China/Hong Kong/USA 2006
Director: Ronny Yu
Until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released in 2000, wuxia (Chinese martial arts) films were relatively low-profile in genre cinema, at least in the West. Though popular and prolific in Hong Kong and China, wuxia films never managed to attract mainstream attention in North America. Crouching Tiger brought this kinetic and historical form of martial arts film to a wider audience, creating awareness and a new demand for wuxia. Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and now Fearless followed, creating a new sub-genre of prestige wuxia, expansive and high-budget, films that appeal to both a Western and Chinese audience.
Fearless follows the precedent set by Crouching Tiger and the others, combining elaborate and well-choreographed martial arts action with stories of revenge, honour, and redemption. Unlike Crouching Tiger, however, which was based on a series of wuxia novels, the story of Fearless isn’t as compelling or powerful. This is interesting, considering that Fearless is based on a true story.
Director Ronny Yu, recently busy with Hollywood horror films such as The Bride of Chucky and Freddy Vs. Jason, does an acceptable job. The action sequences are exciting and well-edited, but the film feels slicker than most wuxia, more Hollywood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fearless is an American co-production and will be in North American multiplexes in the fall.Crouching Tiger and Hero offer a more calm and reflective approach, something that would’ve benefitted this film.
The action sequences are amazing, fight choreography courtesy of Woo-ping Yuen, legendary martial arts choreographer. The wire-work is kept to a mininum, with a more realistic approach than seen in Crouching Tiger, among others (bear in mind “realistic” is a relative term, however; the fight scenes in Oldboy, for instance, were much more realistic, though not nearly as intricate or exciting).
Jet Li has said that Fearless will be his last wuxia film, explaining he has nothing left to explore in the genre. If so, Fearless would serve as a fitting tribute to the innovative genre, a genre that gave Jet Li his long career.Colin Le Sueur
Director: James McTeigue
Ninjas exist in the same strange mythological space as zombies, pirates and cowboys, with a rich visual tradition somehow totally divorced from historical and scientific fact. A ninja can be anything from an unskilled fighter in black pyjamas to an occult master of time and space. Ninjas have been mutant turtles, fat comedians and shadowy assassins but they’ve never been taken too seriously, as demonstrated in Ninja Assassin.
Ostensibly a serious revenge film, Ninja Assassin is filled with buckets of blood and flying limbs, clunky exposition, and gratuitous scenes of protagonist Rain exercising shirtless. This is a classic B movie disguised by slick production provided by the Wachowskis and direction courtesy of McTeigue, best known for his film version of V for Vendetta. In fact, Ninja Assassin feels like an extended version of the slickest fight sequences from that earlier film. That’s not to say the visuals are without fault, however, as most of the night scenes seem murky and under lit.
The acting is a mixed bag, with the film existing in a strange world where absolutely everyone speaks near-perfect English, including Japanese gangsters and German neighbours. Even the love interest, played by British actor Naomie Harris, speaks with an American accent (though she works in Berlin for an international law enforcement agency). I’m not asking for the whole film to be in Japanese (unreasonable for a primarily-American production) but why not have some of the characters speak their native language even occasionally?
The best parts of the film are also the rarest: good, clear ninja action. For a film called Ninja Assassin, there actually aren’t that many good fight sequences. There’s a good bloody opening fight scene but the film relies too much of murky CG and sloppy gunfights to be a truly satisfying ninja experience. I wasn’t too disappointed in this film (as my expectations weren’t that high) but it rarely rises above an average action film, even with some decent gore; interminable flashbacks and sloppy dialogue make it more of a slog.Colin Le Sueur
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Ong-bak represents a return to traditional martial arts films: no wires, no stuntmen, and elaborately choreographed fight sequences. Owing more to the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (his early work), the film has some of the most amazing physical action sequences I’ve ever seen. However, due to a few weaknesses, Ong-bak falls just short of being a new classic in the genre.
Actor Tony Jaa is unbelievable; his strength and agility is truly impressive. His moves are incredibly fluid and balanced. Most of the amazing stunts he performs look effortless. The strongest sequences of the film are the fights, unsurprisingly. Unfortunately, the non-fight sequences seem forced and boring.
The story of Ong-bak is a little strange. It’s as if the writer/director Prachya Pinkaew couldn’t decide what type of film to make, a straight, traditional martial arts story or a complex, grim-and-gritty modern crime film (several story elements and sequences seemed like desperate attempts to channel John Woo or Takashi Miike). Ultimately, Ong-bak seems more than a little confused.
The film is also hampered by many technical problems like lighting and editing. The film itself looks cheaply made, but clearly has a moderate budget. Some of the action sequences are poorly framed and lighting shifts far too much from scene to scene. Perhaps some of these issues will be addressed on the DVD.
In the end, Ong-bak is an exciting return to old-school martial arts films, though with too much padding around the incredible action sequences.Colin Le Sueur
Macau/Hong Kong 2005
Director: Wilson Yip
SPL is a strange hybrid film: part cop drama, part martial arts action, part Kitano-esque reflection on violence. The film is a bit unfocused at times, clunky dramatic moments built around violent action sequences (directed by Donnie Yen). Some of the acting is pretty poor, as well; for instance, one character’s death grimace is comically contorted. That said, the stunning action sequences overshadow the film’s weaker moments, making for an exciting and memorable film.
The morality in the film is surprisingly complex. The villain is more than a twisted gangster and the cops are more than squeaky-clean crusaders. This aspect helps to raise the film above standard gangster fare.
I’m mostly used to seeing Sammo Hung as Jackie Chan’s bumbling sidekick, often as the comic relief. In SPL, however, he’s in full-on villian mode, presenting a commanding on-screen figure. There are two fight sequences that really show off his power and skill.
Donnie Yen’s equally as impressive, serving both as star and ‘action sequence director.’ Minimal wirework, old-school martial arts mixed with cop action works surprisingly well.
While not the revolution in HK filmmaking that many people see it as, SPL is entertaining and (somewhat) thought-provoking, worth seeing for any fan of the genre.Colin Le Sueur