Universal Soldier – Day Of Reckoning

universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-24-11h59m47s199

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.

universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning-main-review

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!

Advertisements

The Storm Warriors

maxresdefault.jpg

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.

storm-warriors

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

Sukiyaki Western Django

SukiyakiWestern.jpg

A muddled and often confused Miike effort, this nevertheless entertains and freaks out in equal measures. With admirable action pieces, plenty of humour, some decent cameos, the film is never subtle, is always excessive in every sense, and is about twenty minutes too long.

Featuring an almost all-Japanese cast speaking almost entirely in English, this feels like another experiment by Miike but unlike those which have succeeded this one is a bit of a stretch. The film does look great, and sound great, seeking to emulate and reverently spoof Spaghetti Westerns and Martial Arts epics. This is supposedly loosely based on historic events, but the plot feels an awful lot like Yojimbo, with a lone gunman riding into a solitary town broken by two warring clans. As the film progresses we learn more about the gunman’s reasons for being there, and learn a little of the history and hatred between the clans, but the central relationship is between the gunman, Ruriko, and her mute grandson. They provide the film’s emotional core and while the characters always feel distant and are never fully realised, there is a surprising amount of emotion in the movie once the killings start. There are laughs caused by outlandish action and violence, plenty of unintentional humour, and a Quentin Tarantino cameo.

I would struggle to recommend this one to anyone who isn’t a Miike fan – maybe uber-Tarantino fans will get a kick out of it, but from an action perspective there isn’t anything here you won’t have seen. The plot is needlessly complicated, there are perhaps too many characters, and it all has that Miike charm which you will either love or hate. It is stylish, looks a treat, and is a unique package. Still, I enjoyed it more than I expected and if you don’t mind a trip down a very weird avenue you might too.

download

Have you seen Sukiyaki Western Django? Do you think it is one of Miike’s best? Let us know in the comments!

Bodyguards And Assassins

Bodyguards_And_Assassins_B_A_3D_DVD1.jpg

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.

Bodyguards_assassins_704

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

eaw-1.jpg

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.

maxresdefault

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!

2470A

Ichi The Killer

Ichi The Killer

Takashi Miike, currently the world’s best, most innovative and prominent director is not one for shying away from taboos or controversy. With the amount of films he makes you may expect them to be little more than B-movie trash. But he continues to defy conventions, pushing the benchmark higher. Audition, Happiness of Katakuris, Visitor Q all prove his endless abilities, and Ichi is no different.

Ichi is an awesome assassin. However, he has his own problems, haunted by a violent past which continually torments him. He does not want to kill, but it is all he can do. He tries to love, but it always seems to end in brutal, bloody death. When a Yakuza boss disappears with lots of money, his men search, creating havoc, killing many and unsettling other bosses. The sadistic and masochistic Kakihara leads them, looking for someone who can give him what he wants-extreme torture. He cuts off part of his tongue, and frequently chops at himself for amusement and to disgust others. Both characters are brilliant, and extremely well acted. They soon run into each other and Kakihara tries to make Ichi give him the pain he desires, while Ichi struggles to work out what is real and what has been fabricated to make him what he is. Many are killed in a very gory, though comic fashion and eventually the two fight on top of a building.

This is a breathtakingly violent film, sometimes hard to watch- particularly the rape scenes, and it is gritty enough that we twitch in our seats each time someone is hurt. However, it is also very funny, Miike transcending genres as always, and the plot is complex at times, though strangely basic in the end. Good acting, cool sets and costumes, excellent effects all make it good to watch, but if you do not like blood or having to work when watching a film, it may be best to avoid this one. Everyone else partake of its bloody goodness, as it is not entirely shocking, but will definitely stay with us.

This DVD (while not the fully uncut version) has plenty of good extra features which many recent foreign DVDs lack. There is a good commentary by critics (not Miike unfortunately), extra footage, and interviews with Miike and some of the cast. A must for fans of extreme cinema, a good introduction to Miike for anyone who is interested, and for anyone braving to see something a bit different-one to give a go.

As always, feel free to leave your comments- what did you make of the controversy surrounding the movie?

Kickboxer: The Muscles From Belgium Kicks Exposed Bums!

Yes, now we’re into the realms of classic masterpieces! One of John Claud Van Damne’s early films, Kickboxer has it all- fighting. Jean Cloud stars as Luc ‘kickboxer’ Deveroux, a fighter who wants to travel to China and enter a deadly Marshall Arts contest. His brother, Luke Deveroux was meant to go but as he was an unknown actor they decided to send Vin Darn instead. Off he goes, wearing nothing as always to make sure the female, gay, and curious portion of the audience get to drool over his well oiled, muscular and inviting buttocks. Soon he is being trained by a wizened old genius in the ways of kick boxing. He kicks empty cardboard boxes, flat packs, dodges boxes filled with ripe fruit and veg, and eats cardboard all day. The middle section of the film is simply various montages of this type of behaviour, showing his skills improving until he can do the splits balancing on top of a hundred stacked milk cartons. We also see him shaking his thang at a local bar, entrancing the local woman and igniting them into a sexual frenzy. Luckily when they approach he snaps their necks with swift roundhouse kicks. Thus he is ready for the tournament. Many fighters from around the globe and beyond have come to fight and win. We have Bolo from China, a sumo wrestler from Japan, a Viking from Norway, a funny little crab like creature from Africa, and various others, each with a unique fighting style. Shaun Claw Damn Van progresses through each round, beating everyone easily. In the final he has to fight a hard looking transvestite who trains by kicking holes in car doors and eating concrete. JCVCDVD beats him after a gruelling ten rounds by punching him in the nuts so hard that she/he becomes a he/she. We celebrate with a fist pumping 80s power ballad, possibly called ‘Don’t Let The Cardboard Box You In (Keep Believing, Little Boy)!’

Best Scene: When the Sumo sits on the little crab man and laughs, and you see all the arms and limbs underneath frantically flailing around, then stretching climactically, then trembling softly, then stopping. Always stopping.