Reviews

Stranglehold

G. Christopher Williams

Stranglehold resembles Hard Boiled in that it, like the film, seems largely a series of very pretty, very stylish action sequences unified by only the thinnest veneer of a plot and motivations for characters.


Publisher: Midway
Genres: Action
Price: $59.99
Multimedia: Stranglehold
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC
Number of players: 1-8
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Midway
US release date: 2007-09-05
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I guess that I should begin by first admitting that I am not a huge fan of John Woo's 1992 film Hard-Boiled. That is not to say that I dislike John Woo, or, for that matter, that I don't understand the significance of the film within the action genre. Clearly, Hard-Boiled introduced many Americans to Woo's particularly flashy Hong Kong action stylings, and the gracefully shot, near balletic gun fights of the film have had an enormous effect on the face of the contemporary action film.

Turning standard gun battles into athletic martial arts-inspired spectacles has become a staple not only of the Hong Kong action picture but many American action flicks as well (including Woo's own Hollywood productions like Face/Off as well as The Matrix, Kill Bill, etc).

Additionally, the “bullet-time" effects that allow viewers to witness the pitch-perfect athleticism of characters that can seemingly dodge bullets in such recent pictures have clearly influenced the video game market as well. The ability to slow time during combat sequences to better control and appreciate the gracefulness of Woo-like combat sequences has become a standard feature of titles like Max Payne and Prince of Persia.

In some senses, Woo's vision of acrobatic combat has found its best translations in such video games as the functionality of action gaming has been bettered by its use in addition to the overall improvements that such vision has generated towards the aesthetics of combat oriented video games. Additionally, this kind of approach to action in video games represents the kind of very visceral experience of combat that Woo's films present in a literally visceral and literally experiential manner. If Woo wants the viewer to breathlessly live these harrowing moments in his film, in a video game the experience becomes just that, a breathlessly harrowing experience.

If video games have adopted Woo's style by simulating his action scenes, it makes a good deal of sense that Woo's new development company Tiger Hill Entertainment has chosen to create a sequel to the 1992 film, not as a film, but as a video game.

A lot of shooting...

Of course, I haven't mentioned why I am not a fan of the original film at this point. The simple truth is that, while I understand its importance as an innovative and influential approach to action sequences, the film itself -- its story and characters -- are stylish but hardly substantive. Beyond the intensity of the action, the film does little to satisfy any other reason that I might go to see a movie.

Tiger Hill and Woo's new game have done little to change my mind on both counts.

Stranglehold features an impressive array of combat options for the player seeking to take on the role of the film's Hong Kong cop, Tequila. Tequila dives, slides across table tops, grinds down bannisters, rides along push carts on his stomach, and spins in wide 360-degree arcs, all while busting out a barrage of hot lead. All of these athletic homages to the filmic stylings of Woo's film are enhanced by “Tequila Time," the seemingly inherent ability that Tequila has to slow time whenever an enemy is near. Not only does this make Tequila's occupation as a “god damned one-man slaughterhouse" (apologies to Ridley Scott) easier as he does (like any good video game character or Woo film protagonist) have to take on a veritable horde of enemies at any given time, but it all looks pretty slick while he does it.

That being said, none of this controlled chaos is exactly unique in the medium of video games. Woo may have helped to forge the imagery of filmic and then later video game action sequences, but he isn't exactly breaking new ground 15 years and countless action film and action video games later.

...and a lot of smoking.

Admittedly, Stranglehold is a particularly lovely-looking game with its high-def, next gen graphics. Some of its effects are truly astonishing. In particular, I have to give mad props to the team for their work on the smoke effects for many chain smoking characters in the game. As a fellow chain smoker, I have never seen such authentic looking tendrils of cigarette smoke snake their way across my television screen. If you want to talk visceral reactions, I often found myself pausing to go burn one myself after a cut scene.

In addition to such “smoker-enabling" effects, the character models are also extremely lifelike, and the recognizable actors (like Hard-Boiled star Chow Yun-Fat) look equally authentic.

Finally, many of the settings are truly detailed and unique looking. You won't run across a single room that looks identical to the last. And with extremely destructible elements, chewing through the scenery with a hail of bullets is especially satisfying and seemingly realistic as lights and windows shatter, bridges collapse, and cover erodes as you dodge for dear life.

Visual authenticity aside, though, Stranglehold most closely resembles Hard Boiled in that it, like the film, seems largely a series of very pretty, very stylish action sequences unified by only the thinnest veneer of a plot and motivations for characters. It's only the veneer that truly matters here. As a result, like the film, the visceral delight of watching some truly amazing physics-defying stunts and, in the case of the game, finding yourself responsible for enacting them is more an experience akin to the explosive sugar rush of a bowl of sugar coated marshmallows than a truly substanative and nutritious breakfast.

I guess -- as I feel about Woo's original film –- that I appreciate the aesthetic that Woo has added to the action genre, but I am more appreciative of those who learned from his visual style but have been able to find heartier, more substantive fare to wrap such compelling imagery around. Woo is responsible for influencing some great video games and great films. But, his own Hard-Boiled and Stranglehold remain in the shadow of their progeny by being remaining largely something to look at, without much to consider once the lead has stopped flying.

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