Thursday, 20 April 2017

Fast & Furious 8

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 hyperkinetic 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 autonomous 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.

Dance with the Dead - Skeletons in the Attic

Lana Del Rey - Lust for Life ft. The Weeknd

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1990s - Death Warrant

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 finale 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 big kiss.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1980s - Cyborg: Director's Cut / Slinger

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 rank 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.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - MUAD'DIB

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.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1980s - Cyborg

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-going has survived into the wasteland, taking the form of mouldy old pornography - these snippets projected up on shattered walls to placate the 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

Kylie Minogue - Hand on Your Heart

Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1980s - Kickboxer

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.

Transformers: The Last Knight - CALEDFWICH

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.