Now that I’m a regular on the festival circuit, I’m finding that I’ve often seen a lot of the centerpiece movies already at previous festivals. At this year’s Actionfest I had already reported on The Raid, Let the Bullets Fly, Wonder Women!, Headhunters, Manborg, The Aggression Scale, The Day and God Bless America at Sundance, Toronto, SXSW and FantasticFest. But there was still a full slate of action movies to see this weekend. I’ll recap them in alphabetical order, which coincidentally addresses the rougher ones first. So please stick with us until the end because you’ve got to hear about ActionFest Best Film and Best Screenplay winner I Declare War!
Bad Ass isn’t what we would call a “real movie” and it doesn’t have things like “production values.” We love Danny Trejo, but we also know that Danny Trejo will be in anything. He’d probably be in Irreversible 2: Still Not Reversing if Gaspar Noe asked him. With a big bushy beard, Trejo plays a veteran who gets some notoriety for standing up to some thugs on a bus. Dubbed “Bad Ass” by the media, he fights crime vigilante-style. Even for a formula script the dialogue is very thin, but Trejo is so endearing you may go with it. Most of the fights are a few simple punches, maybe a stunt flip or two. They attempt some big stunts in the climax but it looks like they’re missing some shots. Like they have the bus and the train, but they didn’t get the shot that actually gets the bus in front of the train. Charles S. Dutton hams it up real good and this is what ActionFest is all about. We celebrate all attempts to thrill us, even the ones without the means or ingenuity to measure up. It’s this year’s Bail Enforcers only the fights are no good and Trejo is not as hot as Trish Stratus.
The starring vehicle for Cung Le is unfortunately a disappointment. The fights are really good (the first one won Best Fight at ActionFest) but the story tries too hard. If you’re disappointed by the fact that there is a story, you know what I mean. Hong (Le) is trained in prison by Tiano (Jean-Claude Van Damme) so when he gets out, he goes to the town of St. Jude to take down the gangs. It devolves into an unnecessarily lengthy Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars plot, although it is fun to see Peter Weller as an evil Mr. Big. By the time the mystery of St. Jude is revealed it’s just trying too hard. We came to see Cung Le fight. We would have forgiven a simple plot. There’s an ugly quality to the run down city (full of warehouses) that frequent straight to video movies, although director John Hyams gets some good single takes of action. I think we saw all the fights in Cung Le’s highlight reel over the weekend. If you didn’t see that then you’ll get to see some new fights in Dragon Eyes. Le has a good mix of brutality, ingenuity and grace. He definitely has a future as an action hero. The mentor is a great role for Van Damme too. Too bad he’s hardly in this movie.
A Gang Story
A Gang Story is a perfectly solid French gangster movie. It ain’t the French Goodfellas but it’s well done and tells the story. Said story is pretty familiar, probably because it really happened. Vidal (Gerard Lanvin) is an honorable leader, but Serge (Tcheky Karyo) is his Joe Pesci-ish dishonorable cohort who gets Vidal and his family in trouble with a bad deal. Tcheky Karyo actually gets to be a main character in the cinema of his home country, though he’s still a criminal like all the bad guys he plays in Hollywood movies. There are some hardcore kills and gangsta retribution, and effective drama within the genre conventions. If that’s your thing, Gang Story probably deserves a higher rating but for me it was just good enough. This had a 2010 copyright so you can probably already find it on DVD.
I Declare War
Now this is the real “kids in battle” movie. A group of kids play war in the woods, and their game is as strategic and tactical as any grown-up war movie. You understand the rules, but the bad kids kick people even after they’re out so you sense something bigger could happen. Filmmakers Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson lovingly transplant the war genre into this harmless format. The kids talk about what they’re going to do after the war (sleepover, watch a movie, etc.). Artistically, their toys become real props with squibs and pyrotechnic effects for the benefit of the film viewer. You sort of wonder how they’re going to keep going without adult supervision, and they do. Of course kids play rough, because kids really do play rough. The actors are natural because they’re not precocious, they’re not “on.” It’s totally entertaining and it becomes about something profoundly real in the end. The stakes are bigger than winning the war, although those are perfectly big stakes too. Shot out in the woods the filmmakers work with what they’ve got. There’s no real sense of the geography of the forest but it doesn’t take you out of the movie. This loving homegrown fantasy is awesome.
The Lost Bladesman
Donnie Yen has made a lot of bladesman movies. They’re all pretty generic where he’s in armor swinging weapons, but they’re all equally fun too. Some historical adventure and kicking. This one takes a slightly more legendary feeling since Yen plays Guan Yu, a famed dynasty warrior. The outcome has some bearing on Chinese history, but it’s still got a lot of amazing fights. Yen swings that giant blade like Jackie Chan swings a ladder, and maintains his grace in some tight spaces too. The Lost Bladesman won Best Directors and Best Action Scene at Actionfest. Some of the backstory about clans and allegiances may get a tad convoluted in translation but it’s all worthwhile. And if you just want to see another Donnie Yen bladesman movie, there’s that too.
What Solomon Kane has going for it is clearly shot action scenes where you can really see the sword fighting and decapitations. It doesn’t have much else. Based on a character from Robert E. Howard, Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) owes the devil for all his violence. So he retires from violence until a peaceful family he befriends is murdered. Then he kills the bad guys. I’m all for a simple story but I don’t care much for the overwrought mythology compounded on top of a basic revenge story. That mythology basically means ugly guys in prosthetic makeup and a big CGI monster at the end. There is a serial adventure aspect to Kane’s quest but it’s just so dark and ugly it’s hard to enjoy on a Raiders of the Lost Ark level. The religious undertones (Kane asks God for help) could be interesting but it’s all superficial, not spiritual. Unless the flaming rock monster was a metaphor.
Transit is a grindhouse-y super violent thriller that goes to some shocking non-mainstream places. A family driving to a camping trip have to evade a gang of criminals who stashed stolen money in their camping gear to sneak through a checkpoint. It’s obviously done on the cheap in the backwoods, but that allows the story to take some crazier turns than even a modest budget formula thriller would allow. I won’t spoil any because there are only a few money shots. Jim Caviezel is doing it for real. You really believe he’s trying to put his family back together, and then when the bad guys come it’s caveman protection mode. His wife (Elizabeth Rohm) is smart too, making the right calls even when her husband is framed and misunderstood. The car stunts are okay, obviously some risky driving but maybe not enough time to capture it elegantly on camera. What’s really good is the relentless hand to hand action that escalates towards the climax. Best Villain (new category) winner James Frain is actually rather standard. I would have created the Best Messianic Hero category instead.
Here’s something I’ve never seen before: A CSI investigation into a martial arts battle. Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) foils a robbery without any apparent fighting abilities, until detective Yu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pieces the story together and suspects Liu is really a deadly killer. He keeps testing Liu and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Donnie Yen actually turns out to be a good fighter. There are only three big fights in this one but the story is so engaging and original it’s wonderful. In the climax, Yen goes up against Jimmy Wang Yu! And there’s even more significance to Wang Yu’s presence that I won’t spoil. Liu is another great character for Yen. Like Ip Man, it allows him to be gracious and humble, and still show how awesome he is.