action movies

Wing Chun (詠春) (1994)

I was on a Crazy Rich Asians/Michelle Yeoh high when I remembered I had this gem collecting dust like nobody’s business. Yeoh takes on the decidedly working class Asian role of Yim Wing Chun, the legendary founder of the martial art named after her. The film hedges closer to slapstick comedy is about the characters more than it is about Wing Chun, but those hoping for something with a martial arts pedigree will enjoy the performance of Donnie Yen, who also serves as the action co-director.

The story goes, as they often do, that during the Qing Dynasty, there was a beautiful tofu seller who needed to defend herself against men. Wing Chun trained with Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun who developed the fighting technique, and she used the new form to keep guys with bad intentions at bay. The general legend is preserved in here, and Wing Chun is well known throughout her mountain village as a fierce fighter. She pushes back against unwanted advances and marriage proposals but also against the bandits who regularly attack and raid the village.

One day, a woman named Charmy (Catherine Hung) arrives seeking help for her sick husband. When he dies, her only option is to prostitute herself, but Wing Chun is having none of that abusive, patriarchal bullshit. She tricks one of her suitors, the cowardly Scholar Wong (Waise Lee), into paying for Charmy’s expenses, and later Wing Chun’s aunt, Abacus Fong (Kingdom Yuen), hires the young woman to work at their tofu shop. Things are rolling merrily along, save the occasional banditry, when Leung Pok-To (Donnie Yen), appears. Wing Chun’s childhood best friend, he is pleasantly surprised when he spots Charmy at the shop. His heart melts because Charmy is gorgeous, but also because he thinks she is Wing Chun.

There’s nothing like a little cross-dressing to confuse things, and mistaken identity is the source of a lot of the comedy. Wing Chun has taken to men’s attire since it suits her fighting persona and discourages ogling, but Charmy inherits her wardrobe, to the delight of the shop’s male customers and the disappointment of Pok-To, who comes to realize that the Wing Chun he knew and loved before has changed.

The film has a surprisingly strong feminist spirit, and I found this to be the most appealing aspect of the movie. Wing Chun and Abacus Fong alone make a formidable team. Although they differ in temperament, they both take charge and command respect in their own ways. Wing Chun is the first and really only person the villagers turn to when there’s an attack and in one battle, she defeats the bandits singlehandedly. Abacus Fong, meanwhile, is opinionated and blunt, earning her the disdain of men who don’t like that kind of honesty and forcefulness in a woman. However, she knows how to navigate a man’s world and does so because she can and must. Sometimes that means exploiting female sexuality, and while I don’t agree that that’s the best way to go about things, even Charmy is on board. She knows that without Wing Chun’s fighting talent or Abacus Fong’s entrepreneurial skills, she can still play the bashful, naïve Miss Soy Bean in order to sell more tofu and increase business for all three women.

The movie’s feminist appeal is reflected in the fight sequences as well. Cheng Pei-pei cameos as Wing Chun’s master, who prepares her for the final battle in the bandit’s village after they’ve captured Charmy. Now dressed in women’s clothing, she is joined by Pok-To and together they fight it out with Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu). Word on the internets is that there is not much actual Wing Chun in this or any of the fight scenes. I can’t tell, but I do love the tofu fight between Wing Chun and a martial arts master (Xu Xiangdong) who wants to teach this little lady a thing or two. They spar over a large block of tofu, trying to break each other but not it, and it becomes clear that the ever elegant and capable Michelle Yeoh will not suffer these fools.

English trailer:

Tofu challenge:

Released: 1994
Prod: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Action Dir: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Yuen Shun-Yi 袁信義, Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Writer: Elsa Tang Bik-Yin 鄧碧燕, Anthony Wong Wing-Fai 黃永輝
Cast: Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Waise Lee Chi-Hung 李子雄, Kingdom Yuen King-Tan 苑瓊丹, Catherine Hung Yan 洪欣, Norman Chu Siu-Keung 徐少強, Cheng Pei-Pei 鄭佩佩, Chui A-Fai 崔亞輝, Xu Xiang-Dong 徐向東, Jin Mao-Heng 金懋恆, Guo Jia-Qing 郭家慶
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

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Sharknado (2013)

So I watched Sharknado by myself on a Friday night while eating cake and drinking wine, and I know I should be very ashamed. But it’s the last day of summer, the country is imploding, and sometimes, Hollywood delivers just the right amount of absurdity to complement our daily lives. Certainly there are better ways I could, should, have spent the evening, but none would have been as satisfying. This horror-action-comedy-thriller wears its campiness on its sleeve and makes the most of what it is, a Syfy channel B-movie. The film’s willingness to embrace the cheesiest aspects of its genre(s) is precisely why it’s so fun to watch. The plot is bonkers, the acting strained, and the effects laughable, but Sharknado is hilarious in its audacity. What kind of genius thinks, I know what the culture really needs – sharks and tornados, together. But here we are.

The first half of the movie is quite the ride. A freak hurricane hurls towards southern California sweeping pods of sharks along with it. The bloodthirsty killers make landfall before the storm and immediately begin feasting on beach bodies. These beasts dig in with abandon, as if they’re dining at the $10 all-you-can-eat buffet. Down goes one swimmer, then another, and yet another! It’s looking like Saving Private Ryan when the hurricane finally hits, unleashing even more mayhem. The gusts send sharks crashing through windows, and mile-high waves dump more water and more sharks into the streets. But why stop with one natural disaster when you can have two? As the hurricane barrels inland, it morphs into a tornado, kind of like the movie then morphs into a Jaws and Twister hybrid.

Some manage to survive the initial massacre, including bar workers Nova (Cassie Scerbo) and Baz (Jaason Simmons – yes, Baz is Australian), and local drunk, George (John Heard). Bar owner and ex-surfer Fin (Ian Ziering) finds himself playing hero several times. After escaping the beachfront, he takes his crew on a detour to rescue his ungrateful ex-wife, April (Tara Reid), and their children, Claudia (Aubrey Peeples) and Matt (Chuck Hittinger). Fin tries to lead the group out of harm’s way because what good is a name like Fin if you can’t even do that, but he discovers it’s not so easy when the gutters are belching out sharks and – OMG why are the monsters flying out of trees and chewing through the car roof?!

It’s not all sharks all the time, however, and the writers add some personal drama because character development, y’all. Fin and April remain in a state of war and would probably feed each other to the sharks if they weren’t arguing over whether or not Nova is a stripper. (She is not.) Fin also has a strained relationship with Claudia and has no clue that Matt has enrolled in flight school. These conflicts don’t get a lot of air, and frankly, it doesn’t matter because no one’s watching Sharknado for family therapy session. We’re really watching it so we can see April’s smug boyfriend get torn to pieces by a shark.

I have to applaud Ziering, Reid, and company for their effort. They act the shit out their roles and are so committed to freaking out over a shark storm. Even the extras are a riot – the screaming and flailing, the willingness to endure extreme bloodletting and death. The crew are true professionals and deserved a People’s Choice Award at the very least. It’s serious acting when you have to convince everyone that the only way to stop a sharknado is to fly a helicopter into the twister and drop some bombs into that bad boy. I can’t get over the proud abandonment of common sense, storm safety, and physics necessary to pull that off.

The sharks are the real stars though, not that there’s any attempt to render them in a lifelike way. This is why we have the Discovery Channel. The movie instead leaves us with fins, flashes of teeth, and lots of shadows. The suggestion of sharks, hundreds of them, lurking just a few feet below the water is enough to get the adrenaline pumping. What will get you howling, however, is seeing these things whip through the air and sucked into funnels. That’s when you realize you’re watching one of the dumbest things ever.

The stupid fear that we might encounter a real sharknado could be what convinces climate change deniers to give a damn since they’re obviously not watching An Inconvenient Truth. The film makes it clear that climate change is behind this phenomenon, and look, if you don’t do something about this (register to vote here), you too may have to chainsaw your way out of a shark’s belly some day.

Released: 2013
Prod: David Michael Latt
Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Writer: Thunder Levin
Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, Jaason Simmons, John Heard, Aubrey Peeples, Chuck Hittinger
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Syfy
Reviewed: 2018

RED (2010)

RED is not typically what I watch with my take-out sushi, but…Helen Mirren. If I’d known she was in it and if I’d known it was an action comedy thriller, I would have watched it sooner, but better late than never. Based off a comic book series, the movie has fun with genre conventions and balances the right mix of punchy action and well timed humor with a very classy cast to boot. People who like shoot-em-ups and those who aren’t so keen can enjoy it, even if they don’t agree on the sushi.

Bruce Willis leads the ensemble as Frank Moses, a lonely pensioner whose one highlight in life is tearing up his retirement checks so that he can phone up the call center and chat with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). He’s not just a bored retiree, however, he’s a bored retiree who was engaged in black-ops for the CIA. This marks him out as a RED – retired, extremely dangerous, and it’s why his former agency has sent a whole football team of assassins to his home in the Cleveland suburbs in the middle of the night to take him out. It’s not immediately clear why he’s being targeted, but we know who is trying to kill him. Agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) is getting orders from his superior, Cynthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon), who is getting orders from someone higher up, and all of it seems to point towards an arms dealer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a decades-old operation in Guatemala. As Frank flees from assassins, he crisscrosses the country picking up clues and some old colleagues.

The man keeps pretty good company. Sly Joe (Morgan Freeman) may be dying from liver cancer, but he’s living it up in a nursing home. Frank’s best friend, Marvin (John Malkovich), is more of a loose cannon and a real conspiracy theorist, but he’s also a damn good shot. The group even includes an old Russian associate, Ivan (Brian Cox), who knows how to infiltrate government buildings better than his American friends, of course. The grand dame of them all is Victoria (Dame Helen). She’s taken to baking and flower arranging in her second life but still does a contract killing or two on the side, you know, to stave off boredom.

The fun comes not from the team’s advanced age and rusty skillset but from their extreme competence. These guys are as sharp as ever, and even handsome, deadly Agent Cooper struggles to keep up. Willis, no stranger to the genre, leads with a steady hand, facilitating all the action you’d expect, but it’s the other actors who lean into their stereotypes and surprise with killer turns. It’s not unusual to see a paranoid Malkovich, for example, but his run-in with a Coldwell Banker agent leads to hilarious fireworks. The same is true for Mirren, who explains that she’s a killer with the same tone as a beloved grandmother reminding you to please get more rest. Queen also looks a beast clutching a machine gun while wearing a milk white evening gown.

If it all sounds a little sadistic, it’s not. The thrill for Frank’s hit team is doing something they are damn good at, and for Frank in particular, this latest improvised operation might be what he needs to get through an existential crisis. While his friends seems to be getting on with their lives, he’s struggling. Pairing him up with Sarah isn’t the best option though. Their relationship is a handy plot device, and the climax hinges on the girlfriend getting kidnapped, but you’d think the filmmakers, who have put a creative twist on every other aspect of the movie, would come up with something more interesting. Poker-faced Willis doesn’t have that much chemistry with Parker, and her character is mostly one note, a quirky singleton from Kansas City, Missouri who reads too many romance novels and longs for an adventure. As a quirky singleton from St. Louis, Missouri though, I think Sarah would be better off staying in state.

Released: 2010
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian
Dir: Robert Schwentke
Writer: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Rebecca Pidgeon, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon, Ernest Borgnine
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)

This Canadian buddy cop movie starts like most buddy cop movies do, with two grouchy detectives accidentally ripping a victim’s body in half. It’s a gruesome beginning but it’s also darkly comic and a sign of things to come. David Bouchard (Patrick Huard) and Martin Ward (Colm Feore) are called to the Ontario-Québec border after a body is discovered dangling from the boundary marker. David, a Quebecer who doesn’t give a damn about your police procedures, and Martin, a Torontonian who gives a great many damns about all police procedures, butt heads while trying to pass the investigation back to the other side. It’s to no avail because both are assigned to the case. They have to figure out who’s behind the murder while also overcoming their cultural and linguistic differences.

Having neither caught up on the minutiae of intra-Canadian rivalries nor brushed up on my high school French, some finer points of comedy flew over me. There’s a lot of French word play that I imagine is great fun for francophones, judging from David’s many smirks, but even if you don’t keep pace with the lesson on conjugating expletives, the humor is broad enough for those of us accessing the subtitles. Laughs come not just from language and wit but also from cultural and personality differences.

David and Martin are opposites in every way, the one exception being their competence at police work. The odd couple pairing is a worn device, and this film relies a little too much on stereotype to draw out their characters. Of course the headstrong David wears a black leather jacket and pummels suspects into his trunk. He’s “Rambo on steroids” according to Martin, a guy who prefers black turtlenecks and chatting with perps over a glass of ginger ale. But even if David and Martin are predictable, actors Huard and Feore have a strong chemistry that leans into their characters’ stereotypes, giving the detectives and their relationship a lot more crackle.

The fiery back-and-forth between the two feeds into the absurdity of the story, which again starts with a half-shredded corpse before escalating into a deadly plot that threatens the (fake) professional hockey league, at least the Canadian side of it. David and Martin don’t just have one murder to solve but several, and all are a matter of national importance because, well, hockey. The stakes are high, but the action and comedy live up, much to the enjoyment of me. There are some small but satisfying laughs. My favorite might be towards the end of the film when the killer gives chase to Martin, except that the former is wearing a gigantic mascot costume and can’t negotiate the staircase with his gigantic mascot feet. The more intense scenes deliver too, such as the time David busts his way, warrant be damned, into a suspect’s house. He’s pretty proud of himself, until a weed garden is set alight and he has to crawl out of burning building filled with marijuana smoke under the cover of a bathtub. It’s high times for all.

Released: 2006
Prod: Kevin Tierney
Dir: Eric Canuel
Writer: Leila Basen, Alex Epstein, Patrick Huard, Kevin Tierney
Cast: Patrick Huard, Colm Feore, Lucie Laurier, Sylvain Marcel, Pierre Lebeau, Ron Lea, Sarain Boylan, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Louis-José Houde, Patrice Bélanger
Time: 116 min
Lang: French and English
Country: Canada
Reviewed: 2018

The Tuxedo (2002)

The Tuxedo has a bonkers plot, but then again, so do most spy movies. The difference is in the clothes, and this movie boasts one very smart tuxedo. It’s something Q might want to investigate because so far, he hasn’t come up with anything like it. The tuxedo conforms to its wearer’s biometrics and in doing so endows him or her with some extraordinary physical abilities.

It might be the star of the film if it weren’t for the person who dons it, Jackie Chan. Jimmy Tong is not the first one to wear it and only does so when his boss and the owner of the suit, Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs), is injured. Jimmy, a humble cab driver and chauffeur, discovers that Devlin is actually an undercover agent for the government (American, I assume) and decides to take his boss’s identity and his sweet threads to help him finish his mission.

Devlin and his associates were investigating the Banning Corporation, a water company wanting to expand worldwide. Owner Dietrich Banning (Ritchie Coster) declares that purveyors of bottled water are the new oil barons, and he’s not entirely wrong. His diabolical plan for global domination is to infect the water supply with a bacteria passed along by water striders. The bacteria causes a person to die quickly and painfully from dehydration and, if they’re especially unlucky, to turn to dust. Look, it’s fiction.

Jimmy gets some help from Delilah Blaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt), a government scientist whose biggest obstacle is her male colleagues. She and another agent played by Debi Mazar are objectified and harassed in ways that merit a wholesale overhaul of whatever agency they work at, and someone also fire the damn writers who decided this was funny. When she arranges a meeting with Devlin, whom she has never met, a colleague tells Jimmy to comment on Del’s chest size, to the amusement of all. Ha ha fuck you.

Clearly this isn’t the pinnacle of filmmaking, but it is an entertaining movie much to my surprise. Chan proves why he’s so popular and enduring, even though I can’t abide by his politics. He’s clever and super good at what he does, and that’s just a fact. The action sequences have his signature creativity and humor, whether he’s spinning uncontrollably with his pants half down or dancing like James Brown, who bizarrely cameos in the film. The imagination is a crazy thing, and at times I forgot that Chan and not the weaponized tuxedo was the prime mover. Chan is so quick and agile that he becomes a man transformed when he’s wearing his magic clothes. Even if the plot and acting don’t excite you, and why would they, the fighting and dancing scenes make this effort worthwhile.

Released: 2002
Prod: Adam Schroeder, John H. Williams
Dir: Kevin Donovan
Writer: Michael J. Wilson, Michael J. Leeson
Cast: Jackie Chan, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Isaacs, Debi Mazar, Ritchie Coster, Peter Stormare
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018