I first paid attention to Max Zhang (aka Zhang Jin) because of the modern classic KILL ZONE 2 (SPL 2). He played the villain’s #1 henchman, a daintily dressed psycho with a fighting style like whirling scalpels. But I’ve come to know him more as a dreamy long-haired brooder like his character in IP MAN 3, who was spun off into the hero of MASTER Z: IP MAN LEGACY. And that’s closer to Sai Gau, the rule-breaking cop character he plays in the, uh, aquatic police thriller THE BRINK (2017).
He’s introduced just going fuckin berserk in a one-man raid on a… penthouse crackhouse? It’s some sort of trashed drug den with broken windows high enough for him to throw people out of and have them destroy the police cars they land on. Psychedelically lit with primary colored lights and with a questionable amount of electric guitars on the soundtrack, he spins and kicks and chops through crowds of criminals. Not all of them survive. (read the rest of this shit…)
It took me nearly a quarter of a century to get around to giving CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995) a shot. Certified by the Guinness Book as the biggest financial bomb of all time, it got poor reviews, bankrupted Carolco Pictures (FIRST BLOOD, T2) before it even came out, diverted director Renny Harlin (following DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER) from the A-list and failed to create momentum for its revolutionary notion of giving a woman the lead role and top billing on a big budget summer adventure.
But I had reason to be suspicious of its reputation. Many of Harlin’s ‘90s movies, particularly his also-starring-Geena-Davis followup THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, deserve more credit than they got at the time. And there’s definitely precedent for mob mentality panning of movies that have been heavily covered as over budget, out of control productions. This had the additional gossip-bait of the star and director being married to each other, causing mean-spirited speculation that one was only hired because of the other one’s clout. (For example, an informative 1996 Independent article about what went wrong manages to refer to them as “Renny Harlin and his demanding wife.”) On top of all that, you know how it is with what I call the Old Timey Adventure genre. They almost always lose money, even when they’re great. That’s just how it is. (read the rest of this shit…)
As much as I enjoyed the first two Detective Dee pictures (MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME and RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON), the third one, DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS, far surpasses them. It has the same kind of fun characters and storytelling, but the FX and design are much improved, it has more action and spectacle, and it’s more packed full of weird factions and creatures with cool costumes and gimmicky weapons, often elegantly gliding around on wires. It’s a total blast.
They’ve dropped the “Young” from the title, even though it’s continuing the prequel story starring Mark Chao. I guess the moment he gets his rank and trademark weapon he becomes a man. That’s where it starts: the end of RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON, with our hero receiving the Dragon-Taming Mace and the duty to keep the imperial court in check, at which point Empress Wu (Carina Lau, PROJECT A PART II, the only actor in all three movies) conspires to have the mace stolen from him. This is one thing I love in period martial arts movies: when a specific weapon is treated with reverence, even though it’s just a piece of metal, not some doomsday device. There turns out to be a really good explanation for why she needs to get it away from him, but it wouldn’t matter to me if there wasn’t. All I need is that it’s a legendary badass weapon like the Green Destiny Sword, so they can’t let him have it. (read the rest of this shit…)
Before Regular Age Detective Dee, it only stands to reason, there was Young Detective Dee. Three years after Tsui Hark’s crowd-pleasing supernatural action mystery blockbuster DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME he recast with Mark Chao (THE WARRIOR’S GATE) in place of Andy Lau and gave us a case from early in his career: YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON.
As the title implies, it starts with some kinda kraken. I have too much respect for you to make a pun out of that. But you can imagine one. Something attacks the Chinese navy, they think it’s a sea monster, so obviously
1) they’re gonna sacrifice Yin Ruiji (Angelababy, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE) to the monster and
2) Empress Wu (returning Carina Lau, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT) threatens to execute Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng, THE MONKEY KING 2 and 3) if he doesn’t figure out who attacked the fleet in ten days. Kind of a tough boss. (read the rest of this shit…)
GHOST WARRIOR is sort of a sci-fi action drama that was made in 1984, but shelved and thawed two years later. It’s about a samurai named Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka, Kamen Rider, IN THE LINE OF DUTY III) who’s just minding his own business – okay, I guess he’s fighting some dudes and
forced to jump falls off a cliff – when suddenly he wakes up 400 years later in a lab. Somebody found him frozen in a cave and he ended up at the California Institute of Cryosurgical Research.
By the time the man in charge, Dr. Alan Richards (John Calvin, Tales of the Gold Monkey, CRITTERS 3), recruits “Oriental history” expert/narrator of the film Chris Welles (Janet Julian, HUMONGOUS, FEAR CITY, KING OF NEW YORK) to consult, she’s already read rumors about “The Frozen Shogun” in the newspaper, but just thinks it’s an archaeological discovery. It’s immediately clear that Dr. Richards is an asshole because when she walks into the lobby to report to the job he’s standing right next to her and doesn’t bother to welcome her, introduce himself or even look at her. Then he pulls a John Hammond and brings her for a tour without warning her there’s gonna be a live samurai involved. (read the rest of this shit…)
ALADDIN. The 1992 Disney animated classic about a “street rat” who’s a “diamond in the rough” and gets three wishes from a hyperactive genie and uses the opportunity to try to marry the princess he just met. See, they come from opposite worlds, but if you think about it, having to sneak out of your gigantic palace in disguise to go to the market while your dad tries to make you marry a prince you don’t know for political reasons is very much the same experience as being an orphan who knows how to make crushing poverty fun with petty theft and parkour. So I don’t see why there would be any awkwardness there. They’ll do great!
Now we have a live action version, and legitimate reason to be skeptical. I’m very proud of my review of SAVING MR. BANKS from just six years ago, which I turned into sort of a manifesto against kneejerk cynicism toward Disney and happy endings and what not. But these days the corporation probly gets less pushback than it honestly deserves – they buttered us up with Star Wars and Marvel movies and then created a disastrous monopoly by purchasing Fox. There are many small, terrible things I could complain about, but it’s in the big picture that it seems to me they’re really doing the opposite of what their founder was beloved for. It seems less about telling great stories and more about trying to own the most popular “properties.” Not only have they entirely abandoned the classic hand drawn animation that was once their entire business, but they’re recycling their own animated stories in live action and/or realistic computer animation that’s sometimes well done but generally lacks the heart and soul of the drawings Walt helped breathe life into.
That fucking sucks. On the other hand, I can recognize that most of these movies are pretty enjoyable on their own merits. So I try to be fair. (read the rest of this shit…)
TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN – not to be confused with Tsui Hark’s THE TAKING OF TIGER MOUNTAIN – is a surreal post-apocalyptic experimental black and white art film, shot in 1975, screened in 1983, and never released on video until Vinegar Syndrome’s recent blu-ray. It’s most notable as the first performance by the late great Bill Paxton, who is the lead as well as the production designer.
Like many people, I’m sure, I most associate Paxton with his funny whiny guy roles, especially Hudson in ALIENS. Game over, etc. And he stayed strongly associated with James Cameron as not only the lead in the present day section of TITANIC, but the real life friend who told Cameron, emerging from an actual expedition to the Titanic wreckage, about the 9-11 attacks (as seen in the Imax documentary GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS). They both came out of the Roger Corman school – Paxton worked as a set decorator on EAT MY DUST, BIG BAD MAMA and GALAXY OF TERROR, where the two first met. Though we all know Paxton ended up making it as both a leading man in blockbusters and a reliable character actor, remember that he directed the 1980 novelty music video “Fish Heads,” the 2001 supernatural religious thriller FRAILTY, and the 2005 golfing drama THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED. He was a filmmaker. But as a 19 year old working as a set dresser for the educational films of Encyclopedia Brittanica Features he befriended director Kent Smith (writer: MASSAGE: THE TOUCH OF LOVE; composer: VENEREAL DISEASE: THE HIDDEN EPIDEMIC), who thought he’d make a good star for an independent movie. (read the rest of this shit…)
READY OR NOT is a funny horror movie about one of the less romantic wedding nights. Grace (Samara Weaving, Ash vs. Evil Dead, MONSTER TRUCKS, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI) is nervous about marrying into the Le Domas family, who are super rich from their great grandfather or whoever’s board game company. So when the groom, Alex (Mark O’Brien, ARRIVAL), explains the family tradition that at midnight they have to go downstairs and play a game with the family, she doesn’t complain. She’ll do any silly thing to win them over.
They challenge her to a game of hide and seek. If she can stay away from them until dawn, she wins. She laughs and doesn’t take it seriously until she realizes they’re taking it very seriously. Like, trying to kill her seriously. (read the rest of this shit…)
I don’t have the attachment many people I know have to the KARATE KID movies. But I’m kinda into their mythology, especially after my recent dip into the more over-the-top b-movie villainy of part III. So I excitedly took advantage of a free window (until September 11th) to watch the ten half-hour-ish episodes in the first season of the premium Youtube series Cobra Kai.
Even in today’s gold rush for nostalgic i.p. this seems like a too-good-to-be-true sequel scenario, especially for my interests. Ralph Macchio – now actually older than Pat Morita was in the first movie! – returns as Daniel LaRusso, but so does William Zabka as part 1 nemesis Johnny Lawrence, and even though Macchio gets top billing, Zabka is treated as the underdog hero, like Iceman Chambers in UNDISPUTED II, or like I wanted them to do with Martin Kove’s villainous sensei John Kreese after seeing him down and out in the opening scenes of KARATE KID III. Broke, washed up, divorced, drinking Coors all day, still listening to Ratt and wearing Van Halen t-shirts, Johnny attempts to re-open the Cobra Kai dojo in a strip mall next to a vape store. But he’s so bad at salesmanship he ends up having only one student, a nice kid named Miguel (Xolo Mariduena, Parenthood) who tempers some of his worst tendencies while being empowered by his macho tough love and “strike first, strike hard, no mercy” philosophy. (read the rest of this shit…)
RETURN OF THE STREET FIGHTER (which, it’s important to note, is “filmed in Actionscope”) has the same director as THE STREET FIGHTER (Shigehiro Ozawa) and came out in the same year (1974). And I’m sure that was possible partly because it’s only 80 minutes long and padded with black and white flashbacks to two of the first movie’s fights, as well as the same childhood flashback, and it has a pretty long section that’s just the people from different karate schools demonstrating different weapons and techniques that will be used against evil-code-of-conduct-following anti-hero Takuma Tsurugi (Sonny Chiba) – punching through stacks of rock plates, or swinging “NUNCHAKU CLUB” or “SAI DAGGERS” or whatever the on screen text calls them in the American release. Somehow it’s still a great fuckin movie. (read the rest of this shit…)