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Kung-Fu masters with heavy metal hair kick each others’ bodies apart while the Ol’ Dirty Bastard raps about running game. This is the first five minutes of the RZA’s heavily anticipated directorial debut, and it is exactly what we were hoping for. The action is frenetic, and bloody as hell, and the music, while sliding toward the more traditional as the film goes on, completes it to create a satisfying whole. The hip-hop/martial arts aesthetic has never been better, and The Man with the Iron Fists is not only an essential piece of that legacy, it’s self-aware and exciting niche entertainment.

A decently complex but well-designed story structure is held together by running commentary of the Blacksmith (RZA), who feels at once out of place, with his modern locution, and spiritually engaged. We move from character to character under this guide, learning who the players are and how every piece fits into place in anticipation of the final showdown. The plot builds toward what promises to be an explosive ending, telling of a shipment of gold that’s headed through the violent Jungle Village, where seven deadly clans have gathered to wage war. Infighting in the Lion Clan has put a warmonger on top, a goofball psychopath named Silver Lion (Byron Mann) who seeks to claim the gold.

He stays in Lady Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) hotel, the same place where later a mysterious gunfighter, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), will establish his lethal presence. Meanwhile, Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) is told of his father’s death at Silver Lion’s hands, and treks back to Jungle Village to avenge him and take the clan back. Predicting this course of action, Silver Lion dispatches his chief assassin, Brass Body (Dave Bautista), to deal with it.

Everyone needs a weapon, and so they all turn to the Blacksmith, who only wants to leave with his woman, a Blossom Prostitute known as Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). There are many characters here and a lot of recognizable names. As a co-screenwriter, the RZA manages to balance all of them equally, allowing for even minor characters like the Gemini Killers (Andrew Li and Grace Huang) ample screentime for badassery. There are also some key cameos, though apparently I missed Eli Roth’s. Watch for that one, I guess.

With RZA as a director, this does in a few ways feel like a debut film. The camera isn’t always confident or well-placed (though a few shots are downright beautiful), but the action is great — hyperviolent, flamboyantly bloody, and visually stimulating. There’s a rhythm to it that I assume a rap producer must have a feel for — the speeding up and slowing down for crucial moments and amplification of impacts is second nature to someone who not only lives and breathes musical timing, but has gorged himself on a lifetime of martial arts cinema to know well what works and what doesn’t.

And the story is perfectly structured for this premise. It’s an action movie, so there’s no muddling of the action with boring mythology or cliché and boring characters as in the last live-action Hollywood Chinese martial arts movie — The Forbidden Kingdom. Though this lacks the star power of that movie, it has a cast that not only looks great in their crazy costumes, but provides energetic or appropriately brooding performances. A particular standout is Byron Mann, whose Silver Lion enjoys what he does just a bit too much.

Though the RZA as an actor seems to take a backseat to the others, he shows his stuff in the moments he provides for himself, playing the Blacksmith with a subdued rage and mystical spirit that comes through in those sad, sad eyes. His voiceovers are just so damn entertaining, and his physical performance is believable in its own, fantastical logic.

On the writing side, there is a lot of dialogue that works, but is somewhat ‘dropped’ by awkward shot choices. There’s a moment early on where one of Silver Lion’s cronies agrees with a fellow soldier in that very obvious, bandwagon way, and the Silver Lion begins to call him on it, which feels like the setup to a punchline that never comes — there’s never a reaction shot of the dude, or really any change in frame at all from Silver Lion. It’s the small things like these that will eventually have you wondering abour later moments, like when the female Gemini notes that the Blossom cook’s beef is spicy, and he responds, “Oh goooood,” rather strangely but seemingly deliberately. Why include that moment at all?

Complaints are small and those are all of them. The Man with the Iron Fists is a hugely entertaining action movie with memorable characters and a plot that builds and intrigues, rather than complicates and alienates. Tarantino provides an introduction and trailer for Django Unchained before the RZA’s movie starts, and the Jamie Foxx-led ‘southern’ looks damn good, but the bar’s been officially raised for balls-out, exploitative, genre-literate violence.

The Wu-Tang Clan created a unique sound in the 90s by sampling old kung fu movies into violent but passionate hip-hop lyrics — there was a combination of the east and west that was slightly more celebratory than the other east/west mashup where 90s rap is concerned. This fusion of martial arts’ philosophical themes and styles with the poetic and hard-hitting music creates a fascinating aesthetic that’s sustained a multitude of titles since. We’re finally seeing a major, mainstream entry in this legacy, with directorial guidance from the RZA himself — an expert in martial arts films and no stranger to the movie industry.

If you want to know what to expect with The Man with the Iron Fists or just want to see where the RZA is coming from, check out the following…

Samurai Champloo

This doesn’t have direct involvement from the RZA, but director Shinichiro Watanabe is familiar with combining a distinct musical style with specific film genres. Here it’s chambara film and hip-hop, with a killer opening song and frequent, kinetic action scenes. Champloo is a very good anime series but suffers from Watanabe’s own filmography — his previous Cowboy Bebop is considered to be the greatest anime series of all time. When you follow that with a very good anime — well, you can do the math. The series is consistent, dramatic, and frequently humorous. The characters are fun, and the overall feel is hip and stylish. The ending song is also great.

Shogun Assassin

This is one of the few movies where the English dub is actually mandatory. If you see it in the original language track you’ll miss the dialogue that the GZA sampled into various instrumentals on Liquid Swords. It’s small wonder why this film made such an impact on the Wu-Tang founder — it’s a strange little gem, completely unafraid of excessive sprays of blood and even violence against women: the kind that might make you cringe, but it’s all in good fun. And what’s more fun than seeing a badass baby riding around in a baby cart built of weapons with his stoic samurai dad? The ultimate family movie. It’s actually an edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies, so it takes all the action bits, and leaves out assumedly plenty of story. The Lone Wolf manga was penned by Kazuo Koike, author of among other things, Lady Snowblood, the adaptation of which had a major influence on the next on the list…

Kill Bill

Yep, that’s him alright. An alarming deletion of scene from Part II, where Bill fights this let’s say, Dynamite, Samurai

The RZA scored this, the original ‘two tickets, one movie,’ dealio back from when we didn’t know about a Harry Potter 7 or Twilight 4. Luckily this is one of Tarantino’s best, a balls-insane mashup of Italian westerns, Shaw Brothers kung-fu, samurai epics, and the gorier pieces of Japanese cinema a la Fukasaku and Miike. The Man with the Iron Fists is being produced by Tarantino, so I imagine the RZA will be benefitting here from an established creative relationship, as he does consider the great genrebuster a mentor. It might also, however, be like Frank Miller coming off of Sin City with The Spirit. Let’s hope not.

Afro Samurai

I’ve only seen the first episode. Interesting, but I haven’t heard great things about it. This is probably more hip-hop than samurai, if Champloo was more samurai than hip-hop, but I’ve never heard anyone call it better than its Japanese counterpart.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Before the RZA’s directorial debut, Ghost Dog was definitely the quintessential Wu-Tang movie. It features Forest Whitaker as a Mafia hit man who lives by the code of the samurai. It’s a mostly tacit lifestyle, filled with night-driving and hanging out with the odd gallery of friends he amasses in a French ice cream truck guy and a scholarly little girl. It is a lifestyle punctuated by violence nonetheless, and the action in this movie is sparse but effective, particularly with Ghost Dog’s first kill.

Ghost Dog ‘sheathes’ his silenced pistols much in the way a samurai would a sword, and practices martial arts on the lonely New York rooftops, up there with the pigeons, his preferred mode of communication with the outside world. This is a quirky if uneven film, funny in places and dark in others, but overall an iconic example of the gangsta/samurai aesthetic, and proud piece in a legacy following films like Le Samourai and those of Kurosawa — it isn’t revision so much as it is celebration.

Celebration I’d say is a key theme. There’s an appreciation of many cultures, and a tolerance of such things that’s unprecedented in violent macho movies. Ghost Dog is very in tune with his inner spirit, and is able to communicate with his best friend the ice cream guy by pushing through the language barrier — it’s a deeper connection. The most telling scene is when the ice cream guy, fascinated by a man building a boat, yells down from a rooftop in French: “That’s incredible! How are you gonna get that out?” and gets “I don’t understand, but I have to get back to work!” as a response, in Spanish. The ice cream guy smiles and Ghost Dog nods, walks off.

This embracing of other people and foreign cultures is a cornerstone of this ‘subgenre,’ and I think there’s a lot to be gained in blending cultures, mixing philosophies and aesthetics to create modern mythology in film and music.

The RZA, who scored Ghost Dog, does appear in this film, credited as the “Samurai in Camoflague,” and though his scene is brief, it is perhaps the most appropriate role for him. Better at least, then the crackhead who gets killed in American Gangster. We’ll see truly how his acting skills (among other things) shake out on the 2nd of next month, but I have high hopes. He’s such a cool guy; it’d suck to see his movie fare poorly.

Oh, and the Italian gangsters in this movie are just crazy. If nothing else, watch this movie for them. They are not unlike the depiction of cosa nostra in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

So that should give you a general idea — these various titles the with direct involvement of the RZA, or that follow his approach to genre, are the Wu-Tang aesthetic and philosophy manifest in film and TV. The ultimate piece will be The Man with the Iron Fists, and if Ghost Dog and Kill Bill were the RZA’s film background, he’s in good shape.

Well shit — you see that picture with the eyeball!

It’s the inexplicable and unexplained post-apocalypse, where we’re told that Japan is nothing but a wind-swept plain. Elsewhere, in the two abandoned buildings of this plain, Milly seeks hard revenge for the murder of her family and the fleshy parts of her body.

Hard Revenge Milly is a smart action movie. Not only does it grab the attention immediately with some sword-thanked arterial spray, it deals directly with the genre’s #1 problem — action movies can be unbelievably, shockingly boring. It does this by its runtime, which is roughly 43 minutes (it lasts the whole way, through the credits and after), effectively minimizing the exposition and everything between the fights that is empty content. There is almost no actor who can carry a movie without playing a character, which is why Arnold Schwarzenegger movies (barring End of Days) will always be great, and that’s often what happens in action movies across the globe. The effort given toward an original, compelling story is akin to the writer sullenly kicking an empty soda can across a dusty road.

Whether it’s reliant on special effects or physical combat, action can be pretty expensive, and cannot realistically fill 100% of the movie. Usually, unless it’s a John Woo flick, the action will be peppered in. To be fair, a lot of Hard Revenge Milly is talking and her waiting around for the action. Fortunately the action feels like live-action anime, which may sound pretty crass or cliche, but the end result is that while the choreography may not be as complex or impressive as we’ve seen elsewhere, there’s a fantastical logic to the martial arts that makes it difficult to keep up with, but what we do know is that those violent flashes sure look cool.

As we learn from Versus, there’s a tendency with these overly violent, stylized action movies coming out of Japan (perhaps taking inspiration from Versus) to favor how things look over the movement, such that still frames taken from any point in a fight scene will be well composed and super cool looking. This is where the anime comparison comes in — as early Japanese animation featured a lot of drawn still frames being physically manipulated for the camera, a style that’s been updated over the years to largely the same effect, where there’s detailed characters jumping through the air but moving somewhat stiffly when compared to the detail-lite but smoothly animated Disney cartoons.

With Hard Revenge Milly, there’s probably twenty total minutes of violence, but it’s pretty fun to watch for just such animated reasons. In one instance she does this kick thing and kind of flies off the guy, only to follow up with another attack in the next shot, sans any sense of momentum… or reality. She’s also got a sword — which extends from a pretty odd spot on her arm — that magically grows when convenient, like John Cho’s in Trek ’09. That’s the true joy in a movie like this, though the inventiveness of dismemberment tactics and the absurdity of the violence. Martial arts killers in Japan have an extra talent to turn people into geysers, which never gets old. Thankfully, because this movie isn’t really a movie but a short film, it doesn’t get old, which makes me wonder about the sequel, Bloody Battle.

Futuristic cell phones

There’ll be a review shortly for that one because there’s more I wanted to say about villains and feminism and stuff.

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