Dragon (2011)

aka Wu xia

2016 #190
Peter Ho-sun Chan | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin | 15 / R

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Donnie Yen is small town paper-maker Jinxi, who incidentally encounters and accidentally defeats two most-wanted criminals. While his village thanks him, detective Baijiu is suspicious — does Jinxi’s story add up? Is he hiding some dark past?

Takeshi Kaneshiro is expert detective Xu Baijiu, who adheres slavishly to the law after a past mistake cost him dearly. But is he delusional, inventing connections and powers for Jinxi that just aren’t there? Or are his delusions allowing him to see the truth?

As a Hong Kong production starring Donnie Yen, of course Dragon is an action movie, but there’s more to it than fisticuffs. It engages with themes of justice and redemption, and what it means not only to take the right action, but to have to find the right action to take. Apparently it began life as a remake of One-Armed Swordsman, and while obvious superficial resemblances remain (the Big Bad Boss Man is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, and Yen has to (spoilers!) lop off his own arm), you can definitely see familiar plot points in both films too. But it’s also certainly not a remake anymore. Funny how these things go.

Can I Baijiu a Jinxi?

Naturally, when the action does kick in, it’s fantastic. With the combat directed by Yen, these sequences are expertly and inventively choreographed dust-ups. It’s stylishly directed by Peter Chan — classy, but also thrilling, exciting, and sometimes innovative; and the whole is majestically shot by DP Lai Yiu-Fai (who also shot Infernal Affairs, which I still haven’t seen).

On the downside, at a couple of points I thought the story leapt a little bit or fudged a detail, which is a shame because I don’t think it needed to. This is possibly the effect of watching the international version, which is cut by around 17 minutes (full details here). While it’s a shame, it’s certainly not enough to ruin an excellent martial arts drama.

4 out of 5

The Decadal Monthly Update for December 2016

Happy New Year, dear readers!

And with that, 100 Films’ 10th year is at an end.

Well, apart from the fact that I’ll spend the next few days going on about it, and the blog’s actual 10th birthday is in February, so I’ll go on about it some more then. But in terms of films that will be watched within that first decade, here are the last dozen…


#185a Come Together (2016)
#186 Wizardhood (2016)
#187 Rogue One (2016), aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
#188 Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)
#189 Partners in Crime… (2012), aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”
#190 Dragon (2011), aka Wu xia
#191 Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
#192 Mr. Nobody (2009)
#193 Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), aka Hauru no ugoku shiro
#194 The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962), aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari
#195 The Last Dragonslayer (2016)
#195a Suicide Squad: Extended Cut (2016)
Rogue One

Dragon

.


  • My final total for 2016: 195 new films. Slightly less than last year; way above every other year. (More on this kind of thing in the next few days.)
  • I watched exactly ten new feature films this month, making it the 31st consecutive month to reach double figures.
  • This year’s WDYMYHS / Blindspot list is rounded out by Miyazaki fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve not even started thinking about 2017’s list yet…
  • The Jim Carrey Christmas Carol was my only Christmassy film all season — and I thought it was crap. Poor Christmas. (I guess Scrooge and It’s a Wonderful Life are going to sit on my TiVo for the next 11 months…)
  • I finally watched the second Zatoichi movie, only 38 months after the first. Hopefully this will be the start of more regular viewing, because even if I watched the rest of them at a rate of one per month it would take until the start of 2019 to finish.
  • I ended the year with the extended cut of Suicide Squad. I watched the theatrical in November but didn’t get round to reviewing it, so I guess I’ll do them both at once now.



The 19th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It had its problems, and whether it’s better or less-good than The Force Awakens is still something that’s percolating in my mind, but the film I most enjoyed this month was definitely Rogue One.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
While the French take on Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence in Partners in Crime was certainly (shall we say) off-book, I didn’t think it was a crushing disaster like Disney’s A Christmas Carol. What most amazes me about that is the number of positive reviews online, especially those that praise the animation — I thought it looked cheap and terrible. Maybe it’s just aged badly.

Most Unrealistic CGI Human Beings of the Month
Say what you will about Tarkin, it’s bloody good CGI. On the other hand, thank goodness Robert Zemeckis has returned to live-action films — after The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, I’ve had enough of his not-real-enough-to-be-in-the-uncanny-valley motion-captured ‘humans’.

Best Donnie Yen of the Month
Between being one with the Force in Rogue One and chopping off an arm to fight the original one-armed swordsman in Dragon, Donnie Yen is the best Donnie Yen in this and every other month.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It looked like a certain Star Wars story was going to easily bag this award, until a pair of unexpected last-minute sweeps knocked it down to third. First its place was taken by a martial arts bear’s threequel, but that too was leapfrogged — within just a single day as well — by my review of Sky1’s The Last Dragonslayer.



The final selection from my favourites includes superheroes, comic book adaptations, and superhero comic book adaptations. Plus cartoons come to life and a moody literature adaptation.


Oh, forget January — I’ve got a bunch of 2016 stuff to post yet! There’s the full list of my 2016 viewing, my bottom five, my top ten (or so), the major new films I missed, the 36 reviews I haven’t gotten round to… and, of course, the highlight of the entire year: the statistics.

Good times.

Rogue One (2016)

aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016 #187
Gareth Edwards | 134 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

Rogue OneThe first live-action non-saga movie to take us to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this initial entry in what is sure to be a never-ending series of so-called “Anthology” movies really puts the “War” into Star Wars.

It begins without the traditional opening crawl, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that, of all the Star Wars movies, this is the one that would most benefit from some scene-setting — fans are on a fairly sure footing, but casual viewers who still expect to see the further adventures of Rey, Finn, and BB-8 may be a little baffled. (And if you think the saturation media coverage will have prepared everyone, you’re underestimating Normal Folks’ capacity to be completely oblivious to movie news.) Anyway, where we actually are is 30-something years before The Force Awakens… but as this is a spoilery review you don’t need me to recap the plot, because you’ve not read this far if you haven’t seen the movie. Right? Good.

As I was saying, Rogue One is really a war movie, and is at its best when it’s consciously riffing off other (i.e. non-sci-fi) genres, like gritty World War 2 epics or daring heist thrillers. These are some new flavours for a franchise which has produced seven films in the action-adventure mould. Rogue One doesn’t deviate so far from that path — it’s a bit like Disney stablemate Marvel in that it mixes other-genre spice into the familiar recipe rather than striking out in a wholly different direction — but it’s enough to taste different.

HeistUnfortunately, the plot starts off almost as jumbled as my mixed metaphors there. “Jumbled” may be unfair, but it’s a little scrappy, initially jumping around all over the place in a way that’s tricky to follow even if you’ve read up on the film and have an idea who you’re being introduced to and why. It must be a right pain for neophyte viewers. There can be a fine line between praising a film for requiring its viewers to pay attention and do some work, and criticising it for being disarrayed and not making things clear. Personally, I thought Rogue One was sat right on that line for much of its first act, until a few big expositional infodumps come along to explain the storyline.

A primary cause of this is the number of characters we need to be introduced to. Presumably aiming for a Dirty Dozen / Magnificent Seven / men-on-a-missionpeople-on-a-mission… beings-on-a-mission vibe, it leaves things occasionally a little scattered until the team comes together. The resultant volume of heroes means the movie is arguably a little short on the kind of memorable characters Star Wars is loved for, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work here. Felicity Jones makes Jyn a likeable, moderately complex heroine, at least when she’s not delivering cheesy speeches. Ben Mendelsohn produces a reliably snake-like villain as Imperial Director Krennic, while Riz Ahmed once again injects a lot of personality into a somewhat underwritten supporting role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make a solid double act who it would’ve been lovely to see more of in a sequel, and Alan Tudyk gets all the best lines as snarky droid K-2SO. Most ill-served are Diego Luna as a conflicted Rebel captain whose internal struggles aren’t fully brought out, Forest Whitaker as an ageing extremist, and Mads Mikkelsen, who is lumped mainly with exposition. The latter two at least bring extra-textual gravitas to their smaller roles.

KrennicThen we come to perhaps the film’s most discussed character: Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing’s computer-generated face overlaid on the motion capture and voice of Holby City’s Guy Henry. Leaving aside the ethics of the enterprise, I found the character’s presence to be pretty distracting: you know it’s CGI and you can’t stop focusing on just Tarkin’s face, trying to judge how effective or not it is. For me, it proves that CGI isn’t yet quite up to creating a fully plausible human being. Your mileage will vary on whether it’s suitably competent nonetheless or an ill-conceived failure.

Elsewhere, there are tons of little nods to the wider Star Wars canon, including the animated series: Whitaker’s character actually comes from The Clone Wars, where he appeared in four episodes; and there are half-a-dozen background references to ongoing series Rebels, most prominently the ‘Hammerhead’ ship, which was introduced there. Lucasfilm do seem very keen to emphasise that all these different media really are one interconnected universe, unlike so many other cross-format franchises, which accept everything as canon until the main series decides they want to contradict it. For example, while I was on holiday recently I visited the Star Wars exhibition they currently have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which features various displays of, say, villain’s lightsabers or pilot’s helmets that put real-life recreations of ones from The Clone Wars and Rebels right alongside those from the original trilogy and the prequels as if that’s exactly where they belong. I must commend Lucasfilm for such an unusual commitment to institutionally tying these things together, rewarding the investment fans will inevitably make in doing the same. It does mean I feel I need to get on with watching the six seasons of Clone Wars and three (or more) seasons of Rebels, though.

Donnie Yen: badassContinuing such comparison to the wider Star Wars galaxy, some have said Rogue One is the Empire Strikes Back of Disney-era Star Wars, because it’s the darker second (on the release schedule) film. Of course, the main reason it’s dark is that every major (new) character dies. You know what’s unique about Empire in the context of the entirety of live-action Star Wars movies? It’s the only one where no major character dies. Death isn’t the only signifier of darkness, of course, but my point is rather that I think people are grasping at straws if they think anyone inside Lucasfilm has consciously positioned Rogue One to serve an Empire-like role in their revived franchise. That doesn’t mean they’re not treating it seriously, mind: director Gareth Edwards has already revealed that the first draft had Jyn and Cassian survive the battle of Scarif, purely because the writers thought the execs would never agree to all the heroes being killed off, but those execs immediately suggested that everyone should die and that element was never questioned again. Yes, sometimes studio suits are actually on the side of narrative truthfulness.

Even if that got locked early on, other things certainly didn’t. The film’s reshoots made big news for no particularly good reason (it’s par for the course on blockbusters these days), but their results are easy to see thanks to the film’s trailers: there are a number of significant shots present there that didn’t make the final cut, suggesting some radically different events in the third act. You can watch a short compilation of those here. As far as I’m aware neither Edwards nor anyone else has said what was actually changed by the reshoots, but it would be interesting to find out. Considering the Scarif-set portion of the film is probably its most successful part, and that’s where the reshoots seem to have been focused, it might make a good defence of a process that is often seen as a sign of disaster (sometimes for good reason).

Star of deathMuch discussion of Rogue One seems to have revolved around whether it’s better than The Force Awakens. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both sides. On the one hand, Edwards is a much more interesting filmmaker than J.J. Abrams. The latter is adept at aping the work of others, having now been in charge of multiple movies that are mostly derivative but nonetheless entertaining. Edwards’ career is still a little fresh and blockbuster-centric to risk describing him as an auteur, but his debut film was more indie than anything Abrams has even thought of creating, and his take on Godzilla attempted to be more interesting than the rote monster blockbuster it could’ve easily been. He brings similar qualities to Rogue One. On the other hand, that riskier take has resulted in a few fumbles, whereas The Force Awakens was a polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I’d hesitate to say I prefer one to the other because they provide slightly different thrills, but on a first viewing I did find Force Awakens more satisfying. Given time and distance, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rogue One leapfrogging it in my estimations.

4 out of 5

Ip Man 3 (2015)

aka Yip Man 3

2016 #108
Wilson Yip | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & English | 12 / PG-13

Donnie Yen returns as the eponymous kung fu master, who’s most famous for training Bruce Lee, to complete a trilogy of biographically-dubious but broadly entertaining actioners.

This time round, Ip comes into conflict with property developer Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson) when he tries to buy out Ip’s son’s primary school. The principal refuses, violence ensues, and Ip and his students end up essentially working as security guards. While he’s busy doing that, Ip is once again neglecting his home life, where his wife (Lynn Hung) is getting mysterious stomach pains…

That occupies most of the film, anyway, until it suddenly resolves what appears to be the main story a good half-hour from the end, then spins out one of the subplots into the main storyline for the third act. It’s a remarkably odd structural choice. On the bright side, that means it may just surprise you a little — it dodges the boredom of, “well he can’t win now because this fight can’t be the climax”, or, “well that guy’s totally going to go back on his word because there’s half-an-hour left yet”, and so on. Predictable it is not. Well, OK, a fair bit of it is still predictable — you know who’s going to win in the end, don’t you? — but how many movies have you seen where the main villain is dealt with and/or simply set aside at the end of act two, and an almost-completely-new story powers the final act?

The downside is it makes a lot of the story feel like a case of something-and-nothing. Tyson is no real threat, not least because he’s barely in the film and can’t act for toffee, but related subplots — like the potential romance between one of Ip’s students and one of the school’s teachers — literally disappear without a trace. Even when there’s a young pretender to Ip’s title of grandmaster, there’s little sense that they may’ve opted for a “changing of the guard”-type narrative for the trilogy-capper. And, as with both of the previous films, the less said about the film’s attitude to foreigners the better (though I guess Hong Kong’s British occupiers weren’t exactly above reproach).

However, the film does deliver in two key areas. The storyline of the wife’s illness finally tackles Ip’s family issues head on. That conflict between his dedication to his martial arts life and his consequent semi-abandonment of his family has been an undercurrent throughout all three films, but I don’t believe they’ve engaged with it fully until now. That he chooses to forgo a challenge to be by his wife’s side stands in counterpoint to the climax of the second film, where he missed his son’s birth to fight a duel. Not only that, but these events finally get under Ip’s unflappably stoic demeanour, and Yen lets Ip’s polite blank-faced reserve crack. In some respects, it pays off having kept that up for most of three movies. Maybe I’m just being soft today or maybe it is well performed, but either way I really felt the emotional impact of this storyline.

The other key area is the action, with famed choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over from Sammo Hung, who choreographed parts one and two. Early bouts are not bad, though surprisingly underwhelming, but things really pick up later on. An elevator fight between Ip and a Thai boxer is the absolute high point, an incredible close-quarters action scene that spills out into a stairwell, but Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a very good sequence also, and the climax ain’t half bad. Particular props to the sound designers in that last one, especially the clanging, squealing knives.

After an awkward first half, Ip Man 3 gradually transitions into a rewarding set of circumstances, on both the action and emotional fronts. The lack of consistency may mean it doesn’t satisfy fans as much as the first film did, but I’d say it’s a step up from the second, and definitely worth a look for fans of the old punching-and-kicking-and-hitting-each-other-with-poles-and-knives.

4 out of 5

Ip Man 3 is available on Netflix UK from today.