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by Bill Gibron

10 Sep 2008

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.

In all honesty, there is nothing new about this Arab-angled coming of age saga. When she is caught having her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, 13 year old Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. Preferring the suburbs because they are safer, Rifat works for NASA, and while putting on airs of sophistication and patriotism, he burns with a chauvinistic and racist fire. While under his emotional and physically abusive care, Jasira learns about her period, about tampons, about dirty magazines, about masturbation, and about the predatory habits of two new male influences in her life. One is fellow middle schooler Thomas. The other is the family’s next door neighbor - a bigoted reservist with an unhealthy eye on Jasira’s budding sexuality. 

Ball clearly wants to redefine the maturation experience for kids circa the new millennium. He wants to break down barriers, tackle taboos, and in general toss out into the open the private topics and traumas that every young girl faces. It’s the kind of thematic universality that drives both the movie and the semi-autobiographical novel (by Alicia Erian) upon which it is based. There is no real discussion of religion (“we’re Christians, just like everyone in Texas” Jasira chides to a clueless kid) and for a film founded in the first Gulf War, there is precious little politics. No, Towelhead revolves exclusively around sex - menstruation, orgasms, molestation, virginity, blood, condoms, lies, seduction, underage nudity, and the adult manipulations and misunderstandings that occur because of same.

When Larry Clark does it, critics complain. Movies like Kids and Ken Park have been labeled pornographic and offensive, treating the teenage years of its characters like a visit to Caligula’s falling Rome. Towelhead is not that bad. In fact, it’s worse. Clark doesn’t dress up his portrayals in symbolist bullshit, nor does he try to apologize for his film’s hedonistic tone. In his mind, he is telling the world about the reality of youth culture - it’s emphasis on drugs, debauchery, and the decision to overindulge in both. Ball doesn’t dare bring this angle to Towelhead, perhaps because the book doesn’t lend itself to said approach. But when dealing with the horrific consequences of abuse - sexual or physical - it seems disingenuous to spin it within a slick suburban pseudo-satire.

Towelhead never tells us what to think. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder what the point is. Can Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Something similar happens when the filmmaker focuses on Jasira’s discovery of masturbation. We see her scissor legs strategy in class, while babysitting, in the school cafeteria. It’s not really a question of inappropriateness. It’s an issue of purpose. 

As stated before, this is the kind of film that embraces its own sense of fearlessness, that focuses almost exclusively on how much it can get away with in the name of 2007 social malaise. When Jasira’s father smacks her square in the face, when he bruises her leg and spits on her, we never get the required retort. He’s just a mixed up MAN from the Middle East, that’s all. Similarly, our military pedophile, drooling over Jasira the minute he sees her, gets a last act slice of redemption that’s supposed to soften the blow of his battery. Yet Ball can’t manufacture the necessary outrage or criminal context. Even as Aaron Eckhart is faux fingering 18 year old actress Summer Bashil, it’s like the writer/director never saw There’s Something About Amelia.

Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors. Perhaps Ball thought that he was creating the ultimate adult nightmare, an experience in which everything you suspected about your barely tween son or daughter was disturbingly true. For a seminar of sociologists, maybe but not for a crowd just coming down from Summer’s popcorn swelter. It’s hard to imagine adolescents flocking to this film, especially given the sheepish, almost consensual way Jasira treats her ordeal. Dad beats her? She simply bows her head. Mom lays into her about any and every thing? She’s apologetic. Classmates call her all manner of racial epithets? She finally gets up the nerve to hit a neighbor in the arm. That’s courage.

Maybe they are counting on the carnal curiosity factor. After all, a review like this could easily spark the imagination of the more sleaze minded moviegoers in the demo. One can just see a certain kind of teen boy giggling in the back row, digital camera capturing the few brief glimpses of Bashil sans skivvies (she is never shown full on naked)…and let’s not even mention the adults who are titillated by this kind of content. Naturally, there will be apologists, people who can easily overlook elements like age, age, and age to suggest that Ball has tapped into the harsh realities of growing up. Right…and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a mere lesson in making better guardianship arrangements.

It’s not just that Towelhead is tawdry and tasteless. It’s not the oppressive unrelenting focus on Jasira’s warp speed hormones. It’s not even the notion that someone without a clear frame of reference can proclaim to understand the teen girl experience from the inside out. No, what Ball does here is something similar to an old ‘60s parental caveat - i.e. some things shouldn’t be aired in public. In book form - and especially considering the potential for authenticity from an experienced author’s standpoint - this material may work. Most literature can manage this kind of material because the theater of the mind is so selective and personal. But when given a concrete depiction, the surrounding social/legal/public facets fill in gaps that some of us may not want to see.

In many ways, Towelhead is like Funny Games without the snooty Euro-centric sneer. Ball isn’t out to rub our nose into the notion of middle schoolers gone wild, and the appearance of a hippy dippy couple as cultural conscience toward the end seems to suggest a kind of metaphysical mea culpa. Indeed, the film takes us through some horrifically uncomfortable material only to attempt to make it all better in the end. As the movie moves along, you can literally feel the shift - Eckhart’s sex scene with Bashil is all suggestion, unlike the similarly styled moment between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in Beauty. But that doesn’t excuse the underage aspect, or the clear come-on/tease element inferred. On some level, Ball appears to suggest Jasira deserves what happens to her. Open up the personal Pandora’s ‘box’ and…

It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Critics are allowed to like or loathe anything that falls into their professional lap. But as with the aforementioned affront by Michael Haneke, Towelhead is provocation for the sake of being sensational. We don’t feel any empathy or come to any clear conclusions. Instead, we spend nearly two hours in voyeuristic disgust as a young girl is ground up like grist for a lax media mill. There is no denying that there is honesty here. But it is buried in a sloppy cinematic strategy that can’t stop fixating on the physicality of its lead. Everything here - from the Busby Berkeley inspired Playboy centerfold photo shoot fantasies to Jasira’s asexual striptease - is meant as nothing more than confrontation. After a while, we simply grow tired of the assault. Too bad Ball and his characters don’t feel the same.

by Bill Gibron

9 Sep 2008

It’s a safe bet that on any given day in Hollywood, the studios are awash in litigation. No major business can function without frequenting the court system now and again. Sure, we always hear about the stars that find themselves knee deep in no good, a tabloid mandated trip into rehab preventing the swift hammer of justice from marking them with that professionally inconvenient criminal record. Heck, Harvey Levin wouldn’t have a lifestyle without them (in either of his so called careers). No, the rarity is the blazing of big guns, company vs. company, usually complaining about money, who made it, and how it was managed. Since most of Hollywood is run by bean counters, business school graduates, and their JD partners in pilfering, actual lawsuits tend to be few and far between.

But within the last month, Tinsel Town has been rocked by three rather high profile civil hissy fits - which, again, isn’t all that unusual. The intricacy of any international commerce basically demands it. But in all three cases, the issue under contention seems like one the parties should have worked out long before a visit to the clerk of the court. It’s hard to imagine that these people get paid what they do and yet fail to cross such “T"s and dot such dollar intensive “I"s. Of course, no one can predict every facet of a major deal. Sometimes, unseen aftershocks can result from such seismic financial matters. But in the case of The Watchmen, Tommy Lee Jones, and Disturbia proceedings, bad things do occasionally happen to powerbrokers. 

Looking at the most recent pleading first, it was only a matter of time before the Shia LeBouf hit was called out for the Rear Window rip it appears to be. After all, substitute Jimmy Stewart for the aforementioned rising young star, Raymond Burr for David Morse, and a proto-Pinkberry suburb for a metropolitan apartment building courtyard, and you’ve seen either effort. So when the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, owner of the rights to the 1942 short story “Murder From A Fixed Viewpoint” by Cornell Woolrich tagged Dreamworks, Viacom, Paramount, NBC, Universal, producer Stephen Spielberg, and anyone else with blockbuster-imbued deep pockets, it was less of a matter of “WHAT?” and more of “what took you so long?”

There’s no denying the similarities between the properties. While Disturbia could never be taken for Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller, that’s really not the issue. Mining the same subject matter or source is SOP for the studios. No, what the lawyers for the late Abend contend is that Universal (specifically) has a long established pattern of ignoring their ownership of the property. Hitchcock and company did gain the proper permissions, but the planned DVD release from a few years back was delayed when the Trust had to, once again, thrust themselves into the process to protect their rights. While it may seem like nitpicking, the difference is very clear. Those representing Abend aren’t angry that Disturbia resembles “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint” - they are pissed that no one told them that the work would again become the basis of a new film.

Of course, this is why the case winds up in court. Someone suggests that a film follows the pattern of a source they own. Another says it was an original effort. Disturbia‘s reliance on the plot contrivances of “Murder” make for a strong case of copycatting. But is it fair to fault someone for merely being inspired by another work. Movies have long “borrowed” content, from directorial homages to outright steals. But the case the Trust will have to make is that Disturbia is SO similar to Murder that it might as well be the same thing. Without the story available to base an opinion on, one has to imagine that the big wigs will take this matter all the way to the bar - unless, of course, a few mill will make it all go away.

That seems to be the case with Tommy Lee Jones, who recently filed suit against the producer of No Country for Old Men for breach of contract and close to $10 million dollars in allegedly owed back end money. According to published reports, the Oscar winner took legal action when his claim for his agreed upon bonus was negated by those in power. They argued that a renegotiation and a misunderstanding over document language prevents the payment. Seems somewhere in the morass of legalese and micromanaged mumbo jumbo that comes with hiring and firing talent, the studio suggests Jones waived his right to said cash. Of course, if the original contract and the new one under contention are both signed, sealed, and delivered, the plaintiffs are going to have to prove fraud. Stop laughing - it’s not necessarily a given in La-La land.

It’s obvious that both of these cases hinged on box office success and the availability of certain amounts of money. No one would be suing the Disturbia gang if it had made Bangkok Dangerous dollars over its theatrical run. But when it comes to the most highly contested lawsuit to hit the wires, we are dealing with potential, not pat results. For decades, fans have been wondering if Alan Moore’s award winning graphic novel, Watchmen, would ever make it to the silver screen. Crammed with a clever combination of social satire, old school comics characterization, and the British author’s cutthroat commentary, it long stood as the Holy Grail of potential cinematic skyrockets. Over the years, several filmmakers have famously failed to realize their goal of giving this project life. As recently as two years ago, it looked like it would never get the greenlight.

Then Zack Snyder went and turned Frank Miller’s Spartan spectacle 300 into one of the most buzzed about films of the last five years, and in combination with his success circa the Dawn of the Dead remake, he had enough commercial carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted. Watchmen was it. As geek nation looked on with suspicion and overbearing scrutiny, Snyder went about his business. Last month, he unveiled a trailer and some clips at Comic-Con to much fanfare, and uber-nerd Kevin Smith even got a sneak peek of the entire project. His verdict - it more than lives up to the source material. Along with his love of the new JJ Abrams Star Trek take, the Clerks commander has already confirmed that Watchmen is great.

Naturally, Warner Brothers was ecstatic. Having coughed up the cash to make this risky title, they were happy to hear that early talk was so outwardly positive. Then Fox stepped in and spoiled their giddy good time. Suggesting that they had first right to any Watchmen work, they marched out a supposed standing agreement with producer Larry Gordon, arguing that for the last 17 years, they owned the ability to make the movie. While it would be nice to claim that Fox was merely coat tailing the Comic-Con success, the studio actually filed their lawsuit seven months ago. It simply took until this amount of time for the judge to rule on a Motion to Dismiss by Warners (he denied it). 

Still, the case raises interesting questions about timing, talent, and how both are mismanaged and manipulated by individuals desperate to keep their careers intact. If Fox is right, and Gordon agreed to make his Watchmen with them involved, then Warners wasted a whole lot of cash on a movie that will garner them very little. In the end, they will have taken the risk while another reaps part or all of the rewards. On the other hand, if Fox is flawed in its understanding, if they really don’t have the rock solid stance reports suggest, then they are clearly blackmailing Warners for being themselves too weak kneed to make their own version. While it’s always about money (and Watchmen appears poised to make oodles), this could be a clear case of what lawyers like to call “legal nuisance”. Both sides might be willing to work out a financial settlement to make it all go away.

But again, it seems strange that a finished film with almost seven months to go before hitting theaters (Watchmen bows in March 2009) would be worth such a snit. Imagine what will happen if Smith is wrong, and Snyder delivers a bomb instead of a box office hit. Will Fox be foaming then? Similarly, had No Country for Old Men been a typical Coen Brothers effort - critically lauded but commercially inert - would Jones be jockeying for his so-called cut? At least the Disturbia case turns on something more solid than cash - though financial payback is the only means of addressing a violated copyright. If anything, all three cases show that Hollywood occasionally trips over its own ambitions in pursuit of payment. Apparently, cash is the only cure for the ‘Sue Me, Sue You’ blues. 

by Bill Gibron

8 Sep 2008

Love him or hate him - or perhaps a better means of comparison is ‘revere him or reject him’ - but John Carpenter is much more than his frequently slipshod cinematic cache. Granted, over the last two decades he has yet to match the macabre benchmarks established with such groundbreaking efforts as Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. But to diminish the man with a “what have you done for me lately” ideal seems silly, especially in light of how classic said previous creepouts have been. In fact, when you broaden your perspective a little and realize just what the man has truly accomplished, you’ll see that such irate instant gratification has no real legitimacy or leverage.

For the most part, film fans fail to remember that Carpenter is more than just an accomplished director. He’s a wonderful writer (he’s scripted at least 20 films and/or TV productions), an accomplished producer, and perhaps most importantly, a fantastic horror/fantasy film scorer. Some of the most memorable music to come out of a Carpenter film is typically created by the man himself. In collaboration with longtime associate Alan Howarth (among others), this rightful figure of renaissance rarity has made as much of an aural imprint on the genre as visual. In fact, many of his themes are so instantly recognizable that the complementary motion picture would feel lost without it (and visa versa).

While some of his later compositions pale in comparison, the years between 1974 and 1987 saw many of his most unforgettable efforts. Drawing direct inspiration from Dario Argento and his work with Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin (as well as the compositional kingpin Ennio Morricone), Carpenter’s soundscapes are both unique and referential. There are definite ‘disco’ underpinnings to his approach, as well as a reliance on analog synthesizers that give each effort a kind of cine-schlock b-movie sheen. Some may complain that once you’ve heard Carpenter underscore a film, you’ve heard his entire auditory canon, but true aficionados of his work know better. Here are at least five fine examples of the man making music to support his often outlandish and totally original flights of fear fancy.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
For his last legitimately great film, Carpenter decided to deal with the arrival of the Antichrist - the Devil’s true son. Set in a broken down church and imbued with a highly technical (and talky) take on science vs. philosophy, the director poured more of himself and his ideas into this film than he had in any other previous project. The results are riveting and ripe for post-millennial reexamination. On the sound side, this is one of Carpenter’s most clear cut borrows from Goblin. The throbbing electronic beat supports what sounds like banshees wailing over shrill strings. While the tempo never deviates, the drama inherent in the melody lines suggests something vast and apocalyptic. It couldn’t be more correct.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Decades before Quentin Tarantino was quoting (and ripping off) the Shaw Brothers as some kind of newly discovered cinematic standard, Carpenter was manufacturing his own unique revision on the then mostly unknown Hong Kong action movie genre. Thanks to a terrifically quirky script from W.D. Richter (the movie was originally planned as a Western) and a legendary turn by Kurt Russell (no one does clueless heroics better), this remains one of Carpenter’s commercial and cult standouts. It is also the most rock and roll of the filmmaker’s cinematic compositions. The end titles even use a song by the faux combo The Coupe De Villes (actually the director and fellow crewmembers Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace).

Christine (1983)
In what seemed like a match made in horror film heaven, the reigning Don of Dread was earmarked to adapt Stephen King’s killer car bestseller for the big screen. But instead of being completely faithful to the author’s automotive murder ideas, Carpenter decided to make his own hilariously sick satire of the generic John Hughes high school film. Funneling in a little ‘50s JD jive just for fun, he created a unique and undeniably odd effort. Even better, this is one of his most complex compositional undertakings. The score frequently references classic rockabilly with bits of Twin Peaks era Angelo Badalamenti tossed in here and there. Like the movie it supports, this soundtrack remains one of Carpenter’s more criminally underrated.

Escape from New York (1981)
For what is perhaps the ultimate example of an action film as flashpoint allegory of a dystopian society gone sour, Carpenter invented the iconic character of Snake Plissken, had the creative common sense to cast former child star Russell in the role, and the covered everything in a fascinating future shock sensibility. For many, this stands as one of Carpenter’s, and the filmic category’s, best. So is the sensational soundtrack. In what has to be a near perfect marriage of music and mise-en-scene, Carpenter makes every note and every cinematic beat sync up beautifully. Another instance where narrative and noise fuse in such a way as to forever coexist.

Halloween (1978)
This is, without a doubt, Carpenter’s crowning achievement. It represents his love of Hitchcock and all things suspense married to a prickly post-modern view of the everpresent personal boogeyman. Sure, it started the whole slasher genre (much to Black Christmas or Michael Findlay’s chagrin), but revisiting the film some 30 years later illustrated Carpenter’s mastery of filmmaking form and classical composition. So does the score. Like other seminal ‘70s films like Jaws and The Godfather, the aural backdrop here is so identifiable and iconic that it creates its own unique sphere of further influence. Beyond what it did for the fright flick, Halloween re-established that solid scary movies needed their own recognizable soundtrack to really resonate. Don’t believe it? Just ask Friday the 13th, or something as recent as Saw. There is more to fear than the sense of sight. Carpenter is one of the few filmmakers who embrace and exploit audio’s ability to deliver the shivers. That’s why he will always be a master of BOTH mediums.

by Bill Gibron

8 Sep 2008

Contemplate the number for a moment…$8 million. One Sixtieth of what The Dark Knight has made so far this Summer. One tenth of the average budget for a mainstream movie. The salary some undeserving TV actor is earning to make the unnecessary (and unwarranted) jump to the big screen. Yet that is exactly how much money the first film of the Fall Season, the clumsy crime thriller Bangkok Dangerous took in over the three day weekend ending 7 September. Averaging less than $3 million a day, this certified flop argues for the end of America’s fascination with all things Asian - at least from a cinematic standpoint. With J-Horror remakes regularly tanking and Eastern filmmakers having a hard time connecting with blasé Western audiences, this latest blow may not be a true death knell, but it sure feels like it.

Now no one was expecting a runaway blockbuster. After all, the talent involved suggested a minor cult hit at best. And when you think about it, the revamped storyline robbed the original movie of its substance and meaning. For those who didn’t see it (and there’s a whole helluva lotta you out there), Nicolas Cage stars as Joe, a hitman whose having a sudden crisis of conscience. Sick of his solitary life as a killer for hire, he decides to take on a protégé, and befriend a deaf pharmacy clerk while on his last job in the title city. Naturally, nothing works out for the murderer for money, each of this marks becoming more and more difficult to ‘execute’. In the end, Joe decides to take out the mobster who contracted him, even if it means losing everything he has - his student, his lover, and his life.

With its anemic action scenes - poorly staged and awkwardly edited - and its lack of deliberate depth, it would be easy to dismiss this box office bomb as the typical Tinsel Town tainting of a once viable motion picture product. But what does it say about creators Danny and Oxide Pang that they are the one’s responsible for this regressive redux? Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around, but unlike the ripples that occur after a movie turns into a monetary monster, a failure has its own unusual way of cherry picking out the parties responsible. So as we did with Iron Man and The Dark Knight before, SE&L will venture a guess as to how Bangkok Dangerous’ business model embarrassment will play out among everyone involved. As you will see, there are some who don’t have to worry. Others, obviously, are on the last few minutes of their already borrowed time.

The Studio


Long considered the company of last resort for any lame, unwatchable horror hack job floating around the direct to DVD universe, new company president Joe Drake has announced that he’s moving the production paradigm away from money draining mediocre macabre and back into more PG-13 oriented mainstream product. With an infusion of cash, and a claim to some of the more intriguing titles this Fall, it appears that Drake is a man of his word. Of course, when the repercussions arrive from Bangkok‘s failure, the fallout should be minimal at best. After all, Drake can merely blame the man he replaced - ex-studio guide Peter Block. It was his bumbling baby after all. 

The Source

The 1999 Original

As their first foray into feature filmmaking, the brothers truly delivered a naïve tour de force, a movie that makes no bones about its unabashed sentimentality (in the original, our amiable antihero was the deaf one) or love of violence. Some have suggested that it’s just as slow and overly mannered as the Tinsel Town makeover, but the language difference alone helps compensate for such artistic underachieving. When the dust final settles from this fiasco, the original version will end up heralded as some kind of cult classic. It neither deserves nor demands such superlatives. Instead, it’s just a decent debut, nothing more.

The Writer

Jason Richman

Poised to take one part of the bi-furcated blame for this unqualified disaster, our Southern California scribe has very little legitimacy to stand on. After all, his other Summer film, the equally uneventful Swing Vote, also came up short when coffer counts were mounted. Yet if there is one main lesson to learn from Bangkok Dangerous’ shortcomings, it’s that screenplays rarely take the full brunt of any responsibility. That’s because of all the pieces in a multimillion dollar production, the scribe is the least considered - and that stinks come post-success praise. But it definitely helps once pink slips start arriving.

The Directors

The Pang Brothers

Okay - here is the true ground zero for this cinematic stink bomb. The Pangs may have been heavily touted talents for their endless Eye movies (as well as Bangkok‘s inspiration), but Hollywood functions under a “what have you done for me lately…as in yesterday” mentality, and the boys’ miserable track record speaks for itself. The Jessica Alba version of the blind babe ghost story came up short, and the Pangs own attempt at a haunting mainstream horror movie - the equally ineffectual The Messengers - suggested a certain flash in the pan status. Of course, there are a couple of Pang productions unseen by Western eyes (2007’s Forest of Death, 2008’s In Love with the Dead and Missing) that may moderate such a cold classification. But one thing’s for sure - don’t be looking for Danny or Oxide to take on any future high profile projects. They’ve more than used up their commercial cache in La-La land.

The Star

Nicolas Cage

There is no need to worry about Cage being unable to find work. Reports have him linked to no less than nine new or currently in development projects - and that’s not counting a proposed Ghost Rider sequel sometime in the near future. And more than a few of his upcoming efforts - Alex Proyas’ Knowing, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost - sound absolutely incredible. Apparently even with junk like Next, The Wicker Man, and the National Treasure films as part of your recent resume, a single Oscar and a quirky onscreen persona can still get you some sensational scripts. It will be interesting to see how long his losing streak can last before the studios start pulling the (hair) plugs.

The Franchise

The Hitman Movie

While the ending does leave an opening for a sequel, it’s hard to see how anyone could greenlight a return to this already overdone material. Part of Bangkok Dangerous’ problem - at least in this American revisit - is how redundant and formulaic it feels. John Woo at least offered a little motion picture panache when he served up his take on the typical gangster gunplay stereotypes. The Pangs simply desaturate the colors and consider it a stroke of aesthetic genius. Frankly, journeyman jokes like Brett Ratner and Tim Story have created more compelling action scenes, and with the exception of this Summer’s sensational Wanted, the professional killer genre is more or less terminal. Again, Bangkok Dangerous won’t necessarily kill it, but this body blow will be hard to overcome.

by Bill Gibron

7 Sep 2008

In the world of innocuous comparisons, Jet Li will always be Gene Kelly to Jackie Chan’s Fred Astaire. The latter used his grace and tireless technique to add uniquely comic flare and characterization to his martial arts moves. The former, equally adept and expert, took a far more physical and staunch approach. Together with the late great Bruce Lee, they have done more for the Hong Kong action film than a production company filled with Shaw Brothers. Yet thanks to our previous narrow minded focus on our own interpretation of the genre, few US fans got to see these icons in their prime. Genius Products and The Weinstein Company, via their definitive Dragon Dynasty imprint, has been hoping to change all that. With their 31st (!) release, we get Li proving why he is one of the greatest movie stars ever. In this fantastic film, his truly is the Fist of Legend.

While studying in Japan, Chen Zhen learns that the master of his kung fu school has died during a challenge. Vowing to help rebuild its failing reputation, he leaves behind his gal pal Mitsuko and returns to Shanghai. It’s the mid-‘30s and the entire country is currently under Japanese invasion. Upon arriving, Zhen finds his fellow students defeated and depressed. Even worse, the new headmaster, Hou Ting-An, is failing to fulfill his late father’s mandates. Zhen takes on and defeats the Japanese sponsored training temple, raising the ire of General Fujita. He frames the Zhen for murder. Luckily, Mitsuko steps in to save the day. Prejudice against such interracial match-ups lead our hero and his fiancé to live in a cabin in the wilderness. As Ting-An tries to escape his responsibilities via a local prostitute, it will be up to Zhen to save the face of his former master and his great school once and for all.

It goes without saying that Fist of Legend is some manner of masterpiece. It features Li in one of his most compelling and iconic roles (it’s an update of the famous Bruce Lee film Fists of Fury/The Chinese Connection from 1972) and shows why director Gordon Chan is considered a modern Hong Kong king. Utilizing all the standard storyline manipulations, from loss of dignity to a last act fight to the death, Legend lives up to its mythic title by taking these elements and molding them into something electrifying and emotional. The entire experience is as spellbinding as it is brilliantly bad-ass. Li has always been a wonderful fighter, and in this film he shows off every skill in his capacity. There is even a clever bit where he uses Western boxing techniques to throw his mystified opponent off guard. It’s yet another testament to the skilled stuntwork of the equally celebrated action God Woo-ping Yuen. His repute needs no further finesse. 

But there is more to this movie than kicks and counterattacks. The main theme running through Fist of Legend is the unflinching hatred between the invading Japanese and the victimized Chinese. The prejudice is so deep that when Li’s former female classmate Mitsuko shows up to offer her (false) testimony in Chen’s defense, she is rewarded with some unsettling, uncalled for bigotry. As one of the characters says later on in the film, everyone will accept the young headmaster’s whore mistress from the local brothel, but the woman who saved their true hero’s life gets relegated to an existence in exile. Not all the Japanese are evil, however. Fist does try to moderate the intolerance. During these scenes, Li’s subtler side shows through. Though he understands the anger and animosity, he chooses to see beyond the small-mindedness and social stigmas.

In fact, it’s hard to differentiate which is more powerful - the anti-Japanese sentiment (understandable considering the countries’ shared history) or the battles. Each grabs a hold of our attention and provides various levels of intrigue. Film historian Bey Logan, a fixture of these DVD presentations, states in the accompanying commentary that some of this kowtowing was clearly meant for Hong Kong audiences. Certain scenes got crowds up on their feet and cheering, especially toward the end where Li seems to singlehandedly push the invaders back to their tiny island nation with a single unselfish act. Logan also explains that the original Bruce Lee movie was so well loved that Li and Chan were concerned about adapting it. The more political approach soothed their understandable hesitance. As we watch this remarkable movie, we see that much of this narrative is layered in the art of populist myth making - both plotwise and for movie marketing. It certainly has a star capable of carrying such a stance.

As they do with almost all their releases, Dragon Dynasty delivers a content dense two disc package that should make purists proud while giving newcomers the context they need to simply enjoy. There are interviews with director Chan, kung fu “impresario” Chin Siu-ho, Japanese action hero Kurata Yasuaki (who plays the charismatic master of the competing school), and a sit down with American director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell regarding the film. Toss in some deleted scenes (always fun, considering the source), a screen fighting seminar at the Kuratra Action School, and a trailer gallery, and we have an excellent set of supplements that provide explanations as well as added entertainment value.

Yet even it pales in comparison to the rousing experience of seeing Fist of Legend for the first time. There is no greater joy for a film fan than learning the ‘when and where’ of how their favored hero earned their earmarked reputation. Here, Li is nothing short of human electricity, lighting up every scene he is in and sending high voltage shock waves through the entire narrative. From the powerful punches that force opponents across the room, to the sadder sequences where Chen mourns his fallen master, Fist of Legend overloads the screen with heart pounding - and breaking - radiance. It is perhaps one of the best martial arts movies ever - and just like the classic Hollywood hoofer he’s comparable to, Li does it all with athleticism, power, and an undeniable individual elegance. He truly is something superhuman.

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