As someone who finally got into Paul Wesley Snipes Anderson’s RESIDENT EVIL series pretty close to when it was finally wrapping up, I was thrilled to hear that the director and his wife/star Milla Jovovich (HELLBOY, not the Ron Perlman one) had purchased the film rights to a fresh new video game franchise copyright property trademark. Without any judgment on (or implied knowledge of) the respective video games, I feel that there is potential for a series called MONSTER HUNTER about monsters and hunters who hunt monsters to be better than one about zombies and umbrellas or whatever. And I loved that one!
So I had planned to see this Toho co-production based on the works of Capcom in the biggest, if emptiest theater in Seattle, until shit (the pandemic) happened and that was not possible for me. But as soon as they made it available for digital “purchase” I paid the four-or-five-dollars-more-than-the-movie-ticket-would’ve-cost and now that file access is MINE.
It begins in a world of fantasy. Pirate ships are sailing through sand. Ron Perlman (HELLBOY, the Ron Perlman one) is there. Tony Jaa (KILL ZONE 2) is there. Monsters attack. Tony gets knocked off the boat. It is sand, so he doesn’t drown, but he’s left behind.
Then we switch to a different desert, the type in our world, in our time. It even has latitude and longitude listed on screen. I think they might mention directions and clicks at some point if you want to check your map and follow along at home.
I remember seeing that fans of the video game were mad that the movie involves American soldiers when the games take place entirely in a fantasy world of magic, wonder, etc. Wikipedia says Anderson got the army idea from “a crossover event in the game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite in 2010, in which a military squad briefly faced monsters from the Monster Hunter series.” Obviously. Duh. But I think it’s a fair complaint, whether it’s coming from gamer purists or people wondering why even a movie about swords and dragons has to show off American military equipment. So I am happy to declare this particular depiction of the US military not propaganda. In fact, I would argue that there’s a little bit of anti-militarism subtext here.
I didn’t catch her name until the end, but Jovovich plays Captain Natalie Artemis of the US Army, leading a small squad on a search for a previous squad that disappeared (hopefully while searching for a previous squad that disappeared while searching for a previous squad that disappeared, etc.). Asked by one of her soldiers about the rows of giant engraved stone markers their convoy passes, Artemis quips, “I’m a ranger, not an archaeologist.”
This incuriosity will cause problems: turns out those things are a magic portal to a land of giant monsters. Whoops. There’s some lightning and they wake up in a strange landscape but at first they choose to believe they just got lost during a storm. You know how sometimes you just get turned around and end up in a place where there’s a skeleton bigger than a dinosaur skeleton.
Oh well. They just keep driving and Artemis taps a beat on the top of the humvee and Lincoln (Tip “T.I.” Harris, CUT THROAT CITY) leads them all in an army song. Macho bonding. I love how it cuts directly from that to a shot of Tony Jaa with his fantasy outfit and haircut and giant bow and arrow, looking down from a stone arch, the score by Paul Haslinger (DEATH RACE, DEATH RACE 2, THE THREE MUSKETEERS) busting out the retro synth riffs. It’s such a jarring cut that it’s perfect. They have no clue that they have no clue what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Jaa’s unnamed character (credited as Hunter) tries to warn them of an approaching monster, a giant horned thing called a Diablos – they don’t get it, and shoot at him. Just like Americans. After they’ve survived one skirmish with the Diablos Artemis says, “I don’t care what that thing is, we do what we do best, we fight and we survive!”
But through the course of the movie she’ll have to care what that thing is. She’ll have to learn what the different monsters are, their abilities and weaknesses. These ones don’t come into light. They inject paralytic poison into you. These ones come out from the sand if they feel vibrations. These ones breathe fire and they’re only vulnerable right before that. Learn those things or perish.
T.I. is pretty fun doing a macho thing. I like when he’s told Artemis has no pulse, and he says, “Unacceptable. Try it again.” And it’s cool to have MC Jin (GALLANTS, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS) in there because he is literally a video game character from Def Jam: Fight For New York. Meanwhile, Meagan Good (YOU GOT SERVED, BRICK, WAIST DEEP, SHAZAM!) seems pretty wasted to me, playing a role that I think would normally go to someone with much less experience. But the supporting cast is somewhat irrelevant, because most of this movie is just about Milla and Tony, and that’s great. That’s what I want.
Artemis finds herself in a couple different underground hideouts. One belongs to STARSHIP TROOPERS-esque bug monsters, when she busts out of a disgusting, slimy cocoon thing. A good gross-out section that’s more ALIENy than Anderson’s official ALIEN movie from what I remember. The other belongs to the hunter, who doesn’t trust her and captures her.
He’s not nice to her. He drinks water in front of her. When she manages to escape and turn the tables he knocks the water over before she can drink it. Still, it’s a particularly American-imperialist type of thing she does to get back at him: she remembers seeing him pray at a shrine with little figurines and candles, so she knocks it over. It later turns out to be a shrine to his family, not any gods, but it’s clearly sacred to him, and the moment she realizes that she uses it as a pressure point. Cold.
These are two people from different worlds. She covers her wound with gunpowder, he covers his with algae. But their shared danger in this land of giant monsters forces them to work together, then learn from each other, then like each other. For a while it honestly turns into HELL IN THE PACIFIC with giant monsters. They’re speaking different languages but managing to communicate a little, bickering a little in funny ways, but learning to be a team. They both get turns being cool and being goofy. Jaa gets to do lots of flying attacks and even what I think of as kind of a Milla trademark: a limbo duck under a giant monster’s tail.
One more example of this being about American invaders in a foreign land: she butters up his heart and mind by giving him a chocolate bar! It’s pretty powerful to be able to give a couple squares of Hershey’s to someone from a world where chocolate does not exist. We should probly keep that in mind if aliens ever show up.
My only concern going into this was that for RESIDENT EVIL’s final chapter, RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER, Anderson got into a disorienting shakycam style that made it the worst of the series. Fortunately he seems to have gotten most of that out of his system, the exception being, unfortunately, in the one scene where Jaa and Jovovich fight each other. Anderson’s camera wobbles around and literally cuts for each movement. Punch – cut – kick – cut – punch – cut – punch – cut – roll- cut – kick – cut. I guess since that’s his wife and he’s directed her in many good action scenes before he must’ve not felt like he could make her look good if he staged it clearly, but it’s too bad. I think a good fight scene with Tony Jaa is an honor Milla deserves. Oh well. The rest of the movie is much better crafted, and it’s more fun to see these two as a buddy team anyway. They have a good chemistry.
A couple odd video game things:
1) I love when she’s walking through the boat and she sees a small humanoid cat cooking meat on a grill and she just says “WHAT?” Later it makes sexually harassy faces at her and she laughs.
2) I read that Milla played the games and chose which weapons she wanted her character to use. She’s playing a customized character! That’s why there’s a part where she learns how to cross two blades and make a magic fire beam or whatever.
In the end, as you’d expect, there’s a BEASTMASTER II: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME type situation. Well, not quite, she doesn’t go to the city, but she makes it back through the portal and is recovered by a military team just in time for a dragon to follow her through and destroy their helicopter. So, again, look at the subtext. Even on her home turf the military is useless. She has to use the Tony Jaa techniques and weapons she got from the other world.
The last scene plays like a redux of the end of Anderson’s own MORTAL KOMBAT: a big operatic buildup to a battle we’re about to go into that we don’t get to see yet. It’s like he got to revisit that cliffhanger finale and polish it with styles and technologies that didn’t exist back then, making it way cooler (even if we don’t get a techno song with a guy yelling “MON-STER HUN-TER!” like we obviously would prefer).
That’s a good reminder of how far things have come since that first Anderson video game adaptation 26 (!) years ago. At that time it was novel but cheesy that they used motion capture digital animation for the character of Reptile. Digital effects still seemed new and exciting and that was one of the first times that many of us realized it could be a bad idea. But now we have that same director doing a movie also based on a video game but the many strange settings and creatures look real enough that you don’t even think about how they did it. It’s a whole new
ballgame console (?).
I read that an earlier script set the climactic battle at LAX, which would be cooler than the middle of nowhere, but maybe they should save that type of shit for part 4 or so. I don’t know what the math is for pandemic releases attempting to start new franchises, but I hope this one defies its probable lack of return on investment. I think it would be alot of fun to continue this series in the same manner as the RESIDENT EVILs, with frequent switching of cinematic styles, repeated painting into narrative corners and totally cheating on the followup. It doesn’t have to make much sense – in fact, it’s preferable if it doesn’t – as long as Milla gets to keep playing ever-evolving variations on this asskicker character. And I hope it stays as a partnership between her and Jaa’s Hunter until he decides he’d rather do something else.
Also he should have an elephant type monster that’s his friend.