TOM YUM GOONG 2 (aka THE PROTECTOR 2) (2013) review

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In 2005 Tom Yum Goong seemed to cement Thaï action star Tony Jaa’s status as the new martial arts sensation, following his impressive calling card, 2003’s Ong Bak. Though Jaa was light on charisma, and the film itself was little more than a stunt demo reel, with a simplistic story and grainy, amateurish aesthetic, there was no denying the utter death-defying bravado of its fights and stunts, executed with a mix of lithe power and startling flexibility by its star. Tom Yum Goong didn’t shine more plotwise, but was a more polished film, worthy of the big screen : its director and choreographer, Prachah Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai, Jaa’s pygmalions, had scaled back the life-threatening stunts but made the fights more momentous by featuring diverse and impressive guest-fighters like Capoeira-dynamo Lateef Crowder, Wushu-wonder John Foo, towering musclehead Nathan Jones and Vietnam’s finest, Johnny Tri Nguyen. Technically and artistically the fights were also things of beauty, with a dizzying 4-minute tracking-shot fight, Jaa breaking the bones of dozens of men in black, or taking on henchmen twice his size. Then came Tony Jaa’s much publicized breakdown on the set of Ong Bak 2, which he had wanted to direct, the eventual underperformance of that film, the complete failure of its second part, Ong Bak 3, and the star’s retreat as a Buddhist monk. Five years later, Tom Yum Goong 2 marks his comeback to films, his reunion with Pinkaew, and his first pairing with the petite martial arts wonder that more or less replaced him during his exile, Jeeja Yanin. And it’s hard not to be sorely disappointed.

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KICKBOXER (1993) short review

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Directed by Wu Ma and sometimes billed as Once Upon A Time In China 6, which it is definitely not, Kickboxer instead focuses on a disciple of Wong Fei Hung (who is absent from the whole film), Yuen Biao’s Lau Zhai, who after being wrongly accused of smuggling opium into China, has to infiltrate a Opium gang led by Chairman Wah (Yuen Wah), with the help of his friend Bucktooth (Wu Ma) and constable Panther (Yen Shi Kwan). Produced not only to cash in on the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, but also to provide Yuen Biao with a starring role worthy of his talents following his sidelining in the first film of Tsui Hark’s series, Kickboxer was unfortunately made with much less money, resulting in a far cheaper look. More disappointingly, despite its ambition to better showcase Yuen Biao, the film relies too much on comedy and not enough on fights. It has crazy moments, like what can only be described as a kung fu chess game between Yuen and Yen Shi Kwan, but overall has the feel of a TV knockoff. Things do get a bit more memorable in final fight between Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah (always an exciting match-up), but in the end, Kickboxer isn’t that much less a waste of Yuen’s massive talents than Once Upon A Time In China was. **

 

PEACE HOTEL (1995) review

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Chow Yun Fat’s last film in the pre-Handover Hong Kong film industry before he went on to try his luck in Hollywood, Peace Hotel was directed by regular Johnnie To collaborator Wai Ka Fai, produced by John Woo, and has the feel of a swan song. Indeed Chow Yun Fat’s next Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking film would come almost 20 years later. So it is quite suitable that his character in the film is known only as “the Killer”, echoing arguably the apex of his Hong Kong career and his legendary collaboration with John Woo. The Killer, as a gorgeous black-and-white prologue tells us, once wiped out an entire gang of horse thieves responsible for the death of his wife (Wu Chien Lien). His killing spree led him to an abandoned hotel, where after an experiencing an epiphany he spared the life of the last gang member. 10 years later, the hotel is not abandoned anymore : it has become a safe haven for fugitives and outlaws, run by the Killer himself. In comes Siu Man (Cecilia Yip) a woman who pretends to be the Killer’s long lost wife in order to stay there for free. She is quickly exposed as a fraud, and to make things worse she’s wanted by a vicious gang for killing one of their leaders. When said gang shows up in front of the Peace Hotel, the Killer must choose between upholding his vow to protect anyone seeking shelter in the hotel, at the cost of an all-out war, or delivering Siu Man to the gang, with his growing love for her complicating things further.

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PLAYBOY COPS (2008) short review

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Two cops, one from the mainland (Chen Kun), one from Hong Kong (Shawn Yue) ; one is dating the other’s ex-girlfriend (Linda Chung), and they’re both on the trail of a scorpion-tattooed killer. The films starts as an insufferable prance-off between Chen and Yue, the former all douchey smiles and false modesty, the latter proud and sullen but gooey-hearted. At this point their “investigation” doesn’t matter much, as they mostly trade weak barbs, vie for the girl’s affections and fight Xiong Xin Xin in a fun cameo. Then the killer is outed and it is revealed Chen Kun has a bullet lodged in his head that could kill him anytime : these plot turns lead to a stark tonal shift as the film goes from breezy buddy movie to brutal thriller. That shift makes it a bit more interesting, as does a Danny Lee cameo that serves to flesh out Yue’s character a bit. In the end, as directed with glitzy, superficial flair by Jingle Ma, Playboy Cops is a serviceable time-waster, which depending on the circumstances of your watching it can either be a good or a bad thing. **

FLAMING BROTHERS (1987) review

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Surfing on the Heroic Bloodshed wave initiated mostly by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films, starring one of the genre’s biggest stars in the person of Chow Yun Fat, written by Hong Kong cinema luminaries Wong Kar Wai and Jeff Lau, Joe Cheung’s Flaming Brothers has a pedigree that’s hard to ignore. Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang star as brothers (in the sense that they’re orphans who grew up in poverty looking after each other) who’ve made it big in the Triads. But while Tang looks to solidify his position and broaden the scope of his operations, Chow simply wants out, having rekindled a childhood love (Pat Ha), a catholic nurse who is averse to violence and the Triad lifestyle. When Tang’s feud with a mob boss (Patrick Tse) escalates irreparably, Chow must choose between love and brotherhood.

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SHANGHAI SHANGHAI (1990) short review

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In the 1930’s, Small Tiger (Yuen Biao) comes to Shanghai hoping to make it big. There he finds himself torn between his brother Big Tiger (George Lam), who’s an army colonel, and a charismatic mob boss (Sammo Hung Kam Bo), for whom he starts working. But a case of stolen funds forces him to choose sides and butt heads with a high-ranking revolutionary (Anita Mui), who’s also in love with his brother. With its 80 minutes running time, and sometimes subpar production values (mostly in scenes that involve flight in machines designed by Big Tiger), Shanghai Shanghai often feels more like an extended TV series pilot, but the sheer charisma and class of its cast, whether it be a flawless Yuen Biao who proves again what a fine leading man he can be, the classy Anita Mui singing, dancing and fighting the film away, or a towering Sammo Hung Kam Bo in a mob boss role that foreshadows his impressive S.P.L. character fifteen years later. Ultimately it’s a fun little adventure film, and one that speaks to any martial arts fan’s heart by ending with a Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao fight. ***

 

CZ12 (aka CHINESE ZODIAC) (2012) review

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Meant to be the third installment in Jackie Chan’s ‘Asian Hawk’ series (following 1986′ Armour of God and 1991’s Operation Condor), touted for an international day-and-date release (which didn’t happen), and heralded as Jackie Chan’s final big action movie (which he later clarified meant “his last movie to feature him performing dangerous stunts”), CZ12 manages to disappoint on all three of these fronts. It is neither a franchise finale, nor an international blockbuster, nor even a worthy bookend to Chan’s “death-defying” career phase. Jackie Chan plays JC, a treasure hunter who leads his team of tech experts (plus a Chinese student and a French heiress) on a search for 12 Zodiac bronze heads, artifacts that were stolen from China in the 19th century looting of the Old Summer Palace by foreigners.

As a producer, writer, director and star (not to mention a host of other credits that earned him a Guinness Book record for ‘most credits on a single film’), Jackie Chan pulled all the stops to make CZ12 a resounding finale to his daredevil years. Filmed in China, Australia, France, Vanuatu, Taiwan and Latvia, featuring a cast that is international (Oliver Platt from the United States, Laura Weissbecker from France, Kwon Sang Woo from South Korea, Vincent Sze from Hong Kong, to name a few), cameo-rich (Shu Qi, Daniel Wu, Chan’s wife Joan Lin), and full of martial arts guest stars (martial arts world champions Caitlin Dechelle, Alaa Safi and Zhang Lanxin), and costing a hefty 30m$ (a big deal in China), it’s a major enterprise. And taken in light of the key assets we’ve just enumerated, a major failure.

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