Extraordinary Mission (2017) Review

"Extraordinary Mission" Theatrical Poster

“Extraordinary Mission” Theatrical Poster

Director: Fletcher Poon, Alan Mak
Writer: Felix Chong Man-Keung
Cast: Huang Xuan, Duan Yi-Hong, Zu Feng, Lang Yue-Ting, David Wang Yao-Qing, Xing Jia-Dong, Wang Yan-Hui, Ding Yongdai, Xiao Cong, Li Xiaochuan
Running Time: 122 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Extraordinary Mission suffered extraordinarily bad timing in terms of when it was released. Hitting screens within months of popular director Dante Lam’s big budget spectacular Operation Mekong, many (including myself) glanced over the awkwardly titled production, in part due to its marketing making it look like a poor man’s version of Lam’s latest. Both movies involve undercover agents working to take down a drug ring in the Golden Triangle, and for those that did check out the bombastic Operation Mekong, it left little appetite to return to the land of opium poppies quite so soon after the last visit.

It’s unfortunate, as the reality is that Extraordinary Mission delivers one of the most entertaining movies to come out of both China and Hong Kong in the last 10 years. Part thriller, part action movie, it becomes apparent when you take a look at the names behind the production as to where the quality comes from. Written by the Infernal Affairs trilogy scribes Felix Chong and Alan Mak, the latter of which also directs along with regular Benny Chan cinematographer Fletcher Poon, here making his directorial debut, the combination of the trio’s talents proves to be a winning one.

Huang Xuan, last seen in The Great Wall, plays a cop deep undercover as a drug trafficker in China. When a deal goes wrong, he ends up rescuing a member of the rival gang his crew were making a deal with, played by David Wang. Far from being grateful though, instead he’s thanked with a gun to the head, and taken to the gang’s headquarters deep in the jungles of Thailand. It’s there that he meets the facially scarred leader, played by Duan Yi-Hong (who’s character Eagle, ironically has more than a passing resemblance to Korean star Eagle Han Ying), and realizing it’s an opportunity to take down an even bigger fish, takes the risk of proposing a business partnership with Yi-Hong.

While the undercover plot has been done plenty of times before, and shades of Infernal Affairs sometimes resonate in the script, thanks to the gritty locales and solid performances here it still succeeds at feeling fresh. Xuan makes for an engaging lead, and has the same ability as Tony Leung Chiu-Wai to express a lot of emotion with just a facial expression. As he treads the fine line between bluffing his way into Yi-Hong’s trusted circle, and relaying the intel he’s gathering back to his superior (played by Zu Feng, last seen in League of the Gods), there’s hardly a scene that goes by in which the sense of danger from being exposed is absent. As a result there’s a constant feel of being on a knife edge throughout Extraordinary Mission, as it’s never made clear if Xuan’s identity is still safe, or if his cover has been blown and he’s simply being played with.

Despite the abundance of similar Chinese genre movies using Thailand as a setting in recent years, including SPL II: A Time for Consequences and The White Storm, the locales used in Extraordinary Mission set it apart in terms of the look and feel. This is most likely due to having an established cinematographer like Fletcher Poon in the director’s chair, as the lensing is top quality throughout. Whether it be capturing the grimy streets of the Chinese towns were the traffickers operate, the claustrophobic nature of the container yards the deals take place in, or the vastness of the drug den in Thailand, the camerawork does a fantastic job at conveying a sense of scale and depth.

At 2 hours, Extraordinary Mission covers a lot of ground, however it succeeds were Operation Mekong fails by making it about the characters rather than the circumstances. The trio of Xuang, Zu Feng, and Yi-Hong are all fleshed out with backstories, and the fact that the villain is given as much attention as the good guy provides a welcome depth, one which recent movies like Wolf Warrior 2 arguably missed the mark on. Yi-Hong, despite his status as the leader of a drug cartel, is given a relatable reason for having the motives that he does, while Xuang’s haunted by the memory of a mother that overdosed when he was a child.

For 90 minutes the plot keeps things sizzling along at a steady pace, and maintains a constant undercurrent of tension. The regular beatings, brief bursts of gunplay, and sudden outbreaks of violence ensure proceedings never get dull, with the style and tone at times almost feeling more like a Korean production than a Chinese one (I say that in the most complimentary was possible.) However Mak and Poon know when to turn up the heat, and events eventually culminate in an all-out finale that’s sustained for a lengthy 25 minutes.

While some may possibly find fault with the movies switch from a brooding undercover thriller to a Heat influenced urban warfare shoot ‘em up, the transition is handled well, and it feels like a natural payoff to what’s been building up. Just like in SPL II: A Time for Consequences, the way the lives of the main characters interconnect to each other is slightly contrived, however by the time such revelations are revealed, as a viewer you’re already too invested in them to dwell on it too much. When the execution is this good, such details are largely extraneous.

The action is handled by another regular Benny Chan collaborator in the form of Nicky Li. However unlike Chan, who tends to do little to reign in Li’s wire-work heavy action tendencies (or any other aspects of his movies), here Mak and Poon have kept the action directors wild side firmly in check. The finale sees a whole town under siege, and the principle behind the action seems to be one of minimum CGI and maximum realism. With CGI becoming so dominant in action movies of late, I’d almost convinced myself I can no longer tell the difference, that was until I saw the bombardment of practical effect muzzle flashes and vehicular destruction on display here.

If Wolf Warrior 2 was all about how bombastic the action scenes could be, then Extraordinary Mission is all about the realism. There’s plenty of neat little touches on display, such as when Xuang shoots the tyres of a stationery car, so that it becomes safer to take cover behind by being lower to the ground. Admittedly Li allows himself some extravagances once Xuang mounts a motorcycle, like jumping it from one building to another, and even dodging an RPG, but these elements entertain rather than detract. Poon’s cinematography compliments Li’s action well, here working in Thailand together for a 2nd time after The White Storm, with the camera capturing falls, head shots, and bullet trajectories in a way that perfectly understands the relationship between space and distance. In short, the finale is a joy to watch.

If any gripes could be picked with Extraordinary Mission, it’s that some of the relationships outside of the main characters could have been given a little more attention. The flashbacks to Xuang’s childhood with his mother are there in purely a perfunctory role, and a relationship is sometimes hinted at between Xuang and Yi-Hong’s daughter, played with a mostly silent intensity by Lang Yue-Ting, however ultimately amounts to nothing. These are minor gripes though in a movie that consistently entertains from start to finish. In an era when reviewing mainstream Chinese movies can often be a chore, Extraordinary Mission is the first time since Johnnie To’s Drug War when I’ve felt a sense of hope regarding things to come. The closing scene hints at a sequel, which I personally hope will be called Phenomenal Mission, but whatever title it ends up with, I’ll be first in line to check it out.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating 8.5/10

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Nick Cheung dies hard with Renny Harlin for ‘Witness’

"Keeper of Darkness" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Keeper of Darkness” Chinese Theatrical Poster

Renny Harlin, noted Finnish Hollywood film director known for his 90’s blockbusters Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, has started work on Witness, a thriller starring Nick Cheung (Keeper of the Darkness, The White Storm) and Yang Zi (Death and Glory in Changde).

Following 2016’s Skiptrace (with Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville) and the soon-to-be-released Legend of the Ancient Sword (with Leehom Wang), Witness marks the 3rd Chinese production for the filmmaker.

According to AFS, Witness has started filming. Unfortunately, little is known of the plot at this time, but we’ll fill you in as more news arrives.

For now, we leave you with this classic Trailer:

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Mayhem | Blu-ray & DVD (Image)

Mayhem | Blu-ray & DVD (Image)

Mayhem | Blu-ray & DVD (Image)

RELEASE DATE: December 26, 2017

On December 26, 2017, Image Entertainment will be releasing the Blu-ray & DVD for Mayhem, a thriller that may serve as the perfect companion piece to the recent The Belko Experiment, a Battle Royale-esque tale where blood-soaked survival makes its way into an office environment.

Joe Lynch, the director of the underrated action flick, Everly, returns with the story of a virus that infects a corporate law office on the day attorney Derek Cho (The Walking Dead’s and Okja’s Steven Yeun) is fired after being framed by a co-worker. The infection is capable of making people act out their wildest impulses. Trapped in the quarantined office building, Derek is forced to savagely fight for not only his job, but also his life.

Mayhem also stars Samara Weaving, Dallas Roberts, Claire Dellamar, Kerry Fox, Caroline Chikezie and Steven Brand.

Pre-order Mayhem from Amazon.com today!

Posted in DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, News, Other Notable Titles | Tagged | 2 Comments

Introducing the All-New ‘Jean-Claude Van Johnson’ Trailer

"Jean-Claude Van Johnson" Poster

“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” Poster

Last year, Amazon’s original pilot for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Jean Claude Van Johnson, an action/comedy that’s along the lines of Van Damme’s semi-reality themed JCVD (2008), was picked up as a full season by Amazon. Now, a newly released Full Trailer for its continuation has made its way online.

JCVD (Kill ’em All) is a global martial arts and film sensation…and, operating under the simple alias of ‘Johnson,” the most dangerous undercover operative in the world. Unhappily retired, he’s now whiling away his days in superficial Hollywood… until a chance encounter with a lost love lures him back into the game, eventually forcing him to confront the greatest enemy he’s ever faced: a Bulgarian drug cartel. Just kidding it’s himself.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson also stars Kat Foster (Your Family or Mine), Moises Arias (The Middle), and Phylicia Rashad (Creed).

This isn’t the first time Van Damme is visiting television and comedy. In 2011 came Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors, a 2011 fly on the wall-style reality show that aired on United Kingdom’s ITV4. In 2013, the martial arts star successfully showcased his comedy chops in Welcome to the Jungle.

Don’t miss the Trailer for Jean Claude Van Johnson below. The series premieres December 15th on Amazon Prime:

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Deal on Fire! The Wailing | Blu-ray | Only $9.99 – Expires soon!

The Wailing | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

The Wailing | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

Today’s Deal on Fire is the Blu-ray for The Wailing, a South Korean thriller directed by Na Hong-jin (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea).

The Wailing (read our review) involves a local cop investigating a series of violent unexplained murders. When his own daughter falls ill and shows signs of possession, a shaman is called in to assist with the investigation.

The Wailing stars Hwang Jeong-min (Veteran), Kwak Do-won (Tazza: The Hidden Card), and Japanese actor Jun Kunimura (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?), in the role that Beat Takeshi (Beyond Outrage) was originally attached to.

Order The Wailing from Amazon.com today!

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Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) Review

"Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance" Theatrical Poster

“Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance” Theatrical Poster

Director: Gregory Hatanaka
Cast: Mathew Karedas, Mark Frazer, Bai Ling, Kayden Kross, Tommy Wiseau, Janis Farley, Cranston Komuro, Laurene Landon, Mel Novak, Gerald Okamura, Kristine DeBell, Melissa Moore, Joe Estevez, Lexi Belle, Melissa Moore, Nicole Bailey, Mindy Robinson, Thomas J. Churchill
Running Time: 93 min.

By Paul Bramhall

The expression “so bad it’s good” gets thrown around a lot more than it deserves when it comes to cinema. In truth, many of the productions I’ve seen it applied to were just a whole lot of bad, regardless of how outlandish their premise or awful the acting. The reality is, there are very few movies able to reach that elevated level of being so impossibly bad, they become a work of accidental comedic genius. It takes a certain type of alchemy that can never be intentionally manufactured, and hence the true examples of “so bad it’s good” movies are few and far between. Iranian director Amir Shervan’s 1991 production Samurai Cop is one such example, an almost unfathomable mix of spiteful acting, bad wigs, one take only action scenes, and dialogue that has to be heard to be believed. In short, it’s so bad it’s good.

Its status as a revered work of cult cinema was further cemented by the fact many considered the productions star, Matt Hannon, to be dead. So it was a surprise to everyone (well, at least fans of the movie) when, in 2013, Hannon appeared on YouTube (going by the name Mathew Karedas) in a video explaining that he was very much alive and well. For fans of cult cinema, it was the equivalent of the second coming. A year later distributor Cinema Epoch had given Samurai Cop the treatment it arguably didn’t deserve (but we were nonetheless thankful for), releasing it on Blu-ray, and brining the movie to the attention of a whole new audience – myself included. What wasn’t expected though, was for Cinema Epoch founder, Gregory Hatanaka, to announce plans to make a sequel to Samurai Cop, almost 25 years after the originals release.

Hatanaka is a director himself, with a handful of movies with titles like Mad Cowgirl and Violent Blue to his name, and he’d be stepping into Shervan’s shoes for the sequel. Not only did he secure a whole host of Samurai Cop’s original cast to return for the sequel, but he also roped in a cast of B-movie names that would make even Lloyd Kaufman jealous. Cue two successful crowdfunding campaigns later, and Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance was born. The question is of course, how do you intentionally make a bad movie? It’s not an easy one to answer, and the very point of a sequel existing to such a unique piece of celluloid obscurity is one that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

The cast list of Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance reads like an attempt to provide an answer. Hatanaka went intentionally out of his way to fill it with a who’s who of bad cinema – we get Tommy Wiseau from The Room as a screaming man-child, Bai Ling being, well, Bai Ling, Mel Novak who looks like he’s already half embalmed, and Joe Estevez as the constantly infuriated police captain. Throw in porn stars Lexi Belle, Kayden Kross, and Zoey Monroe (here credited as Nicole Bailey – not fooling anyone), and the approach seems to be one of throw everyone onscreen together, and wait for the magic to happen.

As expected, that magic fails to show itself. Instead, we get a sequel which involves a bunch of bad actors frequently yelling over each other, and hamming up their already bad acting credentials (something that’s clear from the BTS clips was encouraged by Hatanaka) like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone is aware of what they’re doing, seemingly of the belief that the more OTT they go, the more cult status is a given. However it’s that exact level of self-awareness that makes Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance such a chore, and often embarrassing, spectacle to watch. The amateur moments from the original, which saw Mark Frazer delivering reaction shots directly to camera, are now done intentionally, and more than once. Unless you’re George Lazenby (who was originally part of the cast, but had to drop out due to illness – a blessing in disguise), don’t try that stuff.

Even more ridiculous is the fact that the sequel delivers an inexplicably confusing plot, one which even now I’m not entirely sure what was going on (and I have no intention of re-watching it to clarify). From what I could make out, it amounts to two rival yakuza gangs battling for territory, but regardless of the intricacies, so much time is spent on it that, aside from a brief pre-credits sequence, Karedas himself doesn’t even show up until the 20 minute mark. Considering his constantly befuddled and (in his own words) disgusted performance is what makes Samurai Cop such a joy to watch, that’s a long time to make the audience wait. Someone needs to remind Hatanaka that he’s not making a Superman or Batman movie here.

It’s ironic then, that it’s the performance of Karedas that seems most out of place in Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance. Think about it, the guy hasn’t acted since the original, he innocently posts a YouTube clip to clarify he’s still alive, and next thing you know he’s roped into making a sequel to a movie he’s embarrassed of starring in from almost 25 years ago. Suddenly finding yourself in the starring role of a production such as this one must have been a bewildering experience, and there are various moments when it visibly shows on his expression (a sign that his acting obviously hasn’t improved in the time passed). Whether it be getting it on with an adult movie star, partaking in a fight in front of the worse green screen ever witnessed, or riffing on certain lines from the original, he frequently feels like a lost tourist in his own movie.

Instead it’s Mark Frazer, as the Samurai Cop’s faithful partner, that seems to be having the best time out of everyone. He clocks a significant amount of screen-time, and can’t quite seem to believe he’s managed to appear in a movie again after nearly a quarter of a century off the radar. If only the good time he’s having could be transferred to the audience. Likewise for Lexi Belle, who happily rampages around with a machine gun, and even indulges in a naked katana duel, which invokes the spirit of Reiko Ike for all the right reasons. I’d make a joke about her handling a different type of sword than she’s used to, but that would be in bad taste. As for Tommy Wiseau though, the less said about the self-styled actor/writer/director the better. Despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, his completely over the top performance as an incomprehensible screaming man child is painful to watch, even more so to listen to.

The smattering of action throughout is also guilty of utilizing some of the most low budget CGI blood in recent memory. It’s the type of CGI blood that makes the Z-grade Japanese splatter flicks from recent years look like they’ve been created by Industrial Light & Magic. This is supposed to be low budget fun, and I’d rather have seen someone squeezing a bottle of ketchup than the lame effects that have ended up onscreen. It’s decisions like this that really highlight the fact that nobody involved truly understands the charm of Samurai Cop, at least not those who are directly responsible for this sequels creation. Nobody is watching Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance to see a midriff baring Japanese assassin stand in front of the camera while CGI blood spurts from a slash in her chest.

Considering how much of an ill-advised idea making a sequel to a movie like Samurai Cop was from the very beginning, it was the fact it still got made that saw me drawn to checking it out, in part due to sheer morbid curiosity. Surely if it managed to get green lit, then the filmmakers must have had something up their sleeve that none of us could have expected. This sadly isn’t the case, and Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance is just as bad and misguided as you expect it to be, maybe even a little more.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 2/10

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Savage Dog | Blu-ray & DVD (Xlrator)

Savage Dog | Blu-ray & DVD (Xlrator)

Savage Dog | Blu-ray & DVD (Xlrator)

RELEASE DATE: November 21, 2017

Xlrator Entertainment will be releasing the Blu-ray & DVD for Savage Dog (read our review), a martial arts actioner directed by Jesse V. Johnson (Triple Threat).

Savage Dog stars Scott Adkins (Close Range, Zero Tolerance), Marko Zaror (Redeemer), JuJu Chan (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) and former MMA fighter, Cung Le (Dragon Eyes). Other cast members include Vladimir Kulich (The 13th Warrior), Keith David (The Thing), Sheena Chou (Shanghai Hotel) and Aki Aleong (Pound of Flesh).

Martin Tillman (Adkins), a former-champion boxer is incarcerated in the most dangerous prison in Indochina. When Tillman is due for release, he just wants to return home, but the corrupt forces running the jail will do everything in their power to keep him locked down.

Pre-order Savage Dog from Amazon.com today!

Posted in DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, Martial Arts Titles, News | Tagged | Leave a comment

New action-packed Trailer for Max Zhang’s ‘The Brink’

"The Brink" Theatrical Poster

“The Brink” Theatrical Poster

Max Zhang – the rising star of The Grandmaster S.P.L. II and Ip Man 3 – is revisiting danger in The Brink, an upcoming thriller by first-time director Jonathan Li.

The Brink follows a group of fishermen who smuggle gold and the cops who chase them. It’s reported that the film will feature an extensive amount of Thunderball-esque underwater action sequences. In the film, Zhang sports blonde hair, just like James Tien did in 1973’s Seaman No. 7, which also featured underwater action sequences (see trailer below).

The Brink also stars Shawn Yue (Wild City), Gordon Lam (Trivisa), Janice Man (Helios), Wu Yue (From Vegas to Macau 2) and Yasuaki Kurata (Shinjuku Incident). Soi Cheang Pou Soi (Accident) will be serving as producer.

Zhang has many other projects in the works, including The Man with the Dragon TattooS.P.L 3: War Needs Lord, Made in Kowloon, Greedy Wolf, as well as an unofficial Ip Man 3 spin-off.

Updates: Check out the film’s latest action-packed Trailer:

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Chasing the Dragon (2017) Review

"Chasing the Dragon" Theatrical Poster

“Chasing the Dragon” Theatrical Poster

Director: Wong Jing
Cast: Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Kent Cheng, Phillip Keung, Wilfred Lau, Yu Kang, Kent Tong, Michelle Hu, Xu Dong-Dong, Felix Wong, Bryan Larkin, Philip Ng, Jonathan Lee, Lawrence Chou, Wang Qian-Yu, Kenneth Tsang, Chan Wai-Man, Terence Yin Chi Wai
Running Time: 112 min.

By Martin Sandison

By the age of 14 my appetite for martial arts movies was voracious, so every visit to the local video shop resulted in a new find. One day I came across the movie In the Line of Duty (aka In the Line of Duty 4: Key Witness). This was my first exposure to the legend that is Donnie Yen. From this point on, I was hooked.

Yen’s raw physical ability in many different styles of martial arts, coupled with his head for choreography, resulted in some of the all time classics. Some of my favourites are the Ip Man Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in China 2, Iron Monkey, Tiger Cage 2, SPL and Flashpoint. Now with the success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the man can do as he pleases, and many fans were pleased to see his return to Hong Kong cinema with a new interpretation of the legendary Hong Kong gangster Crippled Ho in Chasing the Dragon. So, does the movie live up to its first class billing? The answer is a mixed bag.

The movie begins with the struggling Crippled Ho and his friends arriving in Hong Kong in the early 60’s from Mainland China. When a mass brawl breaks out between gangs, Ho proves his fighting skills and is taken under the wing of Lee Rock (Andy Lau, The Great Wall), a corrupt policeman. Soon, Ho rises through the ranks to become a powerful drug overlord, making many enemies, not least a British policeman called Hunter (Bryan Larkin, Outpost 3). This sets in motion a plot full of twists, turns, action and melodrama.

I’ve followed director Wong Jing’s career for a long time, and obviously he is known for low brow cinema. However, despite absolute misfires like From Vegas to Macau 3, recently he has proved his worth as a director with The Last Tycoon – to my mind this is the best-directed film from Wong I have ever seen. In that vein, the first half of Chasing the Dragon is superbly immersive, with a grimy, but stylish aesthetic. One long take shot in a reconstruction of the Kowloon Walled City – set to the classic funk song The Ghetto, as Ho walks around – is the highlight of the movie. Ho’s rise is depicted with a lot of narrative and visual panache, and Yen brings a swaggering bravado, yet humanistic, quality to the role.

Andy Lau reprises his role as Lee Rock (he starred in a pair of movies as the character in the early 90’s) and reinvents him as a suave, sophisticated, multi-layered cop. It’s a typical Lau performance that brings pathos and charisma to the role, and the scenes between him and Yen are electrifying. Kent Cheng has a cameo part as a go-between cop, looking no different from his heyday in films such as Jackie Chan’s Crime Story. Unfortunately, Bryan Larkin (despite coming from East Kilbride in Scotland, just around the corner from where I type) as Hunter, the antagonist, is only decent at best, and suffers from an underwritten character, but he succeeds in conveying the nasty side of his character well. A highlight for me was seeing the legendary Chan Wai Man (The Club) in a cameo role – I wish he was in the movie more.

A problem, come the second half of the movie, is that peripheral characters who have been given no screen time or dialogue to speak of, are killed off. These scenes are typically melodramatic and sentimental, which in the golden age was part of the charm, but now they fail to convince. A lot has changed in Hong Kong cinema since then, and the time when hundreds of movies were released per year with low budgets now translate to bigger budgets and less films being made. These aspects, now smack of bad writing, hint that there may be a lot of stuff cut out. I would hope there is a director’s or extended cut, and I could reappraise the film.

Those seeking to see Yen in martial arts action mode will be disappointed, with only a few fights taking place, which are choreographed as brawls. Of course this fits in with the subject matter and style of the film, so there should be no complaining. However, it is disappointing to see Yen take on Phillip Ng (Birth of the Dragon) in a fight that lasts less than a minute and features no martial arts. A mid-film chase/gunplay scene is the action highlight, with Lau negotiating the Kowloon Walled City with gangsters on his tail and Yen coming to his rescue. The tension, release and seamless editing proves Wong still has what it takes when it comes to fashioning a good action scene. Gunplay on the whole is handled well, despite some dodgy CGI – I just wish there was more of it. Some of the violence on display is pretty extreme, with a highlight being Yen cutting off the ear of a rival gansgter and nonchalantly chucking it away.

A lot has been made of Chasing the Dragon getting passed the Chinese censors by painting the British as the villains of the piece. Personally, being British, I didn’t find this aspect particularly stuck in my craw. My knowledge of the time and subject matter in Hong Kong isn’t great, and it’s to the film’s credit that now I want to find out more about it. Actually. I have still yet to see Poon Man Kit’s To Be Number 1, the 90’s movie made about Crippled Ho which won the Hong Kong Film Award for best picture in 1992, so I can’t compare the two.

Chasing the Dragon succeeds for the most part, it’s just a shame the second half does not match up to the first.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 7/10

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Meows can kill in Chen Kaige’s ‘Legend of the Demon Cat’

"Legend of the Demon Cat" Theatrical Poster

“Legend of the Demon Cat” Theatrical Poster

Acclaimed director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Monk Comes Down the Mountain) is putting finishing touches on Legend of the Demon Cat, a period actioner that releases domestically on December 22, 2017.

This big budget Japanese-Chinese co-production stars Huang Xuan (The Great Wall), Shota Sometani (Tokyo Tribe), Kitty Zhang (CJ7), Qin Hao (Rock Hero), Hiroshi Abe (Chocolate) and Keiko Matsuzaka (The Happiness of the Katakuris).

The team behind the film has decided to transform their $200 million sets into a theme park once they’ve finished shooting. After all, “an entire [Tang Dynasty] city with lakes, rivers, palaces, caves, glamorous buildings, and parks” were constructed (via TMS).

According to Variety, Legend of the Demon Cat sees a Chinese poet and a Japanese monk join forces to investigate the influence of a demonic cat, which has possessed a general’s wife, wreaked havoc on the royal court and killed legendary courtesan Yang Guifei. The film, originally presented under the title Kukai, is adapted from a bestselling four-volume novel about love, death and revenge by Yumemakura Baku.

Updates: Watch the film’s full Trailer below:

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God of War (2017) Review

"God of War" Blu-ray Cover

“God of War” Blu-ray Cover

Director: Gordon Chan
Cast: Vincent Chiu, Sammo Hung, Yasuaki Kurata, Regina Wan, Keisuke Koide, Wang Ban, Wu Yue, Jiang Luxia, Liu Junxiao, Micheal Tong, Timmy Hung
Running Time: 90 min.

By Kyle Warner

Ming soldiers advance on a fortified gate. Blood from a previous battle runs like a stream over the mud. Thousands of Japanese pirates wait on the other side of the gate, their latest attempt at a land grab to expand the reach of the Japanese empire. Sammo Hung’s General Yu leads China’s Ming soldiers on the offensive; his attacks are by the book, his timing predictable. General Yu is an old man fighting old-fashioned battles against an enemy that’s ready for the new world. Defeated once again, General Yu retreats back through the mud and the blood to find that his replacement is waiting back at camp.

Enter Vincent Zhao’s General Qi, war tactician and future national hero to China. He’s young, even-tempered, and dangerously smart. Qi takes one look at the pirate’s gate and breaches the Japanese defenses on the first go. Yu soon joins Qi and together they get the pirates on the run. The battle is over but the threat remains, and it’s clear that Qi, not Yu, should be the one chosen to chase the pirates back to Japan.

It’s an exciting first act full of action, war tactics, and some unexpected characters. The film sets a realistic tone with graphic violence and an emphasis on strategy. But then the first act ends, General Qi is tasked with training an army for the express purpose of defeating pirates, and the film gets lost in a sagging middle section with no surprises for almost a hour straight. The all too common appeals to patriotism also repeatedly rear their head during this section. It’s not offensively bad but you do notice it–more on the level of Michael Bay than The Founding of a Republic. The extended moment when family members see their men off to war plays a bit like an ad for joining the military.

General Qi may be a national hero in China, and as such Chinese audiences may not demand much character development. However, as someone unfamiliar with and with no attachment to Qi’s accomplishments, I feel the film never makes him into an interesting character. I don’t know his story well enough to accuse the film of hero worship but all the signs are there. Qi is a brilliant general, Vincent Zhao’s (True Legend) martial arts skills make him a formidable fighter, and he has just enough issues with his wife to establish that he’s married to a woman as tough as he is. The shortcomings in writing Qi might not have been so noticeable if the second act of the film wasn’t such a slog – and if the second act wasn’t carried almost expressly by Qi, making us miss the other, more interesting characters we were introduced to in the first act.

Sammo Hung (The Bodyguard) makes a strong impression in a dramatic role as the unimaginative, but no less dedicated, General Yu. Sadly, he exits the film early. The best performance comes from Yusuaki Kurata (Fist of Legend). The veteran actor plays the leader of the Japanese pirates as a student of war and the perfect nemesis to General Qi. Unlike many Chinese historical dramas, the Japanese are not depicted as outrageously evil men. They’re the bad guys, no doubt, but an attempt to give them an honest portrayal goes a long way to enhancing the dramatic tension.

After a dull middle, things pick up again in the action heavy finale. The fights, both big and small, are well filmed and expertly played. There is a moment—what I would call a medieval jet ski action sequence—where the attention to realism falls away. But the moment passes and we’re treated to a thrilling final act between Qi’s men and the last of the pirates.

God of War is not everything I could’ve hoped for from a Gordon Chan historical epic with this kind of cast. But it’s definitely not bad. A sizeable step above many other similar films to come out of China recently. Zhao is great in the action scenes, Kurata is excellent as the villain, and the attention to strategy in the battles makes for a welcome change. If not for the sagging middle, God of War could’ve been great. As is, there’s still enough recommend it to curious viewers.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10

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Code of Silence | Bu-ray (Kino Lorber)

"Code of Silence" Blu-ray Cover

“Code of Silence” Blu-ray Cover

RELEASE DATE: December 12, 2017

On December 12th, 2017, Kino Lorber will be releasing a Special Edition Blu-ray for 1985′s Code of Silence (read our review), directed by Andrew Davis (Under Siege, The Fugitive) and starring the one, the only, Chuck Norris (Slaughter in San Francisco).

This gritty cop flick is highly regarded as one of Norris’ best. The film’s climax is noted for its menacing crime-fighting robot, “Prowler” (hey, it was the 80’s).

Eddie Cusack (Norris) is a Chicago detective who plays by his own rules – a dangerous habit, especially when he breaks the “code of silence” to blow the lid off a deadly police cover-up. Now an outcast, he receives little help from his embittered fellow officers when he’s hurled into a blistering battle against rival drug kingpins.

Code of Silence also stars Henry Silva (Ocean’s 11), Dennis Farina (Midnight Run), Ron Dean (The Fugitive) and Molly Hagen (Navy Seals vs. Zombies).

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary by director Andrew Davis
  • Interview with screenwriter Michael Butler
  • Interview with actor Ron Dean
  • Interview with actress Molly Hagen
  • Interview with composer David Michael Frank
  • Theatrical Trailers for Code of Silence, The Package, An Eye for an Eye, Hero and the Terror and Delta Force 2
  • 5.1 Surround & 2.0 Audio

Pre-order Code of Silence from Amazon.com today!

Posted in DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, Martial Arts Titles, News | Tagged | 3 Comments

Cops and Robbers | DVD (Lionsgate)

Cops and Robbers | DVD (Lionsgate)

Cops and Robbers | DVD (Lionsgate)

RELEASE DATE: December 12, 2017

Lionsgate presents the DVD for Cops and Robbers, an upcoming actioner directed by Windhauser (Dead Trigger).

Bullets fly and rage-explodes as Michael Jai White (Skin Trade) and UFC champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (The A-Team) go head to head. A hostage negotiator (White) struggles to end a tense standoff with Jesse, a bank robber (Jackson). As the two men learn each other’s identity, they realize they have a shared past… Also starring Tom Berenger (Sniper) and Victoria Pratt (Heartland).

Pre-order Cops and Robbers from Amazon.com today!

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Platoon Leader/Soldier Boyz | Blu-ray (Kino Lorber)

"Platoon Leader/Soldier Boyz" Blu-ray Cover

“Platoon Leader/Soldier Boyz” Blu-ray Cover

RELEASE DATE: December 12, 2017

Kino Lorber continues their wave of Michael Dudikoff (American Ninja) classics with a Blu-ray Double Feature release for Aaron Norris’ Platoon Leader (1988) and Louis Morneau’s Soldier Boyz (1995), which hits retailers on December 12th.

In Platoon Leader, a young officer, just out of West Point is sent to Vietnam, where the men don’t respect him until he gets wounded and returns to be a wiser soldier and a better commander. Also starring Robert F. Lyons (Death Wish 2), Michael DeLorenzo (Alive) and Jesse Dabson (Death Wish 4).

In Soldier Boyz, a group of prisoners are going to Vietnam to rescue the daughter of a V-I.P. The Ones who survive get their freedom back… but hell awaits them. Also starring Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Tekken 2) and Don Stroud (King of the Kickboxers).

Special Features:

  • New Transfer for Platoon Leader
  • Reversible Blu-ray Art
  • Theatrical Trailers for Platoon Leader, Soldier Boyz, Avenging Force, River of Death and Delta Force 2

Pre-order Platoon Leader/Soldier Boyz from Amazon.com today!

Posted in DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, Martial Arts Titles, News | Tagged | 1 Comment

Foreigner, The (2017) Review

"The Foreigner" Theatrical Poster

“The Foreigner” Theatrical Poster

Director: Martin Campbell
Writer: David Marconi, Stephen Leather
Cast: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Michael McElhatton, Charlie Murphy, Liu Tao, Orla Brady, Katie Leung, Manolo Cardona, Simon Kunz, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Roberta Taylor, Dermot Crowley, Rufus Jones, Niall McNamee
Running Time: 113 min.

By Paul Bramhall

The last time we saw Jackie Chan in London was 14 years ago, hanging from the clock face of Big Ben with Owen Wilson in Shanghai Knights. In 2017, he’s back in the British capital, but in a decidedly different kind of movie. While it may be a long time since his last visit to British shores, it certainly hasn’t been a long time since he appeared on the big screen. The Foreigner marks the 3rd time for the 63 year old star to headline a movie in the last 12 months, following on from Railroad Tigers and Kung Fu Yoga, with a 4th in the form of Bleeding Steel just on the horizon. Far from slowing down, if anything the man who’s broke almost every bone in his body seems to be making more movies than ever, with no sign of quality control in sight.

Out of all his recent productions though, it’s The Foreigner that warrants the most anticipation. A co-production between China and the UK, the movie is based on a novel titled The Chinaman by Stephen Leather (which, for full disclosure, I haven’t read) and is directed by Martin Campbell. While in today’s superhero dominated climate, Campbell may be remembered as the guy that helmed the disastrous 2011 version of Green Lantern (and indeed The Foreigner is his first theatrically released movie since then), to view his full filmography is to understand that his venture into the DC universe was just a small blip in an impressive career. Campbell was also the guy that essentially revived the 007 franchise twice – first with Goldeneye in 1995, and then again with Casino Royale in 2006. He’s a director that knows how to deliver if given the right material.

The Foreigner also provides Campbell a reunion with his Goldeneye leading man, Pierce Brosnan. The former 007 is given a chance to return to his Irish roots in Campbell’s latest, as a former IRA member turned peace keeping politician in Belfast. Brosnan’s character is a man under fire, to put it lightly. After a bombing in London by a rogue IRA cell leaves Chan’s daughter dead (a rather thankless role played by Harry Potter’s Katie Leung), he soon finds himself constantly harassed by the ‘Chinaman’ demanding to know the names of the bombers. But Chan isn’t his only problem – his headstrong wife may be on to the affair he’s having, and indeed may have some secrets of her own, there may also be double crossings afoot in his own close circle of former associates, and all the while he’s being leaned on heavily by the British government to aid their investigation.

As a result of this, Chan’s grieving father sometimes feels sidelined by the story, and indeed there are stretches in which he doesn’t appear at all. But somehow Campbell makes it work, with Chan’s character an intriguing wild card to Brosnan’s political wheeling and dealing. Chan is equally as conflicted as Brosnan, and his pursuit of vengeance at times makes him as much of a terrorist as those who planted the bomb in the first place. When he first confronts Brosnan in person, his stubborn refusal to accept that Brosnan doesn’t know who planted the bomb (he really doesn’t) and is unable to help, leads to a moment in which he calmly states “You’ll soon change your mind.” Not only is it possibly the most non-Jackie Chan moment to ever grace the screen, the fact that he then goes on to plant a homemade bomb in the bathroom of Brosnan’s office is basically a terrorist act in itself. This is a movie where Chan means business, serious business.

The above description amounts to a movie which sees two parallel plot lines on a crash course with each other. One has Chan as a man who has just lost his only surviving family member, having suffered a life of brutal hardships, pushed over the limit to a point where he decides to take the law into his own hands. The second is about Brosnan the ex-IRA man turned politician, who is juggling so many flammable objects at once, that it only feels like a matter of time before one of them sets him on fire. The part that keeps us gripped is sticking around to see which one it’s going to be.

These two parallel storylines are also what provides The Foreigner’s ‘exclamation marks’ if you will. For Bronsan, these manifest in a career best performance. The constant taunts from both former associates, and his own wife, of how he’s lost the edge that he had when he was still part of the IRA, result in some genuinely seething moments of anger that drip off the screen. When these scenes come, Brosnan comes across like a ticking time bomb of violence, and using only dialogue there’s a palpable sense of danger behind the words. For Chan, these moments come in a trio of brief but suitably impact heavy action scenes.

It needs to be said that Chan is a revelation here. We know what to expect from his choreography by now, and in that regard you won’t see anything new in The Foreigner, but under the guidance of a director like Campbell, he’s tweaked his action aesthetic to fit into a setting that’s both gritty and violent. For fans checking in for his physical performance, as mentioned he gets a trio of brief scuffles – two are one-vs-four, and the other is a one-on-one (note it’s not the finale). Don’t expect to see the Chan from 30 years ago, he’s not playing that type of character, nor is he at the age where he should be playing that type of character (Stanley Tong, I hope you’re reading). But the good news is that each one has Chan’s stamp all over them, proving that yes, this is someone that understands how to adapt action choreography to both their age and the genre. Amazingly, the physical dexterity is still there in his 60’s, with no (obvious) wires in sight, so sit back and enjoy.

However this is a movie in which Chan is not just called in to provide comedic kung fu beats or be a wisecracking sidekick. His character is intrinsic to the story, and so needs to be at least on par with Brosnan. Despite having less screen-time, thankfully he delivers in every aspect. For those who have been waiting to see Chan in a serious role since 2009’s Shinjuku Incident (I’m going to be controversial and not count Police Story 2013), then this is the movie that grants your wish. Admittedly it’s possible to nit-pick, as you could easily say the frail figure that he cuts at the beginning of the movie doesn’t match his sudden butt kicking skills when they’re required, but even this is explained in a backstory (if you’ve seen Taken or The Man from Nowhere, you know the deal).

Perhaps the element I most enjoyed in The Foreigner was seeing it turn into a kind of First Blood in British Woodland, as Chan takes to camping out in his foliage covered van, close to Bronsan’s countryside property. It’s safe to say no one ever expected to see a Jackie Chan movie in which he plays a kind of Rambo on the trail of an Irish terrorist, but the fact is that these sequences are exceptionally well done. Broadly speaking this notion applies to the movie as a whole, with the action sequences displaying a refreshing lack of CGI. Both of the significant explosions in the movie (one of which takes places on a London bus, which notably residents of London thought was a genuine terror attack during filming) are done for real, and it shows in the well placed aftermath shots that simply can’t be re-created with CGI.

Combined with the pulsating synthesiser score and perfectly paced direction, The Foreigner is a winning combination for everyone involved – especially Martin Campbell, Pierce Brosnan, and Jackie Chan. Sure, there may be stretches that consist purely of Brosnan drinking whiskey and starting every line with “Jesus Christ!”, but somehow it all moulds together to provide a satisfying whole. I have no doubt there’ll be a demographic out there who will argue Chan’s screen time wasn’t enough, and who knows, they may be right. However as an action thriller, it can’t be denied that The Foreigner delivers. Watching the movie as a Jackie Chan fan myself, I’ll simply say that the reason why it works so well is because it’s not a Jackie Chan movie, but rather, it’s a Martin Campbell movie with Jackie Chan in it. Welcome back.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10

Posted in All, Asian Related, Cults & Classics, News, Reviews | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Deal on Fire! The Raid Collection | Blu-ray | Only $12.99 – Expires soon!

The Raid Collection | Blu-ray (Sony)

The Raid Collection | Blu-ray (Sony)

Today’s Deal on Fire is for Gareth Evans’ The Raid Collection on Blu-ray, which will contain both 2011’s The Raid and 2014’s The Raid 2.

In The Raid, an elite swat team moves in to take down the notorious drug lord that runs a drug-gang’s safe house, which is the home to some of the most terrifying and ruthless fighters in the city; In The Raid 2, the cop from the first film goes undercover to take down a network of powerful organized crime syndicates.

Cast members for The Raid Collection include: Iko Uwais (Merantau), Joe Taslim (Star Trek Beyond), Donny Alamsyah (Merantau), Yayan Ruhian (Yakuza Apocalypse), Arifin Putra (Macabre), Oka Antara (Killers), Tio Pakusadewo (Guardian), Alex Abbad (Merantau), Julie Estelle (Macabre), Ryuhei Matsuda (Cutie Honey), Kenichi Endo (Crows Zero), Kazuki Kitamura (Killers), Cecep Arif Rahman (The Gate), Cok Simbara (Kentut) and Very Tri Yulisman (Headshot).

The Raid Special Features:

  • Audio Commentary with writer/director Gareth Evans
  • Video blogs:
    • Bootcamp
    • Set Location, Camera & Lighting, Make-up & Special Effects
    • Courtyard, Hole Drop
    • Drugs Lab, Tama’s Office
    • Machete Gang & Corridor, Jaka vs. Mad Dog
    • Post Production
  • Behind-the-scenes featurettes:
    • Behind the Music
    • Anatomy of a Scene
    • Stunts
    • Themes
    • Inside the Score
  • An Evening with Gareth Evans, Mike Shinoda, and Joe Trapanese conversation
  • In Conversation with Gareth Evans and Mike Shinoda feature
  • Claycat’s The Raid
  • The Raid TV show ad (circa 1994)

The Raid 2 Special Features: 

  • Featurettes:
    • Ready for a Fight: On Location
    • Violent Ballet: Behind the Choreography
  • Deleted Scene: Gang War
  • English Dub in addition to the original language version of the film
  • Director Commentary with Gareth Huw Evans
  • Featurettes:
    • The Next Chapter: Shooting a Sequel
    • Cinefamily Foundation Q&A with Gareth Huw Evans, Iko Uwais & Joe Trapanese

Order The Raid Collection from Amazon.com today!

Posted in Deals on Fire!, News | 3 Comments

New Trailer for Yuen Woo-ping’s ‘Thousand Faces of Dunjia’

"The Thousand Faces of Dunjia" Teaser Poster

“The Thousand Faces of Dunjia” Teaser Poster

Yuen Woo-ping (True Legend, Ip Man 3, Crouching Tiger, Hidden II) is currently putting finishing touches on The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, a remake of Miracle Fighter, a supernatural kung fu film he directed in 1982.

Lending a hand will be Tsui Hark (The Taking of Tiger Mountain), who is on board as producer and writer. The film stars Aarif Lee (Kung Fu YogaBruce Lee, My Brother), Ni Ni (Love Will Tear Us Apart), Da Peng (Jian Bing Man) and Zhou Dongyu (The Taking of Tiger Mountain).

The original – which starred Leung Kar Yan (Five Shaolin Masters), Yuen Cheung-yan (Once Upon a Time in Shanghai) and Yuen Yat Chor (The Postman Srikes Back) – follows a kung fu master who learns special skills from a pair of priests to defeat an evil magician.

According to FBA: Yuen says that aside from sharing the title of the film, the remake will tell an entirely new story. He said that if the original film was meant to present an alternative form of wuxia film, the new film intends to redefine it.

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia releases domestically on December 15th, 2017.

Updates: Check out a New Trailer below:

Posted in News | 3 Comments

Vincent Zhao returns as Wong Fei-hung in ‘Wong Fei-hung’

"Once Upon a Time in China IV" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“Once Upon a Time in China IV” Chinese Theatrical Poster

Vincent Zhao (True Legend) will once again be playing real-life folk hero Wong Fei-hung in an upcoming Lin Zhen-Hao film simply titled Wong Fei-hung (or Huang Feihong). According to AFS, 13th Aunt (mostly popularly played previously by Rosamund Kwan) will be a cyborg!? If this is true, expect the film to be a twisted take on the Wong Fei-hung subject.

Throughout the years, Wong Fei-hung has been portrayed by various stars, most notably Kwan Tak-hing (Story of Wong Fei-hung), Jackie Chan (Drunken Master), Jet Li (Once Upon A Time in China), and Eddie Peng (Rise of the Legend).

Wong Fei-hung marks the 5th time Zhao will be playing the title character. He previously played him in Once Upon a Time in China IV-V, the Wong Fei Hung TV Series, and of course, the soon-to-be-released Kung Fu Alliance.

We’ll keep you updated on Wong Fei-hung as we learn more. Until then, here’s the trailer for 2010’s True Legend:

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‘The Raid’ star Joe Taslim joins Bruce Lee’s ‘Warrior’ series

"The Big Boss" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“The Big Boss” Japanese Theatrical Poster

New details on Cinemax’s upcoming Warrior have emerged. The 10-episode crime series, based on unpublished writings by the late Bruce Lee, now has a cast and a director on board.

Warrior will star Andrew Koji (Finding Akira), Olivia Cheng (Marco Polo), Jason Tobin (Pound of Flesh), Dianne Doan (Descendants 2), Kieran Bew (Green Street Hooligans), Dean Jagger (Game of Thrones).

Other cast members include Joanna Vanderham (What Maisie Knew), Tom Weston-Jones (Copper), Hoon Lee (Outcast), Joe Taslim (The Raid), Langley Kirkwood (Dredd), Christian McKay (The Young Messiah) and Perry Yung (John Wick: Chapter 2).

Assaf Bernstein (Netflix’s Fauda) is directing the series’ pilot. Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond, Finishing the Game) is producing along with Jonathan Tropper, co-creator of Banshee.

According to DeadlineWarrior is described as a gritty, action-packed crime drama set during the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the second half of the 19th century. The series follows Ah Sahm, a martial arts prodigy who immigrates from China to San Francisco under mysterious circumstances, and becomes a hatchet man for one of Chinatown’s most powerful tongs (Chinese organized crime family).

We’ll keep you updated on Warrior as new details emerge. Until then, here’s message from Bruce:

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Metro Manila (2013) Review

"Metro Manila" Theatrical Poster

“Metro Manila” Theatrical Poster

Director: Sean Ellis
Writer: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers
Cast: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla, Erin Panlilio, Iasha Aceio, Moises Mag Isa, Angelina Kanapi, JM Rodriguez, Ana Abad Santos, Reuben Uy
Running Time: 114 min.

By Paul Bramhall

The well-worn tale of naïve country folk heading to the big city for brighter prospects is one that’s been used in cinema for almost as long as the medium has been around. It’s particularly prevalent in Asian cinema, from Chen Kuan Tai in Boxer from Shantung, through to Iko Uwais in Merantau, such tropes have provided the perfect framework to craft countless gritty action movies. The Philippines though has taken a more drama-centric approach, dating back to the likes of Lino Brocka’s 1975 masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light (recently given the 4k treatment thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project), and now given its most recent update in the form of Metro Manila.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Metro Manila, is that it is in-fact a co-production between the UK and the Philippines. Much like the previously mentioned Indonesian movie Merantau was directed by British filmmaker Gareth Evans, so Metro Manila also has a Brit as the helm in the form of Sean Ellis. The director of such dramas as Cashback and The Broken, Ellis came up with the idea for Metro Manila while he was on a visit to the Philippines, and happened to witness an argument between two guards of an armoured truck. Upon his return to the UK, he put together a 20 page treatment for a story, and shortly after began work on the screenplay itself with U.S. based screenwriter Frank E. Flowers.

The catch for Ellis of course, was that having gotten the idea for the story while he was in Manila, he also wanted to film it there. It was an ambitious task, considering not only is it all but impossible to get international backing for a Tagalog language production, but also that neither Ellis nor Flowers knew the language. Regardless of such challenges though, they ploughed ahead, ultimately overcoming them by writing the script in English, and asking the Filipino actors to translate their own lines. The decision was also made to film on the streets of Manila guerrilla style, and it’s one which arguably benefits the look and feel of Metro Manila more than if it had a big budget behind it, as the street level filming amongst the crowded Manila alleys lends it an almost documentary like feel.

The story focuses on a struggling married couple and their two children. The father, played by Jake Macapagal (Showdown in Manila), was recently laid off from an out-of-business silk factory, and is trying to make ends meet as a rice farmer. However with a poor harvest, almost no money to their name, and a young daughter with a toothache, they make the decision to move to Manila, where he believes it’ll be possible to find work. Once there, they soon find themselves swindled out of the little money they have by the predatory conmen populating the cities densely packed urban sprawl, and end up living destitute in the largest slum area of Tondo (the area that parts of the Korean movie Master were also set in). Things eventually start to look up when Macapagal secures a job as a guard at an armoured truck company, and is taken under the wing of a more experienced guard played by John Arcilla (The Bourne Legacy). However it’s soon revealed that Arcilla is not all that he seems to be.

While on paper Metro Manila may sell itself as a taut crime thriller, in reality it’s far from it, with the eventual heist element of the plot only being revealed a whole 80 minutes in. Instead, Ellis has crafted a superior piece of human drama that reflects both the harsh realities of life, and more significantly how far someone is willing to go to provide for their family. Macapagal, along with his characters wife and daughter, played by Althea Vega and Erin Panlilio respectively, have fantastic chemistry together, and are almost too believable as a family unit that suffer misfortune after misfortune. There’s a heart wrenching sequence mid-way through, which has a scene of Macapagal obliged to join Arcilla and his colleagues for a night of drinking in a local bar, juxtaposed with a scene of Vega miserably working in a go-go bar and being harassed by the foreign clientele. It represents a pivotal moment of reaching rock bottom, and the decisions taken when you have nothing left to lose.

Arcilla’s performance is a standout, and even though not he’s not a part of the family unit of which the plot keeps its focus on, he’s a pivotal character in the events that shape Metro Manila into the movie that it is. There’s an underlying tension to his loud and almost over-friendly bravado with Macapagal that’s difficult to put your finger on, and the more he begins to show his ambitions, the more he begins to come across as a tightly wound coil that Macapagal is directly in the crossfire of. It’s darkly enthralling to watch, as Ellis keeps his cards close to his chest for the longest time, allowing seemingly random and meaningless events to unfold onscreen in a slice-of-life type manner, until the moment comes when everything falls into place, and true intentions are revealed.

However even then, that’s not to say that Arcilla is the villain of the piece. Ellis may have framed his tale in a way that would have audiences assume there is a bad guy behind everything, but once Metro Manila gets under your skin, you realise that it’s not about good guys or bad guys. Rather, it’s about the harshness of a city where many of its residents have to get by on less than $10 a day, and the inevitable follies of human nature once presented with a way to get out of it. There are no epiphanies to be found here, were a character suddenly realises that they could get rich if they were to go down a certain path, but instead we see the fleeting moments of opportunity seized out of desperation more than anything else, and the consequences that follow.

Perhaps the most significant character in Metro Manila though, is the bustling metropolis that is Manila itself. Ellis captures it with an unflinching eye, from the slums of Tondo, with its barren huts nailed together from whatever sheets of plywood can be found, to the contemporary apartments of uptown, with their modern amenities and 24 hour security. The division between the rich and the poor is observed through the eyes of Macapagal and Arcilla, on the road in their armoured truck, and is never inherently commented upon, Ellis seemingly happy to allow the images to simply speak for themselves. Could the story have been transposed to any other city in the world with a similar economy? Probably, but it definitely wouldn’t be the same movie that we have here.

One notable criticism that has been levelled at Metro Manila by some Filipino viewers, is that there are pieces of dialogue that don’t sound natural being spoken in Tagalog. This is most certainly due to the actors themselves translating the English lines into Tagalog, and was an issue that both Macapagal and Arcilla have openly stated was sometimes a challenge. However much like many Mandarin speakers heavily criticised Daniel Wu’s line delivery in One Night in Mongkok, and many picked on Shu Qi’s Cantonese in her early Hong Kong movies, for a non-native speaking audience, this is largely a non-issue. For Metro Manila in particular, the subtitles simply follow the English script, however it is a relevant criticism for those that can watch it in its native language of Tagalog.

As a social drama that gradually develops into a slow burning thriller, there aren’t many other movies out there, at least in Asia, which can be easily compared to Metro Manila. In the local Philippines film industry itself, there’s sadly nothing that comes close. It’s a unique movie, and even allowed for the UK to provide an entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 86th Academy Awards, probably the first and last time such an entry will be possible. While Ellis wisely chooses to not go the route of providing a blatantly happy ending, there is closure in the finale moments of Metro Manila, that allow for hope to subtly shine through. At one point Vega solemnly states to Macapagal, “It was a big mistake to come to Manila.” It’s a difficult line to disagree with, but for those who have yet to see Metro Manila, I guarantee you certainly won’t consider it a mistake to check it out.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10

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