Friday, February 25, 2011
My Top Twenty Ultraviolent Movies Part Two
Hey there. If you didn't get about enough blood and butchery in Part One, here's Part Two, with the goriest movies ever!
11.Swordsman 2, 1992, Director: Ching Siu Tung
Ching Siu Tung (he's going by the name Tony Ching Siu Tung these days), is flat out one of the great action directors of all time. He's as good as Yakima Canutt, Terry Leonard, Vic Armstrong, Yuen Woo Ping, any of those guys, which is very high praise. Now, he does something different than a Hollywood stunt gaffer; he's Mr. Wirework, among other things, and he specializes in fantasy stuff. He's perfectly at home doing bone-crunching fights and crashes, etc, but the effects that he's chiefly known for are flawless flying-through-the air things with fluttering robes---think of the action scenes in Hero and House of Flying Daggers; both movies were basically co-directed by him. Ang Lee should've had him do the honors in Crouching Tiger...Yuen Woo Ping really isn't the guy for that real real beautiful stuff, although he's just the man for something like Kill Bill.
Now as I said, Mr. Ching is a master of cinematic fantasy...and when it comes to fantastic ultraviolence, he's completely in a realm of his own. If you were going to make live-action a Samurai Cat movie, Ching Siu Tung would be the guy to direct it. His films give you craziness teetering on lunacy balanced just barely on hallucination. All you've got to do is look at some of the work he did for Stephen Chow, like the action scenes in Royal Tramp Part One. People talk about live action cartoons, but they don't mean it...way back in the dim dim eighties and early nineties,Ching was accomplishing the most amazing unreal visuals without the aid of digital effects. It's all practical stuff. And while sometimes it doesn't work, the results are awe-inspiring when they do. Especially when he's putting his peculiar genius to work on high-flying swordplay and splatter.
If you look at a lot of the of Hong Kong New Wave classics, his name shows up again and again. He was the action director on Peking Opera Blues, Better Tomorrow 2, and The Killer; (John Woo's bullet-ballets owe a lot to him, I suspect), and Ching directed Chinese Ghost Story ; operating under producer/impresario Tsui Hark, he sure got a shitload of good work done. And in 1992, he turned out one of his definitive masterpieces, a dreamy, rapturous sexy gender-bender bloodfest called Swordsman 2, which is maybe the definitive Brigitte Lin movie.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Brigitte, she was the reigning demi-goddess cross dresser of the HK New Wave; I'm not sure, exactly, why she struck Chinese moviegoers as so mannish, because she looks pretty girly to me, but she was sure in a lot of things where she got into male drag and butchered loads of people. And she was unarguably pretty damn charismatic. Well, in Swordsman 2, she plays Asia the Invincible, the crazed leader of the Sun-Moon sect, a southern Chinese (down by Vietnam, I guess) martial arts cult dedicated to throwing out the those damn Ming Dynasty folks. Aided by Japanese ninja-pirates, she's raising all kinds of hell; into this situation comes Ling (Jet Li), who's the leader of a small troop of martial artists who want to retire from the world and get drunk every night and sing a great song called "Hero of Heroes" till the sun comes up. Jet wants to stop of and pay one last visit to poor Ying (Rosamund Kwan), a Sun-Moon member who's on the outs with Asia. Asia's imprisoned her father, Wu, you see...Wu was the former Sun-Moon leader. As a favor to Ying, Ling goes to see if he can't free her dad...he falls for Asia, not knowing that Asia's got a very strange secret...he's imprisoned, frees himself and Wu through a clever use of rats, and sets up the final third of the movie, which is a cornucopia of deranged Ching Siu Tung bloodshed. Ling and his buds join the Sun-Moon rebels and go after Asia; Wu wanders about liberally applying "Essence Absorbing Stance" which can shrink people into little balls, or suck their heads off their shoulders...Asia flies around tearing hearts out and blowing guys up in midair and riddling people with flying needles...body parts rain from the skies while a cute little martial-arts girl named Blue Phoenix stuffs her mouth with severed snake-parts and spews out mouthfuls of corrosive venom. Ultimately, the folks we're rooting for (sort of) wind up invading Asia's headquarters...Uncle Wu is pinned to a wall with needles even as he sucks a torrent of blood out of Asia with Essence Absorbing Stance...and so on and so forth.
Movie might inspire a whole lot of "Huh? What the fuck?" from someone not familiar with Hong Kong nuttiness...even for someone like yours truly, who watches a lot of these things, it's confusing. Supposedly, it's a sequel to Swordsman 1, but none of the leads from the first film return, and there are a whole lot of characters that weren't introduced in 1, even though the film acts as though you should be familiar with them. About the only things that are clearly carried over from 1 to 2 are the southern setting, snakes, and Hero of Heroes. However, if you can tolerate the mystifying nature of the proceedings, it's well worth the effort...the story kind of sorts itself out about midway through...you really do owe it to yourself to experience Brigitte Lin at the height of her form.
And last but not least, there's Essence Absorbing Stance1
12. Dead Alive, 1992, Director: Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson's sure had an amazing career. You look at his early stuff---don't get me wrong, I really got a huge kick out of it---and it's pretty hard to see how he ever wangled the Lord of the Rings gig. Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles (my favorite early Jackson), and Dead Alive were all heavy-duty hoots, but they sure weren't anything like Tolkien. Even Heavenly Creatures, which was grade-a critic bait, wasn't Middle Earth-type critic bait. The Frighteners did show that his team could handle impressive special effects on a zilch budget; so there's that. But I sure would've liked to have been a fly on the wall when he made his pitch to those guys at New Line over LOTR. The man must truly be able to talk a blue streak.
Now, if I'd been one of those New Line execs, and I'd seen Bad Taste or Dead Alive, I wouldn't have let Jackson in the parking-lot, let alone the door. I mean, I personally would've admitted him, because I'd have a lot to talk about with him, but, Hollywood suit material I am not. And something like Dead Alive is so outside the mainstream that Jackson should've been roundly rejected by Tinseltown's immunity system.
True, he had been getting money from the cinematic establishment in New Zealand, the NZ Film Commission, or whatever it is...but I guess he must've used the same peculiar magic on them. I do wonder if he explained that, with Dead Alive, he was planning to make the single goriest movie ever. If so, my hat is off to them. He sure did open the spigots, the floodgates, Hell, he blew up the dam. It's a wonder New Zealand didn't sink.
Story is a cautionary tale about Sumatran Rat Monkeys, and having a mother. A couple of explorers from NZ invade a particularly nasty patch of wilderness (it seems to be the wierdly-eroded area where they filmed the Paths of the Dead Stuff in Return of the King), looking for the fabled primate-rodent, a cross between monkeys, well, and rapist rats. One of the scientists gets bitten...his buddies chop his infected arm off, then see that he's been wounded in the head, and kill him. They then take the monkey to New Zealand, and it winds up in the Wellington zoo.
It's 1957, and momma's boy Lionel (Timothy Balme)is smitten by Paquita (Diana Penalver)...his mom (Elizabeth Moody) disapproves, and follows them to the zoo, where she gets chawed on by the monkey. From this point on, Lionel's life becomes a bizarre balancing act, as he keeps romancing Paquita and tries to take care of his mother, who's becoming a zombie. Additional folks are infected---mom bites some, others get the virus from pus that squirted into some pudding. Determined to maintain a facade of normality, Lionel hides the victims downstairs, but even though he whacks them up with big doses of tranquilizer, things spiral more and more out of control. Evil relatives discover the zombies and threaten to tell if Lionel doesn't turn over his property...he acquiesces, decides to poison the zombies...evil Uncle Les and co. throw a housewarming party for themselves.
But the poison's revealed as a stimulant, the invigorated zombies burst from their graves and rip into the guests, and soon there seem to be hundreds of undead...the film becomes an almost indescribable orgy of zombie violence. Really, truly, as I said in my Top Ten Zombie movie list, the film is not only the goriest movie ever made, it's probably gorier than every other movie ever made combined. There's a scene with an upended lawnmower that would wash Ogami Itto, Hanzo the Razor and Lady Snowblood right the fuck back to Japan. If you're a relatively normal individual, you probably won't quite believe that our little world could contain a movie this gory. I'm not saying it's sound storytelling, mind you...but it has the courage of its convictions.
You'll need a schnorkel. Hell, you'll need an aqualung.
Lothlorien it's not.
Wouldn't it be something, though, if Jackson took a similar approach with that new Hobbit film? It turns out that that's what Bilbo Baggins hates? All those rivers of blood? I know I'd sure be confusticated and bebothered...
13.Full Contact, 1992, Director: Ringo Lam
Here's another Hong Kong violent classic that was spurned by the home audience....I don't know why. It's got a fantastic cast, Chow Yun Fat's best haircut, a great Teddy Robin Kwan score, a memorable blast of ultraviolence every four or five minutes or so, and a fantastic poster with Chow astride a truly mandom chopper. Oh yeah, it was directed by Ringo Lam, the guy who Tarantino ripped off for Reservoir Dogs, who happens to be the single finest purveyor of mayhem that the HK new wave ever produced. He also put Chow Yun Fat to better use than anyone else, pace John Woo. His films are, in general, much meaner than Woo's, lacking in lyricism, making up for that with blunt brutality and macho behavior that doesn't seem like mere posturing...actually, if you showed me Bullet in the Head and I didn't know who made it, and you asked me to guess, I would've said it was Ringo Lam. He's kind of the Robert Aldrich of Hong Kong, and Hard Boiled is his single meanest crime flick.
Right up front, during a jewelry-store robbery in Bangkok, we're introduced to the bad guys. Judge(Simon Yam) is a flamboyant homosexual with penchant for sadism and startling magic tricks; Deano (Frankie Chan Chi-Leung) is a giant stupid mass of muscle, and his girlfriend Virgin (Bonnie Fu) is an idiotic but extremely sexy slut you flashes her underwear at cowering store-clerks and asks them, "What color is it?" Judge gets hold of a female clerk, asks her where the golden Buddhas are, and and without even waiting for her to answer, springs a hideout blade and plunges it into her shoulder. When some cops arrive on the scene, Deano, who's waiting outside with the car, picks up an M-16 and blasts a lot of exit wounds out their backs. Buddhas in hand, the gang peels out, rubber shrieking...cut to Mona, (Annie Bridgewater), doing some flashdance type gyrating in a sleazy but not-too-sleazy club, as the opening credits roll and some of that Teddy Robin music pulsates...the Full Contact logo, with its garish winged rose, is particularly sharp.
Turns out Mona's in love with Geoff(Chow Yun Fat), who's the no-nonsnese bouncer at the club...he gets a call about his friend Sam (the great Anthony Wong) who's always getting into trouble, and has done it again. Geoff, bristly flat-top and all, mounts his hog and goes to rescue him from gangsters, who refuses to give Geoff face...Geoff just has to slice his way through the goons with his bali-song, but he's really made some enemies in the process. Geoff and Sam and Mona decide they'd better get the hell out of Dodge, blow back to Hong Kong. But they need a grubstake...Sam puts Geoff in touch with his cousin, who's planning an arms robbery. The cousin turns out to be Judge; sparks fly between Geoff and Judge, who instantly develops a wierd love-hate thing with him; Judge decides to double-cross him after the robbery.
We get to this point real quick...the film is extremely efficient. The robbery isn't that interesting, just one of those things, but the aftermath is a very wild ride...a buddy of Geoff's takes a bullet in the face from Judge...after a car chase, Geoff winds up mixing it with Judge, who uses that hideout blade to cut three fingers from Geoff's right hand before Judge's reinforcements arrive in the form of Deano and Virgin. Gripping his mangled hand, Geoff takes refuge in a shanty...Judge sends Sam in to kill him and prove his loyalty to the gang. Sam shoots Geoff somewhere non-lethal, then comes out acting like he did the trick...already burning,the shanty blows up behind him when a propane-cannister goes. But inside the building, a young girl is getting fearfully disfigured by the fire.
Geoff saves her, slips off in one of those long bangkok canal-boats, sojourns for a bit acquiring Buddhist wisdom from some monks, sees to the girl's medical treatment, rehabilitates himself with weight-lifting, and learns to shoot with his left hand. Then he heads to Hong Kong, where Sam is in snug with Judge, and Mona, who thinks, of course, that Geoff got killed in the robbery...
Geoff functions more and more as some sort of Buddhist avenger fellow...I didn't realize that the Buddha set such great store by blowing people brains out, but Ringo Lam seems to think it's grade-a Mahayana. In one of the film's most iconic images, we see Geoff sitting on his chopper in a tunnel, with a great big Buddhist swastika on the wall behind him.
Confronting Sam and making him feel like a real shitheel for betraying him (although not forgiving him at all), Geoff finds out about the ice-factory where Judge has cached his arms; in a gory assault, involving bali-songs, ice-hooks, guns, and exploding CO2 tanks, Geoff and Sam steal the guns. This leads to an even bloodier shootout at the nightclub where Mona works doing rather improbable musical numbers; we get the scene that inspired that bullets-crashing tip-to-tip bit from The Shadow, and a slug's eye-view shot of a bullet going into a guy's eye and out the back of his head. Afterwards, suspecting that Virgin must've have told Sam where the arms cache was, Judge shots her in the head right in front of Deano, who's so stupid that he doesn't even do anything to retaliate.
Sam's been wounded...Geoff makes it abundantly clear to him that they're really not jake in his book...Sam winds up with Geoff's wierd little dog. Geoff is more inclined to let bygones be bygones with Mona, but not before he goes on to the film's big climax, in which a dozen cars full of arms get blown up in Judge's face, Geoff blows away a bunch of Judge's men from his motorcycle, Deano gets shot in the foot, then in the head, Geoff gets shot in the chest and loses a couple more fingers to Judge's knife, and then Judge gets Geoff's bali-song through the wrist and a bullet in the throat. For a few seconds it looks as though Geoff's going to succumb to that chest wound, but no...turns out he had a Buddha medallion that absorbed most of the brunt. So I guess Buddha was happy with this all along. Oh well, if we can buy Dirty Harry as a Christ symbol, we might as well buy Geoff here as a monument to Buddhism. And really, vengeance makes for more kinetic cinema than forgiveness, doesn't it?
Of course,I'm no one to complain.
14. Burning Paradise, 1994, Director Ringo Lam
The second Ringo Lam flick on this list, and my personal favorite Lam movie ever. As I said on the villains list (where the chief bad guy from this had a prominent place), I really hated Temple of Doom, but if it had been a great movie, it would've been Burning Paradise. Paradise is everything Doom isn't---fast, smart, intensely vicious, and wonderfully atmospheric. It looks like it cost way more (it was the most expensive HK movie made up till that point), and it's got an actual philosophy...that bad guy I mentioned is absolutely one for the books.
Story is a variation on a standard Shaolin legend, the Burning of the Red Lotus temple, and it features two bigtime Chinese martial arts heroes, Fong Sai Yuk and Hung Hei Kwan. The movie opens with the evil Qing dynasty forces suppressing the Shaolin monks, burning their monastery, torching their books, beheading the baldies themselves...Shaolin student Fong Sai Yuk (Willie Chi) is on the run with his abbot. There's a bunch of jolting slaughter right at the beginning---Qing henchman Crimson (John Ching) is after our boys with a huge circular beheado-blade on a wire, that he uses to clip the heads off horses...the scene of one poor nag stumbling around with its head matted away is pretty amazing. On foot, Fong retaliates by chopping a Manchu in half with his massive saber, the bastard riding off with his lower half still in the saddle, blood squirting---quite impossibly, since his heart was removed with the upper half of his body--- up from his hips! Fong snatches a horse, and we're on the run again.
Fong and the abbot elude the baddies and hide in a hut, where they meet cute little Tou-Tou (Carmen Lee). There's some dumb comedy, but it's back to killing in the morning...hundreds of Qing troops surround the house, the Abbot is felled by artillery, then stabbed by Crimson, and Fong and Tou-Tou are brought to the Red Lotus Temple, where the film takes off at a steep angle and never stops jetting into the stratosphere. The temple, you see, is a trap-infested prison for Shaolin monks, run by the demented Master Kung, who's the Buddhist equivalent of a satanist...it having sunk in that he was getting old, he requested(!) the post as warden, because he figured he could only keep his mind off his own mortality by inflicting giant doses of torture and rape on other people. Also, he's an artist; his paintings really suck, but they're extremely unpleasant, and his underground realm is one of the most infernal movie visions ever...it seems to have been the chief inspiration for Chris Lee's Isengard digs in LOTR.
Some of the Shaolin monks, including Fong, challenge Master Kung right off the bat, and are dispatched in front of everybody, by a number of traps and strategies...Fong finds himself in single combat with his old erstwhile buddy, Hung Hei Kwan, who seems to have gone over to the enemy...when Fong gets past Hung, he hurls an iron spike, hits master Kung, and seems to impale him, only to have Kung pull the spike out and hurl it back, pinning him to the wall by the thigh. In a mega-scream inducing moment, Fong upends, hanging from from the missile through his flesh.
Tout-Tou is subjected to a disquisition on Kung's extremely disturbing world-view, then gets raped, but not before Kung rips the head off a serving-girl who blunders in...Fong gets tossed into a pit full of vapor-emitting corpses...he's allowed to live, but only to have a rematch with Hung Hei-Kwan on a platform surrounded by spikes. But it turns out that Hung has merely pretended to change sides, in order to find out where all the trap are...the two join forces and lead a Shaolin revolt!
But boy, the temple is full of traps, and the good guys are bottled up in no time...Fong and Hung find themselves hunted like rats through the catacombs, meeting the damnedst stuff, poison gas, doors that swing shut and cut people in half, chambers full of Kung's pickled onetime concubines (he soaks them in red fluid to make them "perfect") and blasphemous statues mocking the Buddha, that spit bullets at you if you're foolish enough to light the incense and try to get a prayer off. It's one damn ting after another...the pace doesn't flag...the invention just keeps mounting. Ultimately our guys blow the powder magazine, and the place starts to come to bits; led by a freed Shaolin cleric, a bunch of prisoners tangle with the bullet-spitting Buddha, then are exhorted by the abbot to get down and pray a second time, after planting gunpowder behind the image to blow down a wall. Fong and Hung confront Master Kung, who attacks them with lethal flying paint drops and generally beats the crap out of them, until the Buddha-statue blows up, and one of its fists comes flying down the corridor, striking master Kung and splattering him into one of his own fucked-up pictures.
Whew. And...I've even left out a bunch of stuff.
Yet again, another HK movie that wasn't well-received in its hometown. It's thunderously effing wonderful, however, like God's idea of a Fu Manchu movie, take my word on it.
15. Braveheart, 1995, Director, Mel Gibson
Ah, 1995...those were happier times for Mel Gibson and his fans. I used to like the man, and his movies...still like the latter, although I wasn't a huge fan of The Passion. But Braveheart is one of his best, and it holds up quite well...why, just last night, I was channel-surfing about, and ran into the Battle of Stirling, and sixteen years hadn't diminished it one bit. If only Mel would get the bottle out his mouth and his dick back in his pants!
The movie infuriated the Brits, and in truth Mel never liked them. They really hate the Brits Downunder, and not just because British toilet water goes a different way round. In Australia, everyone knows that Brits sent everybody's unjustly convicted ancestor to Australia, and then killed everyone's great-great-grandaddy at Gallipoli. It's no wonder that you get violent righteous Aussie patriots like Ned Kelly and William Wallace...
Scratch that. Wallace was a proto-Aussie from Scotland, I know, I know. In case you're not familiar with the story, Wallace was a Scots leader who resisted Edward Longshanks' expansion into Scotland long about the time that everyone was switching from chain to plate armor. Now Mel takes a lot of liberties with the history, in order to make his version a better story...for one thing he puts all the badness on the English and makes the Scots seem rather more primitive than they would've been...a lot of the costumes are quite off...and the French princess that Willy Wallace gets involved with was about three years old at the time the movie is set. Still, you really comes to hate those English buggers, and Edward most of all---he's very well played by Patrick McGoohan, who nearly made my villains list---and all the Scots are game lads and very engaging, although the most engaging Scot turns out to be an Irishman named Stephen (David O'Hara), who should get more screentime.
Also, the action scenes are extremely well done. The stunt director was Mic Rodgers, who later went on to work with Mel in Apocalypto...man knows his business. In most medieval flicks, when it comes to the fighting, people generally don't look like they're really trying to kill each other. There have been some movie where they did a good job on the hack and slash stuff---Yakima Canutt's work on The Warlord was very impressive, and the climactic swordfight in The Vikings was quite good---but mostly, medieval fights have been listless bores. It hasn't changed much, either.
Braveheart was something else entirely. The stuff at Stirling, where the horses go charging into the chiltrons, is extremely well realized, making expert use of that fake animal technology that was developed for the buffaloes in Dances with Wolves...we're absolutely convinced that we just saw a bunch of poor horsies run onto sixteen-foot long spears. When the infantry from both sides crash together, they really crash together. Everyone looks like they're trying to murder each other, they're really swinging for the bleachers, and the recipients of blows really look like they're getting clocked. There's quite a bit of splatter..hands are hacked off, daggers go into eyes and out the back of heads, war-picks bury themselves in helmet-crowns and blood rivers over faces...battle ends with Mel chopping the legs out from under one of those very convincing fake horses and then decapitating an English commander.
Film gets less good after that...one of the reasons I prefer Rob Roy to Braveheart is that it doesn't peak in the middle, but saves its best action sequence for the very end. Braveheart remains pretty good, though...the other battle scenes aren't as nifty as Stirling, but they're well done...you come to hate Longshanks more and more. The romance between Wallace and the french princess is ridiculous, but...I like looking at Sophie Marceau. And Wallace's vendetta against the Scots lairds who betray him is a lot of ghastly fun, particularly the scene where Wallace rides into the one jerk's bedroom and crushes his head with a big iron ball at the end of a chain. The obligatory medieval/ancient flammable material scene is ludicrous (just what is that flammable stuff, anyway?), but at least you get some very intense fire gags.
Apparently, the movie was cut pretty extensively to secure an r-rating. Boy, I would love to see the gory version. Mel should rouse himself from whatever alcoholic anti-semitic stupor he's in, and put together a proper unrated Blu-Ray.
16. Saving Private Ryan, 1998, Director, Stephen Spielberg
Stephen Spielberg is a brilliant film-maker, but he's got some profound shortcomings. His chief strength is action set pieces and special effects direction, but he seems to think that he's a real judge of characterization and screenwriting...well, he just ain't. His ideas on screenwriting are completely and awfully doctrinaire, and Saving Private Ryan is an infuriating demonstration, oddly self-refuting. What's great about it is the action stuff, and that undermines the rest something awful. I'll show you what I mean.
The opening sequence, where Tom Hanks's guys storm Omaha Beach, is just textbook film-making. It's the best WWII battle that's ever been in a movie. It's so harrowing that you wish it would stop. It scares you out of your wits. It shows you stuff that you always suspected that other war movies were sparing you, miracles of bad taste, and it's full of details, like the sound of the bullets clanging from metal obstacles, that I don't think I ever heard in a movie before. It goes on for about twenty-five minutes, and it's so compelling that it doesn't seem to be a movie.
SPR settles down and just turns into something rather like just another war flick. You get characterization. You get Oscar clips. You get tension in the squad. Every doggie gets his four minutes of screentime and back story. Does any of it amount to a hill of beans? Hell no. The only character we care about is Barry Pepper's sniper, and that's because we see him do what he does, which is intrinsically interesting. Oh, and we're sorta interested in Vin Diesel, but just because he's interesting as an actor and was new then. Otherwise, we just get a bunch of scenes that are episodic and don't go anywhere. Probably this has to do with the basic nature of the story...which doesn't seem to be very much like any actual WWII story I ever heard of. Guys coming ashore at Omaha, yeah. Guys dispatched, in the opening days of an invasion, directly behind enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan because all his brothers have been killed...well, how often would that happen?
Moreover, the stuff after the landing is just flattened like a pancake by the landing itself. Even though Spielberg clearly feels we need backstories and Oscar clips in order to care about our boys, he's just demonstrated conclusively that you don't. Those guys in the landing crafts...you don't know them from Adam, unless they happen to be played by some actor you recognize. You know why you care? Because they're our guys, and the Germans are trying to kill them. That's right, holy cow, what's interesting about war movies is the war. This crap about backstories and tensions inside the squad...why should we care about that, or what Tom Hanks did as a civilian, if the film-maker does a good job on the Germans trying to kill you?
Consider War of the Worlds. Spielberg thought that was a good script. His direction was frequently great, but the script stank. Here we are, being invaded by Martians, for God's sake, and we need to suffer through a lot of dysfunctional family shit in order for there to be sufficient drama. Time we could be spending running away from Martian war machines is blown on little kids bickering with each other, and Tom Cruise reforming and becoming a responsible dad. As Morrie from Goodfellas would say, Screw that! Screw it in the ear!
Okay then, after the landing, Saving Private Ryan goes into a great big slump, although it recovers its mojo in the final third, when Hanks' troop actually finds private Ryan, and we have reason to believe we're heading for a great big finish. True, we have a Matt Damon Oscar clip (Matt DAY-mon!); and we do have the discussion of what Edith Piaf is saying, which I thought was rather funny. But then the action kicks in big-time again, and Spielberg is back in his element. The climax isn't as hair-raising as the landing scene, but it's a pretty fine hold-the-fort thing, with our boys facing off against a Tiger Tank (it appears to be the same T-34 mockup--with the Liebestandarte key---they used in Kelly's Heroes)), a self-propelled gun, an anti-aircraft piece that's being wheeled around by hand, and a horde of SS badasses. Spielberg appears to have studied huge amounts of actual combat footage and photos, and he trots his knowledge out to excellent effect. There's a lot of sharp, memorable slaughter, particularly surrounding the Tiger, which throws a tread...one moment, the Americans are swarming all over it, the next they're being blown literally to pieces by the anti-aircraft gun. A Jewish soldier dies horribly in a very personal knife-fight with an SS bastard which you think the Jewish guy's going to win, well, because he's the Jewish guy...nope. Barry Pepper gets up in a belfry and snipes the living daylight out of the Germans (even at a long distance, we see little splish-splashes burst out of them) until the self-propelled gun gets his number. Tom Sizemore get shot and dies, though not before hurling his helmet at some krauts and denouncing them sulfurously...Hanks lives long enough to see the village reinforced, then croaks.
The very end is no good, in precisely the same sort of way that Liam Neeson's breakdown at the end of Schindler's List didn't make it. Over in Bollywood, they have a word to describe things that you only get in movies, and it's filmi. At the beginning of SPR, in a gigantic cheat, we had Matt Damon's character, as an old man, flashback to the Normandy Landings, which he wasn't at, since he was Airborne. At the end, his character flash-forwards to a military cemetery where he breaks down and starts going on about not being worthy of all the sacrifices that were made to save him...I didn't buy it for a moment. The fact is, when Spielberg is off, it's just made that much more blindingly obvious by the moments when he's on.
17.Musa, 2001, Director:Sung Soo-Kim
Splatter aside, this is probably my favorite period movie since Rob Roy. It's very much unlike most swordplay spectaculars from the far east---it takes its historical responsibilities extremely seriously, much more so than most western films, even. The costumes and period details are fairly dead-on, and there's a genuine appreciation of the actual attitudes you might encounter---you get running arguments between a failed Confucian scholar and a truculent Buddhist monk, for example. Also, when it comes to the action, there's a complete absence of fluttering robes and flying through the air. Now, I enjoy that sort of biz myself, but I also like action that's meatier and grittier---and Musa provides that in spades. It also has a bunch of things that I'd always wanted to see in a medieval sword slinger, and other things that I hadn't even thought of.
The film, which I believe was edited together from a TV series, is set in China at the end of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, and the founding of the Ming. The barbarians are being driven out into the wasteland; the Koreans, (Korean was called Koryo back then) have been under the domination of the Mongols, and they send an embassy to the new capital, Nanking, to make contact with the new dynasty. But because the Koreans had such close ties to the Mongols, the Chinese suspect them, and the Koreans are branded as spies and shipped off to the wastes of central Asia.
There they have a spot of luck...the Chinese guarding them are massacred by a Mongol raiding party, but the barbarians let the Koreans go. Led by general Choi Jung (Jin Mo Ju), the Koreans decide to trek all the way back to Korea across the desolation. But Choi Jung still wants to carry out his mission---that is to say, ingratiate the Korean delegation with the Ming. Even after the ambassador dies out in the desert, Choi Jung pursues this line of thought, and when the Koreans stumble into a desert cantonment, he sees an opportunity...the Mongol general Rambulhua comes through with a captured Ming princess (Zhang Zhiyi, at her bitchiest) and Choi Jung falls in love with her and decides to snatch her and present her to the new Chinese government. This sets in motion a whole series of vicious, beautifully-staged action scenes, everything complicated by the fact that the princess couldn't care less about Choi-Jun, and actually has the hots for Yeo-sol (Sung Soo-Kim from Good the Bad and the Wierd, and Reign of Assassins), the dead ambassador's slave, who's a terrifying badass with a long-bladed spear...a guy that Rambulhua would like to add to his own forces.
Busting out of the Gobi and charging across Northern China, acquiring a bunch of Han Chinese refugees along the way, the Koreans fight a fierce forest hit-and-run battle with the Mongols in a forest (there's some particularly choice stuff with arrows and a Mongol getting Yeo-sol's spear right in the forehead), and finally our protags wind up at the sea, looking across the water towards Koryo from a small ruined Chinese fortress. Rambulhua arrives...from here on in it's a seige, with all sorts of stratagems and techniques, including Mongols running right up the sides of walls with the aid of crude ladders. Spears crunch into prosthetic heads, gigantic sword-blades transfix bodies as heroic Koreans are dragged down...finally the Mongols get in and just about everybody gets slaughtered in one gushy slo-mo death scene after another. A few survivors might, just might, make it across the sea to Korea...the end credits are over an unbelievably sappy Korean pop song.
Actually, the music's not very good in general, and there are some dead spots in the narrative. But the characterizations are universally well-done, and they've got a lot of excellent Korean and Chinese talent in front of the camera. The prosthetic work is as good as anything in American movies, and the stunt gaffing is rather like Braveheart's, only much gorier. There are several versions of this out there; the one that Tai Seng marketted was heavier on the action, and cut a lot of the period detail out, but it was still pretty coherent...I'd go for the longer version, even though, as I said, it does drag occasionally.
18. Kill Bill, 2003/2004, Director, Quentin Tarantino
For the purposes of this discussion, I'm treating parts 1 and 2 of Kill Bill as if they're one movie, which really...they are. I've never seen them cut together, so I really don't know just how they'd work as a single feature...maybe it was a good idea to split them, maybe not. I understand Tarantino's showing something called Kill Bill, the Whole Bloody Affair down in Austin shortly, and I'm expecting that the cut-together thing will be released on DVD or Blu-Ray at some point.
I've got mixed feelings about Kill Bill. I think it's wildly uneven; I liked the second part better than the first, although I thought the end was so anticlimactic that I wanted to throw my shoe at the screen. Individual sequences are quite impressive; but there's no narrative flow whatsoever. That's pretty disastrous in an action film. Even so, Tarantino did some of the things he set out to do, no doubt about it. Regarding this movie, I believe he said that the true test of a director is the ability to do a good action sequence, or something to that effect. He's quite correct. In spite of the fact that there are zillions of crummy action movies out there, there are very few good action sequences, and none by truly bad directors. Even though moving pictures should be all about movement, very few people can really take the reins and force the cinematic beast to go where they want. For one thing, you've got to have a very clear, concrete three-dimensional sense. For another, you've got know what the audience is really going to want to see. And you've got to be decisive. In short, you 've got to be the complete opposite of let's say...Michael Bay. Incessant close-up are a sign of bad judgement and indecision...close-ups are not always called for. Bay compounds his errors by using all that quick cutting...he can't really tell what you'll want to see, so he tries to show you everything at once, but in really quick cuts, in case you start to get restless, like you're a three-year old.
Well, the best action in Kill Bill--principally the House of Blue leaves Sequence, and the fight between Uma Thurmond and Daryl Hannah in the trailer, isn't like that. Tarantino knows exactly where the camera has to go, he knows what's constitutes a good image and what doesn't, and then he shows you a clear non-confusing view of what he thinks you need to see. Oh, things move along pretty briskly; the editing ain't sluggish; but you're not sitting there going, "I don't have a fucking idea what the hell just happened." He sets up the geography, you have a three-dimensional map in your head, and then he lets the action play out in it. The House of Blue leaves is one of the most clearly laid-out sets in movie history; you know who's going where, where they're going to, and why. And you get to just sit back and enjoy the slaughter.
There's a lot of that, scads of fine prosthetic effects, dished up by the guys who wanted to make that movie of The Dead, KNB EFX. When the hyper-violence really kicks in, after Uma demolishes the Japanese chick, film lapses into black and white...for ratings reasons, I believe, kinda like what happened at the end of Taxi Driver. The Japanese version of the film stays in color, or so I've heard...that really would be better. Movie wasn't photographed for black and white...b and w really requires a different approach. Still, the direction's so powerful, and the stuntwork (gaffed by Yuen Woo Ping) is so impressive, that you really don't mind much. As Uma (dressed like Bruce Lee in Game of Death) slashes her way through Lucy Liu's crazy 88's, you're really convinced that every single permutation of slicing and dicing is being explored, and everybody but everybody bleeds at true Shogun Assassin rates. My only real gripe is that the final confrontation between Uma and Lucy isn't as cool as it needs to be...neither of them can handle the quality of stuntwork that we get from Uma's stuntwoman, that Aussie babe who was in Grindhouse and whose name escapes me.
Film's second great action scene takes place in Part Two...it seems to have been inspired by the fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love, although it's far more ill-tempered. Basically what you get is a whirlwind of violence in a very small space, in this case, Michael Madsen's grungy trailer near Barstow, or wherever it is. It's all super intense, lightning quick but easy to follow, and ends excrutiatingly with Uma plucking eyepatched Daryl's remaining peeper out of its socket...I just wanted to howl, although I restrained myself.
As I said, the end of the movie, where Uma kills David Carradine, seriously doesn't make it...it's particularly limp after the stupendous violence that preceded it. Movie still belongs on the list, though. Inglorious Basterds has some pretty choice violence too...although it suffers even worse from the lack of narrative flow-through, and it doesn't have nearly enough Nazi-killing. There are some great unusual bullet-squibs; the fight in that basement bar is brief but wonderful; the final goings-on are pretty great too, particularly Hitler getting MP-40'd in the face, courtesy of those KNB EFX boys. But the film needed more basterds doing more inglorious things.
Oh, and I'd like to see all that Maggie Cheung stuff, dammit.
19. Apocalypto, 2006, Director, Mel Gibson.
By the time this thing came out, Mel Gibson had already been revealed as an anti-semitic nut...as I'm sure you recall, he was stopped by a Jewish traffic cop in Malibu and subjected the guy to a rant about the Jews being responsible for all the wars in history. Well, perhaps Mel should've looked at Apocalpyto...it's full of all sorts of terrible behavior, and there's not a Jew in sight! At least, I don't seem to recall any.
I think it would be reasonable to say that certain Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies were the most ghastly cultures the human race has ever produced. Over and above the hearts being ripped out, you had little kids getting suffocated by drying liquid latex, priests who'd dress in the skins of their victims (and never bathe!), human stockyards to supply fat young boys to aristocratic cannibals...the Aztecs were rather like something from one of my more sanguinary stories. Mel does quite a bang-up job on depicting the activities in a Mayan ceremonial center...why he's still got it operating full-scale when the Spaniards show up, I'm not sure. But I've seen worse anachronisms in movies, and he's sure come up with a setting that plays to most of his strengths as a film-maker. Yep, he's a crazy, crazy bastard, and I wish he'd lay off the booze and rejoin the human race. But extremely talented people are frequently very unpleasant specimens.
Story's pretty simple. We have a some happy relatively decent Indians out in the jungle...they get attacked by Mayans looking for human sacrifices. Our hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is captured; his son and preggers wife (Dahlia Hernanadez) hide down a limestone sinkhole but can't get out. He's taken off to the ceremonial center by Zero Wolf (awesome barbarically-decked Raoul Trujillo) and the vile Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacias); before we reach the sacrificial pyramid, there's an extended buildup where we get a very good idea of just how venemous, decadent, and environmentally unsound the Maya are---it's an extremely sinister and powerful sequence, and it instensifies steadily until we reach the pyramid's steps and get all the way to the top. We see severed heads and beheaded corpses come bouncing down the steps (the corpses are particularly impressive special effects); the sacrifices themselves are actually not as explicit as one might expect, but they're directed to maximum impact. We discover that the Maya ruling class regard the sacrifices as a scam---apparently as a result of their superior astronomy, they know when eclipses will occur, and pretend they're controlling them with the butchery. Jaguar Paw seems to get off the hook since an eclipse has been terminated, and he's not needed any more, supposedly...but the incredibly awful Maya bastards intend to kill him anyway, and he's taken out to special court where the remaining prisoners will be slaughtered.
From this point on, the film becomes a rather different movie, shades of The Naked Prey. Jaguar Paw is told to run for his life, is wounded in the side, but winds up killing Zero Wolf's son...the Mayans set off in hot pursuit. Here we get the film's grisliest sequence...Jaguar Paw blunder through a cornfield into the place where the Maya deposit all the beheaded bodies from the pyramid. This has got to be the most gruesome bit of business in any major motion picture ever: given the sheer number of prosthetic corpses, I don't think an exploitiation movie could possibly match it. Jaguar paw stumbles around in the stiffs and flies for a bit, keeps on going...as he races through the jungle, (rather less hampered by his through-and-through side wound than any of us would be), he liquidates his pursuers one by one, and we cut back to wifey and child in that sinkhole, as a rainstorm comes up and threatens to drown them...
The overall effect is rather like a Robert E. Howard story, or a Frazetta painting come to life; I was reminded repeatedly of the two best Conan novellas, Beyond the Black River, and Red Nails. Gibson would surely be just the guy to do a proper job on a Conan movie; he and Howard were kindred nuts, I think.
20. Rambo, 2008, Director: Sylvester Stallone
For a while there it was looking as though Stallone was just going to fade out into direct-to-video oblivion...I think the last Stallone movie I really liked before his dry spell was Demolition Man. But I really like Sly, and I was very happy when he made something of a comeback...I thought that last Rocky movie was well worth watching, maybe the best Rocky flick since the original, and I thought Rambo was the best Rambo installment. I understand that Stallone wanted to take a similar approach on the earlier flicks...it's a pity they didn't let him, although the technology mightn't have been up to the task back then. I'm just glad that he didn't listen to Rambo's producer Avi Lerner, who thought the movie would do way better if it wasn't just so damn...brutal.
Movie's about Burma, which has been a shitty nationalist/communist dictatorial nightmare for a very long time. You might remember that dust-up a couple years back with those plucky Buddhist monks...or that Patricia Arquette movie, Beyond Rangoon. Anyway, Rambo opens with some genuinely disturbing, ghastly newsreel footage...I've never seen an action movie that pulled a stunt like that. You realize you're being set up for some very fucked-up material, and Rambo delivers. The flick really has balls.
After the newsreel stuff, we're introduced to some orc-like Burmese army officers who are forcing prisoners to run through a minefield and taking bets on it. Then we meet Rambo, who's moved back to Thailand after his last adventure, and is catching cobras for a local sideshow. He's approach by some missionaries who want to go upriver to to help some Karen tribespeople...trouble is, Burma's a war zone, and the Karen have been fighting the Burmese government forever. Rambo refuses at first, but is won over by a female missionary...don't know why exactly...she's kinda good-looking, gives him a cross...whatever. He takes them upriver, they have a brush with pirates, and he demonstrates he's a lethal as ever---the scene where a do-gooder protests the pirate-snuffin' and gets man-handled by Rambo is a really startling glimpse of the 62-year old Stallone's physical prowess. The next day, Rambo drops them off...they go in among the Karen, do some good work, then get captured by the Burmese army, who descend upon the village in a stop-at-nothing, baby-bayoneting attack.
Later on, a church guy gets in touch with Rambo...his people have gone missing...he wants to know if Rambo will take a bunch of mercs upriver...
Well, you know he will. The interaction between the mercenaries and Rambo is tense and engaging...a scene where he wipes out a handful of Burmese with his bow establishes him nicely as the top dog in the operation...he and the mercs arrive at the prison camp where the missionaries are being fed to pigs. A sniper named schoolboy makes the rounds with his Barrett-Light Fifty, taking off Burmese heads; Rambo invades the hut of an officer who's about to rape the female missionary, and tears his throat out. The surviving prisoners are sprung while the horrible soldiers are distracted by zonked-out dancing girls...the festivities, which feature a lot of billowing red smoke, are right hellish.
Final quarter of the movie is a chase through the jungle climaxing in the most ferocious movie firefight I've ever seen. Utilizing the services of an up-and-coming Russian special effects house, Stallone takes the violent potential of CG absolutely to the max. And amazingly, the setup and the situation all make sense. This isn't like the shootouts in the other Rambo movies, where our hero would just stand there and take on twenty guys, none of whom could hit him, while he just hosed them all down. This is something different. He's up on a hill, has a commanding view of the whole area, is ensconced in a half-track, and armed with a Browning fifty with a steel plate between him and the baddies. Given circumstances like that, you really could make some inroads, especially if you had some other good guys shutting down one flank.
But over and above that, the movie shows you exactly what happens when people get worked over with a .50...there's a reason that the guns are banned by international convention, although our military, quite sensibly, continues to employ them. In Rambo, they seem to have been invented primarily to give justification for the most extreme violent effects imaginable...limbs and heads are clipped off, bodies blown in half, and trees sawn down so that Rambo can lay waste to entire truckloads of Burmese. It's much more extreme than the end of the The Wild Bunch, and about as well directed. In one leap, Stallone establishes himself as a first-rate master of the action sequence...from this moment on, the climax of Rambo will be the gunfight to beat.
I understand there's a more violent version of the film on Blu-Ray. Since I don't have a Blue-Ray player, I haven't seen it, but I find it hard to imagine.