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Saturday, Jun 21, 2008

Sometimes, comedy is as much about the messenger as it is the message. Case in point: Adam Carolla. The stand-up/performer, responsible for such contrasting fare as Loveline (the radio and TV relationships show he co-hosted with Dr. Drew Pinsky from 1995 until 2005), the chauvinistic romp The Man Show, and Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, is one of those odd, ‘love him or hate him’ entities. His smug, pseudo-frat boy shtick can grow horribly tiresome, and yet his quick sarcastic wit can reduce the most ridiculous circumstance down to a targeted one liner. So a feel good sports satire starring the man as an aging boxer grabbing one last shot at glory stands little chance of succeeding, except in small snippets, right? Wrong. The Hammer is actually one of the funniest films that the still sagging laugh-a-thon genre has to offer.


For Jerry Ferro, turning 40 is just another day on the calendar. His girlfriend still complains about his lack of ambition, his Nicaraguan best friend Ozzy remains naively optimistic about America as a land of opportunity, and his boss still hates his guts. Luckily, he can go to the local gym and work off his frustrations. As a former teen pugilist, Jerry enjoys the fight game. He even teaches a few classes to keep sharp. When he knocks out a cocky competitor during a sparing match, he earns the respect of a noted Olympic trainer. Soon, he has signed up to compete in the regional tryouts, with a shot at making the 2008 games in Beijing. And thanks to a budding relationship with public defender Lindsay Pratt, things are looking up on the interpersonal front as well.


Built out of character, not crudity, and wonderfully uplifting without being maudlin or pat, The Hammer (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is actually quite accomplished. Considering its independent production paradigm and low budget limitations, it is a funny and fresh take on material that’s as old as cinema itself. The tale of a washed up loser finding redemption in one more tour of competitive duty is not new - just ask Wallace Berry, Sylvester Stallone, or John Voight. It plays into everyone’s desire for a second chance, the possibility of being true to their own nature, and the universal wish fulfillment that comes with winning. Carolla’s character is a decent guy dealt cards he can never play. By using boxing as a way back, he has a chance at finally re-stacking the deck in his favor.


A storyline like this is prone to cliché, but Carolla - who came up with the idea and worked closely with Kevin Hench on the script - avoids all but the most mandatory of chestnuts. We have a crusty old trainer that’s seen it all, contrasted by the girlfriend without a lick of faith in her man. There’s the idealistic young lawyer who puts her clients in front of her career, and the foreign best buddy whose broken English expressions hold a world of cockeyed wisdom. Between the black boxer with a stubborn, nu-jack attitude, to the last act discovery and betrayal, The Hammer could easily be a solid studio era potboiler. Toss in an A-list actor (or equally forgotten face) and you’d have that classic combination of underdog tale and five hanky tearjerker.


Except…The Hammer doesn’t want to be so obvious. That is why casting Carolla is crucial to the film’s success - and the difficulty in marketing it. As a celebrity, he gives off a vibe of being crude and confrontational. Many have gotten the mistaken impression that he’s one step away from Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass joking, or Howard Stern without the outward adolescent obsessions with sex. Carolla, however, is a far more complicated comedian. He mines both the intellectual and the illiterate for his wit, a sly satiric commentator rather than a simple set-up and punch line jokester. Yet thanks to the limited settings he’s been seen in, audiences still think of him as abrasive and obnoxious.


It’s an underserved reputation that makes the first few minutes of The Hammer rather disorienting. When faced with a jerk-off boss, we anticipate the moment where Carolla will dig into his bag of ironclad insults and lay into the butthead with verve. As his soon to be ex-girlfriend is dressing him down, undermining everything that makes him human (let alone a man) we anticipate Jerry’s epithet-laden screed. And we wait. Soon, we learn what makes this movie so winning. Unlike other so-called comedies which let a stand-up simply walk into frame and start regurgitating their act, The Hammer gives us realistic, recognizable characters. That Jerry is genuinely funny is just one of his endearing attributes. He’s also troubled, lost, vulnerable, and sickeningly loyal.


There is one scene in particular which shows how well Carolla and Hench balance their approach (with a little help from solid direction by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld). Jerry wants to take lawyer Lindsay on a date. She suggests an afternoon at LA’s goofy La Brea Tar Pits. After he gets over the fact that it’s not a nighttime get together, his string of snappy comebacks while at the historic site are marvelous. Not only is it important for the supposed humor of the piece, but it shows Jerry to be the loveable loser, a man whose hound dog expression hides a winning inner warmth. All throughout The Hammer, the interaction of individuals builds the laughs, not some high concept cop-out or a descent into the scatological.


Perhaps that’s why the DVD commentary track featuring Carolla and Hench is so enlightening. Arguing over how the film received an “R” rating from the MPAA (instead of a much more deserving PG-13), the pair proceed to dissect the script, commenting on how true they are to the “sweet science” as well as arguments over levels of humor and how far outside the boundaries of taste to go. Some of this also shows up in the deleted scenes, Carolla clearly being allowed to run wild, only to have Herman-Wurmfeld reel him in during editing. In fact, what much of the bonus material here indicates is that the age old adages about comedy centering on timing and tenacity remain very true indeed.


Because it refrains from pushing the ordinary aside for the outlandish, because Carolla’s normal (or at the very least, notorious) persona has been modified to fit this material, The Hammer is heartfelt and hilarious. Yet, when faced with how to advertise this movie to the many who already know the man, what can a studio do? If you play up his piggish party boy image, you risk reducing the film to something it truly isn’t. On the other hand, if you tell the truth, reflecting the story’s good natured, journeyman jocularity, you risk dismissing the demographic immediately drawn to the man’s beers and babes cockiness. Frankly, The Hammer can’t win either way, which is rather sad. This genial comedy should be a strapping sleeper success. Instead, it may wind up forgotten, as washed up as the characters at its core. And as with the man at the center of the film itself, it deserves better.


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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

As stated before, the gossip got it wrong. Troma, left for dead by pundits who proclaimed its “Poultrygeist only” business plan a model for nothing but failure, wasn’t really on the brink of extinction. Instead, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was merely reconfiguring its priorities. It needed to move from its Manhattan digs when unscrupulous landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and the lack of available DVD product had nothing to do with a deteriorating bank account. Instead, the company’s latest big screen spectacle, a deranged chicken zombie flick, needed a theatrical chance before more digital delights hit the local B&M.


This past April saw the label finally return to the fan-friendly format, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And both Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos were just like other items in the distributor’s cockeyed catalog - oddball finds from a world slowly embracing the DIY moviemaking ethos. This pattern continues with June’s releases. In Offensive Behaviour, a group of idiosyncratic individuals find themselves locked in a struggle between life, love (or at least, sex), and death. In addition, Demons Among Us takes the corrupt corporate take-over of the media and imagines it as a parable involving a small Australian town under the onslaught of a group of devil-possessed killers.


In our first film, the residents of a small New Zealand apartment complex, are having a hard time coping. For them, things couldn’t get much worse. Upstairs, Quentin is sick of his nagging girlfriend Debbie. She wants him to give up his dreams of being a filmmaker and get a job. He just wants to sell a screenplay. Suddenly inspired, he decides to star her in a porno with best buddy Clarke to gain some quick cash. Meanwhile, an effeminate hitman/hairdresser named Nigel is also being harassed by his bitter old nun of a mother. She wants him to follow in the family footsteps - professional assassination. He just wants to style and blow. When a $500K contract job goes awry, it draws everyone into a surreal circle of sex, violence, and misplaced mail.


Beginning with a perfectly awful (and quite hilarious) movie pitch, and channeling the post-modern indie ideal fostered by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, Offensive Behaviour is neither as outrageous as it thinks it is, or as funny as it could be. Five years in the making, Patrick Gillies’ good natured gonzo can’t quite match the men he’s mimicking, but then again, it’s hard to feel fresh when your final product has been gestating since 1999. If you remove all the Pulp Snatch strategies and the planned tastelessness, one winds up with a decent, quite winning comment on how technology and the Super VHS spirit have changed filmmaking.



Since our hero fancies himself another homemade auteur, it’s interesting to see the clueless way Gillies handles him. Wide eyed optimism is one thing - brain dead filmmaking fundamentalism is another. When Quentin stumbles across a pile of rotting corpses, he doesn’t shirk. Instead, he revs up the camcorder and creates a snuff subtext. In fact, the whole living room smut storyline is far more successful than the swishy, stereotyped mother/son material. During these moments, both actors do a wonderful job of turning up the tension, and the dialogue has a wonderfully fresh ring to it. But anytime a director resorts to limp-wristed revelry in portraying a homosexual, instant proto-PC flags start flying. Gillies tries to countermand this notion by making the other gay character far more ‘normal’, but even he ends up wielding a dildo in a strange, Star Wars like battle scene.



Overall, Offensive Behaviour feels more like a miss than a hit. It still has much to recommend it - gallant performances, witty scripting, definite directorial flare, and a welcome cultural subtext - and yet it also feels incomplete. We never know why our family of assassins is after the grubby guy in the Apartment 7. We can’t quite fathom the attraction between Debbie and Clarke…that is, until a last minute denouement tries to clear it up. The ending does reek of the slightest of rip-offs, having it all be a ‘dream’ being just as crass as what is offered, and no movie can kill an innocent guinea pig (totally offscreen) and get away with it. As a matter of fact, Offensive Behaviour is the kind of film that offers a fairly balanced collection of positives and negatives. How you gauge the balance will definitely decide your personal entertainment fate.



On the other hand, Demons Among Us has no such issues. This is a straight ahead horror movie with small touches of David Lynch tossed in for added atmosphere. When Joe moves into a tiny town in the Australian outback, he senses something sinister in the air. Isolation has rendered the place odd, and slightly off-putting. One day, the entire Winters family is found dead, their bodies torn apart in senseless savagery. Naturally, the newcomer is the prime suspect, but our hero knows differently. Seems he’s convinced that Hell’s minions are running rampant throughout the countryside, and they mean to destroy all life on the planet. With the help of local gal Kylie Fitzgerald and Police Sergeant Geoff Harding, he hopes to uncover - and put an end to - their Satanic plot.



If ambience were indicative of brilliance, Stuart Simpson’s Demons Among Us would be genius. It’s unusual Donwunder locations, accented by excellent camerawork and powerful post-production tricks, yields an amazing assortment of moods. It also adds a great deal of necessary menace. Since Simpson isn’t out to fully explain his evil media premise - there is a strong link between advertising and malevolence established - and because his narrative is so straightforward (death, investigation, accusation), he needs something to fill in the blanks. Luckily, his work behind the lens is so impressive we forgive the occasional flaws. In fact, the missing elements add an aura of mystery that actually works here.



It helps that he has a capable cast of actors to realize his vision. Nathaniel Kiwi is excellent as Joe, bringing the right amount of disbelief and drive to his character. Similarly, newcomer Laura Hesse isn’t hampered by some kind of Method mannerism. Her shock seems very real, her decision to fight born out of personal determination, not some scripted circumstance. Perhaps the most difficult individual element here is the slightly silly enigma known as Ed Winters. Essayed by Peter Roberts (who also plays the investigating detective) in gin blossom makeup and dark sunglasses, we never get a handle on this crude corporate shark. He seems the perfect target for a mangoat marketing scheme, but we’d like to know more about what he represents, realistically.



Still, Demons Among Us delivers in the all important fright department, its frequent homages to films like The Evil Dead neatly buried inside its own angle on supernatural terror. The gore is plentiful, and yet kept in check, while the numerous camera tricks (multiple exposures, digital F/X) add another layer of inventiveness. Sure, there are obvious moments of genre referencing, as when Kylie carries a camera into a dark passageway, night vision reflecting the unseen nastiness within, and we never sense the story being properly wrapped up. Indeed, one gets the impression that Simpson is prepared to go down the full Raimi road, delivering sequels meant to explore the legimately loose ends. As it stands, this is a great beginning. But even if we never see another installment, what our independent maverick has created here remains quite impressive.


As usual, Troma tries to flesh out these unknown entities the best they can. The images are uniformly good, especially when you consider the lo-fi aspects of the productions. Similarly, the scant added content (some bloopers for Offensive, a Making-of and a gross out short for Demons) doesn’t detract from the movies they’re meant to supplement. In fact, it’s fair to say that with this batch of DVDs, the once floundering reputation of Lloyd Kaufman’s indie icon is completely back on track. These are the kind of films Troma built their current reputation on - completely unlike what the mainstream delivers while coming curiously close to the art the CEO consistently champions. It’s good to know that, with all the changes affecting the industry, there is still such a home for outsider cinema.


If you like your comedy cockeyed and just a tad underdone, Offensive Behaviour will deliver enough chuckles to eventually win you over. Just don’t worry too much about Patrick Gillies’ overcomplicated script and you’ll definitely enjoy the ride…or at least, part of it. Demons Among Us, on the other hand, is a minor masterwork, the kind of creep out that stands as a solid example of one man’s unfettered vision. It’s the sort of movie one gets lost in - and from the looks of it, this is not the nicest place to lose one’s way. Together they signify what Kaufman and the clan have been arguing over for months - Troma is back. Frankly, based on the influence the company can claim here, they never ever really left.


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Sunday, Jun 15, 2008

There is a fine line between realism and the ridiculous. Put another way, when dealing with ethnic archetypes, it is easy to confuse truth with a tendency toward cultural insensitivity. Comedy is frequently guilty of such random racial profiling. Tyler Perry, for example, paints his portraits of African Americans in the broadest, most brazen strokes possible. On the one hand, his leads are usually troubled professionals plowing through personal problems direct from a soap opera’s story session. On the other, he relies on crass, sometimes crude social stereotypes to get that all important laugh - no matter how cheap or overbroad.


It’s the same tiring tightrope act that a movie like Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (new to DVD from Universal) must maintain. Initially, audiences need to be engaged beyond a borderline black face burlesque, actors standing in for the senseless slander of the past. Yet there is no denying that, within said pigeonholes, some small amounts of truth exist. After all, fact is the reason that most farce works. It’s all about recognizeability. Luckily, writer/director Malcolm D. Lee understands this all too well. He takes his simple story about a family reunion (already a tired cinematic setup) and finds a way to work both truth and a BET comedy club mentality into a marginally successful, frequently funny outing.


When we first meet the title character, he’s a successful self-help guru, a media-made Dr. Phil type with a supermodel girlfriend and a lonely, disconnected son. Returning to the family home for the first time in years, Roscoe will have to face a few daunting demons from his past. His brother Otis and sister Betty still enjoy picking on him, and a long standing rivalry with adopted cousin Clyde remains bitter (if slightly unbelievable). Of course, once he steps onto the familiar Georgian soil, all the old issues reappear. His father remains aloof, his mother loving but unable to forge a lasting bond between the two. Similarly, Clyde’s conceited nature manages to transcend Roscoe’s La-La Land fame. And then there’s the high school sweetheart who still seems smitten with the man she once loved.


It has to be said that, for all its over the top tendencies, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins remains grounded in a way that saves it from outright racial disparagement. White audiences may wonder why Lee is allowed to flaunt seeming insensitivity the way he does, and at least two of the characters here - Betty, and the casually criminal relative Reggie - apparently push the boundaries of African American truisms. But as a director, the man behind Undercover Brother recognizes two things: one, casting will save you from even the most questionable artistic approach, and; two, wit mixed with even the wildest premise, if handled properly, always succeeds. Though he occasionally loses his funny business focus, Lee remains right on both accounts.


Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins has one of the best casts in a recent comedy, everyone from name star Martin Lawrence to supporting players Mo’Nique and Cedric the Entertainer proving their movie star mantle, while reliable names such as Michael Clarke Duncan, James Earl Jones, and Margaret Avery smooth over the rougher, racially charged edges. The story does skate around some quasi-controversial questions, however. Betty is viewed as a horny prison whore, using the Bible as a means to get “busy” with the local jail population. Reggie regularly steals, swindles, and smokes his way to pseudo-shiftless Southern comfort. While Duncan’s Otis invests the movie with a solid sense of responsibility and honor, Cedric’s Clyde continues the corrupt closet con artist elements the narrative claims to avoid.


Yet Lee keeps things concrete and likeable - at least most of the time. There are physical comedy elements that go way overboard in both their shtick and sensibility, like the time when Roscoe and Clyde literally destroy the family home while fighting. There is also an extended foot race sequence where the concept of sportsmanship is tossed out the window for bigger and bigger slapstick set pieces. If it weren’t for the actors involved, this would all grow tiresome and trite. But since the director establishes character early on, and finds a way to avoid most of the clichés inherent in his otherwise clockwork plotting, we forgive these indulgences. In fact, Lee is so skilled behind the camera that he paints purveyors of such purposeless pratfalls - like Perry - as the pretenders they are.


As part of the DVD, we see how carefully Lee constructed his comedy. Many of the deleted and extended scenes show where editing was required, while the outtakes argue for the ample improvisation skills of the entire cast. In the Making-of material, everyone seems really proud of being involved in such a stellar company, and we get the distinct impression that no one involved feels their race is being marginalized or attacked. Indeed, one gets the feeling that a good way to judge the inherent insensitivity in a film is to gauge how intentional the portrait really is/was. In this case, Lee looked to his past and the people he knows as a means of managing what some might consider an otherwise quasi-offensive screed.


Of course, this is all a matter of perspective. To the audience to whom this movie speaks loudest, claims of racism would be rejected outright. Similarly, anyone familiar with the burgeoning genre of urban comedy realizes that exaggeration and caricature are occasionally needed to help foster a sense of shared experience that many in America’s minority class openly embrace. In fact, while Judd Apatow walks away with all the cinematic humor saving accolades, Lee clearly deserves a place with the category’s rebirth. While no one is claiming that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a masterpiece, it does prove that humor doesn’t have to de-evolve into hate to be witty and pointed. Indeed, as long as you have clear characters, and actors who can handle the necessary nuances, you should have something solid on your hands - and that’s exactly what this winning effort is.


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Saturday, Jun 14, 2008

We often forget how much actual art there is in the art of animation. Not so much skill or filmmaking acumen, but genuine, painstaking personal craft. After all, the genre is built on the drawing, the pen and ink providence that, through motion, constructs an aesthetically pleasing perception of the world. It’s what the Great Masters strived for when they put oil to canvas, or chisel to stone. It’s also what directors and illustrators focus on when they put cells to celluloid for that all important imitation of life. Yet sometimes, concept transcends creativity, leading to something both revolutionary and retrograde.


Such is the case with Lawrence Jordan. Having been involved in making his “cartoon collages” since the ‘50s, the bay area maverick has seen both his Victorian styled stop motion cut outs and meditative live action tone poems celebrated as intense, inspired, and most importantly, artistic. Now, Facets Video has compiled a four disc DVD box set celebrating the man’s career. Entitled The Lawrence Jordan Album, we get two sets of animation, and two additional collections of standard cinematic statements. Yet once viewed, it is clear that there is nothing “typical” about what this inventive, sometimes irritating auteur has to offer.


Disc one takes us through the most typical of Jordan’s work, with pieces ranging from 1961 (“Duo Concertantes”) to 2004 (“Enid’s Idyll”). Following themes typically built around particular classical compositions, the 10 presentations illustrate the main muse that the filmmaker follows. The second DVD delves into the other side of Jordan’s passion. Known as “The H.D. Trilogy” (based on the poet Hilda Doolittle and her long form elegy “Hermetic Definitions”) this trip through Italy, Greece and Britain serves as a statement about aging gracefully, and vitally, through a world seemingly ignorant of its history. Disc three returns to the careful collage style, the trio of films following similar pattern. The final DVD delivers seven more live action efforts, including the stellar “Sacred Art of Tibet”.



Together, these films tell a compelling story, the implied narrative centering on an idealist locked in a battle between the suggested and the sensible. The first few films argue for a man exploring the very limits of a certain set agenda. As the gorgeous tones of the “Gymnopedies” or “Moonlight Sonata” play, Jordan juxtaposes images from ancient tapestries and etchings, old world wonders manipulated in such a way as to suggest Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam without a sense of humor. Certain constants resonate throughout - the crying, all seeing eyes; the escape implied in the hot air balloon; the grace of the human body; the undeniable beauty in nature. When combined with Jordan’s seemingly random approach (objects fly in and out of frame with minimal reference to anything storied or purposefully plotted), one gets the impression of an effervescent vision inspired by too many dreams and not enough drama.


Yet Lawrence Jordan’s scattershot stratagem can be very effective. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Samuel Taylor’s lyrical ballad about the seemingly supernatural events that occur to a sailor as he heads home, benefits from this wide open imagination approach. It’s a masterstroke to take the arc poetics the material provides and provide some manner of visual association. The other animations of Disc three follow a similar pattern. “Sophie’s Place” does try to intimate a centeral location and person, but the boundaries of such an idea are pushed, and then broken, time and again. Similarly, “Blue Skies Beyond the Looking Glass” gives us man (in the form of old Hollywood stars) vs. nature, the ephemeral and the exacting in close quarters combat.



Yet it’s his live action work which resonates deeper. The “HD Trilogy”, for example, explores elements that, even today, many filmmakers fail to bother with. Acting as a stand-in for both Doolittle and the poem’s complex protagonist, actress Joanna McClure depicts aging sensuality with frank openness and abject honesty. There are times when she appears frail and fragile. In other sepia toned lights, she sizzles beyond what her beauty pageant betters could ever accomplish. As the material turns contemplative and more insular, Jordan investigates the intimate. McClure bravely responds with nude scenes, self-reflection, and a last act sequence where all we see is her philosophical face, mind lost in deep thought. Some may see this trip through Italy and Greece (with a side trek through the cemeteries of London) as an extended travelogue. Sadly, they are missing the major point of this material.


The last disc is not so deceptive. Here, Jordan provides what some might consider straight forward documentaries. Of course, his clash of images style remains real and intact. Some of his subjects are fairly obvious. “Views of a City” looks at a burgeoning metropolis through the various reflective surfaces within, while “In a Summer Garden” and “Winter Light” are vistas captured in a self explanatory form. Perhaps the best example of what Jordan can accomplish with both his fact and fiction conceit is the vibrant “Sacred Art of Tibet”. Using a voice over that explains the various deities in the country’s religion, the filmmaker manipulates the material, double exposures and camera tricks creating an epiphany like look at the psychedelic dimension of faith. It stands as a fascinating piece.



In fact, all ‘facets’ of The Lawrence Jordan Album stand the test of time and post-modern temperament. As with any overview, the sudden sandwiching of movies that were never meant to ‘play’ together can be off putting. One sees patterns purposely avoided thanks to the displacement of years, and it causes a kind of fault the artist is far from guilty of. In fact, if one takes this box set as a gallery exhibit, a chance to view Jordan as a whole and not just a singular selection of one or two works, a prescience evolves. There is humor of the grotesque here, anatomical models dancing like chorus girls in a cheap vaudeville revue. Similar, Jordan applies a dream logic even more specious than David Lynch’s psyche scarred scenarios. Yet there is no denying that what he forges is, as Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press referred to it as “pure film”.


Indeed, The Lawrence Jordan Album could be subtitled “A Primer on the Language of the Artform”. Like a grammar guide required of school children to understand the fundamentals, and the tenet bending nuances, of writing and the resulting literature, this complicated creator reveres the rules, only to then break them with radical regularity. It’s the perfect amalgamation of what many in creativity already know - you’ve got to perfect the basics before venturing out into the unknown. With their spinning orbs, buried pagan symbols, understated purpose, and overdone calculations, Jordan’s work joins the ranks of other fringe finery. He may not deserve a place among the mainstream, but to understand the normative, one needs to know his formidable flights of fancy. They help put animation, and its internal element of art, into proper perspective.


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Sunday, Jun 8, 2008

Action films are forged out of some very tenuous threads, each one required to carry its own weight while intricately balancing the needs of the other ingredients. They can certainly be crafted after a formula, years of practice guaranteeing that once all the elements are in place, something viable will result. Those who try to stretch or even break the mold are destined to either fail, or fracture and reconstruct the cinematic blueprint, revising the standard for the next generation of artists to come. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being really, really good at what the basics already provide, and this would describe the Hong Kong thriller Invisible Target rather well;. Now out on DVD from Dragon Dynasty, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company, this film is not out to redefine the genre. Instead, it wants to perfect it, and does so magnificently.


After an armored car explosion robs Fong Yik Wei of his fiancé, the policeman becomes a broken man. Six months later, his unpredictable nature has made him a law enforcement disadvantage. It’s the same with Detective Chan Chun. He’s so caught up in capturing a gang of international mercenaries that he can’t see the connection to Wei’s situation. It takes a chance meeting with rookie officer Wai King Ho to bring the cases together. Looking for his missing brother, who went undercover years ago and never came back, this department newbie sees only one course of action - a by-the-book belief in the rules. But when the self-described Ronin Gang reveals that they have someone on the inside helping them out, our trio will stop at nothing to discover the turncoat, and stop leader Tien Yeng Seng in his quest for death, destruction, and millions in cash.


Like a primer on how to proficiently kick, punch, fire, slash, and in general blow stuff up, Invisible Target is one of the best bombastic macho man movies that Hollywood never made. It’s Die Hard with an Asian accent, The Departed taken back to its Infernal Affairs origins and draped in thousands of glass shards and bullet holes. Director Benny Chan, best known for working with Hong Kong icon Jackie Chan on later day vehicles such as Robin-B-Hood, Who Am I, and New Police Story, takes a page out of the Western gonzo guidebook and delivers the kind of electrifying mayhem that has defined the shoot ‘em up since Arnold was just a bodybuilder. We are introduced to the customary good/bad dynamic, have the archetypes peppered with competing motives, lash everything together with a few of the deadly sins, and send it all careening into crowded streets and highly populated locales.

Chan certainly knows his references. There are lashings of John Woo here, the kind of emotional underpinning crucial to the slo-mo masters thrill ride successes. Of course, when we see a last act stand off in a massive office building, innocents locked in with the villains for the ultimate standoff, it’s hard not to think of Chow-Yuen Fat kicking ass in Hard Boiled. Similarly, our Asian auteur channels the Paul Verhoeven school of window shattering. No fight is complete without panes being pulverized into hundreds of chaotic crystals. It’s so deliberate that a drinking game could come of it. When you add in the excellent chases, both on foot and via automobile, it is clear that we are witnessing a solid cinematic eye with an easy ability to keep our heart racing and our eyes glued to the screen.


The superb actors help out immensely. As our seasoned and soured officers, Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue are a couple of confident bastards. They play both sides of the law to their own ends, and come across as equally belligerent and highly vulnerable. Both must face demons bent on destroying their pursuit of justice, and each one handles said clash in a differing yet dramatic manner. It also helps that both men are adept in the major martial arts. It really aids in selling the numerous fight scenes. Similarly, Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) does a wonderful job with a rather thankless third wheel role. He’s the voice of naïve reason among the back biting and double crossing of the Hong Kong police force, and his last act redemption is a bit too maudlin for the material. It definitely works, but the feelings seem strained and unearned.


Perhaps the biggest revelation, especially for those of us unfamiliar with his entire career arc, is the twisted turn by Jacky Wu. Playing the most malevolent of mobsters, here is a man unafraid of killing and quite capable of any act to maintain his power and position. It’s important to note that Tien Yeng Seng’s gang has only one purpose - the mindless pursuit of money - and it is clear that they are capable of anything…ANYTHING...to get it. Invisible Target is the kind of movie where children are visibly threatened, unarmed men are mowed down in cold blood, and pain is inflicted randomly and without warrant. And it is Wu doing most of the dirty work. While he is surrounded by a barely distinguishable group of gangsters, it is clear who holds the reigns in this racket.


With the simple storyline and two hour plus running time, director Chan is allowed to mine both the sentimental and the stunt. Make no mistake, this is some brutal stuff. The second disc of this two DVD set offers many in the cast talking about their participation, and more often than not, the grueling action and physical preparation for the fight scenes dominate the discussion. Wu, Yue, and Tse seem particularly interested in dishing the dirt about long days in training and long nights knocking each other out. Even better, the bonus featurettes explain how some of the more dangerous bits were created and captured. There are times in this movie when actors tumble down buildings, jump across rooftops, run into passing cars, and escape optically oversized explosions. While there is some CG trickery involved, many actual man hours were used to achieve the engaging ends.


Indeed, if you don’t expect the latest redefinition of the action epic, Invisible Target will warm you in a wonderfully old school manner. It takes its time getting started, develops its situations and characters fully, and then never lets up once the pedal is put to the edge of your seat metal. There is enough visual spectacle present to satisfy even the most fastidious film fan, and Chan definitely knows his way around the Hong Kong locales. Sometimes, getting the basics 100% right is much better than merely trying to reinvent what’s tried and true. That’s clearly the case with this on ‘Target’ title.


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