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Bloody Battle is 10% more futuristic than its predecessor, as measured in the new style fancied in the gangsters of the day — gas masks. The two movies take place in a familiar post-apocalypse, one where it’s likely that down under Master Blaster upholds his power in Barter Town, though Japan has a more cyberpunk feel (if Versus can be said to have a horror movie feel, for example). The war-torn buildings and desolate interiors offer an appropriately impressionistic environment for our formidable heroine Milly, though they also offer the audience’s best guess that Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle is after all, a budgeted affair.

Though a larger world is implied, much of the story unfolds in parking garages and non-descript warehouses, with the occasionally dressed-up set peppered in for world-building’s sake. Fortunately, by the endgame this actually registers as insignificant, because the action these environments house is a specific flavor of stylized ultraviolence, one with flying kung-fu, cool poses, and wacky weapons that inflict impressive spectacle when unleashed on smug, gas-mask-clad do-wrongers.

The action in the film is one end of the Hard Revenge Milly equation that’s so frustrating. The premise of this sequel doesn’t stray far from the original’s plot, certainly not for the purposes of puzzling out what’s so problematic in an otherwise highly entertaining gore-fest. Milly, after massacring the gang that brutally murdered her husband and set her baby on fire, while at the same time tearing her body apart with knives and forcing her to watch, finds herself hunted by friends of the gang — as we learn from the hardly comparable Chan Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, revenge is a cyclical, spiralling affair.

At the same time, Milly is approached by a young woman whose lover was killed, and seeks training for vengeance of her own. It may not sound like much, but keep in mind that the original movie was 45 minutes long, and this one still isn’t quite average feature length, clocking in at 74 minutes.

So what’s the trouble with Hard Revenge Milly?

The opening fight scene embodies a rare and beautiful ideology in action movie filmmaking, where the action hero is depicted as a slasher villain in how he/she dispatches foes. The only contemporary example that springs to mind is the critically discarded Punisher: War Zone, a film that sees Frank Castle slaughtering villains as if they were zombies — heads explode, bodies explode; the carnage is front and center, and there’s a gleeful joy in the application of a crazed badass to the action.

When this badass is essentially the Terminator, the entertainment is in the creativity of the hero killing slimy villains rather than the drama of ‘will the hero prevail?’ since there would clearly never be a question (there never is a question, regardless of what action movie you’re watching, but let’s not parade on the dreams of the Len Wisemans and the McGs of the world*). Punisher: War Zone succeeds where the 2004 Punisher fails (for one) in the villain department, because there’s a nemesis cold war going on — Frank Castle might be crazy, but Jigsaw and Looney Bin Jim are batshit. John Travolta? Not very threatening and surely no threat to Thomas Jane, which deflates the drama of ‘will the hero prevail?’

War Zone goes above and beyond, then, where Castle has gangsters to kill like a regular Jason, but with more RPGs, and these guys are no threat, but also a villainous element that provides any measure of suspense. Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle, as well as its predecessor, have the same pretty Japanese pop-singer dude who happens to be a badass.

It’s odd, because while the end fight of the original is much longer than any other fight scene in the movie, it’s less entertaining because the guy offers a sizable opposition, and this is not what we were being driven toward with Milly tearing through people earlier. What makes this guy special? His kung-fu seems to be pretty good but he looks like everyone else and isn’t characterized appropriately in this regard. The sequel does a little better by having the villain be a cyborg, but any cyber-fuelled cool factor is negated by his villainy stemming purely from his sexual deviance — aka homosexuality. That’s great, guys.

This may sound like a lot of talk for something pretty unimportant, but the in-the-moment result is that Milly gets thrown around a lot by these lame villains where she should be trouncing everyone, save for something actually impressive. Anything other than yet another gangster dude. Like the Bride, Lady Snowblood, or Lady Vengeance, Milly gets her gender-equality fair share of the action movie beating, but to me it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the premise of what these movies are. This might sound like sexism, and it probably is, but this time, I honestly just don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to see a woman nicknamed Hard Revenge Milly getting her arm chopped off and defeated, only to win with further cyborg upgrades further down the road.

Not to mention that Milly technically falls into that more recently popular category of kick-ass females, here dubbed the Dragon Tattoo category, where only rape or violence against the heroine can incite bloody rebirth. That’s not a big deal here, because not only is Milly’s origin story so absurd, the movies are extremely obviously not meant to be taken very seriously.

I mean, look — when Milly cuts some dude’s body with her elbow sword, their high blood pressure sprays in an initially hesitant fountain in the grand tradition of Chinese and I think Japanese cinema. It’s great, silly fun, but it is metered a bit by Milly’s qualified badassery. That said, Bloody Battle is an improvement over an already entertaining original, one that reaches for eleven on the novelty dial in the fight scenes: we never know what her metal body’s gonna drum up next to slice and dice her foe, or what lethal new form this familiar weapon will take, but we know it’s gonna be bloody as hell. Meanwhile the action is intense and fantastical, remaining compelling through the whole of the two films with the promise that they’ll end in brutal, comedic splatter.

This movie is also interesting for its essence as a sequel. This is an instance where the follow-up deconstructs the original, showing the aftermath of the events in the first movie and the effects they have on the heroine. She isn’t just a killing machine, she’s a killing machine with no sense of control and a lost past that she can’t even be sure of. In a peculiar moment, Milly questions her memories in a spot of dialogue lifted straight from Ghost in the Shell. The self-deprecating doctor character plays Batou here, swatting down her Shirowesque cyber-Descartes existential quandaries much in the way the audience might.

Philosophical questions about revenge are paid equal lip service, but it amounts more to an intriguing setup to a theoretical third installment than an actually compelling discussion. Milly might be cursed by her vengeful journey, which infects others and only begets violence and death, but we’d rather see her kick some ass than mope around like the Major.

Or get her ass kicked by the villains, for God’s sake. Somebody needs to give this director, Takanori Tsujimoto, a bigger budget and put the lead, Miki Mizuno, in more action movies — they make a great team.

 

*Because I like Len Wiseman for some reason and I really enjoyed Terminator Salvation for some reason

What a specific thing this is, and what a delicate feel modern action directors whiff on so frequently. Movies like Taken are on the right path, movies like The Expendables farther but still there, and movies like Machete miss it entirely. Thing is, those three movies are all pretty acclaimed, relatively speaking. The following movies are overlooked, underappreciated, or downright hated, and that’s because they’re far ahead of their time. Or… twenty to thirty years past…

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Color, motion, composition, and endless violence. With this four year follow-up to the more popular and successful Thomas Jane Punisher, Lexi Alexander had pretty much free reign to do something we often shy away from, and the result is a balls crazy and allegedly faithful adaptation of Punisher comics. In those comics, people get their heads blown off, bodies torn apart, shot to pieces, and more — if that sounds good, pop this in the VCR and sit back. I think a problem with a lot of action movies these days is a mind-boggling commitment to realism. Movies are escapism, and we get to see in movies what we can’t see in real life or on TV shows or sometimes in our own minds because we wouldn’t think that a chair leg could be used to dispatch of somebody in such a way.

Punisher: War Zone is part slasher movie, and part zombie movie. It’s a slasher because the Punisher wrecks everyone he sees, and it’s a zombie movie — but without the zombies, which as of late have become the weakest parts of a zom… well never mind, that’s an absurd thing to say but I do believe they’re a bit played out. Six years ago. In zombie movies people get their heads blown off, bodies torn apart — you remember. The Punisher does horrible things to the human body, and he’s so eh about it. That’s why we have the straight man in Colin Salmon, a fan favorite despite rarely being in good movies, to react as we would when somebody gets their face removed.

Rounding out the cast are TV faces, in particular Dominic West of The Wire fame. Here he plays Jigsaw, and his reparte with “Looney Bin Jim,” who you won’t recognize from any of the comics, is comedy gold. In the end though, I appreciate that this movie commits to over-the-topness, and is plenty aware of what it is. A violence film, one that’s gleeful in its horrendous violence. The spectacle is spectacular, as people explode and get punched in — seriously, the Punisher could poke somebody in this movie and they’d start hemmohraging. Unfortunately for them he does much more than that.

Verdict: BUY, IMMEDIATREY

The Expendables (2010)

The build-up to The Expendables was enormous. Here’s a movie with everyone, about a team of soldiers who at some point will probably learn that they’re expendable, a classic trope whose best analog here would be Predator. I was also thinking Alien, but that’s not exactly an action movie. So I’m sitting in the theatre watching this movie and in the first five minutes a guy gets his head cut off with a sniper and I’m thinking, “Okay. I can see this.” But then the rest of the movie happens and it’s like… they just gave up. Or actually cared about their awful story. All I know is that it involves Angel Batista and waterboarding some chick, which was uncomfortable. Why would I want to see that? Was The Expendables gonna be the political thriller that’ll really bring to light all sorts of discussions on the morality of torture in our modern day? No, that’s clearly the job of 24: Season 8. There’s little action in this movie, and the action that’s there is average. Mildly entertaining, but highly disappointing.

These actors have Crank, Total Recall, Die Hard, First Blood, Terminator 2, and… Crank 2 between them, and The Expendables falls far beneath all of them. To be fair, Arnold wasn’t really in it, but he’s definitely in the sequel. Christ. I won’t go up to the box office and say “One for The Expendables 2 please… JUST KIDDING!” and then drive back home because it’s rated PG-13 (doesn’t really help though) I’ll do that because the first movie was atrocious.

Verdict: Avoid

Doomsday (2008)

The preemptive criticisms of this post-Descent Neil Marshall flick were priceless. They called it a mix of Escape from New York, 28 Days Later, and The Road Warrior. Now, I can’t speak for 28 Days Later — but look at yourself. Is that a bad thing?! I’d say more accurately the closest analog to Doomsday is Escape from LA, the much maligned sequel to Carpenter’s 1981 classic. Escape from LA to me set a precedent which was never capitalized on until Rhona Mitra hit the land beyond the wall in this movie, where it’s the same old song and dance: we quarantined a segment of population and they’re crazy. Time to check back in.

In Escape from LA you had transvestite Pam Grier, plastic surgeon zombie Bruce Campbell, Map to the Stars Eddie, surfing, evil basketball, and hanglider battles — it was completely wild and unpredictable, a 100% good time throughout, because amidst all this madness you have our favorite hero Snake Plissken, an entirely over-the-top and bad motherfucker. In Doomsday you have girl snake, a woman with an equally great name — Maj. Eden Sinclair.

I’ve talked a little bit about girls in science-fiction movies, and Eden Sinclair always places highly on ‘the list,’ (the one in my head) alongside better known femmes like Ripley and… Clone Ripley. She’s believably badass, and it isn’t like she’s just fighting useless stormtrooper types, you know the corporate soldiers in gas masks — she fights Ren fair knights and Mad Max cannibals. Add David O’Hara and one great chase scene at the end and you’ve got a recipe for Marshall’s best yet movie (though I haven’t seen Centurion). There’s actually more I want to say about Doomsday but this isn’t the time. So for now…

Verdict: Yes!

The Nelvedine/Taylor Catalogue

Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage, and Gamer are all great fun. Let’s look at each individually, because they’d all place on this list and you should infinitely see them.

Crank: The humble beginnings of one Chev Chelios, who finds out he’s a dead man in a high-concept movie. Shot on camcorders and rollerskates, this movie takes you to the action on a unique plane. There’s also very explicit violence and sex. For those It’s Always Sunny fans check out a cameo appearance by Glenn Howerton.

Crank 2: If you thought Crank was good, get ready, because Crank 2 is a phenomenon. Pretty much the insanest and funnest American action movie since Death Wish III. Eye-popping, and in at least two cases cringe-inducing. There’s just something about nipple cutting… These movies are endlessly inventive and highly motivational. Some days I’d like to just get up and run through town with a sexy accent, screaming into the air. The only fault I have with the movie is the villain. As much as I like Clifton Collins, Jr., and as great a character as he was, there was really great chemistry between Chev Chelios and the original guy — the first villain would also engage in a phone conversation with Chev and be like “We’re gonna kill you man,” and Chev would say something very casually and get the dude royally pissed off every time.

Gamer: I really enjoyed this movie. I know some have gripes with it, and maybe it isn’t as good as the others, maybe it takes itself too seriously, but I’m actually a big fan of the imagery in this movie, even as a straightup science-fiction film. The art design is great, the guns are big and cool, the battlefield is appropriately shattered, and Society is bright and eerie. It’s a movie with a surprisingly entertaining story, which is surprising given the saturation on the market across time for all these ‘evil sport on TV, look at yourself’ movies. This came out around the same time as The Condemned and Death Race, the latter of which I saw and also enjoyed quite a bit. If you’re into solid sci-fi shootemups or glorified B-movies or whatever name you want to give something like this, check it out. Explosions, Dexter, Zoe Bell, Gerard Butler with a gun, and the hectic assault on Society make it all worth it.

Verdict: Check em

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Interesting story behind this one, but it’s not my place to go over it here. It’s also one that made watching the movie slightly bittersweet, but don’t let it get to you because Hobo is a very entertaining grindhouse flick. It isn’t like Planet Terror or Black Dynamite which, while they do dabble in their respective horror and action, are comedies, and good ones at that. Hobo with a Shotgun pretends to actually take itself seriously — and it makes sense. These guys set out to make a crazy 80s action movie with a lot of blood, and they succeeded. While there was less Hobo than anticipated, it’s still a fun, gory ride, with an early cameo by Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, the one who’s always losing his head.

Of course, there’s plenty more; I didn’t mention any foreign movies, but there are a few that have a lot of action and lean toward the ludicrious — half of the 80s action movie was the HK school, stuff by Woo and To, and there are modern versions of those, but F. I’m out.

 

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Note: It’s kind of confusing, but the post “1. The Ghost in the Shell,” did not mean that that was the #1 thing of the year, despite it following the other two Year End Review posts.

Here on Dreck Fiction I’ve talked about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at length, so this will probably be retreading old territory — bear with me. In the end, the most awesome thing I saw this year came out last year, Edgar Wright’s third, and in my opinion, best movie — crazy as that sounds. When I first saw the movie over the summer, I was blown the hell away. Unfortunately I saw it the last day it was available OnDemand, one of the motivating factors behind the big decision to press enter. I always knew I was gonna like Scott Pilgrim; the trailers seemed promising and I had a lot of faith in Edgar Wright to make something that was at least entertaining. I remember very specifically — quite a feat, as I saw this perhaps five months ago — my dad came in the room and delivered some message so I had to pause the movie, and I paused it right before the Ramona/Roxy fight, maybe after Ramona threw Ann (who?) away. Sitting there, I was just thinking to myself, “I’ve really enjoyed this movie so far. I like the direction this is headed.”

As somebody who’s invested some time in learning about filmmaking, it’s hard for me not to zero in on the technical side of things, and ever since I started this blog I tend to think critically about movies when I’m watching them. Scott Pilgrim actually rewarded me for being aware of the filmmaking, because it’s such a finely crafted movie that when immersion is eschewed in this way, it’s a good thing. It allowed me to notice the details, which to director Edgar Wright are extremely important. The frame is always brimming with significant details and easter eggs — and boy does he and DP Bill Pope love the frame.

In terms of the look of the movie, it’s not even “look what we can do,” not even “look what we can do and how well” — it’s a spectacle resultant of very measured craft. Every eyepopping moment on screen, whether a product of the camera movement, clever composition, actor blocking, or visual effect, means something. Of course, the point of contention then for critics is that what it all means may not interest them, but that’s no excuse to not recognize the inspiring brilliance in this film’s making. Scott Pilgrim, appreciated today only by a small but very, very vocal minority, will have genre standing as time goes on.

It’s an outstanding example of the action-comedy, which, like the horror-comedy (of which Edgar Wright so excelled in six years earlier), requires a hefty amount of balance: tone, structure, wit — these elements aren’t enough, it’s within their combination that Scott Pilgrim and Slither and Desperado and other great, modern genre-mashups emerge. They must work with each other; this doesn’t feel like an action movie with comedic elements or a comedy with action scenes, it’s a whole film that plays out from start to finish, and by the time we reach the end, we’ve laughed, we’ve been excited, and we’re had our hearts warmed. The manufactured feel of so many other comedies and so, so many other action movies was left at the door.

The film had a predestination in terms of its artistic success, just like The Thing (2011), the next Mary Elizabeth Winstead movie, was doomed to critical and commercial failure at the point of its inception. It was based on preexisting material, which is a first for the director, though at the time of screenwriting the final volume had yet to be released, which led to some merciful reshoots* at the end of production. I’ve never read the comic, but I think the process and idea of adaptation set the wheels in motion for Edgar Wright. He took on a mission and was rather noble about it. Like Rodriguez wanting to make Frank Miller’s Sin City over Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Wright strove to recreate the comic, but adapt it to the moving medium of film.

With such a dedicated force at the helm, there should’ve been little doubt in my mind that Scott Pilgrim was a movie to look out for, and right now there’s little doubt in my mind that the director’s fourth movie will be one to watch. It’s a pretty bold adaptation — in these days of Nolan’s Batman and endless reboots (these X-Men weren’t gritty enough), Scott Pilgrim feels fresh. The creators behind the film obviously adore the movie medium, and don’t shy away from its possibilities. Some people (I think) have called Crank one of the best comic book movies ever, because it is exactly that, despite not being based on anything.

Crank is the antithesis to a movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or any of the X-Men movies, which like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider and all these things — it revels in its form. Movies, like comic-books, have a heightened reality, but somehow this gets lost in Hollywood’s endless struggle to be super serious and realistic. I’m not saying that when Peter Parker and Mary Jane upside-down kiss that CG hearts should come out, because that would be inappropriate to its foundational laws of reality, but the dedication to realism has led filmmakers to want to play it safe in terms of spectacle.

With such high budgets, why don’t we ever see something that’s completely balls-to-the-walls? Like fucking Punisher: War Zone! Christ, every time I gotta complain about these damn comic book movies that’ll always be mentioned. War Zone wasn’t made on a $100 million budget, but it was totally fun. It had energy. Like Scott Pilgrim, which, because it was made on a very high budget, was able to go above and beyond. Very rarely in that movie has a frame been untouched by frenetic computer enhancements and craazy color.

At the end of the movie, we know that the heroes are going to fight the villains, probably in New York, and they’ll throw cars around. With a movie like Scott Pilgrim, it’s a mystery as to what’s simply going to be seen next. And when something wild happens, it’s almost always logical or, at least, never truly out of left field. Giant animated yeti is going to fight dragons in the middle of a battle of the bands? Sounds alright to me.

Well, that’s probably enough of my Continuing Adventures in Eternal Praise for this One Movie for now. I kind of lost steam there towards the end, but those comic book movies always piss me off, so when I perceive a chance to rant, I’ll take it.

So there you have it. Those are the ten best, and two worst, things I saw this year. Overall, it was pretty solid. Last year there were actually ten movies, but hey — if TV shows are gonna be as good as Arrested Development, I’ll certainly take TV shows. Good night, and have a happy New Year! (Excuse me if you don’t celebrate New Year’s, I know that’s not very PC of me**).

*The original ending to the movie was changed when the final book was released. Originally, and you can still see these scenes in the DVD, Scott ends up with Knives. Thankfully Brian Lee O’Malley was there to save the day, and Edgar Wright was so goddamn dedicated to being true to the source…

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