Sunday, 12 March 2017
Thursday, 9 March 2017
Setting aside the frontier westerns that writer-director James Mangold explicitly invokes, it's easy to draw parallels between Logan and the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Apart from the most obvious point of comparison - an ageing eviscerator travelling with an equally dangerous child - both frame their tales against countries eating themselves alive. Like Tokugawa era Japan, the Americas seen in Logan are focused around the spaces where civilisation has broken and retreated. An age has passed and we are trapped in a bleak, transitory era.
An indefatigable Wolverine spends every waking moment driving a limo to break even while landowners posse up to act like feudal barons, eager to exercise their power of life and death. There's no sense of a rigid, overarching force of law, just scattered, sometimes mechanised clans acting with impunity. The United States is depicted as corrupt and diseased, a condition reflected in both the film's heroes and villains. Regardless of allegiance these beings are all either augmented or outright sedated.
People are reduced to the level of meat, their flesh farmed and catalogued for a purely utilitarian idea of imitation. Bodies are simply currency to be broken down and used up by the state. The villains of the piece, The Reavers, are a group of mutant hating assassins usually drawn tangling with The X-Men or The Punisher, their looks hovering somewhere on the splatterpunk spectrum. Here they are depicted as private military surplus, veterans chewed up by some distant war now earning consultancy money committing war crimes in their home country. Their bulky cybernetic limbs designed to stress not maniacal customisation but instead the pressing need to replace that which an IED has obliterated.
Logan then is the first Wolverine film arranged around the bodily trauma inherent to the character's super identity. He's built to be hurt, an atypically invincible target for assorted adversaries to impotently expel against. In Logan, the title character is no longer particularly exceptional. Aside from the photostat characters that share his powers, even standard enemies have access to technology that allows them to circumvent apparently permanent damage. The extraordinary has been rendered routine. In response, Wolverine moulders.
Previous Wolverine films have dealt with the character as a constant battling against the bitterness and jealousy that has sprung up in response to his existence. Likewise, the majority of X-Men films depict Wolverine as a hesitant, airtight personality. X-Men: First Class even went so far as to have our hairy hero pointedly sitting out the entire adventure just to get drunk in a bar. This unkillable man has been built to wander, never quite putting down roots. Logan flips those ideas, forcing stakes and a sense of permanence on the perennial drifter and his uncompromised sense of identity.
Wolverine's DNA has been decoded and replicated, resulting in two distinct approaches to the idea of a clone. This offspring, and the conflict they bring, are presented as personifications of the tension that exists between hereditary and environmental influences on the individual. Dafne Keen's Laura / X-23 is Wolverine as a child, a blank slate that offers the opportunity to chart a more emotionally stable personality. Laura is her parent stripped of the crushing weight of experience. She's young enough to still be killing as a reflex but also idealistic enough to still desire the company of a pack.
Lone Wolf and Cub resurfaces again in how Wolverine relates to his child. Like Daigoro, Laura is often treated as extension of the parent, an extraneous limb that is trusted to look after itself. When Ogami Itto abandons his son to the winds it's alien but instructive, the fatalism that pulses through Bushido presented as a terrifying power play. When Wolverine leaves Laura to fend for herself it's because he doesn't want the hassle - his deep self-loathing has finally acquired an external target.
Laura is fresh and new, she represents change. If Wolverine is to accept her as his daughter then he will also have to adjust his behaviour, a difficult proposition for a being whose life is built on violent repetition. Patrick Stewart's decrepit Xavier is happy to break his holding pattern though, eager to take on a new charge and help her grow as a person. The centuries old beast man would prefer a slow, tranquillised slide into obsolescence. As First Class demonstrated, it's just easier for him.
Wolverine's other child is an abomination. X-24 is Hugh Jackman's Men's Health body frozen in the moment it reached peak shred. 24 represents the soulless replication of a production line, Weapon X as the obedient, heavily medicated drone he was originally built to be. This is a Wolverine only able to express the most base aspect of his personality - rage. Set against the depressed, dying source, 24 register as a manifestation of the passions that have died, or at the very least curdled, inside The Wolverine.
Logan's insistence that 24 should remain this one-note shade is the film's most obvious failing. Despite Logan's midcard fight being built around a situation and setting that explicitly recalls Universal Soldier and its John Hyams directed sequels, Mangold is content to treat the character as an extrinsic obstacle rather than a fresh facsimile looking to violently explore, then depose his failing originator. 24 has no motor, he's an automaton stuck functioning as a mythic aggressor rather than a separate, interesting character in his own right. None of that disappointment lingers too long though, because in the homestretch we're given the sights and sounds of a wounded, bloodthirsty beast and his rampaging cub singing at each other across unfamiliar territory. Their howling an expression of the pure joy they are both about to find in slaughter.
Monday, 6 March 2017
Sunday, 19 February 2017
Despite the video shop real estate given over to the actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme is not the main attraction in Black Eagle. That poisoned chalice belongs to Sho Kosugi, star of umpteen Cannon Group ninja films and one of the more detestable Bruceploitation films, Bruce Lee Fights Back from The Grave. Kosugi is an interesting character though, a Japanese karate champion turned actor who treats this film (and apparently every other one) as an extended opportunity to take his children to work.
Kosugi plays Ken Tani, a CIA super agent able to code-switch between an unassuming, hunched academic and his lithe, knife wielding super-identity The Black Eagle. Tani has completely dedicated his life to protecting the aims and ideals of the United States, asking only that he be granted an annual fortnight of peace and quiet to hang out with his two sons. Naturally Uncle Sam reneges on this promise, packing Tani and his kids off to Malta to visit art museums but also stalk nosy Russian trawlers.
Since the focus is off him, Van Damme only gets a few, brief chances for his Soviet heavy to capture our attention. As ever, the actor is happy to disrobe, performing his trademark splits in various states of undress. As the film trundles on, there's an emerging sense that director Eric Karson doesn't quite know what to do with either actor. Kosugi and Van Damme are shot at arm's length, all the better to capture the holiday destination environments.
Karson and Cinematographer George Koblasa do dream up a few fun shots, their best portraying Van Damme as a kind of muscle piston pumping through a well-oiled routine. His body is pored over and objectified; overpowering brawn glimpsed in a canted, low-angle appraisal. Karson and pals also swipe a few of the tricks Robert Clouse demonstrated on Enter the Dragon, ignoring the moments when stabbing heels meet vulnerable throats to focus on the deranged glee surging over the face of the striker.
Opportunities to delight in this destruction are few and far between though. Black Eagle moves with all the vim of a tourist nursing sunstroke. Malta's blazing Mediterranean heat has been baked into the film, dictating not only the sleepy onscreen performances but also the film's baggy, undisciplined shape. Stakes crash into the film, delivered with all the elegance of a brick being placed into a malfunctioning blender. The film is pitched like a classic 70s Euro thriller, selling adult intrigue with brief blips of adrenalised action. Instead you get an illogical bore that lurches slowly from sequence to sequence, never quite managing to work up a head of steam.
Friday, 10 February 2017
Thursday, 9 February 2017
Monday, 6 February 2017
After somehow ending up as a cog in the deathless Adam Sandler machine, it's fantastic to see Genndy Tartakovsky back doing what he does best. Posedowns. Lots and lots of posedowns. Tartakovsky's greatest creation, Samurai Jack, seething and still. A bubbling wraith framed against a series of environments, each one more exciting than the last.
Sunday, 5 February 2017
Frank Dux is a very interesting person. As well as being a super important ex-CIA agent and a noted ninja historian, Black Belt magazine favourite Mr Dux spent the late seventies fighting in hundreds of underground, full-contact martial arts matches before retiring completely undefeated. Contrary to what the Los Angeles Times would have you believe, these entirely credible events definitely happened. Dux's stories so impressed Cannon Group moguls Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan that they stumped up the cash to turn his life story into a film.
Macho fantasist Dux found his perfect big screen avatar in Jean-Claude Van Damme, both men defined by their desire to be regarded as some sort of exciting object. Dux used tall tales to attract gullible marks to his ninjustsu McDojos. Van Damme, thanks to disastrous test screenings that deemed an early assembly unwatchable, was given carte blanche to edit the rhythms and shape of Bloodsport around centrefold spreads of his muscled physique.
Schwarzenegger's frame was oversized and lightly comical, his brawn presented as the machinery required to become a human gun platform. Stallone was smaller but steely, his body a work-in-progress that seemed to be unconsciously stressing the flayed elegance of rejected messiahs. Compared to his peers, Van Damme's mission is simple. He wants to be appraised and desired, explicitly linking glimpses of his engorged figure with the the act of sex. Van Damme fucks women and he wants you to know it. Viewed in this context, Bloodsport's fights are more about the graceful slow-motion arc of a perfectly chiselled leg than any sense of genuine conflict.
Want an extended trim of that Transformers Super Bowl tease? Head on over to Michael Bay's vimeo for the goods. Hey! Turns out Prime has been communing with some spectral ancestor! Crush them all mighty Convoy.
Thursday, 2 February 2017
Whereas a film like The Karate Kid is interested in self-determination and how men at different stages in their life can have positive emotional impacts on each other, No Retreat No Surrender is literally about how cool it'd be if your Bruce Lee poster came to life and anointed you, some crummy white kid, to be his successor. Kurt McKinney plays Jason Stillwell, an LA import who spends his days in Seattle creeping around The Little Dragon's grave and rolling his eyes at his pacifist / coward father.
Director Corey Yuen, a Peking Opera School classmate of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, has fun undermining the staid drilling of Emerald City karate with the kind of fluid but punishing training regimens made famous by Shaw Brothers' The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or Seasonal Films stablemate Drunken Master. The not-too-subtle insinuation being that flexible China produces more complete fight forms than prissy old Japan. Although Yuen's raw, onscreen materials are slower and sloppier than his Hong Kong pals, the director assembles a few crisp exchanges, particularly towards the end of the film.
Predictably, Jean-Claude Van Damme is this (basically terrible) film's greatest asset, an allegedly Russian enforcer who chews up and spits out the film's irritating extended cast in a concluding martial arts tournament. Given about ten minutes of screentime, Van Damme is instantly able to communicate the defining characteristics of his star persona - an arrogance based in absolute ability. There's a real sense of pitilessness with Van Damme, you believe he loathes anyone he considers weaker than him. He's also exciting to watch, a wide-eyed lunatic with a hairstyle held with polyurethane, hurling out leg upon leg at the blubbering nothings who dare challenge him.