ATTRITION (2018) review

ATTRITION-poster-WEB-FA

Axe (Steven Seagal) is an ex-special forces who has renounced his violent ways, found the light of Buddha and is now a healer at the border between Thailand and Laos, near a town where everybody speaks Mandarin and, supposedly, the scum of the earth can find safe haven – ‘supposedly’, because this is never really shown. But when a violent crime lord named Qmom (Yu Kang) kidnaps a girl with healing powers with the hope she will cure him of his strange disease (he’s allergic to sunlight), her father begs Axe to rescue her. He reluctantly agrees, and gets his old team back together: Chen Man (Fan Siu Wong), Infidel (Rudy Youngblood), Ying Ying (Kat Ingkarat) and a few others.

Right from when it was first announced, there was a little bit of hope that Attrition would rise above the swamp that is Steven Seagal’s career of the past twenty years. Written by the rotund sensei, at one point to be directed by him, it came with two promises. First, that it would be more memorable and less boring than the dozens of cheap, lazy straight-to-video actioners he had churned out in recent times; indeed, Seagal himself likened his script to the work of Akira Kurosawa, and though that statement was always obviously to be taken not with a pinch of salt but with an entire salt mine, the last time His Holiness spoke so highly of one of his films, was the hilariously self-important On Deadly Ground. Second, that Seagal would be more involved in it than usually: no alternating dubbing by a bad soundalike, less extensive doubling in the fight scenes.

In the end, Attrition was helmed by French director Mathieu Weschler (and produced by Bey Logan, but shhhhh) and yes, it does rise above Steven Seagal’s recent output; in fact, it may be his best film since as a lead since 2002’s Half Past Dead. Yes, that is damning with faint praise. But Mathieu Weschler does deserve praise for adequately balancing his star’s huge ego and dubious tastes, with the necessity to create an actual film – two opposing forces indeed. Make no mistake, this is the brainchild of Steven Seagal, gathering all of his fetishes and favorite tropes. He’s an ex-special forces of course, a martial arts master obviously, deeply spiritual, and a healer (these are all labels Seagal proudly applies to himself in real life, to varying degrees of legitimacy). He has renounced violence and embraced the Buddha nature, but he’s more than happy to pummel his opponents to death, or prance around a strip-club. He speaks either in hushed proverbs, or in hushed threats. These are the dearly beloved Seagal contradictions that form the backbone of his oeuvre, and once again they’re a 5-ton dumbbell strapped to the film’s metaphorical neck.

Yet Seagal is obviously more involved as an actor than he has been in a long time. He acts a little bit, is more dynamic and much less doubled in the fight scenes, and flashes his trademark smile, both warm and chilling. We make jokes about him, but he’s still a formidable presence, even when he borrows – and presumably stretches out beyond recognition – Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s tunic and hat from The Grandmasters for, you guessed it, a rain-soaked fight. For this is a derivative film, a thoroughly generic kidnap-and-rescue, retire-and-back-to-action plot that takes forever to start, spending most of its first two thirds in cloying spirituality, with more Erhu solos (courtesy of Wan Pin Chu) than in a Zhang Yimou film marathon.

And director Mathieu Weschler manages to keep the film afloat. Cinematography by Vincent Vieillard-Baron makes varied and interesting use of blood-red, action design by Can Aydin is solid and well-shot (despite occasional unsightly speeding-up). Fan Siu Wong is a delight (this would probably have been a better film with him as the lead) and gets to act opposite his real-life father, while Yu Kang again is great fun as a goofy villain. And there’s a visually arresting sequence where a man’s body is gruesomely disposed off (read: mutilated and put through a meat-grinder), but it plays backwards, over traditional Chinese music.

Long Story Short: Steven Seagal’s best film as a lead in over a decade, which isn’t saying much. Still, Fan Siu Wong and Yu Kang are fun to watch, and director Mathieu Weschler adds interesting touches. **

 

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