Sunday, August 28, 2011

'Four Robbers' is a worth stealing
(but only worth paying for if its cheap)

Four Robbers (1987)
Starring: Charlie Cho, Feng Ku, and Hon Shek
Director: Gam Loi Sung
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Four ruthless criminals from the Chinese mainland make it big in Hong Kong by violently robbing organized crime figures. They are soon find themselves in a maze of deceit and betrayal, as both the underworld and the law hunt them.

"Four Robbers" has the makings of a decent low-budget action film with several nicely staged gun battles. However, it is done in by the director's seeming inability to know when to end a scene; there are very few in the film that don't so much end as drag to painful conclusions. The plot is also somewhat over-complicated with one major development being completely nonsensical and the very definition of "doing something the hard way".

There are also several elements give rise to unintended comedy, first and foremost of these being the humorless, sanctimonious leader of the four robbers who frequently prattles on about responsibility, honor and paying his own debts while planning robberies and murders. This character would be utterly laughable if not for the fact that the actor who plays him is the only performer in the film who displays any real screen presence and for the way that he follows through on his prattle when he has to rescue his fellow robbers from the Thai police. (Even if that rescue becomes unintentionally funny as well.)

And then there's the dubbing. It's actually rather well done as far as the lines matching the action and making some degree of sense, but many of the voices are so goofy that one has to wonder what the director of the voice actors must have been thinking. (My guess is, "let's cover the fact that we've got three male actors and one woman doing voices for 10-15 recurring characters." The voices for the Thai police officers are especially hilarious.)

"Four Robbers" may be one of hundreds of mediocre Hong Kong action films, and as such, it's one you can probably safely ignore. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD anywhere but in the "Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack", and when taken as part of that package, it's inoffensive filler. In fact, for the right buyer, it might even be a plus, as it's got just the right mix of flaws, unintended comedy, and silly voice acting to make it a good candidate for a Bad Movie Night.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'Infernal Street' is not worth visiting

Infernal Street (1973)
Starring: Yui Tin-Lung and Feng Chang
Director: Chiang Shen
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a doctor in rural northern China starts a program at his health clinic to help opium addicts kick the habit, the local Japanese crime syndicate decides to shut him down. They didn't count on his hotheadeded young assistant (who also happens to be a kick-ass martial artist) who hates drugs as much as he hates the Japanese.

"Infernal Street" is an obscure martial arts flick that is deserving of obscurity. It's got a badly conceived script with bad guys who love violence as much as they love nonsensical, overly complicated schemes (like the one where they frame Our Hero for murder, only to have fake cops arrest him and take him to their headquarters). The terrible voice actors in the dubbed version included in the "Martial Arts" pack only make an already bad film worse.

The only two things "Infernal Street" has going for it are the decent martial arts fights and a fairly charismatic male lead who is interesting to watch. These elements keep the film from sinking to a rating of 3, but only just. This film is nothing but filler in this set, and it's one you can save until after you've watched the good ones.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hitman Double-feature with John Cusack

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Starring: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, and Dan Aykroyd
Director: George Armitage
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Martin Blank (Cusack) is a professional hitman who has grown disenchanted with his career choice. When he attends his 10-year high school reunion and reconnects with roots and childhood sweetheart, Debi (Driver), he decides to quit the life for good. But he first has to deal with some loose ends, such as Grocer (Ackroyd), a rival hitman who wants Blank to join the hitman union he's organizing; a killer out to avenge a dead hunting dog; and the last job that will let him start his new life.

"Grosse Pointe Blank" is a hilarious black comedy that constrast internationally renowned assassins with common everyday events and people--Blank's secretary and business manager sums up the film nicely when she explains why she finds the invite to his 10th high school reunion funny, because it shows that he "came from somewhere."

While the movie does confirm the adage "you can never go home again"--like when Blank discovers his childhood home is gone and replaced by a mini-mart--it does give a nice message about second chances and that it's never too late to pick a new and better path in life. This running thread gives both the film and the character of Martin Blank a dimension that many films being made decade plus are lacking, because they either all seem to present a world that is hopeless or one of easy answers; while "Grosse Pointe Blank" is ultimately about hope and positive change, it also makes a clear point that there are no easy solutions to life's big problems.

All the actors give great performances, the dialogue is sharp and funny; and the technical aspects are all pretty close to perfect, including the music soundtrack (although I'm sure some may complain that a realistic fight scene between Blank and an assassin stalking him is "lame"). The upbeat, casual atmosphere that permeates the fllm is also something that adds to the overall amusing quality, given what Martin Blank and many of the other characters to do a living.

I recommend this film highly to anyone who enjoys dark comedies that rely on wit over gross-outs.

War, Inc. (2008)
Starring: John Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff, Joan Cusack, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, and Montel Williams
Director: Joshua Seftel
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A high-priced hitman (Cusack) finds himself strangely bothered by his conscience when a job in wartorn Turaqistan brings him in contact with a troubled Turaqi pop idol (Duff) and a crusading reporter (Tomei).

"War, Inc." is a satire dealing with everything that's wrong with the way America has been waging war over the past decade or so while also taking jabs at the lazy media and the hypocrites on all sides of the "clash of cultures" between the Western world and that dominated by followers of Islam.

The film is an unofficial sequel to "Grosse Pointe Blank", with John Cusack and Joan Cusack reprising their characters from that film--even if they are going by different names. The Walt Disney Company which owns the rights to "Grosse Point Blank", would not allow the filmmakers to use the characters from the original film, so they renamed everyone... but Martin Blank is still Martin Blank, even if it's 20 years later and he's going by a different name.

Although the film is a little too gentle with most of the targets it skewers, it's well acted, well filmed and well paced. It's also very funny--except perhaps to journalists, self-serving politicians, international businessmen, self-important people from any country that ends in -stan, and trade show organizers. The rest of us will have an okay time, even if we will often find ourselves wondering why the filmmakers didn't push that joke a little further or why they seem timid when firing at certain targets.

It's not a perfect film, but it deserves more attention that it's gotten. It certainly didn't deserve to crash as hard financially as it did.

"War Inc." reportedly cost $10 million to make, but it barely cleared $500,000 during its run in theaters and it hasn't done much better on DVD. Given the many craptacular films with similar themes that preceded it in theaters at the time--anti-American propaganda garbage and hamfisted anti-war films like "Redacted" and "Lions for Lambs"--I'm not surprised no one bothered with this fun and clever movie, myself included.

If you liked "Grosse Pointe Blank" or if you're a fan of John Cusack and/or Marisa Tomei, you need to seek this movie out before it falls into complete obscurity. You won't regret it.