Hey, That’s MY Mythology!

Well, here it is. The post that was giving me problems. The post that gave me writer’s block for over a month. Let’s see if I can actually finish the sucker. Perhaps being quick and brutal will work?

I honestly do keep intending to get back to the edifying side of cinema, but I still find myself being self-indulgent about my viewing choices, if only to maintain my sanity. The return of the Daily Grindhouse Podcast is partially responsible for that, but I’d be lying if I said escapism wasn’t a major contributing factor. What I am finding is that I really enjoy the latest crop of overblown spectacle movies made possible by advances in CGI technology, and I am eating them like candy. Sweet, sweet over-produced candy. What this says about me as a cinephile, I am not sure. Am I a problem, rather than a solution?

Who cares, I’m enjoying myself.

I’m thinking this started with the two Monkey King movies and was cemented by League of Gods (and bolstered by my previous love affair with Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons). What I am finding is that the Chinese are very good at making this sort of thing, and making them entertaining, but the American movie industry… not so much. There are exceptions, of course, like the Wachowskis and James Gunn, but the important difference there is they are essentially dealing with their own mythologies (Marvel’s, in the case of Gunn), while the two movies setting this column off indulged in cultural appropriation for their mythologies, and bungled it.

From that last sentence, you might assume that we’re starting with the 2013 47 Ronin, and you would be right.

The story of The Loyal 47 Ronin is one of the great tentpoles of Japanese culture; the intro to this movie assures us that “the story of the 47 ronin is the story of Japan,” and to a point, that is correct, if overly general. The trouble is that the movie then proceeds to take that story and alter it so unmercifully and cavalierly that it’s kind of amazing that it didn’t spark off an international incident.

The actual tale of the 47 ronin concerns a clan of samurai whose lord, Asano Naganori, is driven by a venal court official to assault him, and is compelled to commit seppuku for that offense. His clan is dissolved, and those 47 retainers lie in wait for a year to visit their vengeance upon the man responsible for their lord’s downfall. It’s a great story, and there are many, many book, play and movie versions of it – the one I’ve seen is the 1962 Chushingura, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.

And now, with this version, after that Japan-centric intro, we meet Keanu Reeve’s character as a child, leading into the adult Keanu aiding his adoptive father Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) in a hunt for a strange beast straight out of Princess Mononoke. These beginning segments in what we are told is “the story of Japan” seems to me similar to being told that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was “the most faithful adaption of the novel” ever and then sitting through a lengthy pre-credit sequence that occurs nowhere in that novel.

Keanu is Kai, a half-Japanese orphan raised by the Tengu bird demons in a cursed forest. Lord Asano will still be duped into attacking another lord, but this time it’s due to the evil Lord Kira (Tananobu Ason)’s consort, who is a witch (and Rinko Kikuchi, to boot). Lord Asano’s eldest son, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is thrown into a pit for a year, then released and exiled a week before his sister, Mika (Ko Shibasaki) will be wed to Kira. So that year-long plot to avenge the fallen lord is replaced with a rushed, artificial deadline, and Oishi must find the despised Kai, who was sold to a coastal fight arena before Oishi was thrown into the pit. Because he knows Kai loves Mika and will do anything for her.

Apparently this version of 47 Ronin started as a straight historical drama like, say, Gladiator. But somewhere in the pre-production process, the suits decided they wanted a magical fantasy adventure for some of that sweet, sweet Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings money. And so the torturing of the storyline to accommodate mythical monsters and magic and Keanu Reeves began.

Now, I was a Keanu fan even back when everybody was still making fun of him for Johnny Mnemonic. It is probably his presence that got the project the greenlight. His inclusion as a half-breed alone wouldn’t have derailed the movie too badly. But past that, 47 Ronin stands as a monument to wrong-headed studio interference, with an increasingly chaotic storyline and least one obvious snipping out of a subplot and character (Yorick von Wageningen’s Kapitan, the pirate with the full-body skeleton tattoo who is on the poster for God’s sake) for the sake of more weirdness and at least one battle scene that changes nothing going forward.

In trying to put myself in the place of someone Japanese seeing this Hollywood mangling of my history, the best I could come up with (as a lifelong Texan) is a movie stating that Santa Anna and Sam Houston grew up together and the Battle of the Alamo was all due to a witch’s interference and Davy Crockett was a werewolf. Also for some reason the history books don’t mention the samurai warrior with power armor fighting alongside Jim Bowie. (Hollywood, you still haven’t returned my calls)

There were a few things I liked about 47 Ronin. The Tengu were neat. It was nice to see so many Asian actors in a Hollywood movie. They did not Hollywood-up the ending too much, everybody still had to commit ritual suicide. Those few things are still not enough to warrant a recommendation to any but Keanu completists. I am legendarily forgiving toward movies, but this one is just not very good.

This experience did not exactly make me look forward to seeing Gods of Egypt, even though I found it a superior movie in almost every way. In it, we told the Gods of the title are alien beings with certain powers, golden blood and who are half again as tall as humans. Osiris (Bryan Brown) is handing over the kingly crown to Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), only to be murdered and usurped by Set (Gerard Butler). Set takes Horus’ eyes, the focus of his power, and banishes the blinded god. It is going to take a human thief, Bek (Brenton Thwaites), egged on by his girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton), still faithful to Horus, to get the god back his eyes and overthrow Set, whose main purpose (besides the usual grinding of the faces of the poor) is to assassinate their father, Ra (Geoffrey Rush) and bring eternal darkness to Earth.

Looking at that synopsis and that cast, there is one thing that is going to jump out at you, and that is the major criticism of the movie: its very whiteness. The overwhelmingly Caucasian population of this Cradle of Civilization feels like something out of the 1950s Biblical Epic era.  Ridley Scott, defending the casting in Exodus:God and Kings, rather (in)famously pointed out that the movie would not be financially viable without white actors. There’s a good deal of actual controversy on the actual skin tones of the ancient Egyptians, but the truth of Scott’s statement, though ugly, is inescapable.

The story of Gods of Egypt, past your standard action adventure boilerplate, is strange and exotic enough that I think I could have enjoyed it as much if not more if posited as a tale of some strange fantasy lands, like League of Gods, without the hijacking of another culture’s history and mythology.

Nice job turning humans into hobbits, though.

But if we’re going to talk about hijacking another culture’s history and mythology, though, we’re going to have to continue on to The Great Wall, which I had actually been looking forward to seeing.

Matt Damon plays William, a medieval mercenary who journeys to China, chasing rumors of an explosive black powder that would make his work much easier. What he finds is that titular Wall, and it turns out that the reason it was built is a meteor crash-landed in the nearby mountains, and every few years the inimical life forms that it brought swarm, attack and eat anything in their path. William will immediately throw in his lot with the elite troops trying to turn back this alien horde, and maybe even defeat it for all time.

After the last two movies in this post, one might be forgiven for looking askance at Damon’s role in this movie, but he provides a time-honored device: the audience surrogate, the outsider to whom things must be explained, so the audience gains necessary information somewhat painlessly. William does provide an interesting clue to fighting the monster, correctly interpreted by the Chief Strategist Wang (the always welcome Andy Lau), leading to a master plan that, according to the rules of fiction, requires one last desperate shot at the very last moment, the climax of Star Wars if it involved lots of gunpowder and an alien queen.

It’s the predictability of that plot that is the only thing that truly works against The Great Wall. It’s a well-built story, the characters are interesting, the monsters are pretty unique and well-designed. I love the fact that there is a strong female leading the troops (Jing Tian, looking so beautiful and perfect that whenever she has a close-up, I find myself waiting for the cut scene to end so I can get back to playing Final Fantasy). But the only thing that can be truly called unique in its setup is that the Chinese apparently invented weaponized bungee-jumping.

There are six writers credited overall for The Great Wall, and none of those names are remotely Asian. I suppose that puts us back at my earlier, blasphemous re-telling of the Alamo, with a very important exception: the director is Zhang Yimou, one of best and most prestigious of Chinese directors. Damon isn’t a white savior, he is one cog in a group that comes together to defeat the enemy. There is heart in this movie, and that heart is not overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Though I really would have liked to know Zhang’s thoughts on the movie’s central concept.

In the midst of all this the movie version of Ghost in the Shell came and went, and with it the subsequent furor over the practice of “whitewashing” which was more or less the basis of this column (and one of the Daily Grindhouse podcasts. If you listen, you can hear hear me grunt a lot, because it was recorded at Jesus o’clock on a Sunday morning). I still haven’t seen it, but I’m told the ghost in Scarlett Johnnson’s shell is actually Asian, but even with that we’re still in Ridley Scott territory. I’ve been too busy with personal drama and my country’s imploding structure to actually keep up with any finger-pointing at the failure of that film at the box office, but my money’s on “action movies with females don’t sell” more than the whitewashing controversy or the very idea that people might not  want to see an Americanized, live-action version of anime. There is a very strong fanbase for anime here in the States, that is undeniable – but that doesn’t mean that fanbase actually wants to see their stories in another medium, or that any other demographic can be bothered to go see it, no matter how many anime-adjacent movies like Pacific Rim are actually successful.

At least this might finally put paid to that Americanized version of Akira. Though, really, I wouldn’t put any money on that. We white folk love our little cultural thieveries.

Buy 47 Ronin on Amazon

Buy Gods of Egypt on Amazon

Buy The Great Wall on Amazon

Buy Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

Punching: The Forty Year Difference

Coming off two weeks where real life and two of my three jobs were determined to kill me (had number three pitched in, I’d be writing this from a hospital bed at least), I suddenly realized I had turned a corner and had the next 48 hours free. What to do? I should probably watch a movie. I haven’t watched a movie in two weeks. I have that stupid thing where I am going to, for sure, watch a certain 100 movies I’ve been putting off within the next year.

force_four_poster_012So what do I watch? Force Four. Or as the IMDb knows it, Black Force.

It is damned hard to find information about Force Four. It’s a scrappy little mongrel of a movie, and I wager the script was written on a cocktail napkin. The Black Force of the title is four martial artists (Owen Wat-son, Warhawk Tanzania, Malichi Lee, and Judie Soriano), who are all real-life black belts, They apparently have some sort of mercenary/troubleshooter thing going on, because they receive a phone call on the special phone in their panelled Black Force pad, hiring them to find and recover a African artifact that was stolen before the opening credits.

By way of introduction, each of the members of Force Four do their individual katas, which eats up some time. Then they Hit The Streets to dig up some information on the theft. This takes the form of an endless montage with the same ten shots of New York City repeated over and over played under improvised dialogue from our four stars, leavened with the occasional quick fight scene or the sight of Warhawk playing basketball in platform heels. The dialogue occasionally tries to sync up with what’s going on onscreen, and the one sudden instance of sync sound is jarring. But man, does it eat up time.

Meanwhile, in the Black Force Cave...

Meanwhile, in the Black Force Cave…

That one prostitute who rates sync sound, it turns out, works for Z (Sam Schwartz) the doughy mobster who runs things, see? Z sends out his thugs to get Force Four while they’re separated and Hitting The Streets. There are four quick fight scenes. Our plucky Black Force re-convenes at The Pad, and Owen has gotten one thug to talk (off-camera), so they go to the thug’s place and beat them up. No artifact or Z, though, so they drive upstate to Z’s house. This drive is pretty much accomplished in real-time.

DuskZ is having a house party, so the movie will also stop dead for an entire song by an outfit I dubbed Tony Borlando and Dusk, but was likely Live USA, who provided the soundtrack. And you know what? That soundtrack is pretty good. I’m gonna let Dusk/Live USA skate, even if Tony is wearing a tuxedo that left me blind for a few minutes.

Force Four beat up some more thugs on the grounds, then confront Z (who is soaking his buyer for another 100 grand, the rat). Z barely gets away, and many are the screaming extras and kung fu fights around the pool.  Owen plants a tracer on Z’s car (but drops it and then has to hide behind a tree for fifteen minutes while Z’s head thug tries very hard not to see him). This enables Force Four to follow Z the next day – and his buyer lives out even further than him – beat up everybody, and find out that the case has a false bottom with tons of uncut heroin.

Malachi Lee gone SMACK YOU!

Malachi Lee gone SMACK YOU!

The movie is still not much over an hour long. So we have the extended dance re-mix of all the fight scenes in the movie, followed by a five minute end credit sequence, with individual shots of each and every black belt in the movie (the poster promises 28, and I believe the poster). We finally hit 82 minutes, and it’s over.

Force Four starts with some title cards stating that the martial arts contained therein are presented as realistically as possible, with no camera tricks or gimmicks. This is pretty much true, and the fights are as realistic as you can get in a world where opponents attack you one at a time and there are no guns. Each fight is over with very quickly, and our heroes don’t have a lick of trouble until the very last battle, and even then, they are never outmatched. Kind of boring. Which is a fair assessment of Force Four. Frustrating amount of padding, no real tension.

It’s also odd to consider that the breakout star from this was Warhawk Tanzania, who would make The Devil’s Express (aka Gang Wars) the next year. (Owen Wat-son had made Velvet Smooth the year before, so I guess he was the opposite of a breakout. He actually has the best acting chops of any of the Force, though Malachi Lee has a nice, quiet charisma.)

FIN02_JWick_BusShltr_SWPNow let’s compare this with the movie I saw the next day, John Wick.

In case you didn’t watch any movie trailers last year, Keanu Reeves is the title character, a very recent widow, whose wife’s parting gesture is the gift of a beagle puppy, delivered on the evening of her funeral, to ensure that John continues to have “something to love”. John also has a beautiful 1969 Mustang that catches the eye of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the lowlife son of a Russian mobster. When John refuses to sell, Iosef and his buddies stage a nighttime home invasion, beat up John, steal his car, and kill the puppy.

Puppykillers. We all hate them.

Iosef then proceeds to have a very bad couple of days as he finds out he tugged on Superman’s cape, he spat into the wind, he pulled the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and he just reactivated one of the most feared assassins in the history of the world. Wick met his wife, retired from The World, and the only thing that was keeping him a nice, quiet, normal nobody was the dog. And it is quite probable that not even Iosef’s daddy, kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), and his army of hoodlums, will be able to save him.

john-wick-is-keanu-reeves-best-movie-since-the-matrixJohn Wick is, needless to say, a very violent movie; when all is said and done, Keanu has killed 76 people, but hey – dog owners understand. What keeps this from becoming Commando is the odd alternate world we find ourselves in this time: The world of the assassins, where everything – everything – is paid for in gold coins, there is a five-star safe house hotel in the Flatiron Building, and a phone call for “dinner reservations” gets you quick, discreet and complete body disposal and cleanup – one gold coin per corpse.

The movie really owes a lot to Donald Westlake’s Parker novels and Point Blank in particular, with its driven protagonist and fascinating glimpses into a hidden world with its own rules and codes. It’s also a hell of a rumination on revenge and the fact that dominos keep on falling once they’re nudged.

downloadJohn Wick was hyped to me as being the equal of The Raid 2, and for once I bought into the hype, and as usual, regretted it. I liked the movie, and unlike a lot of people, I really like Keanu, who shows some impressive acting chops in the beginning, and whatever else you may say about the man, he is not afraid to train and train hard. But living up to Raid 2 is a tough road to follow. Now, like Raid 2, we are presented with a series of fight scenes in which I can follow every motion and action. Movies that do this automatically get another star, letter grade, or whatever bogus scoring system you’re using.

I really liked it. But I wasn’t blown away.

But it’s this methodology that shows how far the action film has come in 40 years:  The black belts of Force Four did their own choreography, and Michael Fink filmed that choreography. Wick’s directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, were stunt coordinators, choreographers and then second unit directors before lobbying hard for their post here: pre-viz and plotting out how fights look to the camera are second nature to them. It has become an industry, and the sooner this aesthetic takes hold of action filmmaking, that it becomes the standard again, the better. I’m thinking that it’s this clarity of motion and intent in the action scenes that had people putting it on even footing with Raid 2, it’s really that much of a breath of fresh air in an American-made film.

And then I watch the Making-of supplements and see all these scenes before the teal and orange color ramping and I start being tempted to take away that extra star. That, at least is definitely one thing The Raid 2 has over John Wick.

I watched John Wick with Rick and Dave, and Dave made the comment – likely true – “This script was only 15 pages long. I guarantee it.” I held that he was likely right, but at least it wasn’t half a page, spread out to 82 minutes. I don’t think the point was quite made because I haven’t made them watch Force Four.

Yet.

John Wick on Amazon