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Shin Gojira (2016)
Not your typical blockbuster - 'Shin Godzilla' taps into the fear and frustration of the Japanese post-3/11 for sharp political allegory and chilling real-world horror
'Shin Godzilla' isn't Toho's vainglorious attempt at re-capturing the success of recent Hollywood adaptations of its iconic Japanese monster. Quite the contrary, co-directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi know better than try to outdo their Western counterparts in terms of spectacle, and instead have made the astute decision to make a distinctly Japanese 'Godzilla' that will most certainly resonate with their home audience, even at the expense of alienating some non-Japanese viewers without the same cultural or historical context. In fact, we dare say that their film has the unique distinction of being both political allegory as well as real-world horror, and is surprisingly effective on either count.
No other recent event has been so seared in the Japanese consciousness as that of the 2011 Tohoko earthquake and tsunami as well as the consequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, not just because of the hundreds of thousands of people affected but also because it exposed how terribly unprepared the Japanese government was with handling a crisis of such proportions. The parallels here are unmistakable from an indecisive Prime Minister (Ren Ôsugi) to the frustratingly bureaucratic attitude of his Cabinet ministers to the embarrassing revelation of his poor judgment (such as during a live press conference where Godzilla makes landfall right after he specifically tells the people that the creature will not) and indeed meant no less than a searing indictment of just how inept the Naoto Kan's administration was during 3/11.
Yet it isn't hard to imagine how a movie based solely on such criticism would quickly turn monotonous, not least because the lead characters here are all political/ Government figures among them, Hiroki Hasegawa's outspoken and gutsy Deputy Chief of Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, Yutaka Takenouchi's opportunistic Aide to the Prime Minister Hideki Akasaka, and Satomi Ishihara's Special Envoy for the United States Kayoko Ann Patterson and each is defined only in terms of his or her role and ambition in relation to the ongoing calamity. None too subtle is the point, emphatically and unequivocally made, that while politicians wield the ingenuity and authority it takes to manage an unprecedented catastrophe, each is also simultaneously weighting the cost or opportunity of every decision or maneuver to his or her political futures.
Just as illuminating, especially to the Japanese, is the strengths or limits of its military might post-WWII, seeing as how it has never yet seen the need to invoke the use of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) or call in the help of the US military under the US-Japan Security Treaty. Under the pretense of exterminating Godzilla, Anno's screenplay imagines what it would take not just for the SDF to be activated but also how US intervention would likely come with some strings attached. How and if at all it is meant to play into the current Shinzo Abe's push for an expansion of the SDF role is quite perceptively left up to the audience's interpretation, but there is no doubting that the introduction of the United Nations late into the film is meant to demonstrate how powerless nations not on its Security Council may be to resolutions passed by its five members on non-member countries.
Yes, if it isn't yet clear, there is no intent here to highlight the human dimension of such an event; rather, it is domestic politics as well as the global world order that forms the basis of this re- incarnation of Godzilla. As a reboot, 'Shin Godzilla' starts on a clean slate, beginning with an underwater disturbance that briefly makes its way onto shore before going back out to sea, then returning as a much more highly evolved organism that grows and grows ever more fearsome. Fans though will not be disappointed as with past iterations of Godzilla, this latest version not only has the ability to radiate highly destructive atomic rays from its dorsal fins, it also can set streets of buildings ablaze by spewing fire out of its mouth. It does take time to get used to the new 'ShinGoji' design, but rest assured that this beast is every bit as terrifying as it should be.
In fact, that palpable sense of fear is twofold first, in tying the origins of Godzilla to Japan's ignominious nuclear history; and second, in showing with utmost realism the wanton destruction of notable landmarks in Tokyo by the monster. The former has to do as much with the United States' alleged dumping of radioactive waste in Tokyo Bay in the 1950s and 1960s as accusations of Japan's own disposal of toxic ash from the burning of Fukushima's nuclear waste into the same waters. The latter, on the other hand, sees entire districts in Tokyo ripped or flattened by Godzilla's rampage, impressively staged by co-director cum VFX supervisor Anno (also known for last summer's 'Attack of Titan') using a mix of old- fashioned puppetry and modern CGI. In particular, the combined US- Japan military assault on Godzilla along the banks of the Kano River and the finale in downtown Shinjuku is stunning, especially in imagining the magnitude of destruction that Godzilla could inflict on modern-day Japan.
Yet if the promotional materials have given the impression that 'Shin Godzilla' is an action-packed blockbuster like its most recent Hollywood predecessors, you'll do best to temper those expectations. Sure, there are beautiful sequences of Godzilla wreaking havoc, but because the focus is on displaying different types of political personalities and their responses towards such a crisis of proportions, there is a lot of talking (as well as 'talking heads') throughout the film and especially in the beginning. By tapping into the paranoia, fear and frustration of their fellow Japanese following their own recent real-life crises, Anno and Higuchi have made a contemporary 'Godzilla' that is sure to roar loud with their home crowd and by that count, this is as its Japanese title suggests, a new and true incarnation as relevant as it is frightening.
Call of Heroes (2016)
Strong character drama and compelling performances make this refreshingly old-school martial-arts blockbuster of heroism amidst oppression gripping, poignant and resonant
With China's film industry in the throes of a CGI craze (think the most recent 'League of Gods'), it is almost refreshing to see a traditional martial arts blockbuster like 'Call of Heroes' that doesn't substitute the authenticity of real sets or props for computer-generated ones. That means the whip you see Lau Ching Wan crack on screen as the commander of a small group of guardians for the besieged city of Pucheng is every inch real, for which Lau went through a month of rigorous training to prepare for. It also means the city Pucheng where most of the action is set is also filmed against an actual set, which took its director Benny Chan almost five months to build. Even more comforting is the fact that Chan (who takes top screen writing credit here among four other co- writers) understands the importance of a good story and strong characters, and uses both to craft a compelling Western about justice and its enforcement.
Oh yes, lest it doesn't seem apparent from the grave expressions of its lead cast on the poster or its action-packed trailers, Chan has modelled his film firmly on the genre tropes of the classic Western. The opening scene establishes Eddie Peng's Ma Feng as the mysterious wanderer with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, awoken from his post-lunch stupor at a secluded diner by a stuttering bandit in the midst of robbing its owners as well as the other patrons. True enough, after the requisite character introduction to Lau's Sheriff Yang Kenan, Ma Feng rides into the town of Pucheng claiming to have no purpose other than follow wherever his horse (which he names 'Taiping' or 'world peace' in Chinese) takes him.
Though sequestered in a deep valley, Pucheng is under threat of invasion by a ruthless warlord Cao Ying, whose equally cold-blooded son General Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo) had mercilessly slaughtered the villagers where Miss Bai and her students had fled from and is preparing to repeat the deed. The army protecting their village has been called into battle with General Cao's men at the frontlines, leaving the security of Pucheng to Sheriff Yang and his band of guardians.
It is all but clear to Sheriff Yang that Shaolun who rides into town alone at the crack of dawn and proceeds to kill three people in cold blood intends to be caught, and is only playing on the minds of Pucheng's ordinary citizens as well as its law enforcement to see how far they would go to save their own skins. His general Zhang Yi (Wu Jing) interrupts his trial in open court to demand as much, with the ultimatum that he will lead their junior commandant Shaolun's army to invade the village and rescue him if he is not released by daybreak the very next morning.
To Sheriff Yang, the choice is clear there can be no justice if it is not enforced so threat or no threat, Shaolun will hang for his crimes. Yet after an attempted prison break led by two of General Zhang Yi's subordinates leaves two of Sheriff Yang's guardians dead, the villagers are left even more cowed by the threat of complete annihilation, turning up en masse to petition Sheriff Yang to release the prisoner in the hope of avoiding war. Therein lies Sheriff Yang's moral and professional dilemma as well as the movie's central theme justice at what costs and to what extents which is fleshed out poignantly thanks to Chan's compelling storytelling and his actor Lau's commanding multi-layered performance.
In the same vein, Ma Feng's choice will also be ethical stay and defend Pucheng alongside Sheriff Yang or simply leave and let them fend by their own defences? Bearing in mind the titular call, it isn't hard to guess which Ma Feng eventually chooses, especially after we learn of his past with General Zhang Yi. That history also adds texture and depth to their one-on-one showdown at the end more than just a battle of Eddie's twin swords and Wu Jing's spear, it is their 'brotherhood' which is also put to the test. That the clash between the two martial-arts trained actors bristles with ferocity and nail-biting tension is testament to Sammo Hung's action direction, which complements the robust character drama with four thrilling set- pieces.
As its title suggests, 'Call of Heroes' is a team effort where the whole is much bigger and better than the sum of its individual parts. Neither its story or the central theme is new, but Chan has fashioned a gripping period drama that reinforces the virtue of staying true to one's morals. As with his previous 'The White Storm', Chan's ensemble cast also deserves credit for the strength of their acting and even Koo turns out a surprisingly inspired choice sneering and smarming as the heartless villain at the heart of the story. Like we said at the start, this is a refreshingly solid old-fashioned action-packed blockbuster that is also likely to be one of the best Chinese movies you'll see this year.
Baobei Dang Jia (2016)
Watch it only if you want to find out how bad a Wong Jing film can get - lazily scripted, messily directed, and filled with inane gags and witless lines
Seeing how juvenile, farcical and downright nonsensical 'From Vegas to Macau III' was, it makes perfect sense that Wong Jing's next movie would be no less than a kids' movie. Oh yes, even though he isn't credited as director, his fingerprints are all over the equally scattershot and infantile 'Girl of the Big House', not least because he wrote and produced it and has appointed one of his regular deputies Aman Chang (of other Wong Jing scripted- and produced- efforts such as 'The Conman 2002' and 'Flirting in the Air') to direct it on his behalf. Even when approached with the lowest of expectations, there is little redeeming about this barely coherent mess, which aims for a contemporary fairy tale by way of 'Home Alone' and fails on every conceivable level.
It takes no longer than the opening credits for one to sense that something is quite amiss. To introduce us to the titular protagonist are the three members of the Cantopop band Grasshopper, who by way of a CG-animated musical sequence tell of a little girl named Bowie (Angela Wang) born with a silver spoon who spends her days in a big house akin to a modern-day castle while her parents (Francis Ng and Miriam Yeung) travel around the world for business. Not only is the ditty awkward and unwieldy, it behooves the filmmakers to use the same technique sometime along the course of the movie in order not to make the opening completely out of place, which ultimately precipitates another misplaced ditty in the middle of the film and a closing song-and- dance sequence as cringe-worthy for the audience as it is for the band members as well as the actors obligated to perform in it.
Indeed, that pained expression is clearly written on the faces of Ng and Yeung, who seem to have had their own respective debts to re-pay to Wong Jing in order to have agreed to lend their names to this misfire. Yeung appears for no more than 15 minutes in the whole film, her most substantial contribution being engaging with the baddies in a spoof 'Fruit Ninja' sequence after being revealed as a former TVB 'kung fu' actress. On the other hand, Ng has to put up with much more ignominy, taking on dual roles as both Bowie's father as well as the latter's ne'er-do-well older brother Dave, who comes up with the plan to rob his own family's house in order to retrieve a valuable painting which he believes he was rightfully denied. Ng is too consummate an actor to slum his way through, but it is truly depressing watching him endure the silly pratfalls his character is made to do, like take nibbles off a chicken drumstick his nemesis is holding while being tied up kneeling on the floor.
If it isn't immediately clear from the trailer, let's just say that the curly-haired Dave isn't the ultimate villain; oh no, he's in fact a man with a conscience who has been misguided by his envy of his more successful younger brother Neil (a la Bowie's father), and it is no secret that Dave will come to realise the folly of his ways before the end credits. Instead, the real baddie falls to Jim Chim's Mr Brutal, who with half a head of black and half a head of white hair as well as a parrot in tow just about screams caricature. It is Mr Brutal who makes use of Dave's two accomplices (played by Lo Fan and Mars) to make the jump on the latter, not only to burgle the entire house but also to kidnap Bowie in order to ransom her wealthy parents, thus setting the proceedings as a cat-and-mouse chase around the house as the trailer so promises.
In truth, it takes close to half the movie for the kidnappers to finally enter the house, the first half littered with throwaway sequences such as Bowie being courted in her international school by a mischievous boy named Benji or an extended chase around a Pottinger Street market to evade a pair of kidnappers (Lo Fan again and Tony Ho). The latter is intended to introduce Bowie to three friends Holly (The Bodyguard's Jacqueline Chan), Donald (Dragon Blade's Jozef Liu) and Ah Man (Wong Yuet Yuk) who will turn up at her house to celebrate the occasion of her birthday just as the kidnapping is underway, but Wong Jing's script is too daft and Aman Chang's direction too mechanical to make the smart-kids-versus- bumbling adults premise pop.
Worse, Wong Jing isn't yet done with his obsession of robotic butlers, and so Bowie gets a fat red round one called Wiley that her parents get her as her birthday present. Whereas 'From Vegas to Macau III's' Robot Skinny could make coffee with his fingertips, Wiley is conveniently retrofitted to be an ice cream machine when Bowie wants one or her personal bodyguard when she needs one. Nonetheless, Wiley's presence as well as his supposed 'combat mode' is entirely superfluous, seeing as how he is literally tied up most of the time and has been written to run out of battery just when he is put back into action. And yet, considering how much of Wong Jing's ideas on script rarely develop further than brain farts, it isn't too surprising that Wiley turns out pointless.
It has sometimes become too easy to slam a Wong Jing film, but we dare say that we tried as far as possible to cast aside any preconceived bias we had of the movie, which only made it more infuriating that the 'Girl of the Big House' pretty much confirms what we feared worst about the filmmaker's tendencies. Not even for kids we say you'll be much better off watching re-runs of 'Home Alone' than this copycat dud.
Feng Shen Bang (2016)
Even the star studded cast is not enough a reason for us to recommend this soulless mess of a movie
Before attending the preview of this Chinese summer action fantasy blockbuster, this writer came across an online article about how the movie is being billed as a "Chinese X Men". Next, he watched the trailer and had a nagging feeling that he will have nothing good to say about this star studded production (if you are not the hugest fan of overdoses of special effects and computer generated creatures, then you are on this reviewer's side).
True enough, the 110 minute movie throws scene after scene of pompous action sequences at its viewers. There is nothing particularly original about this production it is really a messy mashup of things you have seen elsewhere.
Based on the Ming Dynasty novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods) by Xu Zhonglin, the story starts of with a tyrannical king (a bored looking Tony Leung, who had seen better days in movies like the recent Cold War 2), who is also bewitched by a beautiful empress (Fan Bingbing, who is the best part about this movie), who is in fact an ancient fox demon (watch out for her giant tentacles!). Just as the evil duo are about to kill off a good guy who is holding the secrets to destroy the ultimate baddie known as the Black Dragon, good guys in the form of a righteous young man (an earnest Jacky Heung who can't save the movie) and a powerful sorcerer (Jet Li, who can definitely do much better than this).
Elsewhere, there is a villainous general who rides on a CG black panther (Louis Koo, who probably is happy from earning some easy bucks), a rebellious warrior who flies around on CG fire wheels (Wen Zhang, who took over the role from Cecilia Chung after she was fired for poor behaviour) and a righteous warrior who yields CG weapons (an underused Huang Xiaoming). Oh, there is also the love interest character (Angelababy, looking as pretty as ever with her big dreamy eyes) who looks really happy when she sees CG blue butterflies. The good guys are supposed to hunt down a mighty sword which is supposed to save the world (but of course).
To be honest, the story does have quite a bit of potential to capitalise the characters' campy abilities and the demons' out of this world powers to produce an entertaining piece of work. Unfortunately, when you have HK$300 million to blow on a movie, budget is spent on trying to impress the masses with CG scenes (this columnist might have been more impressed if there were animatronics on display). Money was probably also spent on "foreign talents" like composer John Debney (The Jungle Book), animation director Randall William Cook (The Lord of the Rings), sound designer Brent Burge (The Hobbit) and editor Wayne Philip Wahrman (I Am Legend).
The result? A mess that can hardly be salvaged. We just need to mention one scene for you to know what to expect A CG Nezha invades an underwater palace and destroys CG sea monsters with CG fart. Yup, you read it right. We rest our case here - till the sequel comes along (yup, there will probably be one).
Jason Bourne (2016)
No less but also no more than an enjoyable retread of what made the Paul Greengrass' Bourne movies so thrilling, engaging and heart-stopping
No 'Supremacy'. No 'Ultimatum'. And of course, no 'Legacy'. Just the name of the character we are familiar with oh, and the return of Matt Damon in the titular role. Not just Damon in fact, but Paul Greengrass, the director of 'The Bourne Supremacy' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum' whose vérité style, with its dizzying hand-held camera-work and splintered editing, became synonymous with the franchise as well as for better and for worse a much-imitated style of action blockbusters in recent years. Both are back after a nine-year break, and you'll be glad to know that neither has lost their respective sensibilities in crafting a tense, propulsive motion picture pulsating with a palpable sense of urgency. Oh yes, and the fact that Greengrass has not lost his political edge gives 'Jason Bourne' an added sense of relevance too.
Rather than rely on someone else, Greengrass has taken it upon himself to assume scripting duties here, collaborating with longtime series editor (but first-time writer) Christopher Rouse to bring Bourne back into the CIA's crosshairs. Keeping with his raison d'être of the initial trilogy, Bourne's motivation here remains personal, emerging from the depths of bare-knuckled underground fights on the outskirts of the Greek border to uncover his father's involvement in the Treadstone programme as well as the truth behind his presumed death at the hands of Islamic terrorists in Beirut years ago. It is his fellow Company renegade Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who brings the information to his attention, after harvesting some Black Ops files from the CIA's dungeon while working for a WikiLeaks-type figure determined to expose the U.S. Government's deepest and darkest secrets.
Bourne's determination to uncover more of his past comes up against the CIA's current director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who has a couple of skeletons in his closet that he prefers to keep hidden. The fact that Bourne also has information on his latest covert programme known as Deep Dream involving a Facebook-like social media company run by billionaire founder Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) makes Bourne an even more crucial target to be eliminated. Dewey is assisted by a brilliant and ambitious tech analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), as well as a relic of the Blackbriar programme referred to here as the "Asset" (Vincent Cassel) with his own score to settle with Bourne. Not just Dewey of course, each of the other supporting players will at some point emerge with their own secrets and hidden agendas, the irony here being how Bourne is probably the least inscrutable character.
By this point, it is safe to say that the Bourne franchise has left the shadow of the Robert Ludlum novels on which the character is based in the dust, but in turn, Greengrass has shaped Bourne as the post-9/11 hero that we need. Through Bourne, Greengrass raises questions about the dangers of Big Brother and just how much we should compromise on individual privacy for the greater good of national security, positing a very real scenario that the corporations owning the social media platforms with so much of citizens' metadata (and actual data) could in fact be in cahoots with the Government that their users inherently distrust. That the finale set in Las Vegas should have its basis in an Exocon conference where the topic of privacy versus security is being discussed further attests to how serious Greengrass is about the issue.
That doesn't mean that he has forgotten what his core fan demographic has turned up for; in fact, if anything, Greengrass ups the ante in each one of his confidently staged action set-pieces first, a fiery riot in Athens' Snytagma Square where Bourne comes out of hiding to meet Nicky that starts off as a foot pursuit amidst clashes between police and rampaging protesters and turns into a thrilling motorcycle chase along the city's narrow back streets; followed by a public rendezvous between Bourne and a former Treadstone employee in London that sees Dewey run his own little operation by the side; and finally, a mammoth showdown that goes from a 'Manchurian Candidate-like' assassination at a big public event to a slam-blang chase along the Las Vegas Strip with massive vehicular carnage. If anything, Greengrass aims for a breakneck pace that could do with greater moments of quiet contemplation and conversation, especially that which does not involve Bourne running, shooting or fighting.
Yet even as it does keep us viscerally engaged and intellectually stimulated, 'Jason Bourne' does not lose its emotional core thanks to Damon's grounded performance. He may have even less to say compared to any of the previous movies, but Damon remains compulsively watchable as the haunted protagonist at the centre of a very frenetic movie. Strictly speaking, this latest entry hardly breaks any new ground, but Greengrass and Damon are back at what they did best close to a decade ago, complete with a topical subtext to ensure its currency. If you've never liked Greengrass' mix of blurry zooms, pans and quick cuts, you're not going to start anytime now; but anyone looking for that unique sense of excitement in 'Supremacy' and 'Ultimatum' will welcome this rehash with open arms.
Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville have too little chemistry to make this 'odd-couple' pairing work - and no, the action hardly makes up for it too
No matter that it was filmed largely in China, 'Skiptrace' hews closer to the Hollywood action comedies that Jackie Chan was making for a predominantly Western audience in the early 2000s than the big- budget Chinese historical epics that he has been making thereafter. Like 'Rush Hour' or 'Shanghai Noon' therefore, Jackie is here accompanied by an American sidekick whose main and perhaps only purpose is to serve as his comic foil and that honour this time round has been bestowed on 'Jackass' star Johnny Knoxville. Yet even though it plays completely according to formula by allowing Jackie and Johnny to bicker and joust together and against each other, there is something distinctly diminishing about their 'odd-couple' enterprise this time round, such that the Renny Harlin-directed film is never quite as exciting or amusing as it needs to be in order to be entertaining.
To be sure, it does begin on a high by introducing Jackie's Hong Kong police officer Bennie Chan in the midst of a raid on a drug trade happening in one of Tai-O's stilt houses. It is nothing spectacular to be frank, but seeing Jackie do what he does best is always a treat. Just as Jackie, Johnny's character also gets an extended introduction that establishes him as the disarmingly charming hustler Connor Watts, who arrives in Macau with Russian gangsters on his heel for owing a debt to their boss Dima. Connor is twice unwittingly caught up in Victor's affairs by being at the wrong place and the wrong time to have seen Victor shoot dead a female with apparently incriminating evidence against the latter, which also explains why he opts to go with the Russians later on. It is this turn of events that sets Connor up as a prized witness for Bennie as well as a target whom Victor sends his henchmen (led by Leo Ku) to eliminate.
Bennie's initial run-in with the Russians that kicks off the middle act is probably the most lively action sequence among the three elaborate ones that Jackie stages throughout the course of the movie. Jackie is as playful as ever in these scenes, whether stuffing Connor in a bin and rolling him down the pavements or using a life-sized Russian doll to evade the blows of a tough leather-clad female opponent dubbed the 'Siberian Terminator' (Eve Torres), but this is unfortunately also the point where it (sometimes literally) starts going downhill.
Because Jackie has taken it upon himself to be China's unofficial ambassador to the world, 'Skiptrace' also carries with it his motivation to showcase the sights and cultures of the more native parts of China. And so, even though it defies narrative logic, Bennie's trek across China with Connor back to Hong Kong will include a dinner-and-dance with a Mongolian tribe where Jackie will perform Adele's 'Rolling in the Deep' (believe that!) as well as a stopover at a Yunnan village where the people happen to be releasing 'kongming lanterns' that evening and celebrating the 'Mud Festival' and 'Hundred Family Feast' in the morning. In between, Bennie and Connor sneak their way on board a train, drive a rickety two-seater vehicle into the Gobi Desert, row down a fast-flowing river on a raft buoyed by inflated pig skin and even spend a night in a cave spooning each other to keep warm.
Yet even with these opportunities for bonding, one never gets a real sense of camaraderie between the two travellers. That is partly because Jackie often takes the moral high ground chastising Connor for not being a 'man of honour', partly because Johnny spends most of his time scowling for being dragged against his will across China, partly because the script by first-time writers Jay Longino and Bendavio Grabinski lacks character depth, and also because Jackie and Johnny do not quite share enough chemistry to turn the antagonism between their characters into the sort of 'love-hate' relationship that the movie needs. As a result, Connor's change of heart later on feels obligatory, be it a newfound sense of honour that motivates him to speak up for the truth or a renewed sense of loyalty towards Bennie to help a 'brother' in time of need.
Ditto the final setpiece set at a shipyard in Hong Kong notwithstanding a late twist on the identity of 'The Matador', the action feels tired and uninspired, even with Jackie doing a lot of running around. His best sequences have always had an operatic grace and order to them, but Jackie's last hurrah here lacks elegance and comes across haphazard and is even overshadowed by a girl-on-girl showdown between Torres and Mainland actress Zhang Lanxin. That is even more disappointing considering how Jackie and his director Renny (of 'Die Hard 2' and 'Cliffhanger') are supposed to be pros at staging such high-wire acts, but seem content to go out in a middling way here.
Alas that sentiment is true of the movie as a whole, which ultimately lacks the screen rapport (between Jackie and Johnny) so sorely needed to make the buddy-comedy pop. By the time he finally got this made, Jackie too seems exhausted, and those looking for his usual level of energy or inventiveness will surely go away empty. Even on the level of the Hollywood action comedies Jackie used to make, this probably ranks among one of his least, not as dire or embarrassing as 'The Spy Next Door' but not quite much better than 'The Tuxedo'. This is no 'CZ12' for sure, and seeing as how Jackie has already lined up 'Railroad Tigers' for the end of the year, you'll be better off waiting for that than this 'Rush Hour' reject neither fun nor thrilling enough to even justify a fourth instalment under the banner.
Bounty Hunters (2016)
Just entertaining enough to never outstay its welcome, 'Bounty Hunters' is a perfect made-by-China imitation of glossy yet superficial Hollywood blockbuster excess
Because Chinese audiences have never been shy about their love for glossy but shallow bid-budget Hollywood spy thrillers, it was only a matter of time before their own filmmakers responded in kind with a locally-made product of the same ilk. 'Bounty Hunters' is precisely that, a perfect imitation of Hollywood excess that wears its credentials proudly on its sleeve as it globe-trots from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Incheon to Bangkok and finally to Jeju Island. True to its heritage, its primary purpose is to entertain, even at the expense of plot or character (which it treats only as filler in between the numerous slick action sequences) and with scant regard to the laws of physics or of simple basic realism.
More important than the characters they play are the actors themselves, whose star wattage is one of the main draws. Korean actor Lee Min Ho headlines the pan-Asian cast, playing the stereotypical hero Lee San with the cool moves and unflappable attitude. Next to him is the comic foil Yo played by Hong Kong singer-actor Wallace Chung, a bumbling sidekick for the most part always ready with a pun to lighten up the mood. They are joined by Mainland actress Tang Yan as the no- nonsense Cat, seemingly tough-as-nails but a romantic-at-heart, and Hong Kong actress Karena Ng as her cheerful assistant Swan, whose presence is no more than to balance the girls-to-guys ratio in the ensemble.
As formula would have it, Lee San and Yo are initially at odds with Cat and her team (which includes Louis Fan as a loyal multi-talented butler who hardly ever speaks) before being forced to put aside their differences and work together in order to clear their name. Implicated as the terrorists behind a string of bombings of the A Hotel in Tokyo, Singapore (yay, we get a mention!), Incheon and Bangkok, it is altogether no surprise that Cat will eventually be attracted to Lee San or that the latter will end up saving her life at least once during the course of their adventure a familiar but nonetheless effectively amusing scene has them trapped in the trunk of a moving car (in a blatant rip-off of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in 'Out of Sight') with both taking turns to get over the other to hit a switch that will free them.
Their enemy as it turns out is the wannabe evil-looking Tommy, played by Mainland actor JeremyJoes Xu, whose motivation for engineering the bombings is never quite convincing (and was probably never meant to be anyways). By wave of an electromagnetic pulse transmitted by a trigger to vials of liquid bombs hidden within birthday cakes, Tommy gets to enjoy the 'fireworks' of the explosions completely unscathed and along the way, he uses that same mechanism to hold hostage one of their own so as to force Cat to do his bidding. Neither his raison d'être nor his pseudo-psychopathic act comes off remotely sinister, and one wonders several times why Lee San or Cat does not simply throw him off the top of his tall building when they have the chance to but hey, we wouldn't have a show then, would we?
Indeed, Tommy stays alive in order to give excuse for Min Ho and Cat to show off their lightning-quick martial arts, both of whom apparently more skillful than 'Ip Man' in taking out about 20 baddies each at one go. As if sensing that mere punches, kicks and dodges cannot quite sustain their younger-skewing fan demographic, our heroes also get to choose from a bevy of sophisticated weapons/ gadgets, including a cudgel that can double up as an electric stun gun, a double-reinforced Kevlar bulletproof vest and a wireless transmitter cum earpiece that can camouflage like skin under one's ear. On his part, director Shin Tae-ra keeps the action flowing at a fast snappy clip, and even if none of the sequences dazzle on their own, they minimally do not outlast their welcome.
Diverting though the whole enterprise may be, there is more than a hint of disappointment that 'Bounty Hunters' is content to be as superficial and inconsequential as many of its Hollywood counterparts. Because there seems to be greater emphasis on making sure the actors and the shots look attractive and gratifying, there is hardly any sense that anything is at stake be it life, limb or other collateral. If you're looking for some mindless fun, 'Bounty Hunters' is just that; otherwise, you'd be advised to look elsewhere for some other bounty.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Despite a promising first half, this contemporary re-imagining of Tarzan nevertheless falls short by choosing CG-enhanced spectacle over genuine character pathos
As enduring as he may have been through the history of cinema as well as in literature, Edgar Rice Burroughs' muscle-bound British lord raised by apes in the African jungle, who grows up to fall in love with an American woman named Jane, is undeniably antiquated in this day and age. Not only would its depiction of British colonialism and tribal Africans seem utterly archaic, the very fact that it conjures the notion of the white man's burden is cultural poison, which pretty much explains why the most successful take on the character in recent times has been the late-90s animation of the same name from Disney. And yet, for once and future 'Harry Potter' wizard David Yates to attempt his take on Tarzan inspires some measure of confidence that there remains a place for the Lord of the Apes in contemporary filmmaking.
Sure enough, Yates and his screen writing duo of Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer start off well enough with a fresh narrative that begins with Tarzan as a now domesticated gentleman settled in his family's Greystoke Manor and happily married to his Jane. That period of domestic bliss is interrupted when he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to accept an invitation by King Leopold of Belgium to revisit the Congo and serve as trade emissary for the British, an offer he refuses until the American statesman George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) persuades him to make the trip to investigate the latter's suspicions of slavery. Williams' character and motivations are no coincidence his real-life namesake was a decorated Civil War soldier who had travelled to King Leopold's Congo Free State and written about the exploitation of the African people by the Belgian colony.
That is but one adjustment that Yates makes to his tale in order to shake off the character's imperialistic shadow. Rather than have him lord over the local tribe he once spent time with, Yates positions Tarzan as their equal; later on, Tarzan will also come to acknowledge his dishonourable deed of having taken the life of a native from another tribe, which has in part contributed to his existing predicament. No sooner has he, Jane and Williams arrived in Africa does he find himself the target of a bunch of mercenaries led by King Leopold's representative Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has made a deal with a vengeful tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for a fortune in legendary diamonds for his otherwise bankrupt sovereign.
Tarzan narrowly escapes the kidnap, but Jane is not quite so lucky, and so the former spends the rest of his time reuniting with former friends and reconciliating with former foes while running and swinging through the dense African jungle in pursuit of the steamer on which Leon has Jane held captive. That setup is surprisingly engaging, though it does go back and forth a little too much to establish Tarzan's backstory from the source material (i.e. the death of his mother as an infant, his father's death at the hands of the leader of the ape tribe by whom he is adopted, and his first encounter with Jane where he saves her from the same ferocious ape leader); alas, even if it does get off to a good swing, this Tarzan ultimately falls off the vine when it is more than halfway through.
We're not talking about Jackson's somewhat anachronistic sidekick act, which frankly we thought was a genuinely fun foil next to Tarzan's masculinity. We're not talking either about Waltz's umpteenth erudite villain act, which despite being niftily armed with deadly rosary made from Madagascar spider silk, is getting too familiar and tired. And certainly, we have no complaints about Margot Robbie's atypically feisty Jane, who brings nerve and bravado to her damsel-in-distress role. Oh no, what takes Tarzan down is how hasty he seems to get to his inevitable happy ending, so frenetic to the point that it trivialises his Alpha-male conflict with the ape leader whom he has a mano-a-mano with, the grudge that he was responsible for with Hounsou's Chief Mbonga, as well as the danger that he faces confronting Rom and his men out-numbered and out-gunned.
That his Tarzan hardly registers isn't Alexander Skarsgård's fault though; in fact, the 'True Blood' hunk is probably one of the best, if not the best, Tarzan we have seen, not only in terms of his incredibly ripped physique but also of how he emotes his character's feral core in the earlier scenes. Yet Skarsgård is underserved by a mysterious urgency to get things over and done with whether to ensure that the summer audience doesn't get bored or because Yates is too eager to move on to his next 'Harry Potter' venture which only further leaves us in the cold as it rushes from one CG-enhanced setpiece to another. As well-filmed as these are including an early one where Tarzan leads the natives to literally swing on board a moving train and the climactic centrepiece featuring a wildebeest stampede they aren't quite as thrilling without a deeper emotional connection with the titular character himself.
It is also somewhat unfortunate that 'The Legend of Tarzan' arrives in the wake of Disney's 'The Jungle Book', which represented the zenith of modern-day CG in portraying both the lush jungle environment as well as its inhabitants within. In comparison, the CG here comes off oddly alienating at best and subpar at worst, especially during the scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the trees at full speed. Yet what this rebooted tale of Tarzan really lacks is spirit and poignance, without which not even the character's famous jungle cry makes him resonate. Not all is lost of course, but given Yates' pedigree as well as a promising first half, we expect this Tarzan to come out swinging rather than limping to its finish.
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
Packed with visual spectacle but lacking in everything else, 'IDR' is big, loud and dumb summer entertainment best enjoyed with popcorn, Coke and an uncritical mind
A good twenty years has passed since Will Smith's F18 pilot Steven Hiller and Jeff Goldblum's computer scientist David Levinson entered the alien mothership that blew up the White House and detonated it from within, saving the human race from annihilation and giving the world two decades of peace through its unity against a more fearsome enemy . In that time, a global Earth Space Defense Agency has been set up with outposts on the moon and Saturn, supported by a defense force that counts Steven's son Tom and former President Bill Thomas J. Whitemore's daughter as its pilots. Alien technology has enriched not just our weaponry but our very lives, allowing us to build a high-tech utopia where we can overcome our human limitations such as gravity.
As tantalizing as Roland Emmerich's vision of an alternate present may be, few we suspect will be in the mood to get re-acquainted with our heroes of yesteryear, notwithstanding that Emmerich have taken pains to bring them back for this long-overdue sequel. Like before, it is alien destruction on a monumental scale that most will likely be eagerly awaiting with bated breath including Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers smashing into the London Eye, Dubai's Burg Kalifa 'spearing' London's Tower Bridge and our very own iconic Marina Bay skyline decimated by the marauding species. Never mind that Emmerich suggests our little red dot is a city in China, seeing our landmarks breaking apart on the big screen as they are sucked up into the sky by a 3000-mile wide queen ship is not a kick you get to have every day.
Alas this is hardly the first time that Emmerich has plotted worldwide catastrophe '2012' and 'The Day After Tomorrow' were also his doings and that probably explains why he seems less keen on destroying the landmarks than on choreographing the aerial and ground battles between man and alien. Leading the charge against the invaders in Smith's place are Liam Hemsworth's maverick pilot Jake Morrison and Jessie T Usher's Dylan Hiller (the son of Smith's character), the two Top Gun wannabes at odds with each other at the start following a training skirmish that almost killed Dylan. Quite frankly, the personal drama goes nowhere, serving only as filler before the pair take to the skies to try and take down the queen right at the heart of the mothership.
But what a thrilling spectacle that makes, as swarms of fighter jets and alien spaceships whiz past each other at dizzying speeds in an aerial dogfight that Emmerich pulls off with aplomb. Emmerich has always loved orchestrating spectacle, and despite a brief sojourn into dramatic fare (last year's 'Stonewall' anyone?), he demonstrates here that he has not lost his knack for epic-scaled action sequences that he was known for creating long before Marvel got into the game. The finale that sees Emmerich bring the fight out to the Salt Flats of Nevada (because the Earth Space Defense Agency just happens to be headquartered in Area 51, get it?) too doesn't disappoint, especially in its show of human wit and ingenuity against the might and numbers of the alien contingent.
Yet even as it finds Emmerich at his best, 'IDR' also represents Emmerich at his worst. Character work is middling at best, dismal at worst. Goldblum's wry Earth Space Defense director fares best, given the honour of dishing out the occasional sardonic quip that helps the movie as a whole find the right balance between absurd and awesome. Pullman's PTSD-stricken ex-President seems present only for nostalgia's sake, with little to do than to show that he is just as self-sacrificial with or without that presidential title. Usher is no Will Smith (despite trying to echo the latter by selling the iconic line 'Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!') and barely registers. Ditto ex-President Whitmore's grown-up daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), who serves no purpose but as love interest to Jake, the only memorable figure of the new guard. Not that fans of the original will be impressed; instead, they are more likely to cheer the return of Brent Spiney and John Storey as a pair of gay lovers/ nuclear scientists at Area 51.
Despite the assistance of four other co-writers (including his frequent collaborator Dean Devlin), Emmerich's storytelling leaves much to be desired. After a steady build-up in the first half hour, the rest feels like a patchwork that threatens to fall apart due to under-developed plot threads, vague timelines and Deus-ex-Machinas the size of giant Pokeballs (we mean this literally). Because the invasion and the subsequent response feels rushed and somewhat incoherent, one can't quite feel the anticipation before the attack, the great release of tension when it hits, and that sigh of relief when the threat is finally neutralized. The occasional levity does help to gloss over some of the sheer ludicrousness, but Emmerich's failure to get his audience invested in his narrative or his characters means that you won't feel the fist-pumping emotional triumph he is clearly aiming for at the end.
And in a sense, 'IDR' is quintessential Emmerich, built on a promise of epic spectacle which it delivers spectacularly but diminished in storytelling and character. It was always unrealistic to expect this sequel to match up to the expectations of its predecessor, not least because the latter was a cultural touchstone by heralding the arrival of the modern-day effects-driven blockbuster. For millennials though, Emmerich has ensured that this sequel works like a blast from the past, reveling in visual excess and embracing its silly cheesy premise with open arms. How much you love this resurgence depends on your appetite for big, loud and dumb fun that you won't remember once you step out of the cinema, which makes for great summer entertainment but frankly not much more.
Central Intelligence (2016)
You won't find a more dynamic pair than Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart this summer, and thanks to their chemistry, this odd-couple buddy action comedy genuinely pops
As convenient as it may be to pigeonhole 'Central Intelligence' into the label of a buddy cop movie, the always-amusing, often-hilarious and surprisingly-affecting action comedy really is much more. For starters, Kevin Hart's Calvin Joyner isn't a cop at all; in fact, he's a put- upon mild-mannered accountant who is disillusioned with his job and where he is at in life, despite being married to his high-school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet). For another, Calvin and Dwayne Johnson's Bob Stone can't quite be called buddies, especially since they have been out of touch with each other for the past twenty years and are only reconnecting upon Bob's initiation on the eve of their high school homecoming reunion party.
Oh yes, the catch here is that while Calvin used to be the high- school superstar who excelled at everything from athletics to academics to drama and was thus dubbed 'The Golden Jet', Bob who used to go by the name Robbie Weirdicht was the overweight kid who had to contend with being dragged out of the locker-room shower by a bunch of sneering bullies and thrown naked in the middle of a school assembly. And yet, in his moment of humiliation, Calvin's act of kindness in offering his 'Golden Jet' jacket to cover Bob's privates has made him Bob's hero, so much so that Bob worships Calvin as no less than his idol. But it isn't just for old times' sake that Bob is now reaching out to Calvin indeed, after watching 'Fat Robbie'- turned-He-Man take out four bullies in front of his eyes, Calvin agrees to Bob's seemingly innocuous favour of accounting help with his overseas payroll.
And so begins a series of CIA hijinks, as Bob reveals himself to be a CIA agent after someone known as the 'Black Badger' who has stolen the US satellite encryption keys and intends to sell them to the highest bidder. Though Calvin wants no part in the high-stakes operation, he finds that he is already unwittingly involved when Bob's superior Pamela (Amy Ryan) turns up at his doorstep and informs him that Bob is a rogue agent who happens to be the very Badger himself. Oh, there's also the question of whether Bob's former partner (Aaron Paul in an extended cameo) was killed by the Badger as Bob claims or was in fact killed by Bob himself as Pamela claims. As earnest as Bob may appear, Calvin's struggle as he grazes past one life-threatening setpiece after another is whether to trust Bob in the first place.
From an extended shootout at Calvin's office that ends with Bob and Calvin crashing through the eleventh-storey window onto a giant gorilla inflatable below, to a CIA safe house where Calvin springs Bob from custody, to an underground parking garage where Bob comes face to face with his nemesis, director Rawson Marshall Thurber stages the action with surprising élan, emphasizing Johnson's swift and lethal moves as well as Hart's barely controlled hysteria at every turn. Yet because Johnson and Hart have performed similar shtick in previous roles, the real fun is in watching the two actors play against each other in quieter and more intimate scenes, such as a couples' therapy session between Calvin and his wife which Bob crashes by pretending to be their therapist.
It is in scenes such as this that the sheer chemistry between Johnson and Hart shines through. Thurber, who co-wrote the script with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, plays against his audience's expectation by letting the usually motor-mouthed Hart play the straight man and Johnson be the unhinged man-child responsible for the verbal and physical shenanigans. Thanks to Johnson and Hart's elevated performances, the 'role reversal' works beautifully and makes for reason alone to watch this instead of say the next 'Ride Along' sequel. The stronger than usual character work is yet further proof that this film is a notch above many others of its ilk, demonstrated in the insecurities that Bob and Calvin each have to deal with individually along the way.
Even though the opening scene of Bob's teenage appearance in the form of Johnson's face fattened by CG trickery suggests that it may end up pandering to the lowest-denominator, 'Central Intelligence' ultimately proves unexpectedly sensitive to the plight of those bullied in high school in its concluding scene, where Bob finally overcomes his personal demons to take the stage in front of his schoolmates twenty years after being painfully humiliated. Besides a cameo by Melissa McCarthy as Bob's high-school crush, it is as sweet a parting shot as any, underscoring yet again what an earnestly endearing and humorous joyride this odd-couple buddy movie has been. Most of all, Johnson and Hart are like 'yin' and 'yang', and together they prove that a little Hart and a big Johnson goes a long, long way.