Armour of God (1986)

As I said two weeks ago, tonight’s film review would be my last, and for my last film review, we have Armour of God, probably not the best Jackie Chan film, but a decent enough film for me to bow out on. The film is perhaps more known for two things. One, for its confusing release in the West (it was released as Operation Condor 2 even though it was made before the actual sequel, Armour of God II: Operation Condor). Secondly, the production of this film saw Jackie Chan come the closest he has ever come to death while trying to perform a stunt for the end of the film. All things considered, it’s a pretty good film, if mainly because it doesn’t take itself seriously, which is imperative considering its silly premise.

In this film, Jackie Chan is a former member of a Cantonese pop band called The Losers, but he became an adventurer under the name “Asian Hawk”. Later he is reunited with former bandmate Alan, whose girlfriend and fellow bandmate Lorelei has been kidnapped by an shadowy monastic cult who is holding her hostage in order to get Jackie to bring them the remaining pieces of the eponymous “Armour of God”, including the sword he found in Africa. To save her, he and Alan must strike a deal with Count Bannon, who has the pieces of the armour the cult is asking for, and allows Jackie to take them on the condition that his daughter May accompanies them. They are in for a surprise as the cultists know they are coming.

Right off the bat, it’s basically Jackie Chan’s answer to Indiana Jones and similar adventure films, with his style of action comedy. The writing isn’t great, but it’s simplistic enough that you can enjoy it, like a matinee film. My main problem is that the film tends to meander on, though only a bit.

As for the acting, it really depends on which version of the film you watch, and unfortunately, I saw the version where they re-dubbed the voices in English and created a newer, cheesier musical score (I think this is the Operation Condor 2 version, but the “Armour of God” title appears). This dubbed version is incredibly corny and at times, it doesn’t seem like it synced well with the original film. I almost don’t think Jackie here even sounded like Jackie.

But at least the film is pretty fun to watch, in the enjoyably cheesy sort of way, with decently well choreographed action scenes, and humour that falls into the “so bad it’s funny” category. That’s it from me. It’s been a good run.

  • Score: 68%
  • Grade: C
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Holy Weapon (1993)

For some reason, much of the Chinese films I’ve watched are quite batty. With a few exceptions, I mainly seem to find films that are balls-out crazy to us, but I suppose not so much in China. In this regard, Holy Weapon is another level of silliness entirely. It’s the equivalent of a live-action anime film, only if it were made in China and nothing made any glimmer of sense at all.

So let’s see if I’ve managed to piece the plot together. Set in China during the Ming Dynasty, the first part of the story sees a warrior named Mo Kake taking a special invincibility drug from a crazy “Ghost Doctor” (who looks like Dr. Wily) so that he can fight “Super Sword”, the most powerful swordsman from Japan. Three years later, he comes back looking for revenge. The only problem is that now Mo Kake is too weak to fight on his own, and needs the help of seven women to regain his power defeat Super Sword again using the Yuen Tin sword technique.

For the first ten minutes you’re treated to some of the most off-the-wall action scenes in the world, with flying bird men ripping the head of a horse and eventually colliding into each other, resulting in an explosion. Meanwhile, Super Sword and Mo Kake cause the ground the break apart, and fighting with bizarre powers and objects the size of buildings. That’s the fun part over. For most of the film afterward, you’re treated to a meandering comedy plot, and the comedy is initially hilarious but it ebbs as the film goes on.

Therein lies my main problem with the film. It’s inconsistent and spends what seems like eternity on a barely passable comedy plot with better jokes than writers. A lot of the plot is based on magic, with a plethora of special effects. Towards the end it’s even weirder, with the film turning into an episode of Power Rangers but with a mostly female cast. It’s almost exactly like Future Cops. In fact, it was made by the same director.

The acting is sort of all over the place, and you can never really take it seriously. Serious acting in a film like this may as well be construed as hammy acting. Fortunately nothing about the characters are serious, which is good because the entire film is a bukkake of wire fu and slapstick humour. It’s totally crazy, but if you’re into that sort of film, it’ll be an absolute blast.

  • Score: 65%
  • Grade: C

Future Cops (1993)

There are some weird and wonderful films out there if you know where to look, and amount the more bizarre films I can find you have Future Cops. At first glance, you’re probably thinking “is this some sort of weird Chinese Street Fighter knockoff or something?”, and you’d be sort of half-right. It uses parody versions of Street Fighter characters, but for some reason there’s also a parody version of Goku in the film. The actual film is even more ridiculous than it looks.

Here’s the plot itself. In the year 2043, an evil crime lord called The General plans to take over the world, but has been arrested and sentenced to imprisonment by judge Yu Ti Hung. In retaliation, he sends his three strongest henchmen, Kent, Thai King, and Toyota on a trip fifty years into the past in order to kill the judge while he’s in his twenties, before he even has a chance to become a judge and jail him in the first place. In order to put a stop to the General’s plan, the Police Director sends three future cops, Ti Man, Broomhead, and Sing, in order to protect the young Yu Ti Hung.

The story, I’ll be blunt, is ridiculous. It opens up as a frenetic action film, with lasers and kicks flying everywhere in an orgy of action. Ten minutes into the film, however, and the film turns into a bizarre sitcom starring a young adult with bad luck. In fact, from what I’ve heard, the back of the DVD for this film says “the future cops meet a retarded boy in the past, but it’s really just our hero who happens to have bad luck”.

My main problem with the story is not that it reads like a sci-fi Street Fighter knock-off. That I can somehow live with, in fact it’s actually better than the official Street Fighter film we got with Jean-Claude Van Damme. The main problem is that it’s all over the place and it tends to meander a lot. At one point it’s an action film, and at other times it’s a rom-com. Most bafflingly, there’s a scene in which Ti-Man and Yu Ti Hung’s sister are flirting inside a budget live action version of Super Mario World. It’s hilarious to say the least. If like me you’re watching this and you don’t know Cantonese, the film is best watched with subtitles, but just hope that you don’t end up watching it with erroneous subtitles, else you get gems like “the Pope is leaking”.

The presentation isn’t all bad. In fact, the music is quite good, in a cheesy sort of way. The whole film just oozes camp, like the Cantonese cinematic equivalent of watching an episode of the 1960’s Batman TV series, except it was actually intended to be a comedy, and you’ll actually bust a gut laughing. Of course, some of the props look like they were quite cheaply made, and you’ll notice this when some of the characters are shown crashing through walls.

On the whole, Future Cops isn’t bad, and it’s incredibly hilarious if you can get your hands on it. It seems like cheap action film that uses barely disguised rip-offs of Street Fighter characters, but when it gets down to the action, this is a film that doesn’t mess around. Truly, this is perhaps one of the most ridiculous films ever made, and seemingly proud of it.

  • Score: 67%
  • Grade: C

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Nowadays very few Hollywood films get me going to the theatre anymore, chiefly because the cinema now more than ever is an outdated institution of public life, and I’m surprised that the Internet hasn’t killed it off yet. Last week, however, offered something different. From the director of The Fifth Element came the promise of an exciting new sci-fi adventure that I think was hoping to rival Star Wars in terms of scope and success. But nothing is perfect I suppose. While the film certainly has its flaws, however, I think it’s a good film with decent ideas, and if nothing else is good summer entertainment. But let’s get right down to it.

The plot of the film is set in the 28th century, largely in the Alpha space station, the film’s eponymous city of a thousand planets, where people of different species from different planets live together. The protagonists are two government agents – Valerian and Laureline – who are given the task of investigating a mysterious force lurking within part of the space station, from which people have never returned, leading the government to assume it is toxic. But all is not as it seems, and when the two agents venture further towards the area, they realise that something else is going on.

The first half of the story showed perhaps the most promise. Aside from the prologue, you had Valerian going on this wild dimension hopping mission where anything can happen and it was fun. In fact, the fast-paced action oriented parts of the film are the best part. The second half of the film, however, is rather formulaic in terms of its writing, and when you get to the big reveal (which is almost a given nowadays), it sort of dawns on me that the big twist reads like something written by Noam Chomsky. It’s not terrible, but aren’t we sick of the bad guys always being some repetitive comment on Western foreign policy? I know Hollywood is full of Marxists but give me a break.

Valerian himself was a decent protagonist. Sure, he acted a bit like a high school jock, but when it counts, he acts like a real hero. For his faults (and those of the writers) he’s a good example of what a male protagonist should look like. Laureline isn’t too bad a character, but my main problem is that the producers and writers tried too hard to make her into such a badass action heroine that she might outshine Valerian for no reason other than to appease pretentious “culture critics”. The rest of the cast gave some good performances, particularly Clive Owen’s character.

For me the worst character is Rihanna’s shapeshifting character Bubble. It seemed like a gimmicky way of getting Rihanna into the film for cheap promotion, never mind that the generation of kids who thought Rihanna was cool probably pirated her music when she was big. Even worse is that it’s another attempt to politicise the film by writing Rihanna’s character as an illegal immigrant. In times such as these it makes to come to the conclusion that it’s a naked attempt at dogwhistling open borders politics in a market that again, is oversaturated with leftist politics.

If nothing else, the film looks amazing. Valerian sports some of the finest production values I’ve seen in a contemporary film. I know it’s common for sci-fi films to have a big special effects budget, but this film just takes this to incredible heights. I think that’s what made the film so ridiculously expensive to make though. The film costed €190 million to make, and thus far it has yet to turn a profit, which unfortunately means that this ambitious sci-fi flick could end its run as a box office flop.

On the whole, however, Valerian is a good film that in the end is hindered by Luc Besson and the producers’ desperate attempts to make it hip. It obviously didn’t work, which I guess is sad because it’s a good film with good ideas, but in this day and age what tends to happen with good films is that they get crushed under the weight of the producers’ overextravagant tendency. Vanity thy name is Luc Besson.

  • Score: 72%
  • Grade: C

Billy Jack (1971)

Now Billy Jack is a rather interesting film, certainly an object of its time in terms of production and its general attitude. Made by Tom Laughlin at the tail end of the hippie era, Billy Jack seems to have been positioned as a countercultural action film, complete with the progressive values of the hippie movement which apparently Mr. Laughlin has to repeatedly shove down our throats at various points in the film. That said it’s not a bad film, in fact I’d say it was a fairly good action film. But I think the problem is that, not only was it a bit too long, but also that it got too bogged down in its own message, even as it runs counter to said message frequently.

The eponymous Billy Jack is a half-breed Navajo Indian, who is also a former Green Beret and a veteran of the then-ongoing Vietnam War who happens to be a master of hapkido martial arts. In the film, he keeps watch of Jean Roberts’ Freedom School, a progressive art school in Southwest America for runaway kids of all races. He defends the Native American kids from the prejudicial bullying of the townspeople, and after an incident in an ice cream parlour in which some Native American kids have flour poured on them, he goes berserk and has the authorities coming after him and the school.

My main problem is that the film is about ten or fifteen minutes too long and suffers from some awkward pacing. Another problem is how ham-fisted the message tends to be. If you’re like me and you’re not a progressive, you probably won’t like the film’s progressive politics, and one thing I noticed is that the hippies in the film always argue from emotion rather than logic, quite like the so-called progressives of today. You could call it strawmanning if you like, but then the film strawmans the “conservative” characters a lot.

In this film’s world, all conservatives are evil, jack-booted bigots and all progressives are righteous hippies just want to sing and dance. Never mind the fact that the film’s message of peace and love is contradicted by the amount of violence committed by the protagonist, which only seems to prove that the only way to truly enforce justice with a gun, and in a film where the main character seems to be for gun control.

As for characters, the acting isn’t too bad, but it’s rather weak. Tom Laughlin is actually not a bad action hero in the film, and better at that than he is a writer or director, but he’s no Clint Eastwood, and he’s desperately trying to be a Clint Eastwood style anti-hero and failing. That said, even if he’s not a great actor, he’s a pretty good fighter, and at certain parts of the film, he’s very good. The rest of the cast is less tolerable though, particularly the hippies.

On the whole, Billy Jack is a dated relic of its time. Not an unwatchable one though, it looks and sounds like a decent film. But it’s main flaw is that it can’t stop getting caught up in its own politicking, and given that it was made by a progressive, this is no surprise. Just as now, they are always concerned with putting politics into everything, and regardless of the message, it doesn’t exactly lead to a good film.

  • Score: 64%
  • Grade: C

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

The martial arts genre sounds like a fun action genre. Instead of surly Commando-type action heroes shooting with pistols or machine guns (which isn’t that bad if I’ll be totally honest), you’re treated to masterfully choreographed scenes of hand-to-hand combat. Kung-fu films tend to either awesome or ridiculous, or a hilarious combination of both. Five Deadly Venoms, meanwhile, falls into the the awesome category. Produced by the celebrated Shaw Brothers, the film is a classic hero versus villain scenario livened up with skilful choreography, with the ingredients of a finely made cult classic.

The film revolves around a young man named Yang Tieh, the last pupil of the dying master of the Poison Clan. The master dispatches him on a mission to find five other students who are masters of powerful martial arts styles, worrying that they are being used for evil ends, and to track down the master’s retired colleague Yun and warn him that his fortune may be stolen by his former pupils. Eventually, Yun is killed by the master’s former pupils, and Yang is left to fight the pupils who have used their skills for evil, and fighting alongside the only one who hasn’t.

It’s a nice and simple story with a straightforward narrative, and it works. You don’t really need a heavily drawn-out plot for this sort of film. This is something the Shaw Brothers seem to have known quite well, and that was part of their general business model back in the day. Everything you need to know plot-wise is very well explained at the beginning of the film, which is good because it meets that the action is all that matters. That said, there’s also a bit of backstabbing and suspense to spice up the narrative.

The acting isn’t great, at least in the English dub, but it’s alright despite the general cheesiness. I know action films aren’t generally praised for the acting, so I tend not to care about it in this regard. The characters themselves are pretty good, and in spite of the not so great acting, you generally get a wide range of emotions out of them (confidence, anger, fear, desire for revenge, etc.).

The film presents itself in a not too serious manner, which is ideal for this sort of film, but let’s not lose site of the most important aspect of the film – the fighting. The characters in the film are willing to fight at just the drop of the fight, and when that happens, you get treated to some stylish, high-speed fight choreography with almost superhuman fighting styles. The film isn’t all kung fu fighting though. There are scenes were the film briefly becomes a horror film, when one of the Poison Clan members kills people using gruesome techniques without leaving a mark. Despite how commonly people fight each other, thanks to scenes like these death is not a trivial matter in the film, and it’s actually satisfying to watch the fighters who used their skills for evil get their just deserts.

If I must recommend any kung fu film, it will have to be Five Deadly Venoms, arguably one of the greatest films of the genre. Of course, it doesn’t beat Enter the Dragon, but what does? This film is still a classic of the genre, and a prime example of how martial arts films should be made.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

The Omega Man (1971)

If you hated Will Smith’s badly paced and poisonously boring I Am Legend, then I can almost guarantee that you’ll find The Omega Man infinitely better. Both were based on a Richard Matheson novel whose name was lent to the former, but this is easily the most recognisable rendition, and probably the best. It’s probably not a very unique post-apocalyptic survival film, but it certainly seems like a step above other films of the genre in terms of its execution.

The film itself is set in the year 1977, in an alternate history in which biological warfare between China and Soviet Russia had already resulted in the spread of a plague that killed most of the world’s population, with most of the survivors being turned into deformed, nocturnal mutants who can’t stand the sunlight. In a now desolate Los Angeles, a band of mutants called “The Family” are proceeding to destroy all forms of technology, as they see science and technology as the causes of the war that lead to their mutation.

One man, a U.S. Army Colonel named Robert Neville, believes himself to be the last uninfected man on Earth, and has developed a serum that allows him to become immune to the disease. After he finds out that there are other survivors who have not been infected, he finds himself not only trying to fend off attempts on his life by deranged mutants, but also trying to help others avoid succumbing to the effects of the disease and save humanity.

The story essentially plays out like a frenetic action film for the most part, and it starts out quite strong, although I wish the film would have maintained the action-oriented approach more often, as I think the film was certainly made for that. I don’t necessarily mind the approach the film-makers took, though I found the ending to be something a disappointment.

The acting perhaps isn’t the best, but there are good moments. Though I would argue that without Charlton Heston in the lead role, the film itself would probably have been far less entertaining as it was. Here he channels the same kind of role he played in Planet of the Apes just three years earlier, and in a way the role of the desperate survivor seems to work well for an actor who is known for playing rugged, down to Earth heroes.

The production values for the film were certainly very good, and you can generally get the sense of the kind of desolation that pervades over the veritable ghost town wherein Robert Neville lives out the rest of his days in fear and desperation. The makeup effects on the rather ridiculous vampiric mutants were also pretty good, as they made the mutants look about as menacing as you might expect them to, which sort of makes up for the somewhat ridiculous concept.

On the whole, The Omega Man was an above average film, but not without its flaws, and I can’t help but feel that without Charlton Heston the film might not have been that great. Was it entertaining either way? I would say yes.

  • Score: 71%
  • Grade: C

2019: After the Fall of New York (1983)

In the depths of obscure cinema lay the some of the cheesiest, the cheapest, and in an objective sense, the worst among the B movie crowd. In fact, there are many examples of truly terrible knock-off films, and in that respect, this film is one of the worst examples. One of many Italian-made post-apocalyptic knock-offs that came out during the 1980’s, Sergio Martino’s genre flick is a bizarre attempt to somehow rip off Escape from New YorkMad Max and Planet of the Apes at the same time. Naturally, it failed at all of that, and scuppered whatever little potential it had.

The plot of this film is simple enough. It’s the year 2019, and human civilisation has been reduced to rubble in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and society is now ruled by the Euraks, a hybrid race that rules through fear and regularly tortures and conducts experiments on people. Meanwhile in Nevada, a mercenary named Parsifal (who I prefer to call Solid Snek) is asked by the Pan-American Confederacy to go into the ruins of Manhattan with two other men to rescue the only fertile woman left on Earth in order to repopulate mankind.

As simple and unpretentious as it is, it’s muddled and poorly written, and half the cast is pretty much vestigial in terms of the film’s lacklustre plot. Nearly every cliché you could think of is thrown into the film like badly thrown darts. Right off the bat the film opens with an obviously cheap diorama of New York, then lots of meaningless plot turns are jammed between the opening and ending. To the producers’ credit, the film at least started out in “so bad it’s comical” territory, before descending into blatant ridiculousness to the point of having completely broken all sense of immersion.

The characters aren’t great either, and in fact, the acting is quite simply atrocious. It’s worse than you can expect from most 80’s anime dubs, and it’s almost as if the actors were being paid minimum wage. Sometimes you get the occasional moment of humorously hammy acting, but the script had all the life sucked right out of it, and evidently so did the actors’ enthusiasm. I wouldn’t blame them, after all this was a project I’m sure nobody had any enthusiasm for back in the day.

Usually this is when the presentation compensates for a film’s other deficiencies, but not this time. The costumes are extremely ridiculous and seem utterly out of place, as do a lot of characters in this ill-conceived budget flick. The set pieces and special effects look so cheap that the film would have looked brand new in the 1960’s. The choreography is so noticeably awkward that it’s as though they didn’t even try, and not even the music score is exciting. In fact, sometimes the same sound effect is used throughout an entire scene, and it breaks all sense of immersion.

In short, the film was a total bust, but believe it or not, this film still has its fans. Honestly, I find it hard to say anything good about it. There’s films that are cheesy and that’s the whole point, and then there’s films that are simply badly made, and this was one of them. Probably the only cool thing about the film was the poster, and let that be a lesson. Never watch films just because the poster looked nice.

  • Score: 38%
  • Grade: E

Thief (1981)

I’ve got to be honest, I had heard of Michael Mann’s film through its composer, the electronic band Tangerine Dream, though in all fairness, this was quite a gem of a film. Often billed as a neo-noir film, it is based on the writings of a real-life jewel thief, who wrote “The Home Invaders” (the book on which the film is based) under the name of Frank Hohimer (incidentally, the protagonist of the film is also called Frank). Whether this makes the film necessarily realistic is up for debate, but there is no denying that this is a fine quality film that, in my opinion, has aged very well. In terms of its direction in particular, it’s a hardboiled crime thriller with a fine touch of sophistication.

The story centres around a professional safecracker and jewel thief named Frank, who agrees to do one last job so that he can have enough money to start a normal family life with his new girlfriend Jessie. But in order to do so, he has to work with a greedy mafia boss named Leo, who offers to make him a millionaire within four months. After this job he plans to retire from criminal life, but he finds himself in debt to and being ripped off by Leo, who is determined not to let Frank out of his hands.

Some viewers might be a little put off but its slow pacing, but for two hours it’s actually a pretty well-paced film, with a distinctly chilled character. Michael Mann’s Thief isn’t exactly your standard heist film, as it has none of the fake tension and vestigial string orchestras that normally accompanies the stock-in-trade films of genre. Every part of the story is certainly convincing enough for me, and I think that is due mainly to the merits of Michael Mann’s directorial ability, which is impressive considering this was his debut feature film.

Arguably one of the best parts about the film is the much-lauded performance of lead actor James Caan, who struts his character around with a sense of cool that defies explanation. The rest of the main cast performed also well, with Tuesday Weld as the girl who is slowly involved in Frank’s life, Robert Prosky as the cold, unscrupulous Leo, and a range of support characters that shine through in their own way.

Above all else, what stands out is the film’s sense of style. The film is slick, dark and realistic in tone, in contrast to many heist films before it. In fact, I’d say it’s something of a precursor to the kind of lengthy yet stylish crime films we would see later in the 1980’s and 1990’s. At the core of the film’s style was the then-cutting-edge electronic stylings of Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, with its pulsating synth lines. And then of course there’s the action. It has been said that this film represents a transition from the character-based crime drama of the 1970’s to the flashy action-oriented cop films of the 1980’s, but I don’t really see that. I do however appreciate the subtlety that is Thief’s action scenes, which are fairly infrequent, but well-executed.

By no means is Thief a perfect masterpiece, but I’d say it’s an underrated film that in my opinion doesn’t get enough attention, which is a shame because it’s quickly become perhaps one of my favourite crime films so far. I feel like there ought to be more films like this one. Hollywood could definitely use some actually good quality films in its dying years.

  • Score: 83%
  • Grade: B

The Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1982)

golden cobraSteven Spielberg’s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark has seen its fair share of imitators and blatant knock-offs, certainly during the early 80’s when it was fresh. In this case, we have an Italian-made knock-off that plays out like a made-for-TV film. It’s essentially a low-budget knock-off of Indiana Jones, but with only tiny fraction of the charm. It’s pretty silly on the whole, and to be completely honest, it’s not that great of a matinee film, considering how much it looks like a cheaply made carbon copy.

The film’s story, which is set in 1944, involves two textbook action heroes, an typically rugged American solider named Bob Jackson, and a stereotypically British intelligence agent David Franks. Together they’re on a mission in the Philippines to track down an ancient relic called the Golden Cobra, teaming up with a woman searching for her missing sister.

Honestly, there’s not much to say about the story, but it’s a bit jumbled and gets off to a frenetic and silly start. It’s mildly entertaining for a while, but then get into a lot of weird nonsense that seems like it was jammed into the film in order to distinguish it from Indiana Jones, which ultimately fails because the film is so much like Indiana Jones and so cliché-ridden that it’s downright comical. Even the climactic final showdown is rendered impotent by poor choreography.

The characters are pretty much plain stock characters, but they have their quirky moments. Indeed, the British character was so ridiculous that he’s actually moderately funny. However the film is ruined by some terribly bad acting. A lot of the characters come across as remarkably hammy, like they got people who don’t do much acting, and only did one take. It also sounds like they dubbed the voices over the movie. I assume this to be the case, given that the film was originally released in Italy and eventually got an English language release a few years later. I also noticed that there are a number of background characters that look like they don’t really belong in the film, like a sailor who looks a bit like John Candy.

I have to assume the film must have had a low budget, because the film looks cheaply made. I’m not sure, but I think there might have been a few cardboard props. Unique to this film, however, is that sometimes you’ll see a few scenes that are kind of like spaghetti Western scenes (specifically, these are gunplay scenes), just a lot cheesier. Everything in the film is the cheesier version of Indiana Jones, like taking a loving tribute to old school B-movie and turning it into an actual C-movie.

I’m not entirely sure if this film could have been much better, considering it’s basically a knock-off. In other words, this film was clearly pointless. I sometimes wonder why I subject my eyes and ears to films like these, perhaps so you don’t have to. Either way, if only I were paid to this.

  • Score: 48%
  • Grade: D