Reviews

Sleeping Dogs

A Rambo movie isn't Saw, something that revels in watching bodies be eviscerated and in the pain of the victims of violence. The focus is on a romanticized, idealized action hero capable of taking on all comers. This to me is the violence of Grand Theft Auto, Doom, or Call of Duty. The violence in Sleeping Dogs falls into that tradition -- that is, until it doesn't.


Sleeping Dogs

Publisher: Square Enix
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
Price: $59.99
Players: 1
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: 2012-08-14

Barring a few bugs (one of which prompted a reset and return to a save point), Sleeping Dogs is from an objective perspective a pretty well crafted game.

The game looks very pretty, taking the player to a place left unexplored in the open world genre (at least that I can recall), the streets of Hong Kong. Those streets are brimming with life in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the opening minutes (when its protagonist returns home) of Mafia II, moments that did an exceptional job of establishing the character whose skin the player would occupy for the foreseeable future by allowing the player to explore the neighborhood that he was returning to in a slow, methodical way. In that game, Vito Scaletta's trudge through the snow-filled back alleyways of an Italian neighborhood to the strains of Bing Crosby's “Let It Snow,” while wives yelled angrily at their layabout husbands that were off to the corner bar once again from the windows of tiny apartments set the tone and mood of the world rather neatly. Likewise, Sleeping Dogs gives us a series of initial on-foot missions that take the player into Hong Kong's night market that give an interesting sense of place, especially to a player who finds these streets rather exotic and unfamiliar and thus rather novel as a result.

Additionally, Sleeping Dogs sets itself apart from the standard tales of crime often told through the lawless free play that an open world offers by shifting the focus of combat away from guns and towards a fairly robust melee system. That system, as others have noted, is similar in many ways to the counter and combo system of the recent Batman: Arkham games, and while it feels a little rawer and less fluid than that system at times, it is also one that is more rewarding given a bit of practice. It is refreshing to not collect guns and ammo throughout one's play experience and weirdly off-putting initially to realize that when you do get a hold of a piece that more than likely you will discard it soon enough, especially since the martial arts action that ensues instead of the standard gun fight grows more and more fun to engage in.

You may note that some of my “objective perspective” on the design of the world and the combat has given way to more subjective descriptions of the game, like “fun.” And indeed from a subjective perspective, it is hard for me also to not admit that I had quite a bit of fun playing the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop infiltrating the underworld of Hong Kong, its Triad gangs, who is also being slowly drawn in by the allure of the gangster lifestyle and the kind of brotherhood or “family” unit that it represents.

All that being said, as much fun as I had with the game and as beautifully drawn as its world is at times, there seems to me something that holds this game back from standing up to the best that this genre has to offer, notably Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, and Bully. Certainly, this is a Grand Theft Auto clone, much like a game from the Saints Row series, but even when comparing it to that slicker but slightly less captivating series, this game still leaves me with a sense of a void that exists in really getting the formula right.

To put it one way, it kind of lacks a soul.

Rockstar's efforts at building worlds for me are largely very good experiences, experiences made better by the satire of the series and its interrogation of American culture through its grotesque fictional cities of that nation. Red Dead is overall less grotesquely humorous in its approach to the Old West, but it still retains an interesting critical eye on its subject matter, the spirit of the West. And Bully presents itself as a kind of marvelous and horrific simulation of a middle school experience throughout all of its twisted encounters and sequences, allowing the player to relive the horrors of puberty and also laugh a little at the absurdity of trying to get through it. Saints Row while, perhaps, a bit less fond of a “thinkier” kind of critique of its subject matter has gone way over the top with its zany approach to the crazed violence and general licentious nature of the lifestyle of the rich and famous gangster.

Sleeping Dogs lacks such a commitment to satire or critique or zaniness or some other way of making the generally amoral or immoral nature of the kind of “anything goes” gameplay of the open world a means of exploring some sense of what freedom means (and why we desire it and why it can be so loathsome when we get it), leaving the game very, very playable, though without any clear idea to express soulfully.

Wei Shen is a good character. He is interesting because he is a man who is supposed to represent law and order that is spiraling out of control as he gets embedded more deeply and gains more authority in the Triads. I have heard critics complain about the ludonarrative dissonance that is frequently cited as a problem in open world games existing in Sleeping Dogs as well. Such complaints focus on the way that the kinds of things that a character conveys in cutscenes (often some kind of moral compass) seem so much very at odds with the content of the missions assigned to the character to play out or the mischief that one can get a character into in an open world by simply “playing as you want to.”

Those criticisms don't give the plot in the game enough credit. Wei Shen's moral compass is eroding. Thus, his activities in play while wildly out of step with his legal and moral obligations actually often do represent what he is becoming in the plot (frankly, I wish that United Front had been brave enough to end this tale by letting Wei Shen go completely “over to the Dark Side,” which might have put all such criticism to rest -- it would also make for a story that we haven't really seen before in a genre full of gangsters with some semblance of a heart of gold).

Again, though, despite the fact that I think Wei Shen is interesting, I'm not quite sure that the story, which is often pretty by-the-numbers cops and robbers stuff intends to really go anywhere with all of his wrestling with himself about what he thinks is right.

There are moments where this game feels like it wants to take the story typical of an open world title somewhere new, but then one is always left scratching one's head as to why.

For example, there is a moment towards the end of a game that reminds me somewhat of something out of the playbook of a Cohen brothers film. That is not to say that Sleeping Dogs writing approaches the quality of a work by the Cohens. It's not. However, the Cohens have a certain fondnesss for upending the tone of their films with a scene of extraordinary violence. Both Fargo and Burn After Reading contain moments like this, in which the humor and wit expressed throughout a large part of the film suddenly give way to some terrible moment (the shooting in the closet in Burn After Reading, for example), as if to remind us that despite the wry tone of the previous craziness of the film that there are very real, very dire consequences for seemingly insane, seemingly amusing, seemingly stupid human behaviors.

Now, admittedly, open world games are generally rather violent affairs with lots of shooting and other mayhem as part of their core. However, I often view the violence of games like GTA as equivalent to the violence of a Rambo movie. Yes, the body count is huge, but there isn't some intense focus on human suffering in the films. Rambo mows through guys, and we need to see that to understand how capable he is, how powerful, how unstoppable. However, a Rambo movie isn't Saw, something that revels in watching bodies be eviscerated and in the pain of the victims of violence. The focus is on a romanticized, idealized action hero capable of taking on all comers. This to me is the violence of GTA or even non-open-world titles like Doom or Call of Duty.

The violence in Sleeping Dogs falls into that tradition -- that is, until it doesn't. There is a sequence at the end that is so utterly brutal, that it just shifts the whole tone of the game and its representation of violence in a wholly different direction. Again, very Cohen-esque. The developers are even clever enough to change gameplay and perspective in this scene as Wei crawls, limps, and takes actions never before seen in the game as the camera drifts to a weirdly diagonal position before the player. However, unlike the Cohens, who emphasize the consequential by suddenly shocking us with something more extreme than they have shown us before, the sequence never really goes beyond just changing the tone of violence normally familiar in a game of this sort.

Like the game as a whole, the scene feels somewhat surprising, feels somewhat innovative, but never gets beyond merely really competently affecting the player for a moment before returning us to a familiar, but well executed game space.

7

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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