Wednesday, 25 April 2018
On paper, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here seems plotted to allow for bursts of super-Dad wish-fulfilment. Joaquin Phoenix's Joe has both the credentials and opportunity to wield that kind of power - he's a combat veteran and an ex-domestic intelligence agent currently working as an off-the-books rescue service for trafficked children. This promise of mob satisfaction is stressed again in how Phoenix is presented for the screen. His Joe is depicted as a thick, towering man, equipped with mauling hands and a pitiless hammer, desperate to get at the abusers his job propels him towards.
The film denies the release offered by prolonged bloody violence though, obscuring the act either through CCTV feeds that lag behind Joe's sloping carnage or simply by the decision to focus elsewhere at crucial moments. Ramsay isn't interested in how a tortured man inflicts himself on the world, the events of the film are likewise not proposed or communicated in terms of catharsis either. Joe's already broken. No amount of pulverising will fix him. The writer-director's focus is reflective rather than deflective then. A sharp, elliptical continuity constructed out of a lifetime of internalised trauma and the flawed, inadequate responses Joe has employed to placate himself.
Throughout You Were Never Really Here a nagging buzz pours out of Joe. He is restless and artificially animated, propped up by non-prescription medication and a dwindling sense of duty. His fractured sense of the present recalls Lee Marvin's Walker muddling through his own collapsing reality in John Boorman's Point Blank, while the infrequent sound of crunchy, non-diegetic afterburners brings Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance to mind. All three films are united in their examination of male identities with symbiotic, big-screen friendly, relationships to violence. You Were Never Really Here depicts a chasm in Joe, an essential incompatibility with life outside of the mission he has imposed upon himself.
Monday, 23 April 2018
Saturday, 21 April 2018
John Woo's last American film (to date) raids a Philip K Dick short story for a hook and precious little else. Paycheck, like basically every other substandard Dick adaptation (and most of the really good ones), is only interested in the his knack for inciting incidents, refusing to press on into the author's realm of compromised people and how they make peace with their dystopias. Paycheck is, above all else, a holiday season action film. Anxiety exists to be conquered rather than accepted.
Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a brilliant engineer who deconstructs bleeding edge gadgets for the purpose of industrial espionage. Since his work is legally suspect, Jennings is subject to futuristic non-disclosure agreements that involve his memories being zapped out of his brain upon completion of a job. Having finished his latest black out assignment, Jennings expects to be sitting on millions. Instead, during a chatty debrief, he discovers his pre-wipe self traded in his stock options for a manila envelope full of cheap knick-knacks and trinkets.
Paycheck's sci-fi stupor allows Woo to scratch his Hitchcock itch, in particular the bewildered chase central to North by Northwest. A well-dressed but low energy Affleck stands in for Cary Grant, the amnesia forced onto his Jennings simulating Roger Thornhill's essential cluelessness. Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris pursue a similar kind of uncompromised, inexpert heroism for their lead character too. Paycheck features precious little gunplay, Jennings preferring to scheme his way out of dangerous situations. It's a novel tact for such an accomplished action director but, in practice, it's a compromise too far. By this point Woo had been thoroughly ironed out by la-la land. The overt Christian imagery that characterised films like The Killer had been reduced to a tick involving a dove; likewise an editing style that found poignancy in chaos has here been transformed into a stuttering series of Avid burps.
Friday, 20 April 2018
Thursday, 19 April 2018
Tuesday, 17 April 2018
Following their problems shepherding A Better Tomorrow's tumultuous sequel to the screen, Tsui Hark and John Woo went their separate ways. Despite this inability to cooperate on further entries in their debonair gangster series, both filmmakers remained committed to scrutinising the events that forged their heroes. Woo had pitched a prequel episode that used the Vietnam War as a testing ground that would allow the director to reexamine these characters away from their own, conquered, urban arenas, while simultaneously using a besieged city to illustrate the stresses of the then-impending Hong Kong handover. After the split Woo kept his script but lost his usual gunslingers, landing at Golden Princess before turning in the incredible but financially unsuccessful Bullet in the Head.
Hark raced ahead with his own prelude, beating Woo to a cinema release. The former producer retaining, not only the big ticket branding, but the films' breakout star as well. Rather than stick with New York hardman Ken as a way to keep Chow Yun-Fat in the franchise, inheritor director Hark rewinds the clock for an instalment that takes place before Mark has even had the chance to pall up with Ti Lung's solemn hood. Set in 1974, A Better Tomorrow III follows Mark as he jets back and forth between Hong Kong and Vietnam, attempting to uproot his nearest and dearest before Saigon falls. Since Mark is still wet behind the ears, the role of ice cold badass falls to Anita Mui's Kit, a pleasant twist in a series where women typically get very little to do other than fret.
Kit, a gunrunner with shady government connections, acts as both a love interest and a teacher for Mark, slowly helping him build the persona that will one-day allow him to unite the Sung brothers and vanquish dozens of henchmen. Hazy, idealised interludes depict Kit instructing Mark how to dead-eye glass bottles; she even gifts him his trademark duster. Piece by piece, the Mark Gor we know takes shape. Although the film never explicitly comments on it, it's clear that Kit is building herself a perfect partner - an equal she can have further adventures with. As the film rolls on it is eventually revealed that Kit isn't pulling these traits out of thin air, she is extrapolating and adjusting Mark's new super identity based on her memories of a former lover and present-day threat, played by Saburo Tokito.
For a brief moment hints of Vertigo start to creep into A Better Tomorrow III. Anita Mui as a two-fisted Scottie Ferguson, needling and cajoling a handsome prospect until he fits a pre-established idea of a boyfriend. Unfortunately Hark isn't particularly interested in this note. Mark never confronts Kit about the similarity and Tokito's Tanaka never gloats. The ex is simply an obstacle for our hero to overcome. Hark's film also suffers following the chopped-up, elegiac chaos of Woo's duo. In both of his A Better Tomorrow films, John Woo used slow motion as a way to accentuate the moments in which his characters made decisions or took decisive action. Slow, dreamy movements, often followed by a whiplash snap back to harsh, mutilated reality. By comparison, Hark overcranks simply to show us how cool it is when the barrel of a gun is swept from one side of the frame to the other.
Friday, 6 April 2018
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Sunday, 1 April 2018
As close as you're going to get to a sweaty, malarial cannibal movie from John Woo. Heroes Shed No Tears follows an all-action squad of well-equipped badasses as they escort a Golden Triangle crime boss out of the jungle to face prosecution. Like the aforementioned man-eater exploitation films, Heroes throbs with a real sense of lawlessness, beyond even the usual intensity associated with the Hong Kong film industry's rough-and-ready approach to health and safety. Civilians are butchered and beheaded by chattering enemy soldiers, partly to establish their strength, but also to puncture the overwhelming boredom of their checkpoint billet. Our heroes just shrug.
When situations (not to mention foliage) allow, Woo exacerbates this unease with low, prowling camera angles that zone in and out on the film's exhausted soldiers like a big cat looking for a meal. Wildly improbable and cursed with a wandering, discursive plot, Heroes was thrown together to complete one of Woo's pre-fame contractual obligations then expected to rot on a shelf due to its lack of bankable star power. Shot as The Sunset Warriors, the film was eventually released packaged with a few scenes of staid nudity added after the fact and a new, romantic title to cash in on the success of the director's chivalrous, stratospheric A Better Tomorrow. Despite Golden Harvest's trepidation, lead action figure Eddy Ko does have a memorable look - blazing, emotionless eyes that shine through oozing trauma and the kind of rigid, frozen features usually seen in a Japanese seizure comic.
Unfortunately Ko just doesn't move like a Chow Yun Fat. Likewise, the film's various weapons do not registers as mechanical extensions of the actor's body. Indeed his marksmanship acting resembles a child playacting as a commando, painting the world with his expulsive, never-ending gunfire. Thankfully Heroes isn't all empty calories, although the film's few diversions are probably best appreciated as nebulous examples of themes and concepts that Woo would explore in his later, better films. Heroes contains both the overt, Christian injury imagery that would define The Killer's climax as well as the idea that war zones act as a catalyst for the kind of selfish, split-second decisions that pulse through Bullet in the Head.
Friday, 30 March 2018
Tuesday, 20 March 2018
A Better Tomorrow II is a film being pulled in two different directions. The sequel suffered through a notoriously difficult post-production process with producer Tsui Hark and director John Woo at loggerheads, battling over final cut. In the end the film was drastically reshaped by an indifferent editing team whose only objective was to get the running time down to the kind of length that would facilitate the maximum amount of screenings to be jammed into a business day. Thus this thwarted epic barrels along at an ungainly pace, shedding characters and plot points as quickly as it introduces them. This discombobulation is compounded by the scenes and sequences used to reintroduce Chow Yun-Fat to the series.
Given the cultural impact of Chow Yun-Fat's debonair gangster Mark (Hong Kong teens took to wearing duster coats in tribute to the character, even though the island enjoys a sub-tropical climate) his death at the climax of the first film presented a problem for the production. Hark and Woo's solution was a long-lost identical twin brother named Ken. Despite the conceptually cheekiness, a lot of screen time is dedicated to establishing Ken as something more than a gratuitous lap of honour for Chow. So much so that Ken's adventures in America play like a distinct, emotionally hysterical sub-film. When not admonishing Italian mafiosi for not appreciating Chinese cuisine, Ken functions as supernaturally violent therapist for Dean Shek's catatonic Lung Sei.
Lung has lost both his business and his beloved daughter. Forced to flee to America after being framed for multiple murders, Lung finds himself an albatross around the neck of everyone he comes into contact with. Naturally, Ken is able to shoulder this burden, drawing his old friend out of a drooling stupor by relentlessly placing him in incredible danger. Eventually Lung snaps to, snatching up a pistol to protect his injured friend. This sense of tonal separation extends to the film's magnificent finale too. While a grim-faced Shek and the criminally underused Ti Lung pace around a colonial mansion blasting goons, Chow floats about, mugging to the camera like Bugs Bunny and standing worryingly close to several absolutely tremendous explosions.
John Woo transitions away from a string of artistically anonymous comedies with A Better Tomorrow, a full-blooded fraternal drama set in and around a dollar counterfeiting ring. Ti Lung plays Sung Tse-Ho, the triad equivalent of a corporate criminal. Although widely respected and still clearly in full possession of his street-smarts, Ho functions in a safe, rarefied space. He wears expensive suits and schmoozes with white-collar clients, exchanging photostat bills for legitimate currency. His power, although apparent, is softly applied, grounded in his efficiency and serious, all-business demeanour. Ho is a man out of time, behaving more like a chivalrous warrior monk than a stick-up man.
A Better Tomorrow is front-loaded with scenes of Ho and his best friend Mark, played by Chow Yun-Fat, operating with a casual air born from immunity. There's never a sense that Ho and Mark's obvious criminality is a disadvantage for them socially. When the duo visit sprawling office premises for hand-offs, they are welcomed like local celebrities. Ho and Mark are respected, rather than feared, appreciated as the living embodiment of the self-perpetuating wealth they peddle. The main tension in Ho's life instead comes from his little brother Kit, a trainee policeman played by pop star Leslie Cheung. Ho's life of crime is so well insulated against reality that Kit has no idea that his elder brother is even a triad.
Kit clowns around in his own pocket universe with a girlfriend, played by Emily Chu, who allows Woo to burn through a few bumbling orchestra gags left over from the director's previous film Plain Jane to the Rescue. This giddy, upbeat atmosphere hangs together long enough to establish how Ho and Kit's relationship works. As with Mark, Ho is stability and positive reinforcement. The role of big brother is something Ho takes seriously. It isn't just an empty honorific to him, it's a mode of conduct that informs his every move. It's why he takes the fall for Waise Lee's junior mobster Shing when the pair are betrayed in Taiwan. Ho giving himself up to the police to protect the younger mobster when a routine money trade sours.
The film shifts at this point, the high-life punctured by Ho's arrest and subsequent imprisonment. His little brothers cope in different ways. Kit blames Ho, not unreasonably, for the death of their father and his inability to land a promotion within the police force. Mark seeks revenge, winding up with a shattered leg and a clunking metal brace. Upon his release, Ho's attempts to go straight anger a now-prosperous Shing and fail to win him any favour with his blood brother. Kit's rejection goes deeper than simply refusing to meet Ho though. Not only does Kit not want to anything to do with the present, reformed man but he also seeks to undo his past criminality, making ill-advised moves against the counterfeiting ring. For the closing act John Woo explodes this familial tension with an apocalyptic dockside shoot-out, using Mark to heal the rift between Kit and Ho.
Kit's bubbling hatred is used to underline and comment upon the stakes in play. Kit has spent the latter half of the film at Ho's throat, pounding on his penitent brother for a betrayal that the younger man believes has undermined their entire relationship. Here, surrounded by assassins, they will make their peace. Woo's strengths as a filmmaker go beyond an ability to manufacture incredible, kinetic action sequences, his genius is that he can make these interludes a physical expression of his hero's emotional state. Action is something that his characters track towards, a release that allows them to make their peace with the world. Despite his profession, Ho is a sympathetic figure. He's always working to better the lives and positions of the people that he loves. It's heartbreaking to see him shunned and attacked by someone he cares deeply for. Kit's spitefulness serves a purpose though, if he hadn't hated his brother it wouldn't mean anything when the two of them finally set aside their differences and work together.
Sunday, 4 March 2018
Saturday, 3 March 2018
Friday, 2 March 2018
Black Panther hinges on the promise of Wakanda, a geologically remote African country that has grown up around a mountain of all-powerful metal, becoming a self-reliant, hermetically sealed utopia. Wakanda's story, while not necessarily one of peace, is one of unity. The five warring tribes who shared the lands suffused with vibranium came together under the leadership of the first Black Panther, a man who had consumed the fruit of this mountain becoming superhuman, to share the country's treasures rather than pointlessly battle over them. It's a small detail, delivered in the kind of pre-action prologue usually used to burn a couple of minutes while latecomers shuffle into the cinema, but Black Panther has immediately skewered the cultural hegemony of white, western cinema.
Over the course of Ryan Coogler's film we see vibranium used in every conceivable context, always for the betterment of those who wield it. Vibranium is used to power fantastical weapons; futuristic train networks run on it; even grievous spinal injuries are nothing when set against the might of this extraterrestrial metal. Vibrainium is magic as a tangible, seemingly infinite resource. Rather than spill out into the world and bring weaker nations to heel, Wakanda has closed its borders and thrived. They have enough living space, they do not wish to conquer. This rugged isolationism briefly recalls a pre-Second World War America, the country as a modern, forward-thinking individual above the squabbles of the old European world, before the film assures you that no-one in Wakanda is exploiting their internal harmony to export ruin. Basically, Wakanda is too evolved for a General Motors or an IBM.
Set against other, modern big-budget fantasy films, Black Panther's approach to its MacGuffin is refreshingly classic - it's a boon with no obvious downside. Consider an archetypal, British fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings, those books, and their film adaptations, propose objects of power so intoxicating that even characters with transcendental, angelic aspects cannot resist the urge to seize and control them. At second one, the people of Black Panther have moved beyond these petty limitations, unifying under a flag and God that has allowed them to evolve to a technological level that is almost alien to the rest of mankind. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole propose a culturally nourished society in touch with their identity and refreshingly free of animus, ruled by compassionate, selfless Kings who believe in the dream of their nation.
It's an intoxicating idea, particularly at a point in time where every real country is experiencing financial meltdown and/or some form of exclusionary nationalism. As far as the film describes, Wakanda works for its citizens. There is no poverty or need, no shameful imperialist legacy, and the country's women are not treated as subservient, second-class citizens. The film underlines this latter point with a sequence set in South Korea that explicitly recalls a similar stakeout in Skyfall. In that film white alpha male James Bond took centre-stage, quipping with female handlers who are bracketed off from the central action. Here the highest authority mucks in and frets about innocent bystanders. Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa is flanked by two expert women, both equally capable of fighting at the level dictated by their King. Another, his sister, is off-site offering fantastical tech-support. Black Panther, the film, consumes the language of explicit colonial fantasy then re-purposes it towards healthier, if less crudely exciting, ends.
Since T'Challa's kingdom is insular, the threat to her identity comes from the outside. Michael B Jordan's Erik Killmonger is an American with distant ties to the African country's crown, born to a father who engaged with black militancy and taught his son the gospel of a paradise called Wakanda. No mother is seen or mentioned. When recounting Killmonger's story, CIA agent Ross focuses on Erik's adulthood as a special forces solider who has toppled governments and killed hundreds, wilfully obscuring the dire emotional situation that drove Killmonger towards this kind of service. As an orphan, Erik fits the bill for your archetypal boyish operative looking for something, anything, bigger than himself to dedicate his soul to. Ross talks about Killmonger as a tool rather than a man, a weapon tempered by the American imperial machine who has subsequently had the audacity to think for himself.
Calling Killmonger a villain seems reductive, his grievances aren't so much understandable as inevitable. If an African superpower exists, why doesn't it help downtrodden black people around the world? Why shouldn't their technology be used to equalise, at least, the yawning disparity between America's black working class and their white ruling class? This feeling of camaraderie is borne out by how Coogler and Cole use the character. Erik isn't simply a crisis point for Black Panther, he's an axis that shifts the film's structure and perspective. When Erik seizes Wakanda's throne he fills the void left by an apparently dead T'Challa. Killmonger infects and steers the film, both in terms of organic three-act flow and non-diegetic affectation - heroic characters are swayed by his hammering rhetoric while transitional music changes from Djembe clacks to electronic beats. Killmonger is instantly elevated to the position of a lead character, afforded the kind of interior landscape denied second-tier characters like Letitia Wright's Shuri or Danai Gurira's Okoye.
When Erik eats the vibranium fruit that transmits the powers of the Black Panther, we're transported not to the ancestral planes of T'Challa's visions but back in time, to a frozen moment in an Oakland apartment where Killmonger can talk with a father he has both unconsciously modelled himself on and consciously distanced himself from. Jordan's performance is the pulse that drives Black Panther, the actor delivering moments that blaze far hotter than the rote, murky action that surrounds them. When T'Challa and T'Chaka commune they do so as peers, one king to another. T'Challa challenges his father's decisions and retreats from the oblivion he offers. Erik enters his father's orbit then punishes him, pushing him away, telling him that his death meant nothing. Erik's avatar in these moments fluctuates between himself as an adult and Seth Carr playing him as a youngster. Crucially, a tear that the child denies appears instead on Michael B Jordan's face, wiped away by a king overwhelmed by feelings that do not track easily into either violence or subjugation.