The Batman, The Northman, the Vengeance, the Romance

Between the wide theatrical release of Robert Eggers’s The Northman in American multiplexes and the streaming debut of Matt Reeves’s The Batman on HBO Max, it’s been a big week for tough-guy action movies about Vengeance.  I expected to make pithy jokes about The Batman & The Northman‘s thematic parallels as superhero origin stories about traumatized orphans growing up, getting buff, and seeking bloody revenge on the criminals who murdered their fathers.  It turns out the two films genuinely do have a lot in common, though – right down to those orphans’ childhood phases being played by the same actor: 12-year-old newcomer Oscar Novak.  What really struck me in these two sprawling epics about brute-force vigilante justice was the tender hearts beating just below their hardened, muscle-men surfaces.  Both movies announce themselves to be growling heroes’ journeys in search of “vengeance”, but in time they both lament the ways those heroes’ tunnel-vision revenge missions ruin their romantic prospects with the (equally violent, vengeance-obsessed) women in their lives.  It’s kind of sweet.

I was prepared to dismiss these films based both on their macho surface details and on their directors’ respective obsessions with realism & historical accuracy.  I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90 minutes of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle (after Batman & Gordon bind his legs together for a brief visual gag).  Likewise, the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way in Eggers’s calling-card debut The VVitch was its concluding title card that emphasizes its narrative was drawn “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records” from 17th Century New England, preemptively defending its more fantastic deviations from reality with the noble shield of Academic Research.  His 1st Century Icelandic tale The Northman appeared to be even more obsessed with grounding its breaks from reality in the Valhalla of “historical accuracy”, which is not something I especially value in my high-style genre films.  It’s the kind of literal, pedantic thinking that appeals to Redditor bros with years-long grievances over movies’ logistical flubs & narrative “plot holes” but little to say about how art makes them feel.  That’s why I was so pleased to discover that both The Batman & The Northman had more emotions filling their hearts than expected, considering all the real-world logic weighing on their minds.

The Batman is essentially a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow, with Robert Pattinson eternally brooding under his emo bangs, smeared mascara, and Nirvana-blaring headphones – alone in his logically plausible inner-city Batcave (an abandoned subway station).  He stubbornly insists on living in isolation & despair as if it were a badge of honor, but when he finds a kindred goth-girl spirit in Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz, rocking the same rainbow-dyed bobs she sported in Kimi) he reluctantly warms up to a fellow human being for the first time in his miserable life.  The Northman plays out much the same, with the revenge-obsessed Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) declaring he has “a heart of cold iron” and a “freezing river of blood that runs in [his] veins” until he meets his romantic, dark-sided counterpart in a revenge-obsessed Pagan witch (Anya Taylor-Joy).  When the witch coos, “Your strength breaks men’s bones.  I have the cunning to break their minds,” it plays like a dual-purpose blood pact & marriage proposal.  Both the Batman & the Northman have genuine love interests that meet them on their respective levels of hedonistic bloodlust, which you might not expect from this kind of tough-guy power fantasy.

Neither the never-ending Batman franchise nor the Robert Eggers Extended Universe are strangers to lust.  Batman & Catwoman’s S&M power plays in Batman Returns are legendary and, not for nothing, the main focus of the script.  Meanwhile, the romantic chemistry of The Batman is a slow, quiet burn, taking a back seat to the creepy found-footage terror attacks & old-fashioned detective work of Batman’s search for The Riddler.  Likewise, The Lighthouse is the one Eggers film that fully succumbs to the hunger & ecstasy of sex, while The Northman is much more tender & low-key in its central romance.  It’s telling that neither the Batman nor the Northman abandon their single-minded missions for vengeance to blissfully pair up with their partners in thwarting crime; they both give up their chances for happiness to pursue vengeance at all costs.  Neither romance blooms to its full potential, but I still appreciated that these films had major soft spots in their hate-hardened hearts.  For a couple of tough-guy movies about vengeance, I was shocked that both films had genuinely romantic moments that made me go “Awwww <3” (between all the bombings & beheadings). 

My preference is for Batman movies to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table.  The Northman has similar saving graces.  It’s not soft & sweet enough to be just another live-action Lion King (which, along with Hamlet, was inspired by the same Scandinavian legend as Eggers’s film), but it is at least romantic enough to be more than just a live-action Spine of Night.  It’s wonderful to feel hearts beating under these films’ rock-hard pectorals, when they just as easily could have been militant, macho bores.

-Brandon Ledet

The Heroic Trio (1993)

I recently read an encyclopedia of classic Hong Kong action movies titled Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, which is overloaded with hundreds of capsule reviews of the once-vibrant industry’s greatest hits.  Each blurb makes each title sound like the most explosively badass movie you’ve never seen, fixating on the industry’s unmatched talent for absurd plot details, tactile fight choreography, and for-their-own-sake visual gags.  It’s a daunting surplus of giddy movie recommendations, with no real guide for what to prioritize besides whatever happens to be available to access.  After being pushed to check out the bonkers Indiana Jones mutation The Seventh Curse by the We Love to Watch podcast crew, I had no clear path for where to go next.  Thankfully, that decision was taken out of my hands by happenstance.  I lucked into a small haul of Hong Kong action DVDs (some bootlegs, some official releases, all pictured below) during a recent trip to Goodwill, which included the 1993 superhero oddity The Heroic Trio.  This was the same week that Criterion announced an upcoming Blu-ray release of The Heroic Trio and the same month that one of its stars, Michele Yeoh, was gifted a career-high acting showcase in the Daniels’ own novelty superhero picture Everything Everywhere All at Once, which made it the most obvious must-see.  I’m often overwhelmed deciding what movie to watch next when I’m left to my own devices, so it’s always a pleasure when the universe steps in to program that selection for me.

I am sure that the new Criterion restoration of The Heroic Trio will lovingly highlight the film’s technical beauty and pop-art iconography in a way few audiences have seen before.  I’ll still admit that I was charmed by the tape-warp warmth of the bootleg DVD that found its way into my collection, since it plays right into the film’s vintage appeal.  The Heroic Trio is a retro superhero team-up featuring the masked & powerful heroines Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), and Invisible Woman (Yeoh) – each a total badass.  They start disorganized & distrustful of each other as a mysterious case of 19 kidnapped babies derails Hong Kong into chaos.  Eventually, they find love & unity amongst their super selves to fight the methane-breathing sewer god responsible for those kidnappings, brutally confronting the gender-ambiguous deity in their underground lair/baby-storage facility.  Tonally, the film plays like the kind of R-rated kids’ movie that you’d normally find through American labels like Troma & Full Moon, even featuring the children’s nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” as a soundtrack motif.  It is S&M superhero cinema for the permanently immature, indulging in vintage Saturday-morning-TV cheese with far more gore, kink fashion, and shock-value baby deaths than any child should be consuming with their breakfast cereal.  It just executes that volatile immaturity with exquisite technical skill you will not find in its low-budget American equivalents, especially in the beauty of its complex, tactile fight choreography.

Michele Yeoh’s inclusion in the titular trio was my prompt to watch the film and, dramatically, she gets the most to do.  Invisible Woman is the only complex character of the bunch, starting off as the brainwashed lackey of the baby-snatching Evil Master but eventually coming around to join arms with her master’s enemies.  I still found Maggie Cheung to be the MVP of the trio as Thief Catcher, providing most of the film’s comic relief as a Bugs Bunny-style anarchist, a motorcycle-riding vigilante in dressed in bike shorts & lingerie; Tank Girl, eat your heart out.  Anita Mui is saddled with the least exciting part as Wonder Woman, who—as her name implies—is the most stereotypical comic book hero of the bunch.  Her mask & cape iconography and secret-identity shenanigans are essential in grounding the film in a recognizable superhero genre, since most of its in-the-moment indulgences are more aligned with Hong Kong action antics than with comic book tradition.  Director Johnnie To uses the superhero team-up template as a playground for martial arts chaos & Looney Tunes goofballery, playing around with as much Evil Dead POV camera movement, wuxia-style wire work, and bone-crunching brutality as his scrappy budget will allow.  He gives each heroine room to establish separate, distinct personalities in the film’s early scenes, then smashes them together like action figures during an especially sugared-up recess.  It’s the most gleeful, energizing movie experience I can think of that depicts the death of a dozen innocent babies.

Watching The Heroic Trio left me no better equipped to select my next Hong Kong action title.  Yeoh, Cheung, and Mui each have extensive careers in martial arts classics exactly like this.  To was equally prolific in his directorial career without them.  All four of those collaborators reunited for a direct sequel to The Heroic Trio titled Executioners, also released in 1993, but it is not regarded as any of their respective best.  Below, I’ll list the essential continued-viewing titles for Michelle Yeoh alone, as suggested by the authors of Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, just to demonstrate the overwhelming wealth of great, over-the-top Hong Kong action pics there are to choose from.  And she’s only one of the industry’s many, many creative geniuses.  I’ll likely just wait until another title falls directly into my lap the way The Heroic Trio did, taking the decision out of my hands.   Otherwise, I’ll browse these titles & blurbs for hours without ever settling on one, the modern movie streamer’s dilemma.

Michelle Yeoh’s “Selected Filmography,” per Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, printed 1996:
Magnificent Warriors (1986)
Royal Warriors (1986)
Yes, Madam (1986)
Police Story 3: Supercop (1993)
Project S (1993)
The Tai Chi Master (1993)
Butterfly and Sword (1993)
The Heroic Trio (1993)
Wonder 7 (1994)

-Brandon Ledet

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

I enjoyed the Daniels’ debut feature Swiss Army Man, which I categorized on my Top Films of 2016 list as “an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner.”  Even as a fan of that understandably divisive gross-out, I still agree with the consensus that their follow-up film is a huge step up for the music video director-duo.  Everything Everywhere All at Once triples down on the Cold Stone Creamery approach to filmmaking that the Daniels toyed with in Swiss Army Man, mashing every cinematic indulgence the directors could manage—from alternate-dimension sci-fi to vaudevillian slapstick to sincere Wong Kar-Wai homage—into a massive, delectable headache.  And yet it securely anchors that chaos to a solid emotional rock in a way that Swiss Army Man could not, which left it feeling adrift.  I don’t even know that I would encourage fans of Everything Everywhere double back to check out the Daniels’ debut.  You probably already knew in 2016 whether a farting-corpse boner comedy was going to appeal to you, and that likely has not changed.  In contrast, Everything Everywhere crams in a little taste of something for absolutely everyone, so much so that you’ll find yourself recommending it to family & coworkers despite it featuring its own gross-out gags involving butt-plugs & hotdog fellatio.

The elevator pitch for this unlikely crowd-pleaser is that it offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where The Matrix was directed by Michel Gondry.  It’s nice there.  Everything Everywhere is structured around a standard-issue comic book plot in which a maniacal supervillain attempts to gain ultimate power over the infinite alternate timelines of “the Multiverse,” with only a specially equipped Chosen One hero standing in their way.  It distorts that superhero blockbuster template through the hand-crafted dream logic & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of our twee yesteryear, bringing an earnestness & personality to the genre that’s sorely missing from its megacorporate equivalents.  The superpower that allows ordinary characters to leap between these infinite timelines is the cosmic surprise of an unexpected, improbable act, “the less it makes sense the better.” The Daniels openly dare you to roll your eyes at the “LOL! So random!” humor of that premise, packing the screen with randomly generated totems like googly eyes, talking racoons, pro wrestling finishers, lethal fanny packs, and an all-powerful, apocalyptic Everything Bagel.  However, every silly, randomsauce image is lovingly crafted and thoughtfully anchored to the film’s emotional rock, earning its place on the screen beyond a for-its-own-sake indulgence.  They somehow even make their Chosen One heroine’s Deadpool-style observations about the absurdity of her predicament (especially her stubborn mispronunciations of the villain’s name) feel well-earned & natural to her character.  It’s an incredible feat.

The aforementioned emotional rock is the lead performance from the always-solid Michelle Yeoh.  The infinite alternate timelines premise demands that Yeoh play infinite alternate versions of herself, and she excels at every turn.  Yeoh is funny.  Yeoh is frustrating.  Yeoh breaks your heart into a thousand shards, then lovingly glues them together again.  The Daniels obviously have immense respect for her range as a performer. They allow her to show off both the stern dramatic severity & classic Hong Kong action superheroics she’s already famous for, then demonstrate the thousands of possibilities in-between those extremes we’ve been robbed of seeing onscreen.  Ke Huy Quan & Stephanie Hsu are also wonderful as her husband & daughter, respectfully, exploding the boundaries of what audiences have been trained to expect from their Nice Guy side character & flamboyant Gay Villain archetypes.  It’s Yeoh who leaves you in total stunned awe, though, especially as the rare Strong Female Character who’s allowed to be a genuinely complicated person.  We’re introduced to our hero as the absolute worst version of herself across the vast multiverse.  She’s terrible at the enormous entirety of everything, most crucially in the way she relates to her family as they frantically scurry through their shared daily routine.  Watching her learn to be a better person by breaking out of her rigid-thinking patterns & emotional cowardice is inspirational, something I can’t say about most Chosen One superheroes.

It’s easy to be reductive about what makes Everything Everywhere great, since the Daniels are willing to pummel you with an infinite supply of absurdly disparate, deeply silly imagery.  Pushing past that impulse, it’s impressive that a loud, chaotic superhero movie can prompt you to evaluate how you live your daily life and how you can work towards becoming the best possible version of yourself.  Considering that I only walked away from their last picture with fond memories of laughing at farts & boners, I’m okay conceding this follow-up was a major improvement.  My own rigid, stubborn, contrarian impulses would usually have me defending their earlier, messier work against their popular break-out, but in this instance the consensus take is the correct one.

-Brandon Ledet

RRR (2022)

As I’ve already stated in reviews for titles like Karnan, War, Saaho, Master, and 2.0, there is nothing Hollywood has to offer than can out-entertain mainstream Indian action cinema.  While American action franchises like the MCU and the Fast & Furious “saga” have long outlasted their initial novelty, Indian movie industries like Kollywood & Tollywood routinely escalate the explosive absurdism of the genre to new, delirious heights audiences have never seen before.  They recall Hong Kong’s heyday as the most exciting, inventive action scene in the world, when seemingly every new title—no matter how anonymous or cheap—instantly earned a place in the canon of all-time greats.  And even with that miles-high industry standard looming over him, director S.S. Rajamouli might be establishing himself as the very best craftsman in modern Indian actioners – recently striking big with the two-part action epic Baahubali, and now following it up with the ferociously entertaining RRR.  While most modern, bloated American action pics only offer a post-nap headache, a Rajamouli picture guarantees a skull-cracking good time.

RRR is an anti-colonialist epic about the power of friendship (and the power of bullets, and the power of wolves, and the power of grenades, and the power of tigers, and the power of dynamite, and the power of bears, oh my!).  The two friends at the center are a fantastically unlikely pair, frequently compared to fire & water, or “a volcano & a wildfire” in the rock anthems that underscore their volatile bond.  One is a militant supercop whose wuxia superheroics enable him to fight off an ocean of unruly protestors while armed with just a baton.  The other is a rural tribal leader on a one-man, Schwarzenegger-style mission to avenge his people against a governmental wrong – culminating in releasing wild, blood-starved animals at a fancy garden party in a righteous act of terrorism.  Separately, either one of these burly supermen could’ve been highlighted as the hero of their own over-the-top action adventure; likewise, either one could’ve played villain.  Instead, the movie gives them equal time as dual protagonists, eventually pushing them to form Voltron (see also: Krang, Master Blaster) as one united force against a common, worthier enemy: white British colonizers.  It’s a beautiful bromance between good, muscly buds, with plenty explosions, dance-offs, and feral animal attacks keeping up the energy as they fall further in bruv.

RRR never strays from its mission as a populist crowd-pleaser, but it’s also a fiercely political film.  Every white British colonizer that rules over 1920s Delhi in the picture is a sneering, monstrous piece of shit, and the entire arc of the unlikely cop-dissident friendship that forms at that colony’s fringes is pushing for their violent overthrow.  A pre-credits warning explains that the events of the film are fictional (a disclaimer that’s even less necessary than its companion warning that the wild “animals” are entirely CG), but both of the film’s dual heroes were real-life revolutionaries & populist heroes.  Alluri Sitarama Raju & Komaram Bheem violently revolted against colonialist rule in the 1920s & 30s in separate rebellions.  RRR functions as a kind of anti-imperialist fan fiction that turns those historical heroes of the people into modern heroes of the screen.  At the very least, it’s a much more politically purposeful & satisfying superhero team-up than any comic book or street-racing equivalent I can name in its genre’s American competition.  That probably goes without saying, but it is stunning to see populist cinema with sharpened fangs, since so much of what we’re fed at home is conspicuously toothless.

Anything else I could say in praise of RRR would just be a rambling list of exciting images.  You don’t need to hear about a motorcycle being launched as an explosive projectile any more than you need to hear about a wolf & a tiger brawling for dominance or our two heroes locking arms for the first time against a full-flame backdrop.  All you need to know is that friendship is beautiful, imperialism is evil, and S.S. Rajamouli knows how to entertain.  See RRR big & loud while you can.  Otherwise, you’ll regret missing the chance when it’s shrunken down to TV-scale on Netflix in a couple months.

-Brandon Ledet

Radhe Shyam (2022)

I am often in way over my head when choosing which mainstream Indian blockbusters to attend at the local multiplex.  Since most of the Bollywood & Kollywood titles that populate on AMC Elmwood’s marquee are not covered by Western press outlets, I usually have very little context to go on besides a one-paragraph plot synopsis and an un-subtitled trailer.  Finding my footing with the recent romance epic Radhe Shyam was even more of a challenge than usual, though, and it’s one I’m not sure I fully overcame until most of the way into its runtime.

Firstly, I could not settle on which language to watch Radhe Shyam in, since it was simultaneously filmed in both Hindi & Telugu, with two entirely different music composers hired for both audio versions.  I assumed checking what region the film was produced in would help solve that puzzle, but it was shot on-location in Italy, so I just went with the most convenient start time.  Then came the confusion over the film’s price tag.  While most movies I watch at Elmwood are $8 matinees, tickets to Radhe Shyam were $20 a pop ($24 with the AMC app’s outrageous service charges), which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a single movie ticket in my life.  The best I can figure is that the distributors had to four-wall its theatrical run, since the Amazon Prime logo in the opening credits indicates that they will not be adhering to the rigid theatrical window that AMC demands.  If I were going by myself, I would have bailed as soon as I saw that ticket price and just waited to see it on streaming in — soon, apparently.  However, since I had dragged a friend to the theater (podcast co-host James), we were too fully committed to our playdate to turn back.  Which is how we ended up paying $48 to watch Radhe Shyam at 10:45am on Saturday morning in an otherwise empty theater.

My confusion over how to best approach this film did not end with that hasty ticket purchase.  Getting a firm handle on its tone & genre was also an adventure in itself.  Pre-intermission, Radhe Shyam is a cutesy romcom with an extremely broad approach to humor (to the point where punchlines are scored by bike horns & slide whistles).  Post-intermission, it’s an epic romance melodrama of Titanic proportions — complete with explosive, fist-pumping superheroics.  Altogether, it’s a thoroughly entertaining 128 minutes of volatile fluff, worth all 4,800 pennies.

Prabhas (headliner of the over-the-top action spectacle Saaho) stars as the world’s greatest palm reader, the Einstein of Palmistry.  Reading his own palm and finding no discernible Love Line, he decides there is no romantic love in his future and can only look forward to a series of casual Flirtationships.  His resolve is challenged when he meets a beautiful doctor played by Pooja Hegde, an adrenaline junkie with a bizarre fetish for hanging out the sides of speeding trains.  After a death-defying meet cute aboard one of those trains, they enter a whirlwind Flirtationship that tests the palmist’s conviction that he will never love.  If this were a mainstream American rom-com I’d say you could predict where the story goes from there, but it’s much more explosively entertaining than that.

Radhe Shyam is thematically hung up on binaries.  Because the central romance is between a medical doctor and a palmist, most of its scene-to-scene conflicts are built around the tension between hard-facts Science and faith in Hindu religion.  More importantly to the romance, it’s a story of Love vs. Destiny, as its two central lovers are decidedly not destined to be together but rebel against their pre-determined futures to transform their Flirtationship into a proper Relationship.  The early, comedic half of the film details their adorable courtship phase.  The late, thrilling half details their violent rejection of their fates in an all-out visual spectacle you’d never see in a Julia Roberts romcom.  That jarring genre structure is itself a binary, and it’s the one that makes the film an exciting novelty instead of just a cute diversion.

It’s near impossible to not be charmed by Radhe Shyam, at least not by the time its two destined-to-separate lovers are heroically cheating death to fight their way back to their sweet, flirtatious beginnings.  This is a movie that covers both major touchstones of Celine Dion romanticism—the flowy curtains of the bodice-ripper “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” music video and the ocean-liner disaster epic of Titanic—so you cannot reasonably claim that it doesn’t deliver the goods.  Whether a $24 theatrical ticket is too steep of an admission price for those heart-soaring pleasures is subjective, but I will say this: the go-for-broke action finale looked incredible on the big screen, and my audience of two had a great time cheering it on in that empty auditorium. 

-Brandon Ledet

The Seventh Curse (1986)

I have plenty of stubborn genre biases that I need a lot of handholding to get past; I need a movie to be really over the top in its style or novelty to bother with a genre that generally bores me.  I don’t care for Westerns, but watching Kate Winslet destroy an entire town by sewing pretty dresses in The Dressmaker is enough to make me get over that.  I don’t have patience for war films, but watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet warp his war epic A Very Long Engagement into an over-stylized twee romance was perversely thrilling.  Moonraker had to launch James Bond into outer space as a cheap cash-in on the Star Wars craze for me to go out of my way to see a 007 film.  However, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie go as deliciously, deliriously over the top to break through my boredom with a specific genre than The Seventh Curse – a supernatural Hong Kong action classic that pulls off the unique miracle of keeping me awake for the entirety of an Indiana Jones adventure.

I normally don’t vibe with Indiana Jones-style international swashbuckling at all, but this copyright-infringing mind-melter hits the exact level of bonkers mayhem I need to get past that deeply ingrained disinterest.  While actual Indiana Jones pictures fire off dusty nostalgia triggers that have been old hat since at least the era of radio serials, The Seventh Curse is overflowing with imagination, irreverence, and explosive brutality in every single scene that you will not find replicated in any other movie, including the Hollywood blockbusters it lovingly “borrows” from.  This is a film where a James Bond-styled super-agent goes on international Indiana Jones adventures into ancient temples, ultimately teaming up with a Rambo-knockoff sidekick to defeat a flying Xenomorph with batwings.  Moreso than Indiana Jones, it reminded me a lot of the post-modern Brucesploitation picture The Dragon Lives Again, in which “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, and “Clint Eastwood” in Hell.  That wild abandon in random assemblages of copyright violations is absolutely thrilling in both cases, but The Seventh Curse is better funded, better conceived, and better staged than The Dragon Lives Again by pretty much every metric.  It’s also far preferable to any actual Indiana Jones film, even if it could not exist without their influence (and a little help from Jones’s loose collection of Hollywood superfriends).

In radio serial tradition, the film opens mid-adventure, where our pathetically named hero Chester Young untangles a delicate hostage negotiation by punching & kicking a legion of heavily armed Bad Guys to death.  While celebrating with his 007 sexual conquest after that mission, a pustule forms & explodes on his leg, spraying blood all over his high-thread-count bedsheets.  He then explains, in flashback, that this sudden fit of body horror is part of a supernatural curse that he’s been suffering for a full year – branded upon his soul by an ancient Thai god when he disrupted a human sacrifice ceremony on a previous mission.  This curse will soon destroy his body for good if he does not return to Thailand to confront the witchcraft-wielding Worm Tribe who cursed him a year ago, which launches us into another, grander adventure involving a flying cannibal fetus, a shape-shifting zombie god, the ritualistic sacrifice of human babies, gratuitous nudity and, of course, a bat-winged Xenomorph.  The antiqued sets & triumphant musical accompaniment frame Chester Young’s latest international mission in an Indiana Jones genre context, but the practical minute-to-minute details of that mission are far wilder & more thrilling than what you’d expect from the aesthetic.

I’m currently reading an encyclopedia of Hong Kong action cinema titled Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, which is overloaded with hundreds of capsule reviews of the once-vibrant HK movie industry’s greatest hits.  Every single blurb in that book makes every single title sound like the most explosively badass movie you’ve never seen, fixating on that industry’s unmatched talent for absurd plot details, tactile fight choreography, and for-their-own-sake visual gags.  I want to be incredulous that the book’s bottomless hype for Hong Kong genre classics can’t be matched by the low-budget mayhem those movies actually delivered, but I don’t know; maybe it’s all true.  I was pushed to bump The Seventh Curse to the top of my Hong Kong Classics watchlist by our friends at We Love To Watch when they recently guest-hosted one of our podcast episodes, and it totally delivered on its reputation as an unhinged, uninhibited genre gem.  Between this glorious Indiana Jones revision, The Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead, and the few John Woo movies I’ve reviewed for the site, I’m starting to convince myself that the hype is real; all 1,000 of those recommended titles might actually be that badass.  The bummer is that most of them are either impossible or unaffordable to (legally) access in the US. By some unholy miracle, The Seventh Curse is currently only a $1.50 VOD rental, though, and it’s almost incredible enough to talk me into going into debt chasing down the rest of the Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head titles one-by-one.

-Brandon Ledet

F9: The Fast Saga (2021)

Ten films into the “The Fast Saga“, I have no idea how to evaluate individual movies in the franchise beyond noting how much fun I had while watching them.  During the last entry, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, I didn’t have any fun at all despite seeing it in a theater full of braying strangers; the mood was sour & off-brand.  During its pandemic era follow-up, F9, I had a moderate amount of fun watching a borrowed public-library DVD alone on my couch.  F9 mostly offers more of the same from the decades-running action franchise, which has ballooned from street racing heist films to superhero fantasy epics that just happen have car engines revving in the background.  In this outing, Dom’s gang/family drive over landmines, through weaponized magnetic fields and, inevitably, into outer space.  I can’t tell how much my enthusiasm for these stunts was dampened by watching the film at home vs. how much it was dampened by feeling like I’ve seen it all before.  All I know is that after the bitter taste left by Hobbs & Shaw‘s aggro-bro sense of humor, I’m now way more conscious of how these films generate their moodsetting comedy. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to have fun when you’re thinking about whether or not you’re having it.

A lot of the straightforward, dialogue-based humor in F9 is pretty dire, but at least it’s delivered in a better spirit than Jason Statham & The Rock’s play-hateful banter.  Its verbal comedy is typified by Ludacris’s computer nerd side-character making lazy pop culture references to fellow IP giants like Harry Potter, or by Michelle Rodriguez’s A-team hero quipping “Well, that was new” after Vin Diesel swings a sports car off a cliffside rope like an automotive Tarzan.  Most of the fun to be had in these films relies on the visual absurdism of those impossible car stunts, which has gotten exponentially self-aware since the skyscraper jump in Furious 7 (my personal favorite in the series).  They want to clearly signal that they realize it’s all in good fun by adding MCU-style one-liners to the script, but the series’ internal humor’s just not there yet.  In that respect, F9‘s biggest blunder was in casting John Cena in a dead-serious villain role despite him being the funniest member of the cast (judging by his recent string of R-rated raunch comedies) while feeding its proper Jokes to dead-behind-the-eyes action stars like Vin Diesel.  All longtime fans really want out of these movies is for Diesel to mumble the word “family” with outsized gravitas in-between Looney Tunes-level car stunts; he doesn’t need to land any bon mots.

To F9‘s credit, it does find a way to push its hack “Well, that just happened” MCU humor to new, absurd places.  Roman (Tyrese Gibson) escalates that self-awareness of the improbability of his family/gang’s superheroism by pausing to remark “We should all be dead.”  After dodging machine-gun fire, landmine explosions, and physics-defying car wrecks, he desperately tries to spread his self-aware epiphany to the rest of the crew.  He points out how out of control the street racing gang’s “insane missions” have gotten, declaring their continued existence on Earth “damn near impossible”.  I wish he had pushed that line of thinking a little further beyond “We are not normal” to realizing that he must be a fictional character in a Hollywood action franchise.  At least that post-Last Action Hero meta narrative would’ve landed as a novelty in a series where the only other frontiers they haven’t yet explored are time travel & dinosaurs.  Give them enough time, and I’m sure they’ll get there.  After all, launching Ludacris & Tyrese into space is already lightyears away from the gang’s first-movie mission of stealing DVD players out of 18-wheelers.

If I had to narrow down Roman’s “We’re invincible” epiphany to a more specific observation, it’s that the Fast & Furious family appear to be invincible as long as they fall on a car instead of the ground.  There are multiple stunts in this film in which an actor (or a CG blur standing in for an actor) flies through the air while their partner rushes towards them in a car, making sure they land on the hood instead of the concrete below.  Apparently, that three-foot difference is enough to save the day in this loopy-logic action series (and even if it weren’t, fan-favorite characters frequently return from the dead anyway).  That’s the kind of inane bullshit that makes this series fun, and the more you can focus on those cheap thrills instead of the halfhearted one-liners the happier you can drive away.  I do think it helps to watch these films in the theater, where the rumble of car engines helps drown out the whimpers of dialogue, but Hobbs & Shaw is proof that watching these action blockbusters big & loud isn’t enough to cover up their worst attempts at straightforward humor.  Thankfully, F9 is still a lot of goofball fun when it lets the cars do the talking.

-Brandon Ledet

General Invincible (1983)

I’ve been greatly enjoying my time with Gold Ninja Video‘s Pearl Chang boxset Wolf Devil Director over the past year, and I’m a little sad to have now officially run through all four of the Taiwanese martial artist’s feature films as star/director/producer.  Maybe Pearl Chang was sad to see her career winding down in her own time too.  Her final film, General Invincible, is more somber than her previous work.  It boasts all of the gruesome bloodshed, fabulous costume changes, and low-budget psychedelia that make her films so delightful, but it lacks her slapstick humor that usually lightens their tone.  Although it shares no narrative continuity with any of the other films in her modest catalog, it plays like the final episode of a long-running TV show or the third act of a 3-hour epic.  It feels like a heartfelt goodbye to the low-budget wuxia auteur, who indeed did disappear from the public eye in the years following the film’s release.

Because all her work was rapidly produced in the same era & genre, it’s near impossible to discuss General Invincible on its own terms without comparing it to Pearl Chang’s other films.  As with all the titles in the Wolf Devil Director boxset, Chang stars as a reclusive female warrior who reluctantly returns to society to avenge the slaughter of her family, guided by the mystical teachings of a retired kung fu master.  In this particular instance she’s a war general named Sparrow, honor-bound to stop a wannabe emperor’s aspirations for the throne by laying waste to his mercenary assassins one by one.  There are a few distinguishing details in General Invincible you won’t find elsewhere in Pearl Chang’s oeuvre: an uneasy romance with a sensitive warrior who believes himself her equal, a vicious rivalry with the other warrior-woman who pines after that same loverboy, the usurping emperor’s obsession with obtaining magical “crystal knives” as the ultimate weapon, etc.  For the most part, though, this is the exact same rapidfire low-budget wuxia psychedelia Pearl Chang always delivers, just now with a somber tone.

As an unofficial, unintentional send-off for Pearl Chang’s career, you couldn’t ask much more out of General Invincible.  Sparrow’s inner journey in the film is a meditative, self-reflective effort to “reach the state of Infinity and discover Emptiness”.  She cannot become her most powerful warrior self until she “achieves Nothingness,” a state she doesn’t discover until she’s crucified and left for dead in the midday sun, recalling the blinding psychedelia of King Hu’s genre-defining wuxia epic A Touch of Zen.  When watching her filmography in order, it’s as if Pearl Chang doesn’t retire into anonymity, but rather transcends this Earthly plane through total inner enlightenment (after indulging in a few flying-swordsmen beheadings along the way).  It’s kind of sweet & touching, as long as you can distract yourself from the more unfair, practical limitations of her real-life career in an industry gatekept by men.

The Wolf Devil Director box set is a must-own, and Gold Ninja Video put a lot of care into contextualizing what makes the films within so unique to Pearl Chang as an auteur.  Still, it feels like an audition for a much better-funded boutique label to pick up these same films for a proper restoration.  I often found myself squinting through these public domain transfers imagining how much greater these same films would be with an HD clean-up.  It’s easy to see why Wolf Devil Woman is Pearl Chang’s most popular film; it’s her best work.  I believe that General Invincible & Matching Escort are pretty much on its level, though.  The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is her weakest for being a little too goofy, but I dug that one too.  All her films are good-to-great, and all of them deserve a higher genre-nerd profile with better-funded preservation & distribution.  The Wolf Devil Director boxset is a great start, but there’s more work to do.

Pearl Chang’s Filmography, Ranked:

1. Wolf Devil Woman
2. Matching Escort
3. General Invincible
4. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option.  For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town.  Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again.  As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them.  Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here.  Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.

Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore.  The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo).  In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3.  Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all.  One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline.  This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000.  To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie).  Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.

Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers.  We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor.  Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut.  Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins.  Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin.  At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with.  The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.

As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional.  Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation.  I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile.  I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world.  Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.

-Brandon Ledet

Wrath of Man (2021)

I’ve been warming up to Jason Statham’s appeal as a post-90s Action Star in recent years, starting with his self-parodic roles in films like Spy and then doubling back to catch up with his more sincerely over-the-top schlock in titles like The Transporter 2 (a personal fav).  In all that belated good will for the barroom brawling brute, I had forgotten why I was so behind on the Statham action canon in the first place: his collaborations with Guy Ritchie.  Snatch & Lock, Stock were dual star-makers for both Statham & Richie (with the help of already-established celebrities like Brad Pitt), but they never held much appeal for me as overly gruff, self-serious muscle mags in motion.  I like the idea of Statham continuing the tradition of the Stallone/Van Damme/Schwarzenegger action hero archetype into the 21st Century, but his star vehicles always lose that Old World luster whenever Richie’s at the wheel (or whenever similar snoozers like The Bank Job ape Ritchie’s style). 

2021’s Wrath of Man is a harsh reminder of just how efficiently Guy Richie can drain the fun out of a Jason Statham action vehicle by focusing on style & posturing instead of the action itself.  It starts with an excellent meathead action cinema premise, with Statham taking a job far beneath his mysterious supersolider skills as a driver for an armored cash truck company.  After thwarting several cash-delivery heist jobs with shocking tact & brutality, it becomes apparent that he’s hiding major details from his past & his motives for taking such a nondescript job.  The movie loses all momentum when Richie doubles back to fill in those missing details, scrambling the chapters of its story like so many half-assed Pulp Fiction knockoffs that littered video store shelves in the 1990s.  What should be a half-paragraph of dialogue in which Statham confesses the twisted path that landed him behind the steering wheel & gun trigger instead eats up two-thirds of the runtime, often removing Statham from the story entirely to detail the lives & motives of his crime-world enemies.  Ritchie thinks he’s being clever by chopping up & re-arranging the story this way, but I guarantee Wrath of Man would’ve been 100x more exciting as straightforward, Transporter-style action schlock about an undercover badass with a dangerous day job.

I had high hopes for Wrath of Man as a mean, oblivious action flick in its opening act, as Statham is getting acquainted with his instantly, insanely hostile coworkers.  The film starts off as the kind of quippy, aggro muscle show that’s so homophobic it’s blatantly homoerotic – wherein real tough guys with nicknames like “Boy Sweat” and “Sticky John” constantly make threatening jokes about each other’s dicks & buttholes.  It’s a miscalculated attempt at “witty” Shane Black-style dialogue, but that kind of homoerotic homophobia banter plays like a relic from an earlier, worse era that’s somehow adorably quaint in a modern context. The film works best when it completely lacks self-awareness of its own cultural obsoletion in that way.  The opening credits look like concept art for a late-90s Godsmack album, proudly displaying illustrations of flames, wolves, and fallen angels that you’d expect to find in the flash-art binders of your city’s worst tattoo shop.  Statham is introduced to his coworkers with the codename “H, like the bomb or Jesus H.”  A spooky Johnny Cash remix haunts the soundtrack as if it’s somehow still 2004.  This is a dour, self-serious film from the start, but at least there’s a shamelessness & authenticity to it in its earliest stretch.  Then Ritchie ruins the vibe by pretending what he’s making is cleverer than it is (or ever needed to be).

Wrath of Man is neither great, nor terrible, nor much of anything at all.  I still have yet to see a Jason Statham action vehicle that satisfies like the first two Transporter films (nor a cash-truck heist film more fun than The Lavender Hill Mob), but I don’t think it’s the actor’s fault.  We’ve gotten to the point where American movie studios don’t make genuine Action Star Showcases anymore, so we have to settle for jokey, self-aware “subversions” of the format like Spy, Hobbs & Shaw, Crank, etc.  It’s unlikely that this era of mainstream filmmaking could ever produce something purely, obliviously schlocky enough to register as Statham’s Commando, his Hard Target, his First Blood Part II: Rambo.  The worst thing Wrath of Man does is briefly teasing that possibility, then devolving into just Another Guy Ritchie Movie.

-Brandon Ledet