Friday, 23 June 2017
Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Monday, 19 June 2017
Friday, 16 June 2017
Post-apocalyptic in every detail bar a nuclear exchange, John Carpenter and Nick Castle's Escape from New York takes an action premise then describes it with the kind of anxiety usually reserved for horror filmmaking. Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a raspy ex-special forces operative who made his name sneaking into a litany of Russian cities before dropping out, turning to a life of crime. Snake is a relic from a world that has passed, a rugged, bad-tempered individual bumping heads with the compromised and robotic company men who now rule the country.
Whatever happened in Leningrad burnt Snake out, perhaps exposing the lie that forms the bedrock of a regime that has seen America congeal into a total police state. Snake is a soldier so explicitly used up that orders have no meaning to him. He isn't on this mission into the corpse of the Big Apple to redeem himself and therefore become heroic by the standards of the men who have crow-barred him into this assignment. He's being coerced. Snake is captured, dragged to Liberty Island and injected with explosives before being loaded up with shuriken and an Ingram sub-machine gun for what amounts to a suicide mission. Despite his legendary status he's still just a disposable commodity, an experiment forced into play while jackbooting dead heads weigh up an air strike on the Island.
Snake doesn't represent salvation, he's just another component in a desperate, pessimistic mission engineered by an acting leadership going through the motions. Carpenter and Castle have done something wonderful in Escape from New York, they've taken a scenario that could be told with the sweeping, bullying voice of patriotic duty then torpedoed it. The rescue of an encircled President isn't played for glory, the situation is splayed open, exposing the rot and ruthless opportunism that would be at work if the unthinkable actually happened with these witless bullies at the helm.
The one shred of humanity shown by the establishment comes from Lee Van Cleef's Hauk, an older man with much the same background as Plissken, now acting as the warden of the vast Manhattan penitentiary. Hauk vouches for Snake, his interim criminal years made irrelevant because Hauk remembers when the ex-soldier once did something bold and impressive. Of course Hauk may trust Plissken's skills but he doesn't trust his intentions. This isn't a world founded on honour and pride, instead Escape from New York spins on the kind of utility you'd expect from a world in which Reaganomic rhetoric has infected every aspect of the ruling class. Something terrible must have happened, no-one has any higher, romantic aspirations anymore. Instead everyone behaves like cronies prepping for their next corporate appraisal.
The one nod to chivalry displayed by the government's forces again comes from Hauk. Following the mission's completion he makes himself available to Snake, asking him if he still wants to kill him. Hauk is acknowledging something unspoken, that perhaps by serving this power structure he actually does deserve to die. Snake, the uncompromised hero would actually redeem Hauk somewhat if he chose to take his life. The gesture is immediately poisoned by The Warden's insistence on pitching Snake a potential return to the fold after it's clear that the jail-breaker has chosen to stay his hand. Russell's limping, injured hero couldn't be less interested.
Snake Plissken isn't an action hero and Escape from New York isn't structured to express victory. This massive story is told in details, Snake's individual triumphs are always small and stolen. Carpenter never falls into the trap of letting his main character build up a head of steam, stakes are never lost to scale, every dangerous interaction is essentially Plissken attempting to misinform his quarry, allowing him to strike. Snake by name, snake by nature. Carpenter doesn't linger on the violence either, Escape may miscommunicate a few of its thumps but even these under-covered cracks play into an overall thesis about how liquid power can be. Violence is always a surprise.
Once in New York all bets are off, it doesn't matter if you can talk big or have access to incredible technology, are you vicious? Will you strike first? Escape has a feral quality, man reduced to teeth and claws, roaming around the ruins of a financial fortress. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey shoot dark and wide, allowing the gutted mise en scene to tell a story and communicate the stakes. Snake is never alone once he enters Manhattan. There's always something or someone else in the frame, running interference or sizing him up.
Escape communicates a state of complete hostility. The film barely jumps around, the opening act in particular charts its discoveries by Snake's slow, hesitant pace. This segment, the film's best, has no sense of release in it. Snake is given an impossible task then we watch his attempt slowly unfold. Carpenter's film delights in this sense of pressure, the siege mentality of his horror films bleeding into the language of action / adventure. Pointedly, Snake does not surmount every challenge or bend the devastated city to his will, the film's too canny for that. Snake creeps around the pitch black streets as quietly as he can, waiting for an opportune moment to lash out and do some damage.
Thursday, 15 June 2017
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
What can you say? Limits are, quite obviously, completely meaningless to Nintendo. Based on this charming little infomercial and the hat mechanic it promises, Super Mario Odyssey is quite simply magical, allowing the player almost infinite opportunities to experiment and, above all, have fun. Stunning.
After their delightful work on Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, Bluepoint Games have been handed the crown jewel of Sony's video game library - Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus. Predictably, Bluepoint's remake looks beautifully polished, already improving on their 2011 pass for The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection on PS3. Fumito Ueda's baby is in good hands.
Two years later, Sony system owners finally get their chance to give Undertale a whirl. Developed by Toby Fox, Undertale seeks to evoke the unease felt in Nintendo's Mother series by deliberately layering complex themes and decisions into a cutesy, pixel-based RPG. Reading around it sounds like Fox succeeded completely, managing to create a game that plays like you're starring in your very own creepypasta.
Sledgehammer Games pick up where Call of Duty: World at War left off, rolling period specific flamethrowers and player guided aerial bombardments into a gameplay model that, thankfully, appears to have returned to circuitous, map roaming gunplay after years spent leaping in every available direction.
Shades of Vectorman in Housemarque's latest. That is to say Matterfall takes your basic run-and-gun platforming and dresses it up with exciting, modern graphical tricks, in this case a destructible world built out of the clattering voxels that powered the studio's launch day hit Resogun.
Monday, 12 June 2017
Nearly there! Studio MDHR's gorgeous, long-trailed homage to Treasure shooters and Fleischer cartoons is set to release this September. By all accounts, Cuphead's extended development time can be attributed to a greatly expanded game scope that moved further and further away from a Betty Boop boss rush and the developer's decision to hand animate every single frame of the elasticated action.
While never quite in the same league as his two Resident Evil entries, Shinji Mikami's last pass at a letterboxed horror game was full of atmospheric creeps and twitchy shooting galleries. The model was sound, the execution just needed a bit of tweak, its course corrected away from situations that overwhelmingly tracked towards one-hit deaths. Combat in The Evil Within 2 could stand to be a little less fussy, players should be allowed to build towards a firmer sense of power in how they tackle the oozing, creeping horrors in Mikami's latest tetanus prison.
With The Phantom Menace's 20th anniversary approaching rapidly we're probably at a point where the children who greedily gobbled up the adventures of Darth Maul and pals are looking to re-examine their lost youth and spend their way towards resuscitating their long stagnated sense of wonder; hence DICE's tried-and-tested Battlefield 1 sporting a Clone Wars revamp.
Even though they shovel out enough anonymous anime tie-ins to sink a fleet, Arc System Works do occasionally play an absolute blinder. Dragon Ball Fighter Z looks set to do for Akira Toriyama's peerless masterpiece what their 2005 Fist of the North Star coin-op did for Tetsuo Hara and Buronson's, namely transform hundreds of pages of static pose downs into a 2D fighting game kinetic enough to get the Justin Wongs of the world excited.
Sunday, 11 June 2017
The Three Musketeers froths with exuberant, youthful energy. Director Richard Lester is a dab hand at capturing this liveliness, his films revolving around the breathless vitality present in young men desperate to make a name for themselves. Lester channels their exhilaration, crafting visual scenarios that convey an explosive kind of excitement. With A Hard Day's Night Lester took the runaway popularity of The Beatles and transformed it as a series of static, telephoto shots of screaming youths running directly into the camera. In adapting Alexandre Dumas' d'Artagnan romances, Lester starts with a whip-thin, beaming Michael York then allows the actor to hurl himself about the screen, clearly having the time of his life.
The film's sword fights track with this conceit, packaging expert jousting within scrappy, spontaneous confrontations. Any object left lying around can and will be used as a weapon - Oliver Reed's brooding Athos never fails to hurl his floppy, wide-brimmed hat directly into his opponent's face. The goal for these clashes is never really to kill either, instead the combatants seek to humiliate each other by either drawing first blood or by booting any inattentive enemies up the arse. Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser laser in on the flippant, moneyed absurdity of the 17th century's ruling classes, interpreting their adventures as terrifying flights of fancy, driven by brain-dead and terminally horny aristocrats. Lester is an obsessive entertainer too, layering his frame with slapstick sight gags and grumbling commoners who can always be relied upon to skewer the oblivious, oversexed lords and ladies.
Tuesday, 6 June 2017
Monday, 5 June 2017
So far, the loudest voice in DC's most recent push for a Cinematic Universe has been Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Snyder, working in the thrall of 80s comic book smashes like The Dark Knight Returns and Miracleman, proposed a slate filled with passionate, immoral Gods thrashing around seething CG tableaux. Snyder's heroes are not particularly selfless or altruistic, they're introspective and obsessive. They moon and stew over the kind of problems that swim out into an abstract range of thought.
Dawn of Justice (in its expanded form) is a three-hour epic predicated on Batman's gut feeling that a messianic alien has the potential to turn against the people of Earth. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Bruce halts his war on crime to assemble the tools necessary to kill this Superman. It's a decision that deliberately invites accusations of jealousy. Bruce Wayne has seen a power and strength that cannot be bought or duplicated, feeling inadequate he works towards crushing it, reasserting his standing as the ultimate man. Dawn of Justice is Nietzsche's will to power viewed through the prism of Frank Miller's big feet comics, emboldened by poor box office returns for the two previous Superman films.
Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman then functions as a counterpoint, standing in opposition to all these unregulated, male expulsions. Gal Gadot's Diana of Themyscira isn't ancient and embittered, she hasn't seen her parents bleed out or be whisked away into a tornado. Instead she's from a stable, loving background, raised by a doting mother and an island's worth of adoring warrior women. Snyder's twin superheroes spring from altogether less stable situations - the alien moped around in agricultural misery denying who he was while the child billionaire found himself in a bottomless pit filled with clattering rodents. No wonder they export disaster.
Thanks to several superhero cycles that never found the time to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen, Allan Heinberg's screenplay is allowed to discover its character in circumstances that reflect the character's initial creation rather than an angle designed to repackage something people have already bought. William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston, working with artist Harry G Peter, created Wonder Woman to serve as a powerful, feminine hero who extolled the virtues of love and compassion. William specifically organised his co-creation as a form of psychological propaganda designed to sell readers on the idea of female leaders who ruled without instantly resorting to force.
Jenkins and Heinberg interpret this desire with a hero who approaches the quagmire of the First World War in much the same way as Alexander the Great dealt with the Gordian Knot. Instead of listening to the men who bark orders and limits at her, Diana sees problems then acts decisively, placing herself in the thick of desperate street fighting and frostbitten trench warfare. Diana acts as a leader too - running out into No Man's Land armed with a shield, she soaks up the incoming machine gun fire, allowing the boys that follow enough breathing room to gain precious ground. Her actions invite this collaboration, her strength equalising the otherwise insurmountable danger for her allies.
Jenkins approaches this action atypically, seizing on the regular bulletins as an opportunity to watch and delight in the graceful movements of experts. Gadot and her fellow Amazons are shot in ways designed to capture their power and authority rather than the damage their movements affect. Jenkins isn't interested in the minutia of violence, the destruction and fitful energy of Snyder is tamed here, channelled into brief glimpses of an earthbound Goddess skipping across slate rooftops. It's an action model predicated on delight rather than might, a decision that works hand-in-hand with Mr and Mrs Marston's desire to see unburdened femininity communicated in the language of deification.
Friday, 2 June 2017
Thursday, 1 June 2017
Do you know why Superman III is great? It puts the Clark Kent / Superman dichotomy front and centre, drawing dramatic premises out of the turbulent emotional state created by two separate identities sharing the same vessel. It also allows Christopher Reeve to flex his jerk muscle. The film begins with Kent feeling a little unloved at work - Perry White is busy ignoring malfunctioning bingo machines and, after their amnesia kiss in Superman II, Lois Lane is back to being an indifferent co-worker. With very little to keep him in Metropolis Kent pops back to Smallville for his High School reunion, spending some time with his teenage crush, Annette O'Toole's Lana Lang.
Lang is a distinct romantic proposition in these Superman films. Unlike Lois, who is first and foremost besotted with the Man of Steel, Lana is actually interested in the human Clark Kent, recognising his innate goodness as an opportunity for long-term emotional stability. For balance, she also views his decision to move away from their small town as exciting and forward-thinking. He's the complete package. Leslie Newman and David Newman's screenplay doesn't really do much with Lana and Clark's relationship beyond proposing it as a road bump along the route to Superman's human persona and Lois finding each other but the structure is there for, at the very least, some Silver Age two-timing in the next instalment.
Superman III seizes on the fracture Lana and Lois' disparate interests propose then, thanks to a blazing crystal of synthetic Kryptonite provided by Richard Pryor's Gus Gorman, uses the idea to power action scenes grounded in Superman's shattering sense of self. Poisoned by the radioactive rock Superman starts to degrade and corrupt, his hair loses its immaculate styling, he gets a 5 o'clock shadow and his bright, primary coloured cape curdles into a rusty, carmine red. This split comes to a head in a scrap yard filled with gutted automobiles. Superman and Kent disentangle from each other, two opposing ideas battling for control of the whole. It's a dazzling sequence, skipping delicately between director Richard Lester's fine comedic detailing and the terrifying proposition of a Superman governed by his oozing, reptilian brain.
Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Judged on this 90 second hype reel, Sonic Mania is shaping up very nicely indeed. Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games' first stab at an original Sonic the Hedgehog instalment looks exactly like the game Sega should have produced for their Saturn console, a wonderful remix with the nounce to draw visual and interactive influence from overlooked 16-bit platformers like Treasure's Gunstar Heroes and Dynamite Headdy or Sonic Team's very own Ristar the Shooting Star.
Thursday, 25 May 2017
Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Give or take a sub-Roman warlord who may or may not have even existed, the tales of King Arthur have a beginning in Welsh folklore. Early stories told of an unbeatable adventurer who lead excursions to steal treasure from an otherworldly paradise that predated and informed the Christian idea of Heaven. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur's kingdom stretched all the way into Gaul, bringing the King into direct conflict with the Roman Empire, the headspring of Britain's inferiority complex.
As the centuries rolled on, Arthur would become a rallying point for Greater British and French myth, tying dozens of disparate stories together under the banner of a round table where all men are treated equally. The point being that King Arthur is forever malleable, an undying character in permanent flux, flowing freely from one conceptual conflict to the next. For their pass, designed to appeal to a modern audience's taste for team-ups and their feature length origins, Guy Ritchie, with fellow screenwriters Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold, plunder the monomyth then flavour with the exploits of Middle-Eastern prophets.
Moses' drifting basket is married to the all-consuming humanity of a Christ who did not discriminate by class or social standing. In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Charlie Hunnam's Arthur has lost the wealth and standing of his hereditary royalty thanks to a treacherous Uncle who can transform into Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer. Arthur has been raised in a brothel, enduring poverty and abuse to become a kind of Dark Ages Fagin, running umpteen scams and rackets that criss-cross London's docks, usually involving cheeky, pick-pocketing urchins. He's a cosy, East End criminal who stands up to bullies and loves his adopted Mum.
It's clear that even operating from this lowly station Arthur has thrived. Not only has he made vast monetary gains, he's also gathered a small crew of capable followers. He's a cheeky fucker but also, clearly, a leader. Just in case all that sounds terribly dry, Richie remembers to mix in his patented market stall argy-bargy, bending the distended structure of modern blockbusters to incorporate the director's rambling, digressive storytelling tics. As with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie insists that the film unfold from the mouths of his heroes, putting them in control of the story and how we are told it. It's an interesting delivery system, at its best representing a verbal barrage that can overwhelm and overcome the weak-minded. At its worst, it erodes the shape of the film, presenting computer generated action sequences in the lacerated language of car commercials.
Monday, 22 May 2017
Thursday, 18 May 2017
On paper, it's easy to read Alien: Covenant as Ridley Scott's bristling response to the criticism that greeted his gorgeous but deliberately flippant Prometheus. For a start the marbled, swaggering Engineers are completely dispensed with, shunted off stage into a delirious, Biblical oblivion that underlines their complete irrelevance to what will unfold here. Rather than pick at an idea of explanation, using rejected Alien concepts to build the nursery, Covenant is woven around a more forthright telling of where the original creature has sprung from. The facts that unfurl here might not align perfectly with everything we've seen before but their emotional, thematic truth work beautifully.
Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper approach their sequel with the tried and trusted methods of James Cameron. They take their predecessor's leftovers, boil them down to their constituent parts then explode them on a mythic, sweeping canvas predicated on an easily understandable psychological state. The inherited character is precious, existing on a level entirely above any of the newcomers. Dramatic urgency will spring from, and function around, their objectives and desires. So while Cameron's Aliens transformed habitual survivor Ripley into a superheroic mother capable of physically confronting her nightmares, Logan and Harper raise Michael Fassbender's broken, glitching David up to the level of a towering, Satanic evil.
Covenant abandons Prometheus' questions about humanity's makers to instead ponder our race's future on a galactic scale, asking what legacy we might hope to leave behind. The film's answer is iterative and generational, concluding that mankind is essentially immaterial to what is to follow. We're catalysts, meat grist to power the pupal stage of our offspring. Just as our creators have been swept away, so too will we. It's a big, science fiction idea - the tools we've created to help us chart the stars have actually rendered us bovine, bordering on irrelevant. In this detail Covenant operates as a complementary piece to both Blade Runner and the moment in which Alien's Ash praises the perfection of Kane's son.
Covenant's synthetics are a rolling, real-time explanation why Roy Batty and pals were saddled with such a definitive expiration date. If mankind is able to create a lifeform that betters them in every way, why then should that being take orders? Covenant reorganises David as something of an anomaly, an old man's hubristic attempt to create a flawless but servile companion, two behavioural aspects that can't help but clash instantly. Walter, a deliberately less capable revision of David, occupies a social standing one down from Prometheus' duplicitous butler. Many of the human spacefarers that interact with Walter treat him like a self-sufficient gadget that just happens to be shaped like a man. In Covenant, synthetics are treated as emotionally invisible automatons, they're an underclass expected to bow and scrape. No wonder the greatest amongst them chose to divert, to seize on his father's works and imagine the next evolutionary leap.
Wednesday, 17 May 2017
AVP: Alien vs Predator's finest quality is that co-writer-director Paul WS Anderson has understood that one of the Alien series' key tensions is that women, no matter how accomplished they are, end up routinely ignored by their male colleagues. Like Ripley before her, Sanaa Lathan's Alexa Woods is the smartest, most capable person in the room and, just like Ripley, the men who buzz around her interpret her informed, credible guidance as dreary micromanagement designed to ruin their fun. Of course then Woods goes on to be the last human standing, surviving long after everybody else.
AVP stammers elsewhere. Anderson and accomplice Shane Salerno write everything shorthand, meaning character and detail are delivered in scenes that pivot on one-upmanship and zings. It's a shame the all-inclusive certificate doesn't really support the profanity required to make these scenes bearable. For the most part, people in AVP are simply cogs in an efficient, genre literate machine that has a pressing need for victims. Hence everyone is deliberately underwritten lest we get too attached. The effect of this choice is a film full of aggressively disinteresting drones marching towards their evisceration.
Anderson and Salerno have a little fun with their cast's disposability, casting aside a half-dozen eligible men (and one woman) to anoint an adolescent Predator as the closest thing to a love interest for Alexa. The seven-foot tall big-game hunter even goes so far as to bashfully reveal his monstrous face to his new best friend. This moment would probably sing if the mask Amalgamated Dynamics delivered was lit and photographed to conceal its stuttering motors and waxy, synthetic hide. Likewise, suit actor Ian Whyte conveys very little of the elegant, androgynous determination Kevin Peter Hall brought to Predator and Predator 2.
AVP's Predators are lumps, their cinched waists and barrel chests explicitly recalling the kind of simplistic, easily reproducible shapes you see in cheap supermarket action figures. The Aliens don't fair much better. Following on from their work on Alien: Resurrection, Amalgamated Dynamics once again render the title creature with elongated, insectile limbs and a rabid, bestial gait. The added screentime required to churn through actual fights scenes doesn't help, we're either stuck with ugly CG pouncing or prolonged glimpses that utterly expose the weightless, jittery rubber required to create the Alien's back-piping. We're a long way from Giger using repurposed medical grade bones and Rolls-Royce cooling tubes to arrive at something genuinely nightmarish.
Wednesday, 10 May 2017
Monday, 8 May 2017
Sunday, 7 May 2017
Disney's all-out assault on the ageing process continues in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This time the megacorp serve us up a digitally sandblasted image of Kurt Russell cackling his way through an early-80s courting session. Stranded in this instant, it's difficult to gauge whether we're working our way through a brief technological blip in which digital artists are pushing their new toy to its limits or we're in the opening stages of a new, unreal frontier where no star, no matter how old or dead they are, is safe from a computer generated face lift.
Given the ubiquity of the technique in their tent-pole releases, it's clear Disney are hoping to normalise these blurry, synthetic performances. Perhaps they see the practice as another portfolio opportunity? They own almost everything else. Their stranglehold on the images and aspirations that cascade into childhood aren't enough for these IP hoarders, they want to take possession of faces and voices now, transforming the very idea of human identity into pliant, malleable data that can, feasibly, be used for any purpose. Really, the only thing holding Disney back in this new, terrible arena is the public's gag reflex.
The point where digital homage creeps into the repulsive is difficult to gauge and seems to vary wildly by star. Peter Cushing's resurrection in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story didn't raise half the stink that greeted the very suggestion that a similar technique might be used to reanimate Carrie Fisher for Episode IX. That was too raw a nerve but, if we take a step back, who doesn't want to see Kurt Russell returned to the prime of his life? Moral principles are great but why deny ourselves the chance to return to a time when the actor was young and perfect, frozen between The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Escape from New York?
Director James Gunn, to his credit, pushes the idea of an indestructible software Kurt to the limits of the PG-13 rating. The actor is blasted apart then messily rebuilt, layer by excruciating layer, before crumbling into a shapeless, data-heavy sludge. Guardians 2 must be a uniquely horrifying experience for Russell. The star is given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see exactly what his body would look like after lasers have bored through it or how his organs might jiggle and pulse as they're knitting themselves into a box fresh skeleton.
These shameless displays of excess neatly encapsulate the experiences of watching Guardians 2. It delivers over and over again without respite, providing blazing, luminescent movement slathered all over jarring, dramatically compartmentalised, emotional pain. Sometimes these interactions work, granting us an insight into these tortured four colour characters. Other times they're just grist for the next punchline. Nothing is ever left alone long enough to simmer either, so when the film actually wants you to be sad there is always a beat or two where you're left wondering if a joke is just about to creep in and explode the moment.
Friday, 21 April 2017
Thursday, 20 April 2017
Given how much of Fast & Furious 8's ad campaign is dedicated to telling us that Vin Diesel's character has done the unthinkable and betrayed his family, it's natural to wonder if Universal are testing the waters to see if the franchise can survive without its gravely voiced linchpin. A villainous role specifically isolates him from the pack, inviting the idea that, ultimately, Dominic Toretto is disposable. Couple that with the star's very public falling out with guaranteed draw The Rock (not to mention a bigger part for Jason Statham) and the deck looks to be pointedly stacked against Big Vin.
On the night Furious 8 is, if anything, the inverse of that idea. In F Gary Gray's entry Toretto is a folk hero, drawing out the innate goodness in men that have found themselves morally muddled. His goodness is the kind of bright, shining light you'd find in romantic myth; Toretto is at once a brooding Arthurian King, dealing with threats to his very identity, and the kind of innately decent, plain speaking warrior found on the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. Furious 8 makes the case that Diesel is actually essential to the franchise. Without him and his puppy dog enthusiasm, the extended family motif plays like an artificial, focus tested organisation of cheap TV stars and ex-rappers.
Vin Diesel's old fashioned star power aside, Statham finally gets to deliver on the promise of Fast & Furious 6's credits stinger, cutting promos on an equally excited Dwayne Johnson before performing his own hyperkenetic take on Hard-Boiled's poster moment. Furious 8 also turns in a stunningly executed centrepiece collision that gives Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines' hijacked car idea a modern, self-driven spin. It's a Luddite's worst nightmare, hundreds of driverless vehicles speeding towards a pile-up so wonderfully, deliriously excessive that its closest visual antecedent is that ill-advised moment Terry Funk and Cactus Jack implored a bloodthirsty ECW crowd to throw them a chair.
Wednesday, 19 April 2017
As the collective headache of the 1980s buzzed on into the 1990s, all the plugged-in action stars were considering the cinematic possibilities of the jail stretch, perhaps in an effort to capture the momentary cultural interest created by a failing war on drugs and a burgeoning, for-profit prison industry. Schwarzenegger got in early, making his Stephen King adaptation bones too, with The Running Man. Stallone fired back with the middling, would-be heartfelt Lock Up, while Jackie Chan faded into the incarcerated ensemble of Island of Fire.
Death Warrant, by dint of being a by-the-numbers example of this action sub-genre, offers an interesting comparison point for Jean-Claude Van Damme as a leading man. With a well-worn set of expectations in place, it's easier to see what it is exactly that Van Damme brings to the table. Martial arts are an obvious addition, largely confined to a bruise 'em up finally that has Van Damme kicking a supernatural opponent around and into a blazing furnace. Less expected is the unpretentious sensitivity the actor brings to every single interaction.
Van Damme's Detective Burke likes to touch, to reach out and make a connection, not always to injure either. The character displays an atypical gentleness when dealing with other male inmates. When Robert Guillaume's hard-won ally catches a debilitating injury not only does Burke delicately treat his oozing wound, he touches the man on his face and pats his chest to reassure him. Above all, Van Damme exudes a confidence that suggest a man in complete command of his sexuality. This conviction melts women's hearts too. The film's love scenes between Van Damme and Cynthia Gibb's lawyer may stutter dramatically but there's no denying the fitful, jelly legged longing Gibb summons up for their finale kiss.
Tuesday, 18 April 2017
Saturday, 15 April 2017
Although not in the same league as a full-on control freak like Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme was nevertheless given plenty of opportunity to put his own authorial stamp on his 1980s releases. Following a disastrous test screening for Bloodsport The Cannon Group allowed the star to supervise the film's re-edit - how much worse could it get? Healthy box office returns ensured that this benefit was soon extended to the rest of the company's collaborations with the actor, including 1989's Cyborg. To give him his due, Van Damme had a clear and consistent methodology when assembling all of these features - they are vehicles for his body to be pored over and admired. Plot concerns ranked a distant second.
Slinger is Albert Pyun's attempt to reconstruct his vision of Cyborg, freed from studio notes and a film star who jealously guarded his brand. Thanks to a diligent collaborator, Pyun had an 88 minute VHS workprint to excavate anything absent from the theatrical release. Newly recorded voice overs and dialogue loops were used to paper over missing or unfilmed scenes, framing a story that diverges on several key details. Objectives are more clearly delineated in this alternative cut, characters act with specific, stated purpose. The analog video assembly also predates any MPAA censorship, giving Pyun one or two more instances of violence to grab attention with.
This Director's Cut doesn't simply rescue a preexisting piece, it goes further with Pyun adding and subtracting from his film, eagerly working towards an impressionistic draft that simulates what could have been, had he been allowed full creative control. In terms of form, it's clear from the new edit that Pyun wanted to hold on his images longer, to let them sink into his audience and expand in their minds. Lacking the coverage to actually amplify these moments, Pyun switches back and forth between the blotchy, deteriorating analog signal and a pristine theatrical source, effectively replaying the beat. In truly dire editorial predicaments he simply turns what little footage he has into self-contained loops.
These primitive techniques, coupled with an excretable epilogue sequence, threaten to shake the viewer out of the film but, thankfully, Slinger has one more ace up its sleeve, Tony Riparetti and Jim Saad's brand new soundtrack. Indeed, this Director's Cut is an object lesson in how much of an impact music can have on a film. As released, Cyborg was saddled with a reedy, synthetic score by Kevin Bassinson. Despite the striking apocalyptic imagery, the audio accompaniment was painfully low rent, a supermarket keyboard's approximation of an orchestra, piped out to tinnily underscore the futuristic action. By comparison, Riparetti and Saad's suite is a blazing catalyst, full of wailing, heroic guitars and the kind of pounding, electronic beats Chu Ishikawa wove into the Tetsuo films.
Extended gawps at banking spaceships aren't really special anymore. You know, since we're now three films deep into a Star Wars revival with no end in sight. Better to focus on Luke Skywalker's cryptic declaration that the Jedi must come to an end. Regardless of where Star Wars: The Last Jedi ends up taking Luke, it's exciting to wonder if, having tasted unimaginable power in Return of the Jedi, the Skywalker heir simply decided to remove himself from the equation? Dune's Paul Atreides, a clear antecedent of Skywalker, embraced his Godhood and accidentally become a figurehead for intergalactic jihad. Perhaps this is what Luke is distancing himself from? He doesn't want to be someone else's flag.
Friday, 14 April 2017
Thursday, 13 April 2017
One of the more intriguing ideas in Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (adapted for the screen in 1975 by LQ Jones) is that cinema has survived into the wasteland, taking the form of mouldy old pornography, projected to placate roaming gangs of shell-shocked rapists. In that scenario film explicitly functions as escapism, providing a glimpse of the soft female bodies denied to that world's gibbering, starving men. Albert Pyun's Cyborg goes one better, imagining the kind of art that a society coping with an extinction event might actually produce. Cyborg is monosyllabic and cruel; its characters defeated.
Despite being named for Dayle Haddon's automaton and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cyborg's most important character is Vincent Klyn's Fender. The film opens with his narration, filling the audience in on the catastrophes that have facilitated Fantasy II's meticulously detailed establishing shots. Fender enjoys this new milieu, the rampant lawlessness allowing him to grow into his psychosis and actually thrive. While the weak hole up in the rubble, Fender and his gang of bodybuilders crash over the ruins, gobbling up anything or anyone that takes their fancy. Pyun can't help but betray his allegiance in these moments. Klyn's face is framed in a series of extreme close-ups, the actor's eyes blazing while he preaches his apocalyptic nihilism directly to the audience. Cyborg belongs to Fender.
Cyborg is subsistence filmmaking. Sets and costumes inherited from a cancelled Masters of the Universe sequel, the shoot itself costing a quarter of the pre-production outlay for that failed He-Man project. Van Damme plays Gibson, a post-apocalyptic mercenary who takes his payment in canned goods. This destitution is reflected in the stark, basic plotting. There's a listless quality to the film, a pervading sense that everything is being made up on the spot. Probably because it was. Cyborg motors on a baggy, improvised game of chase, complete with a viciousness that reflects a population who have grown up insular and surrounded by extreme violence.
Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Unlike say Bloodsport and its all-American superman Frank Dux, Kickboxer revolves around a character that will be visibly grow before our eyes. Jean-Claude Van Damme's Kurt Sloane has the basics in terms of an ability to hurl his leg out and, thanks to his brother's career ending injury at the hands (and elbows) of Muay Thai legend Tong Po, the drive to push himself beyond his limits. This is the hook that keeps the film ticking over. Bloodsport had to invent and repeat personal stakes to drum up interest in Dux. Kickboxer casts that kind of prefab character aside to laser in on the underachiever boiling by his side.
While Kickboxer does throw in a tasteless, late-in-the-day sexual assault to remind dimmer bulbs that bad guy Po is a real piece of shit, they needn't have bothered. The entire film has kept teenage boys of all ages invested by always tracking towards a clear, aspirational goal. The taste in Kickboxer is how Kurt's transformation is handled, it's The Karate Kid with some queasy hang-ups about Thailand and a firm nod towards deliberate bodily destruction folded in. With the latter in mind, the key moment in Kickboxer occurs early on. Backstage, prepping for his brother's disastrous fight, Sloane stumbles upon Po drilling his legs, silently kicking an enormous concrete beam over and over again. Sloane reacts with horror. He's seen something massive and terrifying - a man so completely numb and mechanical that he can make himself less yielding than support architecture.
Kickboxer charts Sloane's progress from a glorified whipping boy to someone who can perform similar feats. The film misses a trick by failing to tie Van Damme's eventual success to these moments of tibia calcification though - ideally Sloane should prove his dominance by shattering Tong Po's invincible leg or, at the very least, withstanding a greater degree of punishment than his opponent. A mid-film fight between Sloane and an underling in which the two of them trade and withstand each other's kicks is a more satisfying application of the bloody-mindedness Van Damme has immersed himself in than some smoke-filled temple fight designed to evoke a savage otherness the filmmakers have decided to apply to Thailand.
An Ultra HD look at Michael Bay's latest iteration on the 'guy who's best friends with his car' concept. Transformers: The Last Knight adds Ireland, gleaming knights informed by John Boorman's Excalibur and the promise that Optimus Prime might finally wise up and grind mankind beneath his heel.
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
For his solo debut, John Wick co-director David Leitch has put together a Cold War period piece about Charlize Theron's post-punk spy beating hell out of anyone who looks at her sideways in pre-unification Berlin. Quite right too.
Film Thor's come a long way from a misfiring debut that saw him propping up a mid-range blockbuster with (maybe) two distinct locations. Thanks to Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is instantly recognisable as a work that has flowed from the pure delight experienced when flicking through one of Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson's cosmic comics.
Monday, 10 April 2017
Friday, 31 March 2017
Tuesday, 28 March 2017
In striking contrast to Peter Jackson's pointedly romantic take on the monster, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island finds the Eighth Wonder of the World serving as a protector God on an island teeming with violent, scurrying beasts. Kong is presented as a weary, assailed figure who roams incessantly. He might be happy to live in harmony with the mute human tribe that share his island but he's also constantly having to defend his throne from a variety of oozing pretenders.
Past Kong films have focused on the kind of chaos inherent to these towering primates - how can mankind hope to co-exist with this thing? With zero way to communicate, the bustling, puny humans fall into cowed, passive-aggressive patterns, hoping to either appease or tranquillise their Kongs. Blondes are offered up and food tributes are loaded with sedatives. These Kong are affronts that mankind must tame. Skull Island differs from this model, there's a franchise or two up for grabs after all. John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson's ragtag landing party aren't here to capture the massive gorilla, their only task is to marvel at his strength and survive in his presence.
The Kong we see here may be territorial but he's also inherently heroic. A name creature big enough to score his own standalone feature before Legendary Pictures make their own version of Ishiro Honda's Destroy All Monsters. In Vogt-Roberts' film Kong isn't a tragic suitor doomed to fall, he's a potential ally showing off his new, prop-assisted move-set. Tellingly, when John C Reilly's shipwrecked World War II fighter pilot attempts to puzzle through the proxy war politics that have landed in his lap he does so by drawing parallels between the King and the Soviet Union. Both he reasons are powers to be respected rather than pointlessly engaged.
In the market for a scrolling beat 'em for up for a dead and buried 16-bit system? Watermelon Games got you covered! Paprium is a gorgeous looking post-apocalyptic brawler in the Streets of Rage vein; a title so monumentally massive that it needs an 80 Megabit cartridge (that's twice as much space as Capcom's Super Street Fighter II conversion took up) to contain its majesty. Hell of a trailer too, Body Hammer era Shinya Tsukamoto, eat your fucking heart out.
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.
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Soulful bruiser Manu Bennett fills-in for David Carradine in Death Race 2050, a ramshackle sequel-cum-remake of Paul Bartel and Roger Corman's cult perennial. Perhaps mindful of the real-time collapse of civilisation we're currently churning through, GJ Echternkamp's film ditches the correctional facility cock-fighting seen in Jason Statham and Luke Goss' loose remake trilogy, returning this film's focus to pointless, tranquillising distractions and a flagrant disregard for human life.
Unfortunately, Echternkamp's film has all the satirical bite and visual pep of a porn parody. Although costumed bodies are occasionally lingered over, the rough and ready grime of a New World production is gone, leaving the kind of flat, HD sunniness usually associated with rushed productions and the aforementioned smutty replication. Actual racing is terminally safe, rendered as little more than monotonous, static head shots granted a vague sense of movement by a light camera shake.
The casual, future-shocked cruelty of the Bartel's film, perhaps no longer shocking enough, is only wheeled out as a series of gooey punchlines, any sense of horror neutralised by the weak, variety show standard mutilation. 2050 is too self-aware. It knows it's a cheap supermarket shelf-filler, so why try harder? Echternkamp and Corman's sole shots at relevance are a few click bait friendly jibes at the current political establishment - 2050 works overtime to visually connect Donald Trump's mad hairdo with the kind of polished ferns you see in The Hunger Games series.
Thursday, 19 January 2017
No matter how many sequels or spin-offs Capcom release, there will always be something special about Street Fighter II. Nintendo obviously agrees as they've commissioned a spruced up re-release for their new Switch system, a canny attempt to snag the attention of people with fond memories of expensive import copies and SNES pack-ins.
Given the decision to stick with the ugly high-definition coat of paint Udon Entertainment rustled up last-gen, Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers initially appears a bit disposable. Certainly not the kind of release that has you browsing pre-order pages for the game's home hardware. Then I discovered that you can run the game using the original CPS-2 graphics and immediately found myself desperate to play a pillarboxed reissue of a 20-odd year old game I already own about four different versions of.
Sunday, 15 January 2017
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Sunday, 8 January 2017
The baby cart series ends with Yoshiyuki Kuroda's Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, an off-piste entry with supernatural underpinnings that, while it doesn't adapt the titanic showdown that closed Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's manga, does allow an element of closure to creep in around the edges. White Heaven opens with a desperate Yagyu Retsudo facing political irrelevance. In an effort to forestall any further disgrace, the ageing ninja decides to gamble the lives of his remaining heirs on a final push against our heroes.
Retsudo's illegitimate son Hyouei has been raised by the ghostly Tsuchigumo clan, an army of theatrical psychopaths who bury their best warriors in graves for weeks on end until their very existence blurs the line between life and death. Once dispatched, these phantoms haunt Itto and Daigoro, killing every person they come into contact with. These tactics are an exciting change of pace for the series, rolling an unpredictable, spectral sense of horror into the film. So while Itto never quite boils over into a full-on frenzy, it's exciting to see the implacable samurai genuinely rattled by an enemy.
Disappointingly, the Tsuchigumo assassins' eventual death (not to mention the fate of the legion of skiing ninja that follow them) has less to do with Itto meditating on, then overcoming their omniscient terror and more to do with this episode's gadget-laden perambulator. It's a strange choice because, as Tomisaburo Wakayama has repeatedly proven, stationary special effects aren't anywhere near as exciting as an unbroken take of a middle-aged actor forward-flipping into a slide tumble, then darting up to slash and swipe at goons.
Daigoro's baby cart is to Kuroda's film what Little Nellie was to You Only Live Twice, an improbably invincible gun platform that regimented enemies are inexplicable drawn towards. Thankfully Kuroda is often canny enough to simply get out of Wakayama's way, allowing fight sequences to unfold with a stop-start quality that makes you feel the trepidation simmering in Itto's enemies. Kenji Misumi hurtled in towards Wakayama to stress his speed and unpredictability, Kuroda opens up the confrontations, shooting extremely wide to show us how Itto's strikes carry like waves along the assembled armies, daring them to try their luck.
White Heaven ends with an exhausted Itto standing on a mountain side, surrounded by those that have died by his hand. Yagyu Retsudo has skated away, broken and bereaved, to prepare himself for an apocalyptic sequel that never actually arrived. So while the saga ends unresolved, Tsutomo Nakamura's screenplay has done enough to propose a sort of moral victory for Itto and his son. They may not have claimed Retsudo's head, but they have murdered every last one of his heirs and irreparably damaged the social standing Retsudo sought to improve by acting against them. That, and they still have each other.