Friday, 21 April 2017
Thursday, 20 April 2017
Given how much of Fast & Furious 8's ad campaign is dedicated to telling us that Vin Diesel's character has done the unthinkable and betrayed his family, it's natural to wonder if Universal are testing the waters to see if the franchise can survive without its gravely voiced linchpin. A villainous role specifically isolates him from the pack, inviting the idea that, ultimately, Dominic Toretto is disposable. Couple that with the star's very public falling out with guaranteed draw The Rock (not to mention a bigger part for Jason Statham) and the deck looks to be pointedly stacked against Big Vin.
On the night Furious 8 is, if anything, the inverse of that idea. In F Gary Gray's entry Toretto is a folk hero, drawing out the innate goodness in men that have found themselves morally muddled. His goodness is the kind of bright, shining light you'd find in romantic myth; Toretto is at once a brooding Arthurian King, dealing with threats to his very identity, and the kind of innately decent, plain speaking warrior found on the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. Furious 8 makes the case that Diesel is actually essential to the franchise. Without him and his puppy dog enthusiasm, the extended family motif plays like an artificial, focus tested organisation of cheap TV stars and ex-rappers.
Vin Diesel's old fashioned star power aside, Statham finally gets to deliver on the promise of Fast & Furious 6's credits stinger, cutting promos on an equally excited Dwayne Johnson before performing his own hyperkenetic take on Hard-Boiled's poster moment. Furious 8 also turns in a stunningly executed centrepiece collision that gives Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines' hijacked car idea a modern, self-driven spin. It's a Luddite's worst nightmare, hundreds of driverless vehicles speeding towards a pile-up so wonderfully, deliriously excessive that its closest visual antecedent is that ill-advised moment Terry Funk and Cactus Jack implored a bloodthirsty ECW crowd to throw them a chair.
Wednesday, 19 April 2017
As the collective headache of the 1980s buzzed on into the 1990s, all the plugged-in action stars were considering the cinematic possibilities of the jail stretch, perhaps in an effort to capture the momentary cultural interest created by a failing war on drugs and a burgeoning, for-profit prison industry. Schwarzenegger got in early, making his Stephen King adaptation bones too, with The Running Man. Stallone fired back with the middling, would-be heartfelt Lock Up, while Jackie Chan faded into the incarcerated ensemble of Island of Fire.
Death Warrant, by dint of being a by-the-numbers example of this action sub-genre, offers an interesting comparison point for Jean-Claude Van Damme as a leading man. With a well-worn set of expectations in place, it's easier to see what it is exactly that Van Damme brings to the table. Martial arts are an obvious addition, largely confined to a bruise 'em up finally that has Van Damme kicking a supernatural opponent around and into a blazing furnace. Less expected is the unpretentious sensitivity the actor brings to every single interaction.
Van Damme's Detective Burke likes to touch, to reach out and make a connection, not always to injure either. The character displays an atypical gentleness when dealing with other male inmates. When Robert Guillaume's hard-won ally catches a debilitating injury not only does Burke delicately treat his oozing wound, he touches the man on his face and pats his chest to reassure him. Above all, Van Damme exudes a confidence that suggest a man in complete command of his sexuality. This conviction melts women's hearts too. The film's love scenes between Van Damme and Cynthia Gibb's lawyer may stutter dramatically but there's no denying the fitful, jelly legged longing Gibb summons up for their finale kiss.
Tuesday, 18 April 2017
Saturday, 15 April 2017
Although not in the same league as a full-on control freak like Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme was nevertheless given plenty of opportunity to put his own authorial stamp on his 1980s releases. Following a disastrous test screening for Bloodsport The Cannon Group allowed the star to supervise the film's re-edit - how much worse could it get? Healthy box office returns ensured that this benefit was soon extended to the rest of the company's collaborations with the actor, including 1989's Cyborg. To give him his due, Van Damme had a clear and consistent methodology when assembling all of these features - they are vehicles for his body to be pored over and admired. Plot concerns ranked a distant second.
Slinger is Albert Pyun's attempt to reconstruct his vision of Cyborg, freed from studio notes and a film star who jealously guarded his brand. Thanks to a diligent collaborator, Pyun had an 88 minute VHS workprint to excavate anything absent from the theatrical release. Newly recorded voice overs and dialogue loops were used to paper over missing or unfilmed scenes, framing a story that diverges on several key details. Objectives are more clearly delineated in this alternative cut, characters act with specific, stated purpose. The analog video assembly also predates any MPAA censorship, giving Pyun one or two more instances of violence to grab attention with.
This Director's Cut doesn't simply rescue a preexisting piece, it goes further with Pyun adding and subtracting from his film, eagerly working towards an impressionistic draft that simulates what could have been, had he been allowed full creative control. In terms of form, it's clear from the new edit that Pyun wanted to hold on his images longer, to let them sink into his audience and expand in their minds. Lacking the coverage to actually amplify these moments, Pyun switches back and forth between the blotchy, deteriorating analog signal and a pristine theatrical source, effectively replaying the beat. In truly dire editorial predicaments he simply turns what little footage he has into self-contained loops.
These primitive techniques, coupled with an excretable epilogue sequence, threaten to shake the viewer out of the film but, thankfully, Slinger has one more ace up its sleeve, Tony Riparetti and Jim Saad's brand new soundtrack. Indeed, this Director's Cut is an object lesson in how much of an impact music can have on a film. As released, Cyborg was saddled with a reedy, synthetic score by Kevin Bassinson. Despite the striking apocalyptic imagery, the audio accompaniment was painfully low rent, a supermarket keyboard's approximation of an orchestra, piped out to tinnily underscore the futuristic action. By comparison, Riparetti and Saad's suite is a blazing catalyst, full of wailing, heroic guitars and the kind of pounding, electronic beats Chu Ishikawa wove into the Tetsuo films.
Extended gawps at banking spaceships aren't really special anymore. You know, since we're now three films deep into a Star Wars revival with no end in sight. Better to focus on Luke Skywalker's cryptic declaration that the Jedi must come to an end. Regardless of where Star Wars: The Last Jedi ends up taking Luke, it's exciting to wonder if, having tasted unimaginable power in Return of the Jedi, the Skywalker heir simply decided to remove himself from the equation? Dune's Paul Atreides, a clear antecedent of Skywalker, embraced his Godhood and accidentally become a figurehead for intergalactic jihad. Perhaps this is what Luke is distancing himself from? He doesn't want to be someone else's flag.
Friday, 14 April 2017
Thursday, 13 April 2017
One of the more intriguing ideas in Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (adapted for the screen in 1975 by LQ Jones) is that cinema has survived into the wasteland, taking the form of mouldy old pornography, projected to placate roaming gangs of shell-shocked rapists. In that scenario film explicitly functions as escapism, providing a glimpse of the soft female bodies denied to that world's gibbering, starving men. Albert Pyun's Cyborg goes one better, imagining the kind of art that a society coping with an extinction event might actually produce. Cyborg is monosyllabic and cruel; its characters defeated.
Despite being named for Dayle Haddon's automaton and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cyborg's most important character is Vincent Klyn's Fender. The film opens with his narration, filling the audience in on the catastrophes that have facilitated Fantasy II's meticulously detailed establishing shots. Fender enjoys this new milieu, the rampant lawlessness allowing him to grow into his psychosis and actually thrive. While the weak hole up in the rubble, Fender and his gang of bodybuilders crash over the ruins, gobbling up anything or anyone that takes their fancy. Pyun can't help but betray his allegiance in these moments. Klyn's face is framed in a series of extreme close-ups, the actor's eyes blazing while he preaches his apocalyptic nihilism directly to the audience. Cyborg belongs to Fender.
Cyborg is subsistence filmmaking. Sets and costumes inherited from a cancelled Masters of the Universe sequel, the shoot itself costing a quarter of the pre-production outlay for that failed He-Man project. Van Damme plays Gibson, a post-apocalyptic mercenary who takes his payment in canned goods. This destitution is reflected in the stark, basic plotting. There's a listless quality to the film, a pervading sense that everything is being made up on the spot. Probably because it was. Cyborg motors on a baggy, improvised game of chase, complete with a viciousness that reflects a population who have grown up insular and surrounded by extreme violence.
Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Unlike say Bloodsport and its all-American superman Frank Dux, Kickboxer revolves around a character that will be visibly grow before our eyes. Jean-Claude Van Damme's Kurt Sloane has the basics in terms of an ability to hurl his leg out and, thanks to his brother's career ending injury at the hands (and elbows) of Muay Thai legend Tong Po, the drive to push himself beyond his limits. This is the hook that keeps the film ticking over. Bloodsport had to invent and repeat personal stakes to drum up interest in Dux. Kickboxer casts that kind of prefab character aside to laser in on the underachiever boiling by his side.
While Kickboxer does throw in a tasteless, late-in-the-day sexual assault to remind dimmer bulbs that bad guy Po is a real piece of shit, they needn't have bothered. The entire film has kept teenage boys of all ages invested by always tracking towards a clear, aspirational goal. The taste in Kickboxer is how Kurt's transformation is handled, it's The Karate Kid with some queasy hang-ups about Thailand and a firm nod towards deliberate bodily destruction folded in. With the latter in mind, the key moment in Kickboxer occurs early on. Backstage, prepping for his brother's disastrous fight, Sloane stumbles upon Po drilling his legs, silently kicking an enormous concrete beam over and over again. Sloane reacts with horror. He's seen something massive and terrifying - a man so completely numb and mechanical that he can make himself less yielding than support architecture.
Kickboxer charts Sloane's progress from a glorified whipping boy to someone who can perform similar feats. The film misses a trick by failing to tie Van Damme's eventual success to these moments of tibia calcification though - ideally Sloane should prove his dominance by shattering Tong Po's invincible leg or, at the very least, withstanding a greater degree of punishment than his opponent. A mid-film fight between Sloane and an underling in which the two of them trade and withstand each other's kicks is a more satisfying application of the bloody-mindedness Van Damme has immersed himself in than some smoke-filled temple fight designed to evoke a savage otherness the filmmakers have decided to apply to Thailand.
An Ultra HD look at Michael Bay's latest iteration on the 'guy who's best friends with his car' concept. Transformers: The Last Knight adds Ireland, gleaming knights informed by John Boorman's Excalibur and the promise that Optimus Prime might finally wise up and grind mankind beneath his heel.
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
For his solo debut, John Wick co-director David Leitch has put together a Cold War period piece about Charlize Theron's post-punk spy beating hell out of anyone who looks at her sideways in pre-unification Berlin. Quite right too.
Film Thor's come a long way from a misfiring debut that saw him propping up a mid-range blockbuster with (maybe) two distinct locations. Thanks to Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is instantly recognisable as a work that has flowed from the pure delight experienced when flicking through one of Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson's cosmic comics.
Monday, 10 April 2017
Friday, 31 March 2017
Tuesday, 28 March 2017
In striking contrast to Peter Jackson's pointedly romantic take on the monster, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island finds the Eighth Wonder of the World serving as a protector God on an island teeming with violent, scurrying beasts. Kong is presented as a weary, assailed figure who roams incessantly. He might be happy to live in harmony with the mute human tribe that share his island but he's also constantly having to defend his throne from a variety of oozing pretenders.
Past Kong films have focused on the kind of chaos inherent to these towering primates - how can mankind hope to co-exist with this thing? With zero way to communicate, the bustling, puny humans fall into cowed, passive-aggressive patterns, hoping to either appease or tranquillise their Kongs. Blondes are offered up and food tributes are loaded with sedatives. These Kong are affronts that mankind must tame. Skull Island differs from this model, there's a franchise or two up for grabs after all. John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson's ragtag landing party aren't here to capture the massive gorilla, their only task is to marvel at his strength and survive in his presence.
The Kong we see here may be territorial but he's also inherently heroic. A name creature big enough to score his own standalone feature before Legendary Pictures make their own version of Ishiro Honda's Destroy All Monsters. In Vogt-Roberts' film Kong isn't a tragic suitor doomed to fall, he's a potential ally showing off his new, prop-assisted move-set. Tellingly, when John C Reilly's shipwrecked World War II fighter pilot attempts to puzzle through the proxy war politics that have landed in his lap he does so by drawing parallels between the King and the Soviet Union. Both he reasons are powers to be respected rather than pointlessly engaged.
In the market for a scrolling beat 'em for up for a dead and buried 16-bit system? Watermelon Games got you covered! Paprium is a gorgeous looking post-apocalyptic brawler in the Streets of Rage vein; a title so monumentally massive that it needs an 80 Megabit cartridge (that's twice as much space as Capcom's Super Street Fighter II conversion took up) to contain its majesty. Hell of a trailer too, Body Hammer era Shinya Tsukamoto, eat your fucking heart out.
Sunday, 12 March 2017
Thursday, 9 March 2017
Setting aside the frontier westerns that writer-director James Mangold explicitly invokes, it's easy to draw parallels between Logan and the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Apart from the most obvious point of comparison - an ageing eviscerator travelling with an equally dangerous child - both frame their tales against countries eating themselves alive. Like Tokugawa era Japan, the Americas seen in Logan are focused around the spaces where civilisation has broken and retreated. An age has passed and we are trapped in a bleak, transitory era.
An indefatigable Wolverine spends every waking moment driving a limo to break even while landowners posse up to act like feudal barons, eager to exercise their power of life and death. There's no sense of a rigid, overarching force of law, just scattered, sometimes mechanised clans acting with impunity. The United States is depicted as corrupt and diseased, a condition reflected in both the film's heroes and villains. Regardless of allegiance these beings are all either augmented or outright sedated.
People are reduced to the level of meat, their flesh farmed and catalogued for a purely utilitarian idea of imitation. Bodies are simply currency to be broken down and used up by the state. The villains of the piece, The Reavers, are a group of mutant hating assassins usually drawn tangling with The X-Men or The Punisher, their looks hovering somewhere on the splatterpunk spectrum. Here they are depicted as private military surplus, veterans chewed up by some distant war now earning consultancy money committing war crimes in their home country. Their bulky cybernetic limbs designed to stress not maniacal customisation but instead the pressing need to replace that which an IED has obliterated.
Logan then is the first Wolverine film arranged around the bodily trauma inherent to the character's super identity. He's built to be hurt, an atypically invincible target for assorted adversaries to impotently expel against. In Logan, the title character is no longer particularly exceptional. Aside from the photostat characters that share his powers, even standard enemies have access to technology that allows them to circumvent apparently permanent damage. The extraordinary has been rendered routine. In response, Wolverine moulders.
Previous Wolverine films have dealt with the character as a constant battling against the bitterness and jealousy that has sprung up in response to his existence. Likewise, the majority of X-Men films depict Wolverine as a hesitant, airtight personality. X-Men: First Class even went so far as to have our hairy hero pointedly sitting out the entire adventure just to get drunk in a bar. This unkillable man has been built to wander, never quite putting down roots. Logan flips those ideas, forcing stakes and a sense of permanence on the perennial drifter and his uncompromised sense of identity.
Wolverine's DNA has been decoded and replicated, resulting in two distinct approaches to the idea of a clone. This offspring, and the conflict they bring, are presented as personifications of the tension that exists between hereditary and environmental influences on the individual. Dafne Keen's Laura / X-23 is Wolverine as a child, a blank slate that offers the opportunity to chart a more emotionally stable personality. Laura is her parent stripped of the crushing weight of experience. She's young enough to still be killing as a reflex but also idealistic enough to still desire the company of a pack.
Lone Wolf and Cub resurfaces again in how Wolverine relates to his child. Like Daigoro, Laura is often treated as extension of the parent, an extraneous limb that is trusted to look after itself. When Ogami Itto abandons his son to the winds it's alien but instructive, the fatalism that pulses through Bushido presented as a terrifying power play. When Wolverine leaves Laura to fend for herself it's because he doesn't want the hassle - his deep self-loathing has finally acquired an external target.
Laura is fresh and new, she represents change. If Wolverine is to accept her as his daughter then he will also have to adjust his behaviour, a difficult proposition for a being whose life is built on violent repetition. Patrick Stewart's decrepit Xavier is happy to break his holding pattern though, eager to take on a new charge and help her grow as a person. The centuries old beast man would prefer a slow, tranquillised slide into obsolescence. As First Class demonstrated, it's just easier for him.
Wolverine's other child is an abomination. X-24 is Hugh Jackman's Men's Health body frozen in the moment it reached peak shred. 24 represents the soulless replication of a production line, Weapon X as the obedient, heavily medicated drone he was originally built to be. This is a Wolverine only able to express the most base aspect of his personality - rage. Set against the depressed, dying source, 24 register as a manifestation of the passions that have died, or at the very least curdled, inside The Wolverine.
Logan's insistence that 24 should remain this one-note shade is the film's most obvious failing. Despite Logan's midcard fight being built around a situation and setting that explicitly recalls Universal Soldier and its John Hyams directed sequels, Mangold is content to treat the character as an extrinsic obstacle rather than a fresh facsimile looking to violently explore, then depose his failing originator. 24 has no motor, he's an automaton stuck functioning as a mythic aggressor rather than a separate, interesting character in his own right. None of that disappointment lingers too long though, because in the homestretch we're given the sights and sounds of a wounded, bloodthirsty beast and his rampaging cub singing at each other across unfamiliar territory. Their howling an expression of the pure joy they are both about to find in slaughter.
Monday, 6 March 2017
Sunday, 19 February 2017
Despite the video shop real estate given over to the actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme is not the main attraction in Black Eagle. That poisoned chalice belongs to Sho Kosugi, star of umpteen Cannon Group ninja films and one of the more detestable Bruceploitation films, Bruce Lee Fights Back from The Grave. Kosugi is an interesting character though, a Japanese karate champion turned actor who treats this film (and apparently every other one) as an extended opportunity to take his children to work.
Kosugi plays Ken Tani, a CIA super agent able to code-switch between an unassuming, hunched academic and his lithe, knife wielding super-identity The Black Eagle. Tani has completely dedicated his life to protecting the aims and ideals of the United States, asking only that he be granted an annual fortnight of peace and quiet to hang out with his two sons. Naturally Uncle Sam reneges on this promise, packing Tani and his kids off to Malta to visit art museums but also stalk nosy Russian trawlers.
Since the focus is off him, Van Damme only gets a few, brief chances for his Soviet heavy to capture our attention. As ever, the actor is happy to disrobe, performing his trademark splits in various states of undress. As the film trundles on, there's an emerging sense that director Eric Karson doesn't quite know what to do with either actor. Kosugi and Van Damme are shot at arm's length, all the better to capture the holiday destination environments.
Karson and Cinematographer George Koblasa do dream up a few fun shots, their best portraying Van Damme as a kind of muscle piston pumping through a well-oiled routine. His body is pored over and objectified; overpowering brawn glimpsed in a canted, low-angle appraisal. Karson and pals also swipe a few of the tricks Robert Clouse demonstrated on Enter the Dragon, ignoring the moments when stabbing heels meet vulnerable throats to focus on the deranged glee surging over the face of the striker.
Opportunities to delight in this destruction are few and far between though. Black Eagle moves with all the vim of a tourist nursing sunstroke. Malta's blazing Mediterranean heat has been baked into the film, dictating not only the sleepy onscreen performances but also the film's baggy, undisciplined shape. Stakes crash into the film, delivered with all the elegance of a brick being placed into a malfunctioning blender. The film is pitched like a classic 70s Euro thriller, selling adult intrigue with brief blips of adrenalised action. Instead you get an illogical bore that lurches slowly from sequence to sequence, never quite managing to work up a head of steam.
Friday, 10 February 2017
Thursday, 9 February 2017
Monday, 6 February 2017
After somehow ending up as a cog in the deathless Adam Sandler machine, it's fantastic to see Genndy Tartakovsky back doing what he does best. Posedowns. Lots and lots of posedowns. Tartakovsky's greatest creation, Samurai Jack, seething and still. A bubbling wraith framed against a series of environments, each one more exciting than the last.
Sunday, 5 February 2017
Frank Dux is a very interesting person. As well as being a super important ex-CIA agent and a noted ninja historian, Black Belt magazine favourite Mr Dux spent the late seventies fighting in hundreds of underground, full-contact martial arts matches before retiring completely undefeated. Contrary to what the Los Angeles Times would have you believe, these entirely credible events definitely happened. Dux's stories so impressed Cannon Group moguls Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan that they stumped up the cash to turn his life story into a film.
Macho fantasist Dux found his perfect big screen avatar in Jean-Claude Van Damme, both men defined by their desire to be regarded as some sort of exciting object. Dux used tall tales to attract gullible marks to his ninjustsu McDojos. Van Damme, thanks to disastrous test screenings that deemed an early assembly unwatchable, was given carte blanche to edit the rhythms and shape of Bloodsport around centrefold spreads of his muscled physique.
Schwarzenegger's frame was oversized and lightly comical, his brawn presented as the machinery required to become a human gun platform. Stallone was smaller but steely, his body a work-in-progress that seemed to be unconsciously stressing the flayed elegance of rejected messiahs. Compared to his peers, Van Damme's mission is simple. He wants to be appraised and desired, explicitly linking glimpses of his engorged figure with the the act of sex. Van Damme fucks women and he wants you to know it. Viewed in this context, Bloodsport's fights are more about the graceful slow-motion arc of a perfectly chiselled leg than any sense of genuine conflict.
Want an extended trim of that Transformers Super Bowl tease? Head on over to Michael Bay's vimeo for the goods. Hey! Turns out Prime has been communing with some spectral ancestor! Crush them all mighty Convoy.
Thursday, 2 February 2017
Whereas a film like The Karate Kid is interested in self-determination and how men at different stages in their life can have positive emotional impacts on each other, No Retreat No Surrender is literally about how cool it'd be if your Bruce Lee poster came to life and anointed you, some crummy white kid, to be his successor. Kurt McKinney plays Jason Stillwell, an LA import who spends his days in Seattle creeping around The Little Dragon's grave and rolling his eyes at his pacifist / coward father.
Director Corey Yuen, a Peking Opera School classmate of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, has fun undermining the staid drilling of Emerald City karate with the kind of fluid but punishing training regimens made famous by Shaw Brothers' The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or Seasonal Films stablemate Drunken Master. The not-too-subtle insinuation being that flexible China produces more complete fight forms than prissy old Japan. Although Yuen's raw, onscreen materials are slower and sloppier than his Hong Kong pals, the director assembles a few crisp exchanges, particularly towards the end of the film.
Predictably, Jean-Claude Van Damme is this (basically terrible) film's greatest asset, an allegedly Russian enforcer who chews up and spits out the film's irritating extended cast in a concluding martial arts tournament. Given about ten minutes of screentime, Van Damme is instantly able to communicate the defining characteristics of his star persona - an arrogance based in absolute ability. There's a real sense of pitilessness with Van Damme, you believe he loathes anyone he considers weaker than him. He's also exciting to watch, a wide-eyed lunatic with a hairstyle held with polyurethane, hurling out leg upon leg at the blubbering nothings who dare challenge him.
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Soulful bruiser Manu Bennett fills-in for David Carradine in Death Race 2050, a ramshackle sequel-cum-remake of Paul Bartel and Roger Corman's cult perennial. Perhaps mindful of the real-time collapse of civilisation we're currently churning through, GJ Echternkamp's film ditches the correctional facility cock-fighting seen in Jason Statham and Luke Goss' loose remake trilogy, returning this film's focus to pointless, tranquillising distractions and a flagrant disregard for human life.
Unfortunately, Echternkamp's film has all the satirical bite and visual pep of a porn parody. Although costumed bodies are occasionally lingered over, the rough and ready grime of a New World production is gone, leaving the kind of flat, HD sunniness usually associated with rushed productions and the aforementioned smutty replication. Actual racing is terminally safe, rendered as little more than monotonous, static head shots granted a vague sense of movement by a light camera shake.
The casual, future-shocked cruelty of the Bartel's film, perhaps no longer shocking enough, is only wheeled out as a series of gooey punchlines, any sense of horror neutralised by the weak, variety show standard mutilation. 2050 is too self-aware. It knows it's a cheap supermarket shelf-filler, so why try harder? Echternkamp and Corman's sole shots at relevance are a few click bait friendly jibes at the current political establishment - 2050 works overtime to visually connect Donald Trump's mad hairdo with the kind of polished ferns you see in The Hunger Games series.
Thursday, 19 January 2017
No matter how many sequels or spin-offs Capcom release, there will always be something special about Street Fighter II. Nintendo obviously agrees as they've commissioned a spruced up re-release for their new Switch system, a canny attempt to snag the attention of people with fond memories of expensive import copies and SNES pack-ins.
Given the decision to stick with the ugly high-definition coat of paint Udon Entertainment rustled up last-gen, Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers initially appears a bit disposable. Certainly not the kind of release that has you browsing pre-order pages for the game's home hardware. Then I discovered that you can run the game using the original CPS-2 graphics and immediately found myself desperate to play a pillarboxed reissue of a 20-odd year old game I already own about four different versions of.
Sunday, 15 January 2017
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Sunday, 8 January 2017
The baby cart series ends with Yoshiyuki Kuroda's Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, an off-piste entry with supernatural underpinnings that, while it doesn't adapt the titanic showdown that closed Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's manga, does allow an element of closure to creep in around the edges. White Heaven opens with a desperate Yagyu Retsudo facing political irrelevance. In an effort to forestall any further disgrace, the ageing ninja decides to gamble the lives of his remaining heirs on a final push against our heroes.
Retsudo's illegitimate son Hyouei has been raised by the ghostly Tsuchigumo clan, an army of theatrical psychopaths who bury their best warriors in graves for weeks on end until their very existence blurs the line between life and death. Once dispatched, these phantoms haunt Itto and Daigoro, killing every person they come into contact with. These tactics are an exciting change of pace for the series, rolling an unpredictable, spectral sense of horror into the film. So while Itto never quite boils over into a full-on frenzy, it's exciting to see the implacable samurai genuinely rattled by an enemy.
Disappointingly, the Tsuchigumo assassins' eventual death (not to mention the fate of the legion of skiing ninja that follow them) has less to do with Itto meditating on, then overcoming their omniscient terror and more to do with this episode's gadget-laden perambulator. It's a strange choice because, as Tomisaburo Wakayama has repeatedly proven, stationary special effects aren't anywhere near as exciting as an unbroken take of a middle-aged actor forward-flipping into a slide tumble, then darting up to slash and swipe at goons.
Daigoro's baby cart is to Kuroda's film what Little Nellie was to You Only Live Twice, an improbably invincible gun platform that regimented enemies are inexplicable drawn towards. Thankfully Kuroda is often canny enough to simply get out of Wakayama's way, allowing fight sequences to unfold with a stop-start quality that makes you feel the trepidation simmering in Itto's enemies. Kenji Misumi hurtled in towards Wakayama to stress his speed and unpredictability, Kuroda opens up the confrontations, shooting extremely wide to show us how Itto's strikes carry like waves along the assembled armies, daring them to try their luck.
White Heaven ends with an exhausted Itto standing on a mountain side, surrounded by those that have died by his hand. Yagyu Retsudo has skated away, broken and bereaved, to prepare himself for an apocalyptic sequel that never actually arrived. So while the saga ends unresolved, Tsutomo Nakamura's screenplay has done enough to propose a sort of moral victory for Itto and his son. They may not have claimed Retsudo's head, but they have murdered every last one of his heirs and irreparably damaged the social standing Retsudo sought to improve by acting against them. That, and they still have each other.
Friday, 6 January 2017
Thursday, 5 January 2017
Wednesday, 4 January 2017
Kenji Misumi's fourth and final contribution to Toho's assassin and child series oozes confidence, functioning both as a statement regarding the nihilism at the core of chanbara cinema and an entertaining fight-film besides. It's also, thanks to cinematographer Fujio Morita and a seething, summertime Japan, absolutely beautiful.
Unlike Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril director Buichi Saito, Misumi isn't particularly worried about clarifying the threads that surround Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro. So while Baby Cart in Peril featured an intermittent narration that contextualised and clarified the social constructs and politics impacting on Itto's mission, Misumi trusts the audience to key into the film's mood instead.
Saito's sop to data gave us a different perspective on Itto, it sold us stakes to better anticipate a reaction. Misumi's approach, by comparison, is more chaotic and disconnected, providing insight into his lead character's emotional outlook. Misumi shows us Itto's emptiness to make the point that perhaps the wronged samurai is not a figure that should be depicted as heroic or even particularly engaged. Despite the information and vendettas screaming in at him, Itto's thoughts are permanently elsewhere. He is a monster walking the path to hell, dragging his infant son along with him.
Although Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is dramatically disjointed, thanks to the series' grab-bag idea of manga adaptation, the constituent parts are united by an overarching thesis - Itto and Daigoro may be perfect and invincible but they are also damned. Neither demonstrates any capacity to develop or change, they are wraiths roaming a milieu that has a need for, and takes a delight in, their ability to kill.
In Land of Demons Itto's quest involves several loyal retainers of a beleaguered clan slowly drip-feeding him information after he bests them in combat. It's a rolling test, designed to ensure that Lone Wolf is as expert as he claims. It's a hook that keeps Itto occupied and fighting but it also tells us something deeper about the kind of clan that, while lousy with ninja and cavalry of their own, require the services of an assassin. Their task is sedition, a violent and outrageous pruning of the clan hierarchy to ensure that a specific status quo endures.
As always with the Lone Wolf and Cub series, the futility of the individual in the face of the Tokugawa shogunate is important to how the story unfolds. The clan members themselves go with the flow, they see their own lives as transitory, they are currency to be invested in a legacy that they hope will span centuries. This macro-thinking is contrasted by Itto's stubborn refusal to consider anything other than the path. He doesn't fret about Daigoro's place in a world beyond their revenge either, the father doesn't even tremble when his son receives a public flogging for refusing to betray a pickpocket. For all intents and purposes, the duo are already dead.
What remains of the Ogami family isn't trying to regain its place amongst the ruling class, they're feeding off the regime's secrets and hypocrisy to fuel their own desires. Misumi uses space and landscape photography to stress the wonderful, pig-headed absurdity inherent to Itto's mission. The scale of the undertaking is baffling. An entire country pivots and thrives on the film's periphery, Misumi filling the frame with picturesque depictions of vast, unyielding nature. Japan is depicted as well-watered and overripe; a great, pregnant beast bursting at its seams. It's an incredible backdrop for Tomisaburo Wakayama's star turn as death incarnate.
Posted by Chris Ready at 23:08:00
Labels: Films, Kenji Misumi, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, Tomisaburo Wakayama