Hard-Boiled

*Originally written in 2004

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One of the true ‘must see’ action films of the Nineties, not only because it was the first to fully establish John Woo as the master of action movies and Chow Yun Fat as a superstar (at least in the West), but because it has had a massive influence on every action movie made since, and is easily one of the most entertaining, over the top, gung-ho action movies ever. Slick, stylish, violent, funny, clever, with interesting characters, a superior plot which will keep you guessing, and filled with set pieces, explosions and chases, Hard-Boiled is a genuine classic.

Chow Yun Fat stars as Tequila, a cop with a love of Jazz, a man whose skills are never questioned, but whose methods are sometimes checked as they have a tendency to end in death and demolition. He also enjoys the odd bit of existential musing, and is always trying to win back his love, who happens to be a superior within the force. The film opens with a fight between cops and arms dealers which ends in the death of Tequila’s partner. Tequila kills all possible subjects so they are left with no evidence as to who the boss is. We meet Tony, played by Tony Leung, who is one the arms dealer’s lead men. He does his job flawlessly, and at all costs, but doesn’t want to see his boss harmed. However, when a rival with greater ambition wants to recruit him, Tony double-crosses his old boss. Tequila intervenes and many more are killed. Tony and Tequila continue to come into contact with each other, and we learn that Tony isn’t who he appeared to be. Soon Tequila works out where the massive armoury is, and a massive gunfight ensues, taking up the last 40 minutes of the film. Will Tequila get revenge, will any more twists enter the story, who will make it out alive?

The film is incredibly clever for an action film, with a twisting near-convoluted plot, but this is all the more astounding when you witness the level of action which takes place. The set-pieces are almost overwhelming, with so much going on at one time they beg to be re-watched repeatedly. Each actor is convincing, and it seems Fat and Leung were born for these roles. The final hospital scene has some of the best, most exhilarating action ever filmed, and no-one is safe as patients, doctors, kids, cops, and bad guys are slaughtered. Almost every window is smashed, all manner of guns are fired, and Woo is on top form. His slow-motion style and balletic gun play have never been better, and there is one Steadicam shot which goes into a lift, moves between floors, and features many deaths and explosions, plus dialogue -it’s one of the most awesome things you’ll ever see and must have been a nightmare to film. Few action movies can suck the viewer in like this does, so that we care about the characters and are not just watching vacantly. Hard-boiled succeeds on all levels, and must be seen by all action fans. It is the benchmark of the genre.

Jeepers, my old reviews were all plot, weren’t they? Let us know in the comments what you think of Hard-Boiled and how it ranks alongside John Woo’s other films!

Bodyguards And Assassins

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A wonderfully shot film with a strong cast and some nicely choreographed fight and action sequences, Teddy Chan’s historical drama doesn’t quite match up to the likes of Ip Man and struggles while trying to maintain realism in light of all the fantastic elements. Set in 1905 Hong Kong, it is a time of revolution and intrigue, with various murders and power struggles shaping the course of history. Sun Wen, an influential politician opposed to the Qing Dynasty, is coming to Hong Kong to discuss plans to overthrow the dynasty, but the Emperor sends multiple assassins to kill Sun and put an end to his uprising. The Emperor’s power is overwhelming and given that the British Colonials do not wish to become involved in internal struggles, Sun, along with Chen Shaobai – a revolutionary and newspaper editor – and his businessman friend Li Yutang, try to prevent the assassination by bringing together a group of bodyguards a la The Magnificent Seven. 

The film features big hitters such as Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Nicholas Tse, Tony Leung (Ka Fai), and Lin Bingbing in a large ensemble cast. The basic story is simple, but the plot becomes unnecessarily overblown with each character having their own minor arc which in most cases only confuses matters rather than helping to expand upon the character. I mistakenly thought this was going to be a primarily led Donnie Yen movie, and while Yen does feature heavily, especially in the various action set-pieces, this is more of an ensemble piece. I can’t say I’m remotely familiar with the period the film is covering, but the constant over the top action clashes with the realism of the film. This is usually fine, but the film sets itself out to be a serious historical drama rather than a fantasy based retelling like Ip Man. Hong Kong does look beautifully authentic, with bustling multi-national alleys filled with rickshaws and market stalls, and there is a sense of revolution and paranoia in the air. The costumes, the setting, the choreography are all strong, and most of the set-pieces, while not memorable or outstanding, do get the heart pumping. With an exciting finale where many of our heroes are dispatched, it is a film that is worth a watch for fans of Hong Kong action, but be prepared for more drama that you may have expected.

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Have you seen Bodyguards And Assassins? How does it rate against other historical martial arts epics? Let us know in the comments!

The Empress And The Warriors

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Ching Siu-tung is known to most for his exquisite Chinese Ghost Story trilogy as well as a popular choreographer in numerous worldwide hits, but he had not had a hit as a director for many years. The Empress And The Warriors blends light-wuxia elements within a more authentic historical context and sees epic battle scenes and martial arts set pieces wrapped around a simple love triangle and the tale of a woman trying to restore peace between warring nations. There isn’t anything particularly original in the plot or the way it is told, but for both those new to this type of cinema and veterans there is plenty to enjoy.

Kelly Chan gives a great performance as the young ruler of one of China’s many kingdoms, forced into rulership after her father is killed and under the tender guidance of Donnie Yen as the fearsome General Murong. Chan isn’t the typical lilting beauty, and is willing to throw herself headlong into danger and warfare to protect her nation, and it is during one of these encounters that she is gravely injured and later ‘rescued’ by Leon Lai as Duan – a loner who leaves deep in a forest unwilling to get involved with the problems of mankind. As she heals her body, her mind wishes to return to fight for her kingdom, but her heart yearns for the peaceful life with Duan. Naturally war finds its way to her and more swordplay ensues.

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As expected, we have artful, breathless action with superb choreography, but we also get a stellar cast, beautiful shots, and powerful soundtrack. As mentioned above, the plot isn’t too convoluted – a mixture of standard revenge and romance which should not alienate any newcomers, and the action is swift without being overblown – veterans will enjoy seeing Donnie Yen suiting up and recognise that it’s a return to form for the director. Not a masterpiece by any means, but still a strong action movie with plenty of heart.

Have you caught this ‘little known in the West’ movie? How do you think it holds up against other martial arts epics? Let us know in the comments!

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Black Coal, Thin Ice

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* Note – based on a free copy provided by Amazon

The first film I’ve seen by Diao Yinan is as cold and harsh as it’s name suggests. Taking place in the frigid, frozen north of China it seems like the bleak surroundings are seeping into the lives of the inhabitants. Focusing on one Detective’s fall from grace and sobriety after he gets involved in a case of murder and scattered body parts, the film is a well acted but detached affair.

Liao Fan packs on the pounds to play the central role, a man who doesn’t seem to care what happens to him, yet is seemingly looking for love or something resembling it. Gwei Lun Mei plays the mysterious woman who appears to be connected to the murders – everyone she becomes entangled with ends up dead. She spends much of the movie mute and reminds us of a Hitchcock archetype, enticing our protagonist and others not by her actions but her passivity and the fact that these terrible things just keep happening when she is around.

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There are a couple of standout scenes where the violence is swift and shocking in stark contrast to the slow nature of the rest of the film. It’s a decent film, one with occasionally striking visuals and good performances, but it rarely offers anything new, exciting, or memorable. People not familiar with Asian cinema will likely not find anything to convert them, while regular viewers may be frustrated by the cold disjointed nature of the film and its characters. Let us know in the comments if you have seen this one, and share what you thought!

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.