300: Rise Of An Empire

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Right, so, I liked the original – it looked all stylish and fancy, there was uber-violence, shouting, muscle men and hot women, and a basic plot which allowed the action to run riot. The battle of Thermopylae is one I had always been interested in at an early age, and continued to learn about as I studied Latin in school and Classics at University. This entirely unnecessary sequel is a mess, leaping about in time without warning, introducing new characters and battles which are not as interesting as those in the first movie, and there is a heavy focus on the visuals which are no longer as attention grabbing as they were first time round. It probably made a bunch of money though, right?

Lets start with the positives – there’s a decent cast with Lena Heady, David Wenham and others reprising their roles from the original and Jack O’Connell and Eva Green joining in. O’Connell is a great actor but doesn’t have a lot to do while Eva Green relishes the role, throwing her all into it and coming over as both impressive as hammy. There is plenty of action in the film, bone-crushing fights, swordplay, naval warfare…. and that’s about it really. Even on the positive points we have negatives – Sullivan Stapleton is a good actor but seems too wooden here, like a beardless Gerard Butler with less SHOUTING, while the fighting and gore is all very samey and gets boring quickly. Every fight is disappointingly repetitive, with the same slow-down and zoom-in technique to show yet another blade slashing through flesh and CG blood bubbling towards the camera. The naval scenes aren’t as epic as they need to be – scenes like this only work if they are massive in scope and you can see what is happening, but here everything is too small, too dark, and there’s only so many times you can watch a naked guy fisting a man in a helmet before it gets silly (usually between 1-2 times). The original managed to avoid being boring by offering something different with each battle sequence, almost like a beat-em-up videogame – each enemy required a new tactic or had some new type of weapon to cope with. Here it is just wave after wave of faceless nobodies with Eva Green shrieking in the background.

The plot is basically the same as the first movie, with Greece facing the onslaught of a massive Persian Army – on one front Gerard Butler’s 300 defended Sparta, while here Thermistocles defends the beaches. Eva Green is the face of the enemy this time around, a Greek defector with a brief backstory who is the true tactician and ruler of the Persian advance rather than Xerxes. There is an interesting conflict going on at various points, with Green’s Artemisia simply looking for a worthy adversary or someone to help her conquer the world. The film takes place both before, during, and after the events of the first film but fails to make the necessary connections between what is happening elsewhere and why any of it actually matters. The story doesn’t matter, it’s just an excuse for shouting and fighting, and you’d get as much sense by hanging around outside a city club at 1.30 am and watching the drunks fight. It’s all so stupid, pointlessly masculine, but without anything that made the original… what’s that word….. fun! There are much better movies out there which look better, with better fights, stunts, action, so there isn’t really any point in spending any time or money on this unless you’re a die-hard Eva Green fan.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of 300: Rise Of An Empire. Was I too harsh? Did anyone like it?

Death Wish 2

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While Clint Eastwood starred in a bunch of violent action and crime thrillers throughout the 70s and 80s, he made enough equally successful films in different genres to ensure he had plenty of other options. The success of Death Wish meant there would inevitably be a sequel and Charles Bronson got sucked into this world for much of the rest of his career, playing tough guys who take the law into their own hands (with the notable exception of The Indian Runner). Death Wish II is neither as bad as you think it’s going to be nor any different from what you would expect. What?

Bronson returns as Paul Kersey, still recovering from the events of the first movie. He has moved with his daughter to LA and has a relationship with a new lady friend. On a routine day trip, Kersey has his wallet stolen. Chasing down one of the perps (and getting a good look at him) he decides to count his losses and let go. The crooks of course have other ideas, needlessly deciding to go to Paul’s home to loot and rape some more. His daughter is kidnapped, his maid is killed, and he is left for dead. Carol (Paul’s daughter) is plucky and manages to escape, only to dive out a window and impale herself on a fence – woopsy.

Kersey goes on another rampage, tracking down the gang members one by one and sending them to hell on the back of a bullet. There’s a sub-plot about the cops in LA and NY getting together to decide what to do about Kersey but it’s not overly important. The cops aren’t made to look 100% incompetent, but still this is a movie about personal vengeance and not letting the man get in you way. Kersey doesn’t come across as a soulless killer or some unstoppable machine – he’s just a guy with a gun and a plan. My main issue with the movie isn’t the violence or the cloudy message, it’s more the motive and the emotional side of things. I get that you want revenge when someone you love is killed, but Bronson doesn’t seem that phased by it. I get that this is supposed to be a macho movie with blood and snarls and no tears, but a little more emotion wouldn’t go amiss.

But then it wouldn’t really be the same movie, would it? Charles Bronson weeping over the body of his child, shrieking at the heavens for forsaking him. Twice!? All we want to see here are bad guys getting slaughtered, no questions asked, no remorse, and that’s what we get. Bronson does what he does, working his way through petty scumbags like Lawrence Fishburne and Thomas Duffy, and getting a few knocks along the way. Jill Ireland is there for the glam purposes, and everything looks authentically seedy. Some parts appear to be a little too glamourized for their own good, but that’s another grey area. Then there’s the soundtrack. As big a Led Zep and Jimmy page fan as I am, the soundtrack is mostly a mess. I’d heard the soundtrack long before I’d seen the movie and… well, I don’t have much to say about it to be honest – as my dad would say ‘it’s just noise’.

So, Death Wish II. It is exactly what you think it is – if you like that sort of thing there’s no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy this. If that’s not your sort of thing, then stay away. It isn’t Bronson or Winner’s finest hour but it’s still a perfectly fine, well enough made revenge thriller. Let us know in the comments what you think of the movie and the series as a whole.

Universal Soldier – Day Of Reckoning

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Universal Solider is arguably one of the last great films of the action hero era and surely one of Van Damme’s finest. The film was so successful that it spawned a number of confusing sequels, some which seemed to have little to do with prior entries, some which retconed other events, and which were all without exception drastically inferior to the original. You can imagine that when I took a gamble on this, I was hoping for (at best) some Van Damme on Lundgren action, with a few funny one-liners and nice kills. What I got was something I didn’t expect at all, and something much better than I could have ever hoped for.

Day Of Reckoning is a nightmare. I mean that positively. It is a horror movie with some genuinely shocking violence and powerful martial arts based action. The film veers into some surreal, dream spaces where the viewer isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Van Damme and Lundgren do appear, but are not the focus. Instead, star Scott Adkins and director John Hyams conspire to take the story in a completely different and new direction – removing much of the charm of the original, and instead crafting a snaking revenge movie where the seemingly tenuous links to the series mythology only become more clear and insidious towards the end.

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Scott Adkins wakes from a coma to discover his family has been massacred. He has lost his memory, but with help from the FBI identifies the killer as none other than Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). So far so normal, aside from the twist of JCVD being a killer. It should be noted that the flashback scene of the family being killed is brutal and unforgiving. While Adkins searches for Van Damme, we see another series favourite Andrei Arlovski living a normal life but being suddenly ‘activated’ and going on a murderous rampage. It turns out that (most of) the people he kills are Universal Soldiers, and that Lundgren and Van Damme have been trying to free agents from the control chip or something by which the government has been controlling them with. They are recruiting and forming a separatist army to destroy the program once and for all. Then things get complicated with clones…..

There’s a hell of a lot going on here and it is never easily explained. Rather than finding all this confusing, I think the often dream-like or nightmarish nature of the movie (deliberately or otherwise) covers the flaws in this type of storytelling. We know it is still convoluted, but we are placed essentially in the character of Adkins – he doesn’t know what has happened, and only has the memory of his family being murdered to spur him on. As viewers it is that image which also keeps us watching – to get to the bottom of the mystery. Adkins does well in the role and while he isn’t the most expressive actor, he lets the more physical side speak for itself. And so we get some outstanding and vicious fight scenes – imagine a martial arts version of Saw and you’ll get the idea. The blood and guts flow freely, but it isn’t in a cartoon Kill Bill style or slowed down and stylized like 300. It feels real, even though the combatants are super strong and super fast, the punches, kicks, and everything else connect with a raw force – I was left gaping after a couple of these and wondering why other movies don’t follow suit.

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It isn’t only the fights which are horrific. This is at it’s heart trying to be a horror movie, with Hyams at the very least emulating a Lynchian atmosphere. If you are aware of the series, then you will be aware of the loose political roots – dead soldiers are resurrected, have their memories removed, and are forced to do the Government’s bidding like robots. While the questions about patriotism and control over individualism have been clear throughout, there is a much more personal and angry vein of accusation here. We learn that the older model of soldier performed better when they believed they were fighting for their country, but that the newer models truly exceed when they think it is their family who is in danger. Warriors simply don’t respond to patriotism anymore, and the only way for a government to teach it’s soldiers to kill is to give them a more personal, devastating fear – it’s basically boiled down to kill the enemy or you family will die or even one step further – the enemy has already killed your family, so go do what needs to be done. Echos in current world politics are all too clear.

Day Of Reckoning is not for the faint-hearted. The violence is extreme, and I’m saying that as a seasoned gore hound. I loved it, but I’m aware that others with a low tolerance will be put off quickly. Gone are the japes of the original, and the half-assed crap of the sequels. This is a horrific movie which just happens to exist in the Universal Soldier universe, and it’s one of the most impressive action movies I’ve seen in recent years. Hell, it’s one of the most impressive horror movies I’ve seen in recent years. Let us know in the comments what you thought of the movie and how you rate it alongside others in the series!

The Storm Warriors

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The Pang Brothers have tried their hand at most genres in their time. With Storm Warrirors they create some sort of fantasy/comic based martial arts epic, but I had almost no clue what was happening the entire time and the whole thing feels like a bloated mess.

Fair enough, this is actually sequel – something I didn’t realise when I first watched. That would go some way to explaining why I didn’t really know what the balls was going on half the time, but I suspect that even if I had seen the first movie – Storm Riders – I still wouldn’t have been able to follow everything. I can’t possibly describe the plot, except to say there is some sort of vicious Martial Arts Warlord who wants to rule the world. He tries to recruit other famed fighters – either join him or die. Most die, but a few plot to bring him down while facing inner struggles and squabbles within their group. The warriors all have names like ‘Cloud’, ‘Nameless’, ‘Wind’, ‘Earth’, ‘Sky’, and they each have their own skills, but none really stand out from any other. There are a bunch of fights and montages and lots of talking and staring and sitting and then it ends.

It’s rather odd that a talented directing duo and a pretty good cast could create something so crappy. Some of the fights are well done, but it’s all ultra stylized rather than focusing on the athleticism of the performers. There are some good effects, but nothing you won’t have seen in other productions. I’d recommend watching the first film first, obviously, and if you are a fan of the Pang Brothers you’ll want to see this eventually but keep your expectations low.

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Let us know in the comments if you thought I was too harsh and if you enjoyed The Storm Warriors!

Drug War – DVD Reviews

*Originally written in 2013 based on a free copy provided by Amazon.

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It has been a while since I’ve seen a new Johnnie To movie which really impressed and excited me – Drug War brings him almost back to his best with a tense action thriller which draws many comparisons with Michael Mann’s Heat. This has a large case of famous faces, inspired set pieces, numerous explosive gun-fights, and a weaving cat and mouse plot as a criminal mastermind and fierce Detective do battle. There are plenty of stylish visuals and violence, but at the core is a cold story with few easy answers and fewer happy endings for the characters.

Zhang is a no-nonsense Detective who pulls out all the stops to catch notorious Drug Lords, and during the course of the film we see him become more dangerously close to the edge, almost reckless, in his pursuit of taking down the bad guys. Sun Honglei plays Zhang with a lot of skill, morphing seamlessly from zero-emotion cop to jolly criminal impersonator. Equally, Louis Koo, playing the captured drug baron Choi is impressive at conveying grief, desperation, charm, and deadly cunning. Much of the film is a game of wits between this pair, and along the way we interact with a variety of cops and criminals, each with their own story to tell and part to play.

For those who like their action, we do get a few highlights – a factory attack and the final showdown outside a school are directed flawlessly – they serve the plot and do not seem over the top in a John Woo style but are more grounded yet no less exciting or adventurous. This is definitely one for fans of Hong Kong, Asian, or action cinema to enjoy.

Last Action Hero

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This is quite an underrated movie, even amongst Arnie fans, and one which few people understand, or try to. Last Actio Hero is a spoof of action movies, primarily those starring Arnie and Stallone, ones which director McTiernen has made a living from: The films that have loose plots built around stunts, explosions, fights, and spectacular and over the top set pieces. That said, the action, stunts, and effects are good; the cast, especially Arnie, ham it up as much as possible, the cameo appearances are witty and accurate, and the plot is pretty clever.

Arnie plays Jack Slater, a ficticious cop/action hero who lives in movie land- a place where everything is super sized, and hyper real (a little punch in the gut of Hollywood). His daily routine, usually involving chasing bad guys, and wrecking huge portions of cities is disturbed- mid chase, by the mysterious appearance of a teenage boy called Danny. Danny is from the real world- our world, the world which gorges itself on the exploits of such larger than life characters as Jack Slater. Danny is just about Slater’s biggest fan, and no-one could be happier than he to be meeting his hero for real. Slater, naturally is less than pleased. Danny explained how he was given a magical golden ticket which opens a gateway been the real world, and the movie world, and tries to convince Slater that his life is a movie. This leads to some inspired jokes about the film industry, and Arnie’s own career- the ‘I’ll be back’ scene and the scene where Danny tries to make Slater swear. Meanwhile, Big Bad (English) guy Benedict hears about the golden ticket, and sees the potential for chaos, and the psychotic Ripper plots more carnage against Slater.

Tons of in-jokes make this an entertaining film, and I’ll admit that’s all it is. But that’s all it is trying to be. There is no need to criticize it for lacking artistic merit, character development, internal meditations on life etc. It’s an action movie, where the bad guys are supposed to die, cars are meant to explode when scratched, the good guy is untouchable, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. The soundtrach, featuring AC DC adds to this thoroughly enjoyable throwback to 80’s action classics.

Extras unfortunately are light- a trailer, a music video, and a short featurette. The nineties was a revisionist time for movies, and this film was one of the best examples of the movement- self referential, self mocking, while pushing the boundaries of what was expected from the genre. A documentary discussing this and the making of, or a commentary or interview with cast would have been great.

As always, feel free to leave your comments on the movie- was this one of the better 90s Arnie efforts?