Sunday, May 27, 2012

Return of the Dragon (aka Way of the Dragon)

The third Bruce Lee vehicle is just ok.  And it pains me a little to say that not only because it’s a fucking Bruce Lee movie but because it’s also Bruce’s baby.  He wrote and directed this thing and man does it reek of someone’s first time out.

The story is that Bruce travels to Rome to help out at a restaurant that’s owned by a friend’s niece.  And as these things go, they’re being muscled out by some gangster who wants their land.  Sounds simple and simple is good, especially if this is your first writing and directing job.  But there’s a whole myriad of shit that isn’t explained well or isn’t explained at all.  Here’s a short list I worked up: 

How exactly is Bruce going to help?

If you think about it from the point of view of the niece Bruce’s presence doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It’s never explicitly stated that he’s there for protection and to beat the shit out of the bad guys.  In fact Bruce isn’t supposed to be there at all.  This chick who owns the restaurant (who is also the love interest) really wanted her uncle to come over from China but he couldn’t make it and sent Bruce instead.  So Bruce must be there to do what the niece’s uncle was going to do like help in the kitchen or maybe drum up a slick marketing campaign or some shit.  We never see him do any of that though, only fight people. 

I think the question I posed is important to ask because it legitimizes the existence of our main character.  I mean the audience knows that he’s Bruce Lee and he’s in a movie to kick people’s asses.  And if it was played up that way it would’ve worked a helluva lot better.  But since it isn’t there needs to be more, there needs to be motivation behind Bruce’s willingness to help and justification for using martial arts against people.  And both are pretty vague and flimsy.  Even though Bruce wasn’t the guy that was originally sent for he seems eager to be of service which is fine.  The problem is that he doesn’t seem all that concerned with the restaurant itself which is what we are assuming he’s there to fix.  When Bruce gets picked up at the airport in the beginning he tells the niece to tell him all about the problems with the restaurant at a later time and shrugs it off.  But right before that he gives a big wink to the audience with the line, “oh I can help” which translates to “I know how to fuckin’ drop some dudes.  Check back later for a bunch of that.”  My point is Bruce wrote this character poorly and wanted to make him kind of na├»ve and innocent but at the same time it’s like he knows he’s a hired gun that’s there to fuck people up.  I’m not sure if you can have a character like that because it just comes off in a very odd way in this movie.  Bruce wants to be wholesome yet deadly.  It’s not like in The Chinese Connection where his mentor was slain so he must get revenge or in Enter the Dragon where his sister was attacked so once again he must seek revenge.  There’s never really a point in Return of the Dragon where Bruce suffers a heavy blow.  He’s on top of shit the whole time and that creates a serious lack of danger. 

Why does the bad guy want ownership of the Chinese restaurant so badly?

We’re never told what the head bad guy has to gain by obtaining this place.  Since the restaurant isn’t really getting customers anymore due to the gangster’s scare tactics why not just wait until the eatery goes into foreclosure and then buy it.  Maybe the bad guy doesn’t have a ton of cash and can’t afford to buy the restaurant which is why he wants it signed over.  I don’t know about that though, seems pretty unlikely.  This guy looks to be in kind of a hurry to take the restaurant so maybe there’s a time factor.  But if there is we’re never told about it. 

Now, you could ask this same question about the Chinese school in The Chinese Connection (which I’m pretty sure I did actually).  The Japanese in that film…just want to close it down.  There’s no specific reason given.  That worked a lot better but I’ not totally sure why.  We’re not given any more information in that movie than in this.  Maybe it’s because everything else is better in The Chinese Connection so it’s easy to overlook an over simplicity like this.

Spoiler on the last question

What the fuck is up with the uncle that works at the restaurant?

This is what had me scratching my head the most.  If he’s really a bad guy that wants his boss to have the restaurant then why does he keep insisting to his niece/owner that she shouldn’t sell it?  I mean he’s on the inside so you would think that he would try to use his position to convince this lady that it’s not worth the trouble of keeping the place and get in good with the head bad guy.  Instead he exacerbates the problem.  Sure at one point in the movie he says that Bruce should be sent away because he’s stirring up too much trouble (in other words, this sonuvabitch is getting in the way of my crime boss’ plan) but then a couple of lines later he vows that the restaurant will never be sold. 

And it’s not like these bad guys didn’t have options, especially when it comes to using the uncle.  The uncle could’ve tried to have the restaurant signed over to him or he could’ve bought it from his niece.  Or how about just killing his niece?  The uncle certainly doesn’t have a problem murdering people as we see at the end of the picture.  This guy probably could’ve offed Bruce too at any moment because he’s completely not under any kind of suspicion.  It seems to me that the uncle allowed all of this shit to go on for no reason when he could’ve hatched a plot at any time.

But of course, the main reason why you would want to watch this film is the fight between Bruce and Chuck Norris.  And, yeah it’s a pretty good fight.  I mean it takes place in the Roman Coliseum for fuck’s sake.  Both guys get beat up so it’s not totally one sided which is awesome and Chuck actually does one of the best acting jobs I’ve seen him do.  He really looks like he’s in agony towards the end.

All of the other fight scenes are ok but nothing really spectacular like the dojo fight in The Chinese Connection.

I want to say that Bruce was better off starring in films and choreographing fight sequences while letting someone else direct and write.  But he didn’t live long enough to get better at those other aspects of filmmaking so it’s a little unfair to make that statement.  It’s unfortunate that Return of the Dragon is the best example we have to go on because it’s just not that well made.  The dialogue is terrible, the story isn’t developed quite enough, it’s shot in a pretty stiff manner and every once in a while the editing gets really bad.  Also there’s one music cue that pops up every so often (like the one they use during the airport scene) that’s a little too silly sounding.  And what the fuck is the deal with those cartoony timpani hits when Bruce punches a couple of guys?  That kind of shit is inexplicable.  There’s also the question of, why Rome?  It’s a very odd choice of location.  Not to mention Bruce shits on the majesty of the city when he looks at one of their magnificent fountains and says, “It’s a waste…in Hong Kong I would build on it, make money.”  I guess he’s making a comment on the excesses of western culture and how gaudy and inconsiderate it can be.

It’s interesting to see a film that Bruce had a bunch of control over but like I said, it’s a rough first attempt.  Well he did give us the Chuck Norris fight and I guess that’s reason enough to see this flick.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Abyss

Picture it, summer 1989, you got these big action blockbusters that came out like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman.  All great and filled with exciting shit.  But there’s one more on your radar that you’ve been itching to check out, The Abyss.  The day comes and you finally see it and are bored and/or confused.

I can’t be the only person that asked himself after watching this thing, “what the fuck?”  At the time people must’ve been caught totally off guard and thought they wandered into the wrong theater.  They would say:

“This is James Cameron?  But he did like The Terminator and Aliens, two of the most awesome ass kicking movies ever.  It’s PG-13 too?  Maybe he just needed to do this picture for whatever personal reasons and it’s out of his system now.”

And at the time that seemed to be the case because Cameron came right back with probably the greatest action film ever made in my opinion, T2 (settle down guys, I know what you’re thinking and Die Hard is number two on my list).  He even did True Lies after that which is a real good and immensely enjoyable, albeit goofy, action flick.  But then of course Titanic changed everything.  It’s easy to see now how The Abyss fits into Cameron’s body of work because of Titanic and Avatar.  I guess he always had that cheesy, lame, uninteresting, rip off side to him but was able to keep it suppressed for a long while.  At the time though, The Abyss must’ve been fucking baffling.

Some minor spoilers but I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you

Ok, I will concede that a lot of the effects look pretty damn good.  The glowing underwater alien ships look the best and are the most impressive.  The water tentacle thing I see as more of a novelty.  It’s not something that’s integral to the story so to me it seemed like more of a demo of this new CGI technology.  As if to say, “check it out guys, pretty cool right?  Well just you wait ‘cause this shit is gonna look fuckin’ bad ass in a couple of years.”  And it did when they used it in T2 and then Jurassic Park.  Who knew back then that this technology would be abused to no end now and CGI would actually make films look worse in most cases.  But anyway, the miniatures, mockups and real life non-CGI shit looks great.

The only other thing that was good in this movie is Michael Biehn (The Terminator, K2).  He plays a menacing Navy Seal that goes insane from being so deep underwater.  I found myself rooting for him because he was the most fascinating person in the cast and I wanted to see how far he was going to take shit.

Overall though, this film is awfully uninteresting.  I don’t dislike the idea of people being trapped in an impossible situation and all they have is their wits to save them.  Alien, Aliens, Die Hard and Jaws are just some of the pictures that share this idea and they’re all fucking fantastic.  I just didn’t care about these characters.  The crew that’s trapped in this underwater rig is straight up Hollywood cheese.  You have the brawny and tough but loveable guy, the geeky annoying but loveable guy that has a small pet of some kind (in this case a rat), the genius woman scientist that’s cold and won’t be bossed around by anyone but loveable, and the not terribly tough no nonsense crew chief that runs a tight ship and is going through a divorce with said woman scientist but loveable.  There are some other guys there too but I don’t think they had personalities or much screen time.  As for those main players, fuck these characters.  I know this was back in 1989 but I’m sick of seeing it man.

I can understand that if you’re making a huge blockbuster having stock characters is part of the game.  Fine.  But as far as all of the alien shit goes, it had me scratching my head.  It would’ve been easier than flicking on a light switch to not have aliens in this movie.  They don’t impact the story at all until the very end and it seems their only purpose was to save Ed Harris’ life (to be clear I saw the theatrical cut and not the director’s cut with all that extra shit about the aliens on the verge of destroying the world).  So why are they there?  It’s so confusing.  They don’t fit into the main plot whatsoever.  Ok fine, they took down (accidentally?) the submarine that gets the ball rolling on this whole rescue mission.  But Cameron could’ve had the sub go down for a number of other reasons that didn’t have to do with aliens.  What if the Russians really were behind it, or the sub just had a catastrophic failure of some kind, or a piece of rock from an ocean crevice came loose and fell on the sub.  You could invent a million different things.  Why introduce aliens and then not have them be essential to the main story?  I don’t fucking get it.

And it’s not just the aliens that don’t make sense to me.  There are a bunch of scenes that start out fine but go on too long and become comical.  Like there’s the crane falling on the underwater rig scene.  It starts out fine with the crew on the rig trying desperately to unhook their connection to the crane on the surface (that’s experiencing a hurricane).  The rig gets dragged along the ocean floor towards a precipice until the crane gives way and falls into the water.  After the crane just misses the underwater rig it then falls off the nearby cliff and almost takes the rig with it.  So you have the dragging, the falling and then more dragging.  It started to get unexciting because it goes on for a long time.  Then there’s the CPR scene where Ed Harris tries for fucking ever to resuscitate Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Color of Money, Scarface).  He even slaps her on the face and calls her a bitch.  This is supposed to be a really sad and touching moment because it’s about not giving up and the human spirit triumphing over death.  But when Ed served that slap I laughed out loud.  And when Mastrantonio actually wakes up I thought it was the aliens that did it because she’s dead for like at least five minutes.  This underwater oil rig crew was actually able to bring Mastrantonio back from the dead on their own without magical alien technology and I don’t buy it for a second.  No brain damage or anything?  She’s perfectly fine?  Cameron pushed my suspension of disbelief a little too far.  But I did like later when Ed Harris breaths the oxygenated liquid and tells (actually he types it out ‘cause he can’t speak in the suit) Mastrantonio, “feels weird.  You should try this.”  And she says, “I already have” while everyone laughs nervously ‘cause you know, she like just drowned a couple of minutes ago.  Oh man, what a nasty fuckin’ burn.  Ed must’ve felt pretty shitty after that remark.  Moving on, the mini sub chase is another example of scenes that go on for too long.  These two subs look pretty fragile but they get the shit smashed out of them with no problem.  And it’s not one or two hits, they repeatedly hit the ocean floor and rock walls ‘n shit.  And because they seem indestructible I stopped worrying that anyone would get that hurt during the chase.  The last example I’ll give is the scene where Ed Harris has to descend like miles down into the ocean to retrieve a nuke that Michael Biehn threw down there to blow shit up.  Harris’ descent goes on and on.  His little helper camera sub that I guess is supposed to help him get back up to the rig gets crushed from the pressure like only half way down.  It becomes comical that Ed Harris falls so deep and seems to be relatively ok.

You know, Cameron had a pattern of making two great movies and then one shitty movie starting with The TerminatorThe Abyss was the crappy one in that sequence and the pattern started over with Terminator 2 and ended with Titanic (another water picture).  But he broke that pattern with Avatar and made two bad films in a row.  Couple that with the twelve year gap from Titanic to Avatar and the fact that he’s doing two sequels to Avatar and I’ve concluded that James Cameron will never make another good movie again.  C’est la vie. 

Wrapping up The Abyss, it’s almost like someone dared Cameron to make a Spielberg movie.  And at times this thing does feel pretty Spielbergian but without the charm.  There just isn’t a whole lot to grab a hold of in this film.  There isn’t much meat to sink your teeth into.  I mean it’s not total shit.  It’s just kinda bland and lame.  The only way I find this movie interesting is to think about it in the scope of Cameron’s career.  If you’re into Titanic and/or Avatar you’ll probably like this because it’s the precursor.  This sonuvabitch laid the groundwork.  And in that sense it makes me dislike the picture even more.  If it was a one off it would be way more fascinating to dissect.  And I guess you can do that by trying to get into the mind of James Cameron at that time (there must have been so many people shaking their heads after watching this).  But because we all know now that he loves telling corny, trite ass action and love stories (which is half of his resume now) I look at it more as just another one of those. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury)

(Fist of Fury is the real Chinese title but I always knew it as The Chinese Connection (a cheap trick to bank off of The French Connection) so that’s what I’m going with)

Now this is some classic Bruce fuckin’ Lee.  There are so many things I don’t understand about the plot but it doesn’t matter because the martial arting is superb.

Bruce gets back from…somewhere far away…and finds his martial arts teacher and mentor dead.  The narrator tells us that he was poisoned but it’s unclear if the protagonists actually know that or not.  Either way Bruce is real torn up about it and has a sneaking suspicion that this Japanese martial arts school did it because the Japanese come over, make fun of them and start to taunt the Chinese students ‘n shit.  But Bruce isn’t gonna take this lying down so he goes over to the Japanese school and kicks the shit outta these guys.  From there on it’s tit for tat with the Japanese and Bruce going back and forth retaliating.

I love the simplicity of this film.  The good guys are honorable because they don’t want to cause trouble and are innocent minded.  And the bad guys are evil…just because.  They think they’re a superior race which comes up a bunch of times but why they target this particular Chinese school and this specific teacher is left unexplained.  These guys are obsessed with closing it down.  I don’t get it, but the bad guys are just so determined and they seem to enjoy being scumbags that I’m on board with it.  You gotta find happiness in life and for the Japanese in this film that means fuckin’ up the Chinese and pushing them around.

Of course the shining star in all of this is Bruce himself.  His performance is improved over The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) but at the same time it’s a little one dimensional.  I think there’s maybe like two scenes where he’s not fucking angry as a motherfucker in this thing.  His rage is unbridled and he beats the shit out of anyone that stands in his way.  At first it’s really awesome but after a while his constant brooding and revenge fueled motivation becomes a little disturbing.  Bruce doesn’t just punch and kick people after a while, he starts murdering dudes.  He doesn’t give a fuck, he’s gonna find the asshole that offed his teacher and then kick him through a goddamn wall. 

The only real complaint I have about this film is the pacing gets off track.  The first third is totally incredible with plenty of fighting, confrontation, evil plotting, oppression, racism, discovery, etc.  The second third slows down a little too much.  The police are called in to investigate a couple of guys that Bruce killed, Bruce goes undercover to try and find out who killed his teacher and the other good guys from the Chinese school constantly ask each other what they’re going to do about their situation.  There are some neat things thrown in like a badass strength demonstration from the wringer that the Japanese bring in, some more evil plotting and a goofy bad guy party with a stripper and drinking.  So it’s not a complete lull but the last third gets back to being fucking great with pretty much nonstop fighting.  So in the grand scheme of things that middle third isn’t a big deal but definitely noticeable.

If you’re gonna see one Bruce Lee picture I guess Enter the Dragon would be it, but if you’re hungry for more you can’t go wrong with this one.  Although, I think the original title could be a little more accurate.  Both fists seemed pretty furious in my opinion and not just one of ‘em.