
I admit, I'm a huge fan of the Shaw Brothers studio; alongside Hammer, it's my favourite film production house. Most of their films seem to be bright, action-packed and thoroughly entertaining, and THE FIVE VENOMS (aka FIVE DEADLY VENOMS) is one of their most influential outings.
Here's the good news: the director is Chang Cheh, one of Shaw's most prolific and best, so you can rest assured that the film is a visual treat. The cast is decent, featuring the five famous Venom kung fu actors in their most memorable roles (Lo Meng is particularly good as the tough Toad, forced to undergo a number of strenuous trials). Production values are exemplary, as you'd expect.
What about the martial arts? Well, it's plentiful, as you'd expect, but not quite up there with the best of the Shaw Brothers. Oh, it's good, you can be assured of that, but it's not on a level with the frenetic action of, say, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS or CRIPPLED AVENGERS. The complex, angst-filled mystery-cum-kung-fu story is actually better than the action. Still, it's all good, and THE FIVE VENOMS is a classic for a reason; there's little to dislike here.
Naff Hostel wannabe
TRAIN is a one-note film with a one-note idea: somebody, somewhere said "let's make HOSTEL and set it on a train". The project was greenlight, and this movie was born, a vehicle for former Hollywood starlet Thora Birch produced by her former porn star father, Jack.
And, unsurprisingly, it turns out to be pretty rubbish. This is low budget, xenophobic nonsense throughout, shot in Eastern Europe and happily ripping off HOSTEL left, right, and centre. The story goes that a group of American gymnastics students are stranded abroad and suckered into boarding a decidedly dodgy train, where the usual shenanigans arise. This is a torture porn film and nothing else, so whether you enjoy it or not depends on how much you like seeing people getting bits snipped off them at frequent intervals.
The film boasts poor acting, one note characterisation, and bad direction. Thora Birch is just about adequate as the heroine, but the rest of the cast aren't up to much - apart from Gideon Emery perhaps, as the only distinctive one of the group (he's playing a gay, dope-smoking elder who hooks up with the rest). The villainous motivations are ludicrous, and the film really drags despite the plentiful action and many death sequences. I was also surprised at the sheer number of plot holes and goofs along the way, which indicates it was probably written and rushed out in a hurry to cash in on the success of the (thankfully) short-lived "torture porn" genre. In any case, it's a dog of a film.
...So it's a shame that the rest of this short is such a letdown. RAGING BALLS OF STEEL JUSTICE was conceived as a claymation tribute to the action films of the 1980s, movies which inevitably featured a square-jawed hero committing ultra-violence against terrorist gang members and the like.
Mike Mort's job is to play out an action-packed siege scenario in just 15 minutes of screen time, and to be fair he achieves that aim. The animation is very good, and there's a pleasing adult tone to the grisly violence in which various bad guys are inevitably blown to smithereens.
A shame, then, that the script seems to have been written by a scatologically-obsessed 14-year-old boy. The constant humour is weak and wearying, such as the sex-obsessed robot (no, I didn't laugh once) and the over-the-top ridiculousness of other bits. Lee Hardcastle's Youtube shorts (such as the exemplary PINGU'S THE THING) are much, much better.