action movies

London Has Fallen (2016)

London Has Fallen may be unrelated to your worst case Brexit fears, but it’s still a bit of a nightmare and not just because the city gets blown to CGI bits. When the good guywhen the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for…when Gerard Butler barks to the son of a Pakistani terrorist, “Why don’t you boys pack up your shit and go back to Fuckanistan or wherever you’re from,” you know you’ve descended into some jingoistic hell hole. The righteous American fantasy (of a certain sort) is bombastic, aggressive, unafraid to shove its bloodletting in your face, but when the day has been won, the catharsis only comes for some, namely those who agree with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) that “everyone is a terrorist asshole until proven otherwise.” He operates by the maxim, you can never be too careful so might as well shoot them all.

Then again, Banning might just be trying to prove his mettle after events in the previous film, which saw him regain his place in President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) security detail following a bout of White House heroics. That’s damn weak justification for such wanton bloodlust. He and Asher are in London for the prime minister’s funeral, a ruse by said terrorist, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), to take out American-aligned heads of state and to avenge the murder of his family. During the initial attack, Banning shoots everything in sight, out of an abundance of precaution one assumes since the security apparatus has been infiltrated from top to bottom. The closer the two get to Barkawi, however, the more Banning the American zealot is fueled by xenophobic rage, killing literally because he can.

The film delights in carnage as a spectator sport. London is turned into a gladiatorial arena, its streets and underground cleared out to showcase all sorts of murderous combat and the players displaying an impressive array of shooting and stabbing skills. When in doubt, director Babak Najafi errs on the side of death. He wastes no opportunity to spill blood, whether it’s a blade through one’s spine or the beheading of motorcyclist or the ever efficient shot to the head.

These sequences contrast with the staid central command units on either side of the Atlantic. The head of the Metropolitan Police (Colin Salmon) and the director of MI5 (Patrick Kennedy) get a little more running around to do but manage to come off as incompetent tools all the while. In Washington, however, the vice president (Morgan Freeman) and the joint security team (Robert Forster and Melissa Leo) are reduced to a state of near helplessness. I don’t know why Freeman and company bothered returning for the sequel given how little they have to do in this film. Their scenes are restricted to the four dark walls that make up the situation room, and their only acting direction is to gawp at one another for hours on end.

There are a few touches that take the edge off somewhat. Angela Bassett once again plays the Secret Service director, who is rightly skeptical of this whole trip and seems to be the one person who can bring down Banning’s temperature. Her role is limited but at least it’s purposeful, unlike Radha Mitchell’s thankless part as Banning’s pregnant, very worried wife. Their presence makes little difference in the overall though. London Has Fallen is what it sets out to be, an angry, reductive, flag-waving celebration of American exceptionalism. I already feel like I need to atone for watching it.

Released: 2016
Prod: Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Mark Gill, John Thompson, Matt O’Toole, Les Weldon
Dir: Babak Najafi
Writer: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Christian Gudegast, Chad St. John
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Waleed Zuaiter, Mehdi Dehbi, Colin Salmon, Patrick Kennedy, Clarkson Guy Williams
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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Robin Hood (2018)

Robin Hood comes in arrows blazing for a solid thirty minutes. After a light prelude introducing Rob of Loxley (Taron Egerton) and horse thief Marian (Eve Hewson) as lovers, it sweeps into action. Rob receives his conscription papers from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and immediately ships off to the Crusades where he witnesses startling brutality against the Saracens at the hands of his commander, Gisborne (Paul Anderson). When a botched attempt at heroism goes awry, he is shipped back home, except it’s a home he no longer recognizes. His estate has been ransacked, the people have been driven to a neighboring mining town, and the Sheriff has consolidated his power. What’s a young lord to do?

Rob of course. But lest you think this is a tale of hardscrabble bandits pinching pennies from nobles and retreating into the woods, director Otto Bathurst is here to tell you otherwise. This is not Errol Flynn and there are no men in tights. Instead, Robin Hood is a pounding origin story, one that throws together elements of a war film and a heist thriller with occasional nods to medieval England. It seeks to speak to the times, not unlike every other Robin Hood remake, and so borrows from a visual language today’s audiences know well. The most striking example of this is the opening dogfight between the English and the Saracens, a scene that one could easily mistake from a contemporary war movie. There’s nary a tunic nor cut of chainmail in sight. Instead, camouflaged leather uniforms double as arrow-proof vests, though surely nothing can be effective against the bump stocks on those Saracen bows.

It’s the Crusades as you’ve never seen them before, which is to say something along the lines of dystopian medieval steampunk? The film’s style is hard to pin down since it’s all over the place, but frankly, it matters less what look they’re going for and more that the rest of the movie doesn’t match the art department’s early ambition. The second and third acts are punctuated by plenty of flying arrows and explosions but lack defining moments and a good handle on plot. Rob, under the tutelage of his wartime enemy Yahya (Jamie Foxx in a somewhat magical role), lazily Anglicized to “John,” gains increasing favor with the Sheriff all the while staging bigger and bolder heists on the wartime coffers. His efforts are thwarted, however, by something involving the Church, machinations I didn’t care enough about to sort out.

The relationship between Rob and Marian also isn’t enough to set the story alight. Egerton and Hewson, dedicated as they are, have the look of kids playing at love, and their characters’ romance takes a high school turn when Will (Jamie Dornan) replaces Rob by Marian’s side after his reported death in the Crusades. They settle on an uneasy truce because they’re fighting against a common enemy though maybe not for the same cause. If the writers really wanted to shake things up, they should have made Will the main character. As an aspiring politician, he’s far more interesting and conflicted, but poor Jamie Dornan and his beautiful accent are relegated to lots of scowls and inaudible grunts in dark corners.

The filmmakers also leave the movie’s social political commentary half-formed. The Sheriff is a recognizable authoritarian figure, lifting words and ideas from right wing texts of today. Cloaked in a resplendent overcoat and perched high above the masses, he booms about “barbarians in Arabia [who] hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” The Sheriff’s remedy is a war tax levied on the poor so that they can defend the homes and jobs they no longer have against foreign invaders who just want you to stop killing their kids in their own land. The comparison is at once obvious, cliché, and fair, but it also gets lost in the fury of action and never rises to a powerful indictment of the times that we need. The early condemnations about foreign wars being yet one more way for the rich to steal from the poor should be the overriding message and might have been had it not been blown to smithereens alongside the coin vaults and getaway carriages.

Released: 2018
Prod: Jennifer Davisson, Leonardo DiCaprio
Dir: Otto Bathurst
Writer: Ben Chandler, David James Kelly
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Eve Hewson, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan, Paul Anderson, F. Murray Abraham
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Pompeii (2014)

So there’s this thing called Game of Thrones, and I don’t watch it. But not wanting to skip out on the moment, that is the final season premiere, and really just hoping to clear the DVR, I turned to another estimable Kit Harington production, Pompeii. Scratch, it’s just a second rate swords and sandals picture that takes place on the eve of the city’s destruction. Wikipedia notes, however, that it’s a “romantic historic disaster” and this is a genre I didn’t know existed but now kind of love. The movie is an example of aiming high and only halfway getting there, but its mishmash nature is also what makes it enjoyable.

For starters, the main characters are laughably miscast. Kiefer Sutherland as the manipulative and vicious Roman senator Quintas Attius Corvus? I’m more likely to believe that Thomas Kirkman, his accidental president character in Designated Survivor, held a night of “government through the ages” role play and he drew the short straw. Harington is slightly better as Milo, the lone survivor of a Celtic tribe slaughtered by Corvus and then sold into slavery. I can get behind the idea of the actor transforming into a gladiator because Harington’s entrance is marked by his very formidable abs, but he doesn’t seem so ferocious when the record shows that gladiators like Russell Crowe existed. Emily Browning is also slight, and Cassia, the governor’s daughter and Milo’s love interest, looks like she might tip over at any moment. Others are more fitted to their part though. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss have a regal touch as Cassia’s parents, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje passes as Atticus, the seasoned gladiator who joins Milo against the slave traders and Corvus.

This hodgepodge of looks and accents strangely makes it easier to embrace the spectacle that director Paul W. S. Anderson presents. This is, after all, just expensive dress up with loads of gory swordplay and a cataclysmic natural event. The characters are secondary to the action, and gladiatorial fights get the better share of the attention. These don’t boast sophisticated choreography, but there are a few flourishes and the face-offs in and out of the arena prove well-paced and appropriately bloody.

With the eruption of Mount Vesuvius casting a shadow over things, the film aims to create a mood of doom and gloom, though perhaps too much gloom. Shoddy lighting design means a wasted scene early in the film when someone is swallowed up by an earthquake. Thankfully the better part of the effects involve raining fireballs and gushing tsunami waves and don’t take place in the dark. The last half hour is pure disaster movie chaos, which isn’t great if you want a more human account of the eruption’s devastation. We get masses of people running one way to avoid being crushed to death and then the opposite way to avoid being swallowed up by the sea, but there is nothing that conveys the personal. If you’re looking for affecting tragedy, you’ll do better to reflect on the frozen images found at the actual ruins.

The characters might have inspired more feeling if they weren’t so generic. They are better vehicles for the action than for an emotive story, and even Milo and Corvus don’t seem too antagonistic. Milo snarls with rage once he sees Corvus, who has come to Pompeii on official business and to chase Cassia, but there’s not much effort to build up this rivalry. They end up hacking at each other out of duty and over a girl. Instead, the story relies on the forbidden romance between Milo and Cassia for a little heartbreak. They share a scene that is similar to one in the Star Wars film Rogue One, except that the latter film made me cry and this one made me think about what movie to queue up next. The only characters who came close to conveying trouble or loss were Cassia’s parents, who do a lot with their little screen time.

Released: 2014
Prod: Jeremy Bolt, Paul W. S. Anderson, Robert Kulzer, Don Carmody
Dir: Paul W. S. Anderson
Writer: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s 2015 film is the perfect spy comedy, a skillful balance between secret agent thrills and laugh-out-loud absurdities. Spy gets everything right – casting, tone, feminism – which is why its awkward step-cousin, The Spy Who Dumped Me, is such a disappointment. This most recent effort in the genre has the makings of better film, but like an episode of Nailed It!, there’s just something that’s always off. Whether it’s the lack of chemistry between the cast or cohesion in the story, The Spy Who Dumped Me never quite comes together.

You’d expect more from a project headlined by stars Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, both of whom have proved their comedic chops. While they probably had a grand time making the movie though, that sense of fun doesn’t come through in the final product. The two actors have a hard time getting in sync, perhaps a result of the undefined relationship between their characters. Audrey (Kunis) is more of the straight one, subdued even at her own birthday party, while Morgan (McKinnon) is that wacky acquaintance who doesn’t know she’s coming on too strong. The two seem to be friends by default rather than because of shared interests or compatible personalities.

That makes the film kind of a slog since the emotional arc of the story depends on their friendship. When Audrey discovers that her ex-boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux) is a CIA spy and not an NPR podcaster as she was lead to believe, she and Morgan fly to Vienna to offload his fantasy football trophy, a cheap trinket that the whole spy and criminal world are apparently after. A fantastic shootout is just the start of her troubles though, and soon the women are dodging bullets, a gymnast assassin (Ivanna Sakhno), and a suave MI-5 officer, Sebastian (Sam “Jamie Fraser” Heughan). On the whole, the action keeps things moving forward, but Audrey and Morgan have little to fall back on whenever there’s a break from the kicking and kidnapping. An attempt to make Morgan more vulnerable and unlike an SNL caricature unfortunately comes too late.

Heughan’s character development is also confused. While Sebastian may be derived from other unnaturally handsome British spies, he has far less personality, which is criminal since, again, Sam “Jamie Fraser” Heughan. Audrey and Morgan never know what to make of him since he’s shifty but will also kill everyone in a room to protect them. Since he wants none of his partner, Duffer’s (Hasan Minhaj), Harvard grad humblebragging ass though, he’s at least on my good side. Sebastian is such a cipher that he becomes another expendable character, much like Gillian Anderson’s icy head spy, Wendy. She kind of has the opposite problem in that she cuts a distinct character but appears in just a few scenes. It seems she’s only there to draw in a fawning, and funny, Morgan, and to deliver some low key threats. I would have happily traded the rambling plot with its duplicitous characters for one centered on its female characters. As it is though, the film screens like a mediocre draft that is still in need of major edits.

Released: 2018
Prod: Brian Grazer, Erica Huggins
Dir: Susanna Fogel
Writer: Susanna Fogel, David Iserson
Cast: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Sam Heughan, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson, Hasan Minhaj, Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtain, Paul Reiser
Time: 117 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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