xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage Review

The first xXx came out back in 2002. I vaguely remember it; explosions, stunts and Vin Diesel in a fantastic fur coat. I know even less about the sequel xXx: State of The Union, save for that Xander Cage (Vin Diesel’s character) had apparently been killed off so instead Ice Cube was brought in to fill the gap. Now, fifteen years after he first starred in the role, Vin Diesel comes back for more extreme stunts.

xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage stars Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose and Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by D.J. Caruso. The film follows extreme sports star Xander Cage (Diesel) as he is brought out of the retirement by the CIA to stop a rogue faction from destroying the world.

I’ve given the most blandest of synopsis I can, because this a film without a story. Oh sure, there is a lot of nonsense about crashing satellites and covert-government types, all interchangeable and doesn’t do much apart from set up to some crazy stunts. And really, I’m okay with that. So many films nowadays take themselves too seriously, it’s good now and again for a film that just leans right into the madness and has some fun to it.

Vin Diesel does his usual grumble-mumble and cute one-liners, no different from the fifty other Vin Diesel roles he has. It’s the newcomers that are the most interesting characters. Ruby Rose gets to show off her action chops while flipping the table of what an “action heroine” should be, Donnie Yen get’s to kick ass in his style but has an actual backstory and motivations, Deepika Padukone is a freedom fighter who is conflicted over how to achieve liberty, this is all cool stuff in an industry that just labels characters as “the Asian One”, “The Girl” and “The Other Girl.” Granted, the other actors; Tony Jaa, Rory McCann, Kris Wu and Michael Bisping don’t have much to them apart from a name and a one-line backstory, but it’s still an improvement over Hollywood.

The other major point I want to show off is how diverse the cast is. It’s cool to see these big actors from Chinese, Thai and Indian cinema get some major roles and screen time in an American blockbuster.

I was drawn to xXx 3 because I was promised action, and damn if it isn’t filled to brim with stunts. While there is noticeable instances of green screen, most of the action seems to be done for real. Even with the use of handheld cam, the action is bone-crunching and visceral. This is why you get Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in; these guys know how to fight, how to pull off stunts and make it look good. The plot enables these top notch performers to just let loose, with Jaa having an excellent parkour-infused chase on a freeway, while Yen get’s to show off his martial arts in a six-on-one fight in the finale. The finale ratchets up the ridiculous to eleven, with zero-gravity plane rides and robot boxing gloves, but is it still filmed relatively well, not obscuring any of the over-the-top action.

The film has downsides. I’ve talked about the plot, it’s got so many holes and loops that there is no point trying to figure out how and why things happen. This is one of those “plot armour” situations, just go with it. The film does start pretty slow, with at least an hour before it becomes a full-on action fest, with only minor action sequences to tide us over. Also, near the beginning of the film there are so many navel shots and full-body pans, it’s just tasteless. Refreshingly the main female characters aren’t sexualised in any way, but there is still a romance sub-plot that comes out of nowhere.

In the end, I left xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage with a huge grin on my face. For those looking for some good action and fun characters, but zero plot, this is one for you. I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again.

Score: 7/10 Over-the-top fun for the action fans.

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The Raid 2 Review

Preface

I was looking through several of my older reviews and there was one film that kept coming up: The Raid 2. So I decided I would do a retro review of it, as The Raid 2 was not just one of the best films of 2014, but one of my favourite films of all time.

Review

The Raid 2 stars Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Alex Abbad and Yayan Ruhian and is directed by Gareth Evans. The Raid 2 starts an hour after the end of The Raid, where rookie cop Rama (Uwais), after escaping the tower block in the first film is sent undercover to infiltrate a criminal empire.

Most martial arts films have thread-bare stories (just look at nearly all the films in the Bruce Lee Collection). The Raid also fell prey to this, with the only plot being “try to survive”. Thankfully, The Raid 2 has a lot deeper story, something akin to Goodfellas or The Departed/Infernal Affairs, as Rama goes undercover to keep is family safe. While the plot is still a device to bring the next extended punch-up along, it’s quite a good gangster/cop drama.

With this deeper story, the film’s length shoots up, from a simple 90 minutes in the first film to well over two hours in the second. This is where I hear a lot of fans of the first film complaining, as the second film isn’t as much wall-to-wall action as its predecessor. I can kind of see their problem with The Raid 2. By the end the film can feel like it’s running out of steam, so even while we get the final showdown between Rama and the main bad guys, my investment in the film has drained considerably since the first fight scene.

While several of the first films actors were just stunt-doubles and fighting champions doing their best to act as a police squad, The Raid 2 flexes it’s tale of gang warfare and deceit by adding in several top actors into major roles. Several actors, such as Afrin Putra as mob boss’ son Uco, or said mob boss Bangun, played by Tio Pakusadewo are great to watch and listen to and ultimately make the down-time in between the protracted fight scenes fun and interesting. The stand out though is Alex Abbad as Bejo, a mystery man who appears out of nowhere in a bid to create his own crime empire by teaming up with Uco. Abbad is a master at projecting a thin veneer of style and smarts but who is always a thread away from snapping and going nuts with a shotgun (which he does).

The fight scenes, inevitably, are amazing. While The Raid was one of the main films that gave birth to the long-take, brutal and bloody style of fighting, with some excellent stand out moments (The machete gang fight is still one of the most memorable fight scenes I’ve ever watched), The Raid 2 surpasses it with both sheer numbers of fights as well as signature fighters. The Assassin, with his twin karambits, Hammer Girl with her claw hammers (a small nod to Oldboy) and Baseball-bat Boy, whose fights get even cooler when he starts bringing in the baseballs, these are all memorable characters and their fight scenes are some of the best of the film, if not some of the best character introductions ever.

While I already mentioned the length of the film as one of my top bugs, the other problem I had with The Raid 2 is the inclusion of Yayan Ruhian again as a minor character in the film. Ruhian was one of the main antagonists in the first film, playing Mad Dog, the contract killer of the tower block. In The Raid 2, he seems to be playing the same character type as one of Bangun’s assassins. It took me a while to realise that he was playing a different character and that they weren’t just ret-conning one of the major characters from the first film.

In conclusion, The Raid 2 builds upon its success of its predecessor with even more violence and mesmerising stunt work, while also managing to add a bit of story behind all the punching.

Score: 10/10 Quite possibly the greatest action movie ever created.

John Wick Review

John Wick has been one of my most anticipated films of 2015. I mean, I heard about this film all the way back in mid 2014, followed its success in every other territory that it was released in, read the Guardian review of it in October 2014, and then had to wait another six months before I could finally watch it. But boy was it worth the wait.

John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the title character, Willem Dafoe as his friend/co-worker Marcus and Michael Nyqvist (well known for the Swedish version of The Girl With Dragon Tattoo) as his ex-employer Viggo. When his pet dog is killed and vintage ’69 Mustang are stolen by a gang of Russian thugs, John Wick comes out of retirement, as he was once a revered hitman, to exact revenge.

First off, this film looks gorgeous. With rain-slicked streets, neon infused nightclubs (and subtitles) and swanky hotel suites littered throughout the entire film, credit is due to cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who captures several beautiful scenes. The nightclub in particular, which houses one of the best action scenes of the film, is awash with contrasting red and blue lighting, giving us a beautiful silhouette effect on the characters that are fighting.

Praise must be given to all actors and actresses involved, who all give standout performances. Keanu Reeves doesn’t really display much emotion (that’s unfair, I do like Keanu Reeves) but special praise must go to him for his performance of many of the stunts and fight work, which at age 50 is pretty spectacular. Willem Dafoe and Michael Nyqvist play both their roles with some beautiful overacting, and Adrianne Palicki as the possibly psychotic hitwoman Miss Perkins is fun to watch interact with Reeves. A small role for Lance Reddick as a concierge has some funny quips, but the star everyone will fall in love with is Andy, the beagle puppy. Even if you hate dogs, the first time the camera zooms in on his face, with his large brown eyes, you’ll melt.

While the story is paper-thin at best, another thing I really liked about John Wick was the world-building it did. Throughout the film Reeves makes his way to bars, clubs and hotels where he is known, and which are filled with other hitmen and women. Sometimes they’ll see each other and exchange greetings, and reminisce about previous work, and it all works without coming off as odd. Mr. and Mrs. Smith did a similar thing, what is does is flesh out the world. It almost makes me want to see a prequel/sequel, just so that we get to explore the world full of assassins again.

The fight scenes, while sometimes stunning, do occasionally focus on extreme close ups, which leads to some fight scenes being a bit unfocused. To continue with a couple of the other negatives, the first half of John Wick does seem a bit overly long, and that does mean it suffers from some pacing issues in the second half when what should be big important fight scenes are pushed quite close together.

Another problem is the score for the film. While the film has several composers, with Tyler Bates and Joel J Richard creating most of the original score (notable past work includes 300, Rise of The Argonauts, The Bourne Identity and Guardians of the Galaxy) the score here feels a bit generic, with only THINK by female duo KALEIDA being memorable. However, those few nitpicks don’t dilute the film too much into being anything short of enjoyable.

In summary, John Wick is a must for action fans or those looking to see some fantastic camera work or in camera stunts. If you like The Raid or its sequel (two of my favourite films of recent years) then I would strongly recommend John Wick.

Score: 8/10 Classy cars, sharp suits and visceral violence makes this film one to remember

Bruce Lee Collection Review

Preface

Being a film student and also a regular old cinephile, I have seen quite a few films that are part of the collective “Hong Kong Cinema”. Many people may well be familiar with popular “HKC” films, such as John Woo’s magum opus Hard Boiled, or the police/triad Infernal Affairs Trilogy (remade as The Departed in the United States). But for this review, I wanted to go through a few films that were collectively put together and published, a selection of Bruce Lee films;

  • Fist of Fury
  • Way of the Dragon
  • The Big Boss
  • Game of Death
  • Enter the Dragon

Since I won’t be able to do a full review of each film in one post, as well as the fact that they are all part of a collection, I thought I would just do a quick review of each for your entertainment. Get ready to hear Lee’s signature chicken squawks as you watch, and enjoy.

Fist of Fury

The best of the collection from a story aspect, with Lee being a kung fu student in China during the Japanese occupation. Some people may know it as the original version of the Jet Li film Fist Of Legend, the film boasts amazing choreography and fight sequences, with fights both with “Petrov”, a Russian gangster and also an entire dojo full of Karate students, with an appearance from a pair of deadly nunchuks.

Score: 8/10 A fun piece of pulp action

Way of the Dragon

Set in Italy, WOTD has Lee protecting his family by facing off against the Italian Mafia. This probably Lee’s most comedic film in this list, but the comedy is juxtaposed with some great fight sequences, including another appearance of the double nunchuks. This is the film best known for the final dramatic fight between Lee and US Karate champion Chuck Norris inside the Coliseum.

Score: 7/10 Light on story, but the fights carry the film along

The Big Boss

Lee’s first motion picture and set in Thailand, it has Lee trying to bring down an ice factory that is a front to a drug smuggling ring. The fight scenes are not as well choreographed as later films and do not come along at a frequent pace as the others. This leaves us with the story, which is quite thin, to the point where it is almost non-existent. The final fight with the Big Boss is quite interesting though, as we get to see Lee working at peak performance.

Score: 5/10 Only watch it if you’re interested to see how it all began

Game of Death

Lee’s last film before he died, it goes a bit meta in this film, as Lee plays a character called Billy Lo, who is an actor who plays Lee’s characters in Fist Of Fury and Way Of The Dragon. Be on the lookout for Bruce Lee’s body double playing Lee through most of the film, and for the yellow jumpsuit that Tarantino paid homage to in Kill Bill, along with footage from Lee’s actual funeral. Fights are littered throughout, all culminating in a pagoda containing martial arts legend Dan Inosanto and seven foot tall basketball player and Bruce Lee student Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Score: 7/10 Despite the odd story, the forty minute pagoda fight is a great part of cinema history.

Enter the Dragon

Arguably Lee’s most known and considered his best, ETD see’s Lee go into a martial arts competition to avenge both his dead sister and bring back the honour of his shaolin temple. With its basic set up of story, the film has more time to focus on the fights, which are brilliant. All choreographed by Lee himself, the fights range from the simple fists, to sticks, to the famous nunchuks and then to Wolverine-esque claws, with each fight escalating in brutality and body count. Be on the lookout for the James Bond-lite story and Ken Adam inspired sets. The final showdown in a hall of mirrors is breathtaking as well as fun.

Score 9/10 A fantastic escape into mortal combat