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 Legend Of Tarzan Review

After a slew of uneventful, boring and drab summer blockbusters, (all three sum up Independence Day 2), we have to wait a few more weeks until we get some actually great movies (Jason Bourne and Finding Dory respectively). So let’s review a film from last week that I finally got round to watching, The Legend of Tarzan.

The Legend Of Tarzan stars Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by David Yates. Based of the characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film follows Tarzan (Skarsgård) who after living in London for several years is lured back to The Congo by a conspiracy been orchestrated by Captain Leon Rom (Waltz).

The Legend Of Tarzan is the perfect example of a B movie. Nobody was really asking for a new Tarzan film, he had his time from the silent era all the way into the 1960s. But there is just something about it, it has a little bit of Indiana Jones sense of adventure, of exotic locations and scheming villains that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

The acting is a rather mixed bag. While physically Skarsgård is a perfect Tarzan (the guy is huge, you totally believe he could be swinging around on vines) he doesn’t display too much emotion. He hasn’t much chemistry with Margot Robbie (this movie’s Jane) who is a charisma machine in whatever role she plays. Samuel L. Jackson is doing a less foul-mouthed version of one of his Tarantino characters, while Christoph Waltz’s Leon Rom is like a live-action version of Dick Dastardly. All of them are sadly let down by a weak script and some bizarre moments of comedy. A running joke by Jackson about monkey testicles seems really odd since it’s delivered in a scene where Tarzan is being beaten down by gorillas. It’s just an odd placement and destroys the tense mood.

The film tries to tie the mythical story of Tarzan to the true events in the Congo at the time, which also seems jarring. Jackson and Waltz’s characters are actual people, so it’s odd to see them mixing with the superhero acrobatics of Tarzan. Add in the real-life atrocities that Waltz’s character committed and it gets really quite uncomfortable.

Tarzan’s mythic quality could have explained away any other combatant. Tarzan is the books fought dinosaurs and Nazis. Who wouldn’t pay to see that, Ape Man fights Nazis? Waltz is already is costume as Belloq from Raiders Of the Lost Ark and there are several scenes where he seems to just replicating that character. Who cares if it’s historically inaccurate, this is a film about a man who climbs on trees and swings on vines, were pretty far from anything realistic at this point.

And since Tarzan is a man of the jungle, he also is able to talk to the animals. Sadly, the CGI is rather low quality. At a time where you have Andy Serkis’ Apes movies and this year’s other jungle-dwelling feral story, The Jungle Book, you really need to step up your game up when it comes to animation.

Don’t be fooled though, there is some greatness to be found in The Legend Of Tarzan. For one, it looks great. While a lot of the film was shot on sound stages, some photography was done in Gabon, allowing for endless sweeping shots of the plains and mountains. And while done on stages, the sets are well designed and realised. Opar, the fabled diamond mine where Djimon Hounsou’s Mbonga and the leopard men live is a stunning set and contains two great action scenes, both at the beginning and end of the film. Costumes as well are on point. Hounsou’s previously mentioned Mbonga, who wears leopard print, claws and bones, as well as Waltz’s all white linen suit fit into that adventure story mould.

In the end, I enjoyed The Legend of Tarzan on purely a anachronistic level. It’s not mind-blowing or transcendent and a little bit long, but it’s a good popcorn flick.

Score: 7/10 B Movie adventure ridiculousness.

The Hateful Eight Review

Okay, I’m a few days late to this one. It’s been a hard week of university work. And seeing as everyone else is still concerned over Star Wars VII, I think I deserved a little time off. But I’m back now, with The Hateful Eight.

The Hateful Eight stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern and is written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film follows The Hangman (Russell) who is escorting The Prisoner (Leigh) to claim a bounty reward. They are snowed in a cabin with six other characters, where one character is lying in wait to spring The Prisoner free.

As usual, the acting is great. The eight main players are good, with Walton Goggins as The Sheriff and Bruce Dern as The Confederate being my favourites. Tarantino also gets amazing work out of the smaller roles, populated by Channing Tatum and Zoe Bell. Tarantino is known for getting actors to perform at their peak level, and they’re all doing first-class work.

Tarantino writes the script and while he still includes his usual screenwriting quirks, he manages to add some new features to his already over-stuffed screenplay. Gone are the overt references to genre cinema, instead we get a really tense, really moody and really thought-out film where the silences are just as good to listen to as the ten minute long conversations and Jackson soliloquies. Tarantino even jumps in and has some dialogue himself, narrating events after the film’s interval, and in between chapters.

The set-up could easily be thought of as Reservoir Dogs in a Western, but it’s a lot more complex than that. In Reservoir Dogs, we all know who the liar is, but in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino manages to keep it quiet until the very last minutes. Lines are drawn in the snowed-in cabin that the characters have settled in, with the barriers being Union vs. Confederacy, black vs. white and in the end, whether you’re a decent human being or not. Tarantino draws the audience in on these encounters, to the point where we’re pointing fingers in our mind, trying to figure out who the culprit is. It’s a film that you’ll probably want to watch twice just to see if you find all the clues that the director leaves out for us.

Ennio Morricone, famed composer of several Spaghetti Westerns, takes music duties and gives us one of most suspenseful soundtracks of all time. Taking cues from his tracks that didn’t make it into John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing as well as reusing a track from The Exorcist II, Morricone’s music choices seem to be horror directed, which ends up being the major factor that makes the film so tense and enjoyable to watch. The film could almost be a companion piece to The Thing, as both feature Kurt Russell, Morricone, snow and clawing sense that nobody says who they really are.

The film starts with a beautiful long shot of snow-covered Wyoming. We see a small dot in the distance, a station wagon, and as it gets closer, Morricone’s music comes in and just like Jed Kurzel did with last year’s Macbeth, the music adds a tremendous amount to the scene.

Just like all of Tarantino’s work, the film has problems in its length. While it was novel to have an interval in the middle and definitely added to the second half of the film, it’s the first half of the film that really drags it’s feet. We spend half an hour with Russell, Jackson and Leigh (two chapters out of six) before we even get to the main stage of the film. And while some of Tarantino’s dialogue is good to listen to, I have to admit, it’s stuff that we’ve all really seen before and heard it better in his other films. But apart from that, there really is no other problems with the film.

When I first saw the trailer for The Hateful Eight, I wasn’t too thrilled. I thought that Tarantino had had his time and that this one wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as his older filmography. But soon enough, all my reservations were swept aside and I was watching one of Tarantino’s best films.

Score: 8/10 The score is pretty appropriate for the film. But in all seriousness, it’s been a long time that I’ve seen a film so suspenseful.

Now that you’ve finished The Hateful Eight review, why don’t you come look at the review of the rest of Tarantino’s films?

Quentin Tarantino Collection Review

Preface

With Quentin Tarantino bringing out his new, (technically ninth) film soon, The Hateful Eight, I thought it would be good to catch up on the rest of his filmography. So, the eight films I’ll be reviewing today are,

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Jackie Brown
  • Kill Bill: Volume 1
  • Kill Bill Volume 2
  • Death Proof
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Django Unchained

With the large amount of films to get through, let’s get started.

Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino’s first feature film, and it definitely shows. While the basis of Tarantino’s later work is featured here (dialogue heavy scenes, excessive violence and constant swearing) it has some odd pacing decisions that drags it from high-octane to super slow. However, the continual one-liners from Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and the infamous ear-shaving scene are reasons to watch.

Score: 7/10 A good place to start.

Pulp Fiction

Widely considered to be Tarantino’s best work, the film follows several criminal characters over the span of a few days. The dialogue is as good as it gets, the violence is toned down enough to not be too offensive and the jokes come a mile a minute. Throw in some of the best work of John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, and you have one of the finest and most quoted films of the 20th century.

Score: 10/10 A film that everyone should see at least once.

Jackie Brown

A similar set-up to his previous film, Jackie Brown (adapted from the crime novel Rum Punch) follows police detectives, gun-runners and the down-on-her-luck stewardess Jackie Brown as each one tries to out-wit the other out of half a million dollars. There are some excellent and memorable scenes as well as some tense lying games, but some Tarantino fans will be missing the violence, language and overt references to genre films. It has some odd editing and a nearly three-hour run time, but it’s good enough to sit through.

Score: 7/10 A clever crime caper.

Kill Bill Volume 1

The first half of the five-hour epic Tarantino wanted us to watch in one go. While the standout Crazy 88 fight and the anime segment are cinematic gold, the films constant referencing to Hong Kong Cinema get’s a bit tiring after a while. On top of that, the fact that it’s incredibly light on story makes this only one to watch in conjunction with the second film.

Score: 6/10 It’s only good as a whole, not as a half.

Kill Bill Volume 2

The viewers pining for the story in KBV1 will find their needs met, the more action-oriented viewers will find the film lacking. While the film has more of Tarantino’s dialogue scenarios, it doesn’t have the amount of katana fights or gushes of blood. Even the final fight with Bill is underwhelming, but Brandon Liu (brother of Lucy from KBV1) as martial artist teacher Pai Mei steals the entire film.

Score: 7/10 It’s better than the first.

Death Proof

Tarantino’s contribution to the Grindhouse project, it’s sadly his least successful and according to the man himself, his least liked self-made film. Although in my opinion it’s one of his best. Unlike his earlier films, that are filled with movie references, Death Proof is about the art of film, meaning it’s filled with jump cuts, monochrome edits and retro-fitted with scratches and “missing reel” inserts to mimic 70s grindhouse. Throw in psychotic stuntmen, amazing car chases filled with death-defying stunts and a lap dance that inspired the famous “Scene does not contain a lap dance” line from Cinema Sins, you have one great film.

Score: 9/10 Shouldn’t have had the negative response it had.

Inglorious Basterds

A history-rewriting, Jewish war revenge film, the film follows both the titular Basterds, as well as Melaine Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus as they both try and put an end to WWII, one bloodied-Nazi at a time. Starring a stellar cast, with Brad Pitt, horror director Eli Roth and a star-making performance for Christoph Waltz, along with an incredibly bloody and hilarious final act, it’s another cracker from Tarantino.

Score: 8/10 Charming, irreverent and damn funny.

Django Unchained

A western focusing on the worst aspects of slavery in America’s history, this could be one of Tarantino’s most thought-provoking films yet. The violence, while sporadic, is incredibly brutal, with a few moments that I had to look away from the screen. While it has it’s great moments, the films does go one for far too long, with the home stretch after the “Painting Candyland” scene going on for way longer than needed. That being said, there really is nothing else like it in the history of cinema.

Score: 6/10 The length brings down what is a really good film.