Action Review: Eye in the Sky

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Eye in the Sky is not your normal action film.  To be honest, I don’t know if it even is an action film.  However, it has traits that a good action film should have.  This weekend, I got to watch Alan Rickman’s last major role, and I was not disappointed.

The movie doesn’t take long to set up.  The main three characters, played by Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Alan Rickman, are introduced and are defined within ten minutes.  It also helps that the movie is only 100 minutes.  Shorter running times often force the film to move straight into the conflict, rather than adding scenes that aren’t needed.

It has been a while since I have seen a small movie.  What I mean by a small movie is that the scope of the movie only focuses on a small group of people in a specific, limited situation. It’s about a certain select people who are in danger, not the fate of the world.  Overall, the conflict hinges on a little girl who is playing next to a house. There are armed suicide bombers are in the house, and her proximity to the house means she would die if an airborne drone were to strike at the terrorists. Who knew a movie can cut so deeply over a small problem? That’s what makes this movie intense.  Not only can every human understand what the problem is, but you follow the little girl throughout the movie.  This helps the conflict build as she becomes someone you want to see survive.  How many times do you watch an action movie and feel emotional by the end?  Not many.

In Eye in the Sky, the character’s personalities are shown through their decision making.  Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren are strong leaders who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.  Aaron Paul is a new pilot whose never experienced war, but follows orders. The rest of the government officials have most likely never experienced battle.

Helen Mirren, who has worked on the case surrounding these terrorists for six years, is fixated on getting the job done.  Not only does she know what is at stake (the little girl’s life and the repercussions of the missile fire), but also she has a task to do, and she wants to prevent as many casualties as possible.  I could never accomplish what Helen’s character did.  But, I can see her point of view.  In her mind it’s either one girl’s death (followed swiftly by a PR nightmare), or potentially watching eighty people get killed as a result of her failure to strike at the terrorists.  On the other hand, the little girl has a face.

Giving the collateral damage a face makes the story more powerful. For example, in Star Wars, the audience cares a lot about Alderaan when it gets destroyed by the Death Star because we have seen and gotten to know Princess Leia, and understand how much her home means to her.  Contrast this with the destruction of the Hosnian system in The Force Awakens. Because we know so little about those affected by the disaster (or might have missed the system’s name even mentioned), as an audience, our ability to sympathize is significantly lessened.  Besides giving the girl a face, how the filmmakers showed her character, as a peaceful child who respected her elders and worked hard, was very effective. She was also innocent to the events happening above her.

As the film progresses, the stakes are continually increased.  At first, the mission was one of capture, and suddenly it became shoot to kill.  At this point, the situation gets more serious.  The stakes do rise, and they make sense for the film.  The opening scene sets up the little girl in the story too, so that the audience isn’t shocked that she is part of the conflict in the movie.

The final twenty minutes is gripping, but also ends it the best way possible.  In the end, you leave with a lot of questions.  Personally, I knew I could never do what these people do, but also realize that nobody should have to make those choices.  But in this movie, the ending wisely keeps it clean.  Yes, it is a serious topic, but it is tamed.  What also helped me enjoy this movie was that it didn’t beat me over the head constantly with its point.  Eye in the Sky is a great film; and in a world of huge blockbusters, it proves that less can be more .  The story delivers from beginning to end.  It is not the greatest movie of all time, but never tries to be.

Rating: 9/10

+ The entire cast

+ Pacing of the film

+ Build up to the main conflict

+ Gives a lot to question after viewing

+ Ending is great

– Wish the end had a little more impact

 

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Martial Art Sequels: Can They Be Good?

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Last Friday, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 was released on Netflix.  Ang Lee’s masterpiece is finally getting a sequel. What could have been big news ten years ago, now seems a bit underwhelming.  However, that remains true for most martial arts sequels.  This is not a review of CT2 (but you can find my review at this link).  Today, we’re going look at the highs and lows of martial arts sequels.

The Positive

The first one that comes to mind is Ip Man 2.  Sure, it isn’t  Ip Man, but how many martial art films are?  Donnie Yen’s return as the iconic martial art master was exciting for a lot of fans.  What fans didn’t realize that it was going to be the same movie beat for beat.  Wilson Ip’s direction in the first one allowed the fight scenes to be something magical, the 10-on-1 fight being the best example.  In Ip Man 2, not only do we receive another one of those fights, but also the filmmakers try to enhance the fights instead of the story.  The only fight that I believe makes this film awesome is the final fight.  If the story was about that fight, then this movie would have been amazing.  A story about how a withering martial artist, whose fights for his culture, during a time where his culture is disrespected.  Nonetheless, Ip Man 2 is an exciting movie with amazing fight choreography.

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Speaking of choreography, Police Story is considered to be Jackie Chan’s best film.  The first Police Story is an amazing film, but I also enjoy it’s sequels.  Police Story 2 demonstrates intense choreography, while Supercop (AKA Police Story 3) shows Jackie’s comedic side.  Supercop is one of Chan’s transition films from Hong Kong to the States.  It is much more an action film than martial arts piece, because of the scenes where Chan uses assault rifles.  The best part about Supercop is the final showdown.  Just like Police Story 2, Supercop brings back the creativity of the final showdown with a fight scene on top of a train!

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Jackie Chan made several great sequels, the best one being Legend of the Drunken Master.  The first Drunken Master was great, but Chan cleverly evolved the character, and the comedy. This is something most artists cannot do.  The fight scenes are heightened, and this movie is the only Chan film non-martial arts fans would appreciate.  The comedy is amazing, Chan owns the character, and the fight scenes matter.

The Neutral

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Mainstream martial art films are hard to come by outside of the big three, (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li), but I think The Matrix is a film that makes martial arts mainstream.  Then came its less-than-spectacular sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded.  Now, most people find this movie to be atrocious.  But, there is a lot of good that came from it.  The car chase scene is the reason to watch this film.  You might think, “big whoop, one scene”, but this one scene is twenty-five minutes long.  Sure, you have to sit through programmers talking about “the reason,” or a girl asking Neo to kiss her like Trinity (What the hell?).  But, this scene gives some flavor to this mostly bland movie.

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Ip Man 3 was released earlier this year, and the film didn’t seem to spur much talk.  For five years, since being clearly set up by the end of Ip Man 2, everyone was waiting for it to finally happen—Ip Man versus Bruce Lee.  But after the film released, nobody really cared.  Personally, I was discouraged by the teaser clip of Ip Man training Lee.  According to critics, the movie wasn’t bad, it just didn’t go anywhere.  The main selling points were not the story, or even Ip Man himself, but Bruce Lee, Mike Tyson, and Yuen Woo Pien doing fight choreography.  Sometimes, trying to put too many eggs into one basket is a bad idea.

The Negative

Franchises with bad sequels did pretty poor things for the martial arts genre, such as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.  “Mortal Kombat”, in the mid 90s ,was the biggest game out there.  Just like with all white-hot properties, a movie followed, and it struck gold.  Then, the highly anticipated sequel came out and destroyed any hopes of another movie.  Almost twenty years later, fans are still waiting for Mortal Kombat to return to the big screen.  I wouldn’t get my hopes up anytime soon.  Any sign of a movie gets shot down, just ask Kevin Tancharoen.

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Bad sequels can hurt seemingly resilient stars as well.  Tony Jaa was once compared to the big three martial arts stars, but now he’s a sideline character in Furious 7Ong Bak 2 is to blame for that.  After you see through Jaa’s amazing athleticism you are left with….a mindless character/artist who doesn’t know how to tell a story.  I love the first Ong Bak and The Protector, but Jaa’s strengths are in martial arts alone.  After the initial appeal of his abilities wore off on audiences, all eyes were on his creative abilities.  After Ong Bak 2, Jaa’s career went downhill.

Sequels have a rough spot in the martial arts genre.  Either they make you a legend like Jackie Chan, or you fall far and hard like Tony Jaa, Mortal Kombat, and the Wachowski siblings.  I’m usually not a fan of sequels, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t give it a chance (if it looks good and/or if I hear positive responses).  When going into a sequel to a much beloved film, I’m most afraid that the movie won’t tap into what audiences loved about the original.  Hopefully, moving forward, martial arts sequels can improve on the failures of our past.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Boredom

By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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Donnie Yen might be my favorite martial art star right now.  For the past six years, I haven’t been able to get enough of this legendary action star.  That said, I was stunned by how he (and Michelle Yeoh, from the original Crouching Tiger and Supercop) were used in the sequel to the original masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The film is directed by Yeun Woo Pien.  Seeing as how he was the fight director behind Matrix, Hero, and the original Crouching Tiger, he was clearly a good choice to make in this wire-fighting-heavy film.  Although he is an amazing fight director, his movie has problems.  Major problems.  Namely, the dragging story.

The movie is only 100 minutes, yet seven new characters are introduced.  For forty minutes, I’m learning the names of people I felt I could play on “Dynasty Warriors”.  Martial art films are based on action and storytelling, usually with one hero and one antagonist.  When the hero fights, you want to cheer for them.  I couldn’t care less when any of the characters fought or died, because they felt one-dimensional.  Donnie Yen’s character Silent Wolf could have been an interesting character to follow, but his arc is very generic, leaving him with nothing interesting to do.  It’s crazy to think that this movie stars Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh and Jason Lee Scott (from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), yet I see more of two younger, unknown martial artists than anyone else.

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Pictured: Donnie Yen, trying his best

Spending forty minutes on the “younger” characters was a terrible decision.  I didn’t want to watch Crouching Tiger because I wanted to see these character’s problems.  It would have been exciting to watch Donnie Yen and Jason Lee Scott fight in a struggling battle.  Instead, we spend minutes watching the young female train, falling in love, and having more character development than Yeoh’s character.

I love Michelle Yeoh, but she does nothing in this movie.  She just walked into every scene to move the plot forward.  There was zero enhancement of her character.  The original establishes her character as someone who doesn’t trust anyone, yet I don’t see that at all in this sequel.  The first time someone asks to train with her, she accepts.  In Ip Man, it takes forty minutes for a character who doesn’t train anyone to be forced into doing so.  Also, Yeoh’s character has no real conflict.  Every character says she is not forgiving, but she forgives throughout the movie!  She supposedly doesn’t want help, yet accepts it several times in the movie.  The only scene that worked for her is when she first interacts with Donnie Yen.  He’s happy to see the love of his life, so he is shocked that Yeoh wants nothing to do with him.  In the next scene, they speak without Yeoh making eye contact.

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Boring the audience until the 30-minute mark is an acceptable way to tell a story, because it heightens the impact of that first big moment.  This movie milks the boredom out of those thirty minutes for all they’re worth.  I looked several times at the clock thinking, “When the hell are they going to fight, or do something?”  Sure, I know there were fight scenes in the movie, but none were eye-popping or dramatic.  This movie has seven to eight fight scenes with no purpose.

The biggest problem for me was how the fight scenes were shot.  A camera angle they used frequently was the overhead angle (or helicopter shot).  Once or twice it can be effective, but when it is a martial arts film, you want to see the choreography up close, not in far-away shots.  (For what it’s worth, poor choreography is usually signaled by far-away shots; not saying any of it is bad in this movie, but that’s how it appears.) 

We know all of the actors are highly capable of making amazing action scenes, so let them play with simpler angles!  That way, the fights feel more personal.  Bruce Lee used POV’s when fighting his opponents, Jackie Chan used closer angles, and Sammo Hung used facial reactions.  Not only did none of the hits feel personal, but the actors’ reactions weren’t there.  Hero is a similar movie that is more about the art of fighting than brutality, yet the battle of the minds is one of the most iconic fight scenes out there.  Why is that?  Not only is the scene emotional thanks to the music, but also you feel a sense of honor between the two opponents.  This leads Donnie Yen to killing himself after he realizes he cannot win.

After watching, it made sense that this film went direct to Netflix.  I am all for Netflix distributing martial art films.  That way, people in the western hemispheres can view them the day they are released instead of waiting an eternity.  But, show the genre some respect!  Just because it has a title everyone knows, the best fight director in the last twenty years, and Donnie Yen, that doesn’t mean you can just skimp on the fight scenes and the story.  I feel that no one making this movie had any emotional/artistic attachment to this film, judging from how bored all of the actors looked.  Even the subtitle sounds like it was thought of by someone who would’ve rather been rearranging his sock drawer that day.

3/10

Film Review: Battle Royale (2000)

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

In 2000, Battle Royale was one of the biggest books in the last decade (even competing with Harry Potter).  As with essentially all hugely successful books, it was made into a movie.  If you don’t know what Battle Royale is, this is the plot: several students are trapped on an island and are forced to kill each other.  Last week, I watched this movie for the first time and I was blown away.  Not by the concept or by characters, but by how tame the execution (no pun intended) was.

When watching a movie about fifteen-year-olds murdering each other, you know it’s going to be messed up.  What shocked me was not only the believability of the violence, but also the restraint from showing buckets of blood and gore.  Remember the original Robocop?  You know, the movie that satires violence so much that they showed how a man can be blown apart by shotguns?  Well, that’s how I pictured Battle Royale.  Thankfully, when someone would get shot in the movie, they would show little to no blood.  That way, when someone did die in a bloody way, it would be more shocking.

Look at the main villain of the film (not the teacher, but one of the students, who dresses like Johnny Cash).  Most of his kills are by a machine gun.  The scenes are usually darkened to where it is hard to see when he kills someone.   But three kills stuck out from him.  The first two revolve around the truce scene.  Two girls stand on top of a cliff, telling everyone to cease fire and figure a different way out.  Suddenly, the villain kills both and puts a microphone to their mouths so everyone hears them scream.  Not a lot of blood, but less is more.  The same goes for the next main kill. When a man is trying to escape from Johnny Cash via bicycle, he is shot in the stomach.  Fortunately, the weapon he received was a bullet proof vest.  The next time we see the bicycle man is when we see his severed head, thrown into the medical shop in which our heroes are hiding.  The filmmakers could have overkilled this by showing blood gushing everywhere.  But, they knew that when you show something as shocking/ disgusting as a severed head with a petrified expression, PLUS a grenade in the mouth, you do not need to over stay your welcome.  Look at many recent horror films such as Scream 4, the Saw movies, and My Bloody Valentine.  They have so much blood it becomes preposterous to watch.  Every death in Battle Royale has a point and moves the story.

Not many movies can say every death moves the story, unless it’s a tournament movie.  Even Mortal Kombat the movie struggles with this, because there is no tournament structure.  People fight one another just because.  It seems like every five minutes Battle Royale tells us how many people are left, the name of who died, and you are shown who died.  Sure, some do not have prominent roles, such as the heavy set kid or the gang who is slaughtered by Johnny Cash.  But showing 42 prominent characters would be exhausting.  But, about thirty of them had their own story.  Even small ones, such as the man shouting equations as he tries to kill the main hero.  He explains to him that if he lives then he can go to a real school.  Sure, not an important character in terms of background, but even throwaways had some story that helped define the character.  After all, stories are supposed to be about characters.  That is why I am amazed that a movie like The Avengers has six main characters, yet gives none of them a story.

Battle Royale shines most when we see certain kids manifest into who they truly are.  Unlike our heroes, who remain pure, certain students snap and figure they must kill or be killed.  Most of the students try to stay pure, like the five girls at the lighthouse.  They rescue the main protagonist and try to protect each other.  But when one suddenly dies, the rest believe they are all trying to kill each other.  Once again, the idea of, “how quickly will you turn on your friends?” resurfaces.  This is why I love the two main characters; they remain true to themselves throughout the movie.  It gives us hope that there are good people in this universe.

If someone asked me what is different about this movie, compared to Hunger Games, I would say emotion.  The movie has a variety of emotional characters and, unlike Hunger Games, when it ended I was hopeful that the main characters are going to live together for a while, because I actually cared about them.  Sure, the movie had some confusing scenes, such as the teacher giving the female protagonist an umbrella.  Nonetheless, the movie not only felt authentic but also had a point when it all ended.  The movie was not depressing just because; the writer had a story he wanted to tell.  Because of tamed yet effective action, strong characters, and a sad but hopeful ending, I give Battle Royale an 8.5/10.

Listen to me and Richie Watkins’ full podcast on Battle Royale here.

Taken, An Action Movie?

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Since 2009’s Taken, Liam Neeson has become this generation’s action star.  Interestingly, it is the first and only good action film that Neeson has done (unless you count The Grey).  Taken was released in January, a month infamous for where new movies go to die.  But, it blew away all expectations by wowing critics and audiences, and making a pile of money.  When the movie came out, everyone was talking about it.  Even today, seven years later, I hear or see people talking about or making fun of the famous monologue that begins with “I don’t know who you are”.  The success of Taken created a wave in the action genre, inspiring numerous replicas and two sequels of its own (all of which we will not talk about today).  Despite its influence on the action genre, I argue that Taken is not such an action film, but is instead a suspense thriller.

            To make an action movie good, you have to have memorable set pieces and action sequences.  T2 would not be what it is without its amazing action scenes.  I could never re-watch Bruce Lee fights if he was not amazing at fighting.  In the case of Taken, though, the most exciting scenes are not the fight scenes.  In fact, because of how poor the editing is in such scenes, it is obvious that Neeson is not the one fighting.  Also, the action itself is very slow.  I noticed this in the final fight.  The main villain and Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) move very slow for trained agents.

Let’s look at The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.  In the film, Ford is framed and chased for murdering his wife.  While on the run from the authorities, he searches for the murderer.  The action scenes, although realistic, are not what make this movie intriguing today.  It is the characters and the chase itself.  Throughout the film, I am on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what happens next.  Taken is about an agent who has 96 hours to find his daughter before she is lost forever.  At the midpoint of the film, the police start chasing him after the chaos he causes in Paris.  After Mills’ daughter is kidnapped, the suspense continues to grow.  My favorite scene in the film is when Mills is at his friend’s house for dinner.  Beforehand, we saw Mills and his friend interact, and the friend seemed off.  What we see in this scene is the climax of their relationship.

            Like Clint Eastwood, Neeson kills as an action star.  The best part about him is how he holds himself.  Throughout the film, Mills is confident in what he is doing, never losing his cool.  The best example of his character’s collectedness is when he is on the phone with his daughter, moments before she is taken.  In the scene, Mills calmly tells his daughter to hide, and that she is going to be kidnapped.  From that point on I knew the movie was going to do the unexpected.  Not only is he a well-trained agent, but even in the most emotional moments of his life Mills remains calm.  He is even calm when shooting his friend’s wife in the leg.  These two scenes alone give the movie replay value, in my opinion.

Taken might not be a great action film, but I think it is an amazing thriller.  With scenes such as the ones I just discussed, and the scene when he finally meets the main villain, Marco, the movie is downright intense.  Although I believe Marco was defeated in the film too early and we didn’t get as big of a payoff as what we should have, Taken is one of the few “action” films today that has broken the generic action film trend.  The fight scenes are few and far between, and it has engaging set ups to its exciting moments.  Most of all, what makes this movie unique is its lack of pre-release hype.  Nobody expected the film to be such a big deal.  It was word-of-mouth that led to the movie’s success.  Director Pierre Morel and his team crafted a top-notch thriller, and its thrills and absence of over-hype are great examples of what more movies in general should have.

Rating:

7.5 Out of 10

+ Liam Neeson is amazing in this role

+ Great Suspense

-The action scenes are not impressive

-No main villain that you care to see die

Why “Fist of Fury” is the Greatest Movie of All-Time

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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For my whole life (23 years) I have sat in front of the television, drawn by Bruce Lee’s way of thinking and way of being.  Every year, I watch my favorite movie —Fist of Fury—at least once, preferably on his birthday.  The film was the start of his legendary career and began the character that we all know as Bruce Lee.

Set in World War II, Fist of Fury is about a young martial artist named Chen Zhen, who finds out that his teacher was poisoned by the rivaling Japanese dojo.  As a result, Zhen decides to show the dojo that Chinese men are not weak.  He demonstrates by not only defeating the boss, but also everyone inside.  But, as with all Bruce Lee films, with violence comes consequence.  Zhen later realizes that fighting may have been the end to his life.

The film starts off with simple narration to set up the story.  One of my favorite parts of the film starts with Lee’s character finding out about his teacher’s death.  Stunned, Zhen tries to uncover the body, but is hit in the head by another student with a shovel.  From the start, we realize that Lee is playing a different role from that of any of his other films.  Sure, he plays the amazing martial artist like his other movies, but he doesn’t have the same status as he does in the others.  Lee is a simple man who is caught in between a race war, and who does something to help his people.

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To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: you need to bore the audience for the first thirty minutes, and then hit them with a surprise.  Fist of Fury adheres to this rule (not counting the shovel hit); after the 30-minute mark, what arrives is the defining moment of Lee’s character.  Bruce Lee versus the dojo: this was the first time we had ever seen one man take on an army.  Many movies have paid homage to this scene, including Fist of Legends, Ip Man, Kiss of the Dragon, Ip Man 2, Hard to Kill, and many others.  We also are introduced to the nunchaku—a trade mark of Lee’s in later films.  This, to me, is one of the few believable army-on-one fight scenes.  Zhen is the one with the weapon, and he utilizes it well.  By scanning corners, having eyes behind his head, and outsmarting the opponents, Zhen showed that he had more knowledge than any of them.  Also, Zhen knew exactly what to do—take everyone’s legs out.

When the battle started, the fighting was intense (true to Lee’s form).  What Lee always did was make every blow count.  Unlike most fights, Lee doesn’t throw a million kicks or punches, but when he does, it is a death blow.  For example, when one of the cocky warriors tries to show how tough he is by attacking Zhen, Zhen thwarted him by repelling the attack and knocking him down.  That’s a big reason why I, as well as many others, love Lee so much.  He not only plays the fights so well, but executes them even better.  It’s hard to say that any fight today competes with a Lee fight, because the blows don’t mean as much.  It’s like comparing a classic wrestling match, such as Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Ric Flair, with anyone in a new match.  Not to say that nothing compares to the old, but when one of the old-school wrestlers threw a punch, the audience felt it.  The same does not speak for the other when everyone is kicking out of everyone’s finishers.  You get numb to it.

Zhen destroyed his opponents with ease, including the second-in-command teacher.  The fight was very lop-sided (but less so than the ending fight).  What makes this scene special is 1) the overall arc of the fight, 2) why Zhen is there in the first place, and 3) the foreshadowed consequences of Zhen’s actions.  Regarding the latter two reasons, Zhen wants to show that the Chinese are not weak, but the consequences show that problems cannot be won through violence.

Because the Japanese dojo was beaten, they retaliate against the other dojo.  This leads to an all-out fight between both schools.  The battle is fine, but not great (sometimes you can tell when fights are sped up and other parts you can tell that the actors don’t know what they are doing).  But the story behind it is all that matters.  Not every action scene has to win the audience over through action.  Sometimes the greatest moments in a fight is through absence of action.  For example, after the Japanese dojo springs an attack on them, one of the Chinese men tries to protect the teacher’s picture, the last remnant of their deceased master.  After being stomped on the back for several minutes, the student is crippled.  Lee returns to see the carnage that is left in the dojo, and thereby realizes that he was the indirect cause.  The dojo decides he must leave the school forever, and never return.  He does so to protect the school and the students.

If you watch this movie thinking that Zhen’s struggle is to overcome the odds in terms of fighters, then you are wrong.  The Japanese dojo is not physically strong, but it is a titanic political force.  At this point in time, Japan had total control of China.  The part of Shanghai that they were in was an international spot.  Certain parts of Shanghai were off limits to Chinese.  After being shown that no dogs and Chinese were allowed at the park, Zhen tried to fight the Japanese men through force, which is something that he could not compete with when they had so much political power.

One of my favorite types of characters is neutral characters.  Han Solo in Star Wars, Saruman in Lord of the Rings, and Magneto in X-Men are all neutral characters.  The Chinese detectives were neutral characters.  After the deaths of two Japanese cooks (who poisoned the teacher), Lee went into hiding.  Because of this, everyone assumed that Lee was guilty of these crimes.  This caused the second-in-command of the Japanese dojo to insist that the police should handle Zhen.  Although the detectives had to arrest Zhen, they also understood why he did it.  They also understood the pressure that they were under.  The detective characters were very basic, but they illustrate the political power that Japan had back then.

Act III of Fist of Fury is my favorite thirty minutes of any film.  On Friday, when I was watching this film, I realized how amazing the final five scenes are.  You get to see: Bruce Lee show his true acting chops; the final showdown; the detectives; and the closing minutes of the best scene ever.  Act III starts when we are introduced to Robert Baker’s character, and the death to Japan’s voice.  Baker is brought in to counteract Zhen, someone who has been in training for quite some time.  By now, the entire dojo knows who they are dealing with.  Although most of them have never seen Lee, they know of his skill.

05

Before we get to the final battle, let’s talk about the main two villains—Baker and the Master.  In every scene we see Baker, he is very dominant.  From the drinking scene to his demonstration, you feel like he will pose a threat to Lee.  Then, we have the Master.  We never see him do anything until the end.  But, he controls the police and works closely with Britain (hence the British detectives at the end).  These two villains don’t have much chemistry together, but the difference in their set of skills proves to be a tough match towards Zhen.

After the Master makes his final move to kill all of the Chinese in their dojo, Zhen makes his final assault on the Japanese dojo.  Zhen offers to allow the low-life scum guards to leave before he challenges their master (but none do, of course!).  In this fight, Bruce shows only anger towards all these men, for each blow he is either crying or screaming.  If you have never seen Lee destroy opponents before, this fight scene will be enough to show that fight scenes can have emotions.  All five men die within seconds.  Then, the second-in-command sneak-attacks Lee.  This doesn’t amount to much of an assault as he then wields a sword.  This two minute fight is one of the best cinematic fight scenes ever.  The swordsmen remember how good he was, and cannot make any sudden mistakes like he did before.  Most of his moves are tight, and Lee as you should never takes his eyes off his opponent.  One of the best moments is when he is so focus that he runs right into a wooden wall.  First off, this was brilliant to demonstrate how focus he was, and second it showed that he had no other choice but to fight.  As the swordsman gets into stance and so does Bruce, everything remains quiet.  Bruce and him take one final stare down until Bruce kicks the sword out of his hands.  When the sword goes up in the air, Lee realizes this to paralyze him and set him up for the sword to go through him.  Every time I watch this I smile, it’s one of those Ah Ha scenes.  The scene reminds me of The Empire Strikes Back when Luke is preparing to face Vader.  You’ve been here before, you know what happens, but no matter what you still get the same reaction as you did the first time you watched it.  Not many movies can do that, but this scene gets a bigger reaction out of me every time I watch it.

Zhen is now on a rampage.  Any person he sees that is wearing Japanese attire he is killing.  One of my favorite moments is when the bodyguard of the Master starts fighting Zhen.  Obviously, Baker is not impressed.  Then, as the bodyguard charges, Lee drops down and punches him in the groin.  Not many other heroes have I seen punch someone there.  But that is what makes this character so special—he will do whatever it takes to win.  How many other heroes do you see biting people or hitting them in sensitive areas?  In his mind, it’s a fight to the death.  At this point Baker realizes it’s his turn to fight the unstoppable force.  Not many scenes in this movie are cinematic, but the fights most definitely are.  I equate the cinematic experience of the fights to the best of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, movies that had 100 times the budget.  To say the least, Lee is the master of fight scenes.  I digress.  As Baker steps down to face his opponent, time slows down.  It feels as though we have been sucked into a fantasy, and it is only the audience who is witnessing these two giants fighting.  Once the fighting starts, it seems very back-and-forth, until Zhen uses simple moves, such as biting Baker’s foot and attacking the attack.  Like I said before, Zhen will do anything to win, for he has honor at stake, unlike the others.  Although Baker gets a few hits in, it did not matter in the end.  The last minute consists of Zhen destroying him.  Take the final blow to Baker’s throat.  If you are wondering, yes, Lee crushed Baker’s throat and Baker was out for two weeks.  This is the type of fighting in films I love seeing and doing.  Real action shows that the filmmakers care about the product and they want you to be sucked into it.  If you don’t intend for the audience to think that what they are seeing is real, then what’s the point in having a fight scene?

Now, let’s talk about the Master.  He has no other choice but to fight.  And, like all good cowardly villains, he tries to blindside Zhen with a sword.  Zhen uses everything he can see in the Master’s office to use for defense and offense (very early Jackie Zhen fight scenes going on here).  But then it comes down to a martial artist’s dream: the nunchaku versus the katana.  Both are masters at their respective crafts, but in the end Zhen trumps him with patience.  The master is the most realistic villain that I can think of.  He is rich, you never see him practice or teach, and he drinks all the time, so why should he be good at fighting?  I never understood why the master has to be some amazing character because of title.  Zhen tells everyone title means nothing, as you see in the fight.  He is somewhat sloppy, and it never seems like he has the upper hand in the fight.  But I guess he always had the ace in the hole.

When Zhen returns to the dojo, he see that most of his friends and colleagues have killed.  They were murdered by the Japanese students.  Zhen also finds that the police are there waiting for him.  Not to mention, but if Lee doesn’t show up then they will close down the school and most likely all will be homeless.  Zhen knows he has to take responsibility for his actions.  The remainder of the students, believing that Zhen was going to jail, but instead would be put down “like a dog” right in front of the dojo.  This is one of the most messed up endings to any movie I’ve seen, and my favorite too.  Not only does the Japanese gang get away with all the people they killed, but they also, in a way, kill Zhen.  This showed me that every action has an effect.  In other words, I saw a very realistic ending to this movie.  One of the greatest feats Bruce Lee had achieved was successfully combining fantasy and reality in martial art films.  This ending gets to me to this day.

If you asked me what Bruce Lee’s greatest film is, I would tell you this film.  If you asked me about which one you should watch first, then I would tell you Enter the Dragon, the first polished Bruce Lee film.  When watching Fist of Fury, you would need to listen to it in Mandarin to fully appreciate it; the English dubbing (complete with comically bad, 1950s-ish, Western accents) is hard to listen to.  If you’re fine with reading subtitles, the Mandarin version is the best way to view the film.  Fist of Fury is an early work of a famous artist; the unknown work that made the creator known.  Every artist has this film: Lucas’ THX 1138, Jackie Chan’s Project A, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.  All of these films show that something great was going to come later for these creators, but the one thing none of these films could that Fist of Fury did was capture a universe.  With just a single punch by Bruce, the world knew that they were seeing one of the best at what he does.  Fist of Fury demonstrated what fight scenes should look like.  To this day, they have not been captured the way this film has.  Not even Enter the Dragon did this.

Rating: A+

If you love martial art films and haven’t seen this movie, then this is your next one.  If you are a filmmaker and want to create cinematic action sequences, this is the perfect movie for you.  If you just want to see a different universe of storytelling, then this is your movie.  Fist of Fury will change your way of thinking, as it did mine.

06

Food For Thought: Police Story (1985) – True Action!

By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

01

It’s sad when people think of Jackie Chan they think of the racist films known as Rush Hour.  Before Jackie Chan’s onslaught bad American films, Chan made his name by creating amazing fight scenes.  Overseas, action films rely much more on the strengths of the fight choreographer. In these films, there is an emphasis made on the skill and realness of each fight.

Chan became famous for not only being a consistently inventive and successful fight choreographer, but also an engaging performer of his own fight scenes.  His unique use of various props in a given location is what made him a star.  However, the United States, true to its history of borrowing from other cultures, watered down the true extent of Chan’s talent by focusing more on dialogue scenes than action scenes (in action films, mind you).  Today in the U.S. it seems that we are content with CG fight scenes, or completely fake ones.  Now, I know what you could say, “If they are so good then why don’t we know about it?”  That’s simple. Hong Kong films aren’t released in the US, because apparently there is not a market for fight scenes that are meticulously choreographed, shot, and edited. The truth of the matter is that foreign films don’t perform as well in the United States, so Hollywood studios are less likely to import them.  Only a select few have played in American theaters: Enter the Dragon, Ip Man, The Raid, and Rumble in the Bronx being among them.

One film that is not part of this select few, but should have been because it defined how fight scenes should be done, is Jackie Chan’s Police Story.  It was one of the first and only films to go all out, by using thick glass instead of breakaway glass, and, more generally, showing the brutality of an actual fight.  In most action films, the actor or stunt person doesn’t usually get hit. Usually the film will cut to a different angle for their reaction.  Chan did the exact opposite. Everything you see is real!

02

Yes, this really happens.

The mall fight scene really highlights Chan’s skill, as well as the shortcomings of modern action scenes.  Let’s take a look at a newer film that has received praise for its action.

For most of the fight scene you only see a small portion of the action, and Chris Evans does very little actual fighting.  He also can’t even roll properly, or throw a believable kick.  In that scene the actors are actively try not hitting each other instead of trying to hit.  I’ve noticed the difference in intensity with my stunt team from not trying to hit and trying.  Going for the hit captivates the audience much better.  The other problem with the clip from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that the placement (as well as the rapid movement) of the camera, combined with the constant quick-cutting, gives the illusion that the actors are moving faster than they really are.  But not even the greatest cinematographer, editor, or VFX artist can cover up the evidence that Evans can’t even roll properly, or throw a believable kick. Compare that scene to what Jackie Chan was doing thirty years ago:

If you want to watch the whole fight scene, scroll to the bottom.

In the second scene, the action stays on Chan, and the entire fight scene is tight and smooth.  Jackie also utilizes his background with the many different blocks he executes in that twelve seconds.  Chan combines basic movements (front kick, elbow, dodging, etc.) and makes them seem complex.  One thing I always found funny is that people counteract my point by saying that Chan’s fight scenes are unbelievable.  What is unbelievable about his scenes is that nobody is enhancing their movements, or tricking you mind.  Chris Evans portrays a super soldier who is not only physically strong, he’s also extremely fast.  Yet you can tell how little of experience Evans has as a fighter because we never see him do advanced moves with precision.  You can tell this when they show shots of Winter Soldier’s shoulder for three seconds.  Why do we need to see this?  It’s either: a) lazy filmmaking, b) terrible choreographing, or c) probably both.  People often say, “But Chris Evans can do flips, and that other cool stuff!”  No, that means he is a gymnast, not a martial artist.   American filmmakers don’t seem to understand the importance of analyzing what a character can, and cannot do in a fight scene. Instead of focusing on how the characters could add to the fight, they focus less on individual characters, and view the whole scene as just a set piece.  In reality, a fight scene should be a driving force for the story.

Jackie Chan, as well as many other eastern choreographers, understand how to make a fight scene.  They also understand that having too many fight scenes in one film destroys the movie.  Police Story only has two real fight scenes in the film (at the beginning and end).  Both have their unique moments.  In the opening scene, Jackie drives a car through a downhill town, and chases down a racing double decker bus, before clinging onto the back of it.

03

Police Story is one of the best martial art movies ever done. It has realistic fight scenes, injuries (Chan got cut from several pieces of glass in a fight scene), and Chan adds complexity to simple maneuvers to make them fresh. It’s no wonder he made five more Police Story movies after this, and became a living legend.  People might think I’m too harsh on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but audiences need to know that there is much better content out there from across the world.  I’m not saying American cinema stinks, but moviegoers should be open to what filmmakers across the world have been creating. There are lots of great movies out there, and Police Story is one of those gems.

Here is the whole fight scene.