I don’t think FALCON RISING is a new b-action classic like BLOOD AND BONE or UNDISPUTED II. It’s not as imaginative or expertly executed as those. But it is something I love that the world doesn’t get enough of these days: a solid meat and potatoes action movie molded entirely around the badassness of a martial artist, the great Michael Jai White.
Career-wise, MJW has diversified more than his golden age predecessors like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal (who he fought in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN and EXIT WOUNDS, respectively). He’s supplemented his many action credits with Tyler Perry movies and sitcoms (WHY DID I GET MARRIED 1-TOO, For Better or Worse) and with creating and writing BLACK DYNAMITE (both the movie and the animated series, soon in its second season). But one look at his cartoonishly inflated muscles or at one of his flying kicks and it’s clear that he was meant for an endless series of action vehicles, even if that’s not what Hollywood (or Sofia, or whoever) thinks they’re supposed to be making in this era.
It’s even a joke in the movie: U.S. Consulate Old Friend Neal McDonough meets up with him again and quips “I see you’ve stopped working out.” There’s more than one part where I laughed just seeing MJW walk around in public, much like I do with Blade or The Punisher. Like the scene where he walks into a club and you see the bouncer size him up as he walks past. He would make anyone feel inferior.
White plays suicidal PSTD suffering ex-Marine John Chapman, who we aren’t told until the very last scene is also code named “Falcon.” When his social worker sister (introducing Laila Ali) turns up beaten nearly to death in Rio (Puerto Rico) he flies in and of course starts his own investigation. It goes a little slower than you might hope as he gets the lay of the land from good cop Katarina Da’Silva (a lady who looks like Jasmine Guy [Millie Ruperto]) and bad cop Thiago Santo (a guy who looks like Willem Dafoe [Jimmy Navarro]) and learns why life in a favela is more complicated than he assumes.
Uh oh, I hope Tyler Perry doesn’t watch this. I’m not sure he’d appreciate that the one character who talks a big game about Christianity is the one who least exemplifies it. Falcon tells him God is just an excuse for people to kill people and (SPOILER) stabs the motherfucker with his own crucifix.
Falcon is not one of these always-two-steps-ahead-of-everybody type of heroes. In fact there’s at least two scenes where he figures something out a scene too late with a flashback and a stupid look on his face. In at least one case his slowness is intentionally funny: he beats the hell out of a bunch of guys, finds out they’re on his side and has to apologize.
It’s just the right tone. It’s got humor without being jokey, and seriousness without being bleak. A couple times MJW is doing emotional moments that I swear he would do as a joke in a BLACK DYNAMITE movie. This includes some laughable dialogue and also a shot of him coming out of a building cradling a little girl in his giant arms after he rescued her from sex traffickers. You know he knows it’s corny but he’s still willing to do it sincerely.
There’s room for many beloved action movie tropes: the burnt out hero who lives alone in squalor, the training montage where he punches holes through a wall, the severe beating in a restroom, the discovery of Yakuza in unexpected places, the villain who talks about preferring his sword to guns, the organized duel to settle a dispute, and my personal favorite, the HARD TO KILL style “badass happens to be in liquor store during robbery” scene, in which he gets to be even more fearless than Seagal because he has literally just come from playing Russian Roulette so he might even prefer the guy blow his head off.
A less welcome cliche is the frequent Avid fart war flashbacks to show his trauma. I don’t think they add much to the very effective moments where he casually checks for car bombs under a vehicle or reacts quickly to a car backfiring. They should’ve trusted in the power of implication in their storytelling. Yeah, I know, they did the same thing in FIRST BLOOD, but that was different. The after effects of combat are the main theme of that movie, and also Stallone had a mustache in those flashbacks. It was novel.
One great treat for the b-action connoisseur: when we meet lead detective Santo we might notice that his less talkative partner is Lateef Crowder, the capoeira expert who fought Tony Jaa in THE PROTECTOR and Scott Adkins in UNDISPUTED III. So we know that’s going somewhere. The fights have a little more jitter than I prefer but you do see multiple moves between cuts and choreographer Larnell Stovall (NEVER BACK DOWN 2, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING) has concocted some great scenarios and moves. Falcon’s style uniquely combines martial arts and gun play instead of separating them. I don’t remember seeing anybody else do a flying kick to a guy’s head and then shoot a second guy while still in the air.
At the end we have three very different villains for him to fight and surprisingly they all attack him at the same time. His handling of a Yakuza swordmaster (Masashi Odate, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, THE LAST SAMURAI) best shows his methods: here’s a guy with an elegant, ancient sword… uh… I guess I’ll pick up these pipes off the ground and use them as tonfa. And he makes it work.
I know there are tons of us who love this type of movie, the trouble is how to make it a profitable business model in a post Blockbuster-will-automatically-buy-such-and-such-amount-of-copies world. Even the big guys like Arnold aren’t making money on the big screen, and how much money can the little guys make when many of their viewers prefer just pirating the shit? The producers of FALCON are giving it a shot: it’s now rising on VOD and playing actual theaters in a few select cities. I saw it on its one screen in Seattle, the Sundance Cinemas, one of these pricier food and alcohol theaters. Unfortunately nobody else was at the 4:35 show, so it didn’t benefit from the rowdy crowd it deserves. But the theatrical release did manage to get it more reviews than most DTV/VOD action. Plenty of positive ones, too.
“Pretty falcon enjoyable” would be a good headline by the way guys.
I don’t know if they bit off more than they can swallow, but they intend this as a series. They set up Falcon to have missions in exotic locations (suggestion: Puerto Rico, but filmed in Brazil). The second one is supposed to be called FLIGHT OF THE FALCON and have him chasing stolen nuclear material in Southeast Asia. I hope we’ll see associate producer and original announced director Isaac Florentine do one at some point. He’s a man who knows how to sequel, and it’s about time for an UNDISPUTED II reunion. This one ended up being directed by Ernie Barbarash (ASSASSINATION GAMES).
I like that they left open the promise of McDonough’s character eventually getting to loosen the tie and save Falcon’s ass, or for Ali to heal up enough to punch somebody. Otherwise it doesn’t seem like a story as worthy of returning to as some of White’s other ones, but maybe they can add a little hot sauce in the next one. There’s plenty of room to add onto his character, for example being in Iraq doesn’t really explain his martial arts skills. We could definitely find out more of his backstory when an old master gets killed or kidnapped or turns evil or whatever.
But I liked Falcon at the beginning when he was depressed and crazy. I think we’re supposed to assume that getting back into action means he has a purpose now, means he’ll stop downing Jack Daniels and pointing guns at his chin. That clerk at the liquor store knew him by name, he’s gonna wonder what happened to him. Nowhere near part 4 and already ready to marry Renee Russo, it seems like. That could be a mistake.
But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. We’ll see what happens in part 2. I hope.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.