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TSBH: Tiger on the Beat (Lau Kar-leung, 1988)

As an obvious send-up of its Western action-comedy predecessors, Tiger on the Beat is legendary Shaw Brothers staple Lau Kar-leung’s head-scratching departure from traditional martial arts fare. Paired with hotheaded rookie Michael Tso (Conan Lee), notorious slacker and womanizer Sergeant Francis Li (Chow Yun-Fat) is tasked with taking down a heroin trafficking ring. Trailing their only available lead in the form of a key player’s sister, criminal involvement escalates as the mismatched duo comically overcomes explosively tone-deaf adversity on the path toward justice.

Billed as an HK equivalent to Lethal Weapon, this descriptor isn’t far off as the film strays from typically redundant heroic bloodshed fare. It forgoes the themes perpetuated throughout the likes of Lam and Woo’s features for an agreeably lighter take on action formula with an emphasis on chemistry between leads. While mostly effective, there’s no denying the aforementioned tonal inconsistency plaguing alternating scenes of general wackiness and extreme violence. Whether it’s Chow Yun-Fat “interrogating” the key players’ lone female link to the criminal underworld or the latter-act chainsaw battle crescendo, it’s this brand of insanity that instills Tiger on the Beat with enough of an engaging personality.

Well-intentioned as it is, Lau Kar-leung’s emulative employment of familiar Western tropes is startlingly uneven as the bickering duo nears resolution. The humor, while effective, is easily overshadowed by events comparable to the female lead being beaten within an inch of her life by a corn starch-wielding Chow Yun-Fat. You’ll have to see the film to gather relevant context of course, but Lau’s priorities become a bit muddied leading up to a during the expected blowout characteristic of the subgenre, of which comes complete with some of the more inventive pump shotgun use I’ve seen.

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Slow West (John Maclean, 2015)

A hyper-revisionist’s take on what could be classified as a straight-shot coming-of-age Western, Slow West tells the tale of Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – a naive immigrant intent on tracking down the woman he loves residing somewhere on the titular frontier. When he crosses paths with enigmatic drifter Silas (Michael Fassbender), the man in question offers to escort Jay to his destination for a considerable monetary fee. Trudging solemnly through a vastly unsettled American expanse toward an uncertain endpoint, the duo struggles to persevere as hardships both elemental and human obstruct their progress.

Imbued with admirably low-key sensibilities, Slow West is what one could consider to be the old west a la Wes Anderson and his contemporaries. Barring the intermittent weightiness of the proceedings, Maclean’s script is laced with witty idiosyncrasies and schadenfreude that bolster the film above the typically melodramatic. Even the most dire of situations, like Jay getting robbed blind by a German scholar for example, express a post-traumatic levity that ensures Slow West remains multifaceted and unlike similarly set fare.

Maclean also does a fine enough job in avoiding narrative piffle as Jay and Silas steadfastly approach their destination. The core conundrum paired with their disparate motives involving the same girl is rudimentary in scope but effective, and the inherent uncertainty of the region wandered assuredly procures many an offbeat encounter and individual. Needless to say, Slow West rarely fails to entertain should you not deem it self-involved in terms of an inherently indie vibe.

As an aptly minimalistic take on a well-worn genre and tropes, Slow West is timely and indicative of this generation of filmmaking by way of somber quirkiness and a singular agenda. Although a nigh-pretentious lyricism affects the film’s pacing and goings-on, it never falls victim to this potential flaw on account of how easily it engages by way of chemistry between leads, basal but involving conflict and a tonal personality that – albeit harshly black or white – struck a chord with yours truly. Maclean’s debut is far from amateurish in these regards and finds repeated solace in their exploited strengths as Jay and Silas trek west in tandem.

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Good Kill (Andrew Niccol, 2015)

Clumsily hammering home the obviousness of its ethics-heavy mantra, Good Kill focuses on morally conflicted drone pilot Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke) throughout the day-to-day of his daily grind. A seasoned member of the so-called “Chair Force,” Tommy’s expertise as a drone pilot remains invaluable despite a deep-seated desire to return to the skies. With his home life beginning to suffer, things go from merely troublesome to dire as CIA involvement throughout this 2010-set war on terror proves to be nigh-insurmountable.

Following Gattaca, although thematically ham-fisted all the same, Andrew Niccol has at least sustained a noteworthy persona within the medium. I’m admittedly a fan of both his directorial debut and Lord of War, however an overarching bluntness has often stilted his work and prevented it from being truly incisive. Good Kill is essentially more of the same, the film insisting on brandishing thoughts and opinions as openly as military officers do ranks on their uniforms.

Confronting the morally muddy detachment coinciding with remotely operated drone strikes in general, it’s easy to see to why anyone would have a hard time stomaching the harsh realities of Egan’s role. Drowning his sorrows amid many an instance of internalized emotion and blank stares, the drama injected into his home life rings hollow as a stab at third-dimensionality – something that’s present but ultimately fails to evoke the emotional response Good Kill demands of us. Instead, the proceedings are largely an inarticulate soapbox for Niccol and his intended commentary on who the real terrorists are in the now decade-plus-long anti-terror initiative.

Believe it or not, what I’ve just outlined is not merely a matter of calculated criticism. In fact, Good Kill‘s central characters make it a point to verbalize these exact points to a T. While fairly non-oppressive by way of subjectivity, Niccol’s latest is still a rudimentary exercise in lapsed timeliness that doesn’t pack nearly enough oomph to stand on its own as a different take on Hawke’s Egan’s war-induced fragility. Good Kill still remains a noticeable step up from the lifeless dross that was In Time (I’ve thankfully not seen The Host), so if you’re interested in seeing a once promising auteur inch closer to full recovery, you could do worse than check this one out for curiosity’s sake.

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Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)


Grappling with the thought of heaping more praise upon George Miller’s long-gestating brainchild, let it be known that to not articulate anything about it would be blasphemous. Indiscernibly placing itself along its predecessors’ timeline, Fury Road finds our titular hero (Tom Hardy) alone and at odds with the tyrannical Immortan Joe and his kamikaze army of terminally ill War Boys. Crossing paths with the comparably battle-hardened Furiosa (Charlize Theron) – Joe’s prized Five Wives in tow – the duo forms a necessary bond as they traverse a desolate wasteland in pursuit of liberation and redemption.

Having just reacquainted myself with the low-budget 1979 original, my expectations of Fury Road were tempered but remained high given a string of nigh-operatic teasers and considerable critical hype-in-advance. Given the apt-enough singularity of the first film, it’s breathtaking to see what two sequels and years of continued development have done for Miller’s ingenious end result. Effortlessly thriving by way of unfettered creativity, the sensibilities on display are truly unparalleled.

Revelling in deranged yet controlled chaos from the get-go, Fury Road unapologetically thrusts us into the immediate thick of things. In avoiding needless expository fringe, dialogue remains sparse as key elements speak for themselves. Immortan Joe as the resource-hoarding domineer amid troves of impoverished subordinates, Max reprising his role as the reluctant hero – the script’s simplicity is tangible but fails to hinder the enthralling depravity of what ensues. Each sequence just clicks thanks to the layer of assured bombast coating the film’s primary attributes as a triumphant genre benchmark.

As the most unique, arresting and assured action film to come about in recent memory, Mad Max: Fury Road truly epitomizes creative freedom within the medium. Finding continued sanctuary among a barrage of kinetic crescendos and lack of gender bias, the film’s personality, corresponding bleakness and steadfastness of narrative are all something to behold. Miller’s opus is one of unparalleled mastery – a dystopian, sand-bathed wasteland steeped in an attention to world-building to be unrivaled by unavoidable imitators in years to come.

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Maggie (Henry Hobson, 2015)

As a microcosmic glimpse at yet another mid-apocalyptic zombie scenario, Maggie shines the spotlight on the titular ill-fated daughter (Abigail Breslin) of the brooding and brutish Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Tasked with caring for her in the final days leading up to mandatory quarantine, Wade struggles to cope and cherish their fast-fading remaining time together in light of Maggie’s intermittently rebellious behavior. Somber unpredictability ensues as survival among the already undead and placating wary housemates factors into an increasingly dire situation for the father-daughter duo.

I find a lot to appreciate within this particular niche of stilted genre filmmaking. In the vein of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici’s Stake Land and We Are What We Are, Maggie imbues itself with an affecting lyricism uncharacteristic of what contemporary horror is glaringly oversaturated with. A non-oppressively somber color palette reigns as Schwarzenegger’s physique belies his admirably restrained demeanor, said aesthetic competently conveying the purposeful bleakness of the scenario presented. It’s a film steeped in both emotionality and individuality, of which Maggie lets coexist to prioritize relatable humanism over run-and-gun gore-spattering.

While laudable enough based on approach, the film becomes a victim of its own design as key events boil down to just when and where Maggie will make her inevitable transition. The inclusion of supporting characters helps to flesh out the rural nook Hobson presents us with, yet the decidedly zombie-light slow burn fails to consistently captivate, causing the proceedings to palpably drag as innumerable bouts of misery trump sparse emotional highs. An out-and-out slog it isn’t if a bit too linear in the chronicling of Maggie’s tiresome final days.

In failing to fully capitalize on Schwarzenegger’s notable turn and subverting our expectations a la rote subjectivity, Maggie is worth a watch if dour hopelessness in the face of tragedy is your cup of tea. Highly reminiscent of Mickle and Damici’s aforementioned panache in elevating genre elements with a lyrical flair, using either one of the films I referenced wouldn’t be a detriment to deciding if this one’s in your wheelhouse. It’s assuredly affecting given the competently realized familial dynamic, it’s just a shame that sheer chemistry and a relentlessly downtrodden mean steak can’t generate long-lasting appeal.

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The D Train (Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul, 2015)

Portly everyman Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is a caring husband, father and overzealous chairman of his high school reunion committee. Fearing his past unpopularity will retroactively stunt turnout, Dan finds resolution in a late-night Banana Boat ad starring the most popular man from his graduating class, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden). Buttering up his technologically ignorant boss to procure a competent front, Dan treks west to L.A. to solicit his debaucherous foil’s attendance to guarantee all a reunion for the ages. Unfortunately for him, the innocuously deceitful plan goes increasingly south when a hiccup threatens to upend more than just a get together.

The D Train is an out-and-out enigma in the realm of similarly R-rated fare. Although this descriptor is spoilery in and of itself, it’s still possible to criticize around major plot points as I outline just where and when the film goes (ambitiously) AWOL. For starters, the persona perpetuated by Black’s character is a familiar one – an identifiable former loser that’s transitioned comfortably enough into the paternal archetype he is. Disrespected and neglected by his current peers, it’s no surprise that The D Train ventures along the path it does to evoke the laughs it aims to. Given a mid-first to second act avalanche of a plot device however, the film transitions from typically niche to bizarre via muddied thematic and tonal substance.

In between many an instance of anachronistic yet delightful ’80s scoring, we’re often left pondering the film’s end game. While the bombshell of a turning point does enough to pique involvement, it’s hard to decipher exactly what The D Train aims to incisively explore – if anything – as the crux unfolds. The palpably genre-melding structure remains effective, yet it’s truly difficult to determine what angle this driving impetus is meant to make us speculate about. It’s all negligible in the end, yet to go the route it does leaves us feeling unfulfilled as invested viewers expecting a diversion from comparable efforts steeped in this volume of vulgarity.

This indecisive pursuit of uniqueness brands The D Train as a decidedly ambitious failure. Employing familiar character tropes to a surprisingly strange degree, the film doesn’t so much subvert formula as it does our perception of those contributing it to the medium. It’s enjoyable in spurts, but to so fervently mold its proceedings according to the outcome of a prominent mishap, wrapping things up this conventionally is head-scratching. Bonus points for actors’ perpetuated charisma and general appeal, of course – just don’t expect to walk away from this experience with a positive opinion of anyone but Hahn and Tambor as the bamboozled supporting players.

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TSBH: A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)

Following the high-grossing success of A Better Tomorrow, Cinema City all but scrambled to solicit a sequel from Woo. Collaborating with friend, fellow filmmaker and producer Tsui Hark, the two eventually came to blows over the final cut of the film, of which is said to have differed drastically a la their respective creative visions. As a result, Woo is said to have nigh-disowned it, opting to solely laud the agreeably ludicrous finale chock full of more blood-soaked pyrotechnics than most would deem conventional by even today’s standards.

Professional grievances aside, A Better Tomorrow II is a noticeable step down from its obviously innovative predecessor, opting to pelt us with expository cheese that fails to elicit more than boredom at frequent intervals. Employing a deep undercover conceit to immerse the estranged Ho and Kit in the seedy world of triad counterfeiting, the two are thrown for a loop when their initial target – Lung Si (Dean Shek) – is betrayed by former cohorts that have an obvious interest in acquiring his profitable assets. In pops Chow Yun-fat as the deceased Mark’s twin brother Ken to rekindle A Better Tomorrow‘s cool factor via ostensibly exploitative fashion sense, trench coat and all.

Although themes of brotherhood and betrayal are ever-present and employed to an effective enough extent, the sheer amount of pound-for-pound repetition becomes tiresome. Ho and Kit have since let bygones be bygones, yet their mere presence and perpetuated moral code remains too familiar to maintain our investment. Chow’s turn as Ken is literally identical to that featured in the initial film, of which is a plus in and of itself, that is until an awkward rehabilitative moment involving a catatonic Dean Shek and oranges teeters on the brink of unintentional self-parody.

An altogether weaker effort undoubtedly hamstrung by editing conflicts and the like, A Better Tomorrow II boasts a fair amount of Woo playing with his toys but can’t combat glaring conventionality and offbeat tendencies. Ken wielding handguns akimbo whilst gliding backwards down a flight of stairs is assuredly a treat, as is the aforementioned finale; it’s just a shame that shortcomings brought about by various (and often silly) idiosyncrasies place it upon a lackluster tier of Woo’s filmography.

To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

Ah, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So named because each canonical entry into it expands what’s as voluminous as the noun itself. As the latest and arguably most anticipated installment, Avengers: Age of Ultron swoops in at the tail-end of the brand’s Phase Two initiative to middling success as our favorite band of heroes unites against a common enemy once more. Accidentally manifested on account of Sir Tony Stark’s overzealous preemptive tendencies, Ultron (James Spader) becomes an artificially intelligent force to be reckoned with as an inherent hatred of humanity spurs a desire to extinguish it. With twin siblings Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) posing an additional threat, moreover hindrance to the Avengers’ burgeoning anti-Ultron offensive, will the two parties overcome adversity and rally against the charismatic A.I. menace?

What hurts me the most in critiquing Joss Whedon’s second and final go with the Avengers’ mythos is how hamstrung it is by pandering to expectations. Steeped ceaselessly in fan-fueled perpetuity, the writer-director’s palpable wit can’t overcome how glaringly exploitative of famously favorable strengths Age of Ultron is. Including and limited to bouts of lukewarm, CGI-doused action and a plethora of character moment fan service, the end result is little more than a predictable resolution to a drawn-out large-scale shit show, of which comes packaged with a particularly high stakes nigh-doomsday scenario to set it apart from preceding set pieces.

As Spader’s agreeably titillating turn as the familiarly self-aware antagonist serves to do that and not much else, Whedon’s best attempts to engage via talky expository foreshadowing can’t infuse the proceedings with a multifaceted third-dimensionality. Although competently world-building in scope, key sequences brand Ultron as a means of further franchise posturing – an almost segue between chapters in the expansive and dependably lucrative niche Marvel’s carved out for itself within the medium. Character psyches are methodically explored – and lengthily at that – to varying degrees of success as said moments serve to negate overarching intelligence in favor of forced additional screen time for everyone’s respective favorites.

It pains me to say that this adherence to Marvel’s own refined and increasingly banal formula drags the film way down. Ultron is so reflective of its predecessors’ shared indistinct personality that it all boils down to one’s proclivity to geek out. There’s enough here for diehard fans to enjoy, and a few welcome additions by way of narrative setup and key players exude enough promise for future success. A-Squad fatigue has certainly set in by now, and although not incompetent, Age of Ultron too consistently suggests a total absence of creative freedom within the boundaries of the license it ascribes to. The star power is ever-present, however charismatic interplay and coinciding snark can only carry otherwise flaccid bombast so far.