As I am, frustratingly, only a part-time critic, there are a lot of movies I’m forced to miss due to other practical work and real-life obstacles. Every once in a while I make a point to catch up with some of them. They’re probably not actually showing anywhere, but these are certainly worth tracking down on DVD or on other streaming venues.
Steven Soderbergh has declared he’s going to end his filmmaking career and concentrate more on painting. I’m skeptical, but it seems to be true, at least, that he may be done with full-blown Hollywood filmmaking, and will stick to smaller, more independently financed projects. He’s been remarkably prolific (as usual); Haywire (USA, 2011), his sleek and efficient Gina Carano showcase, is the film I’ll concentrate on here, but it was preceded by Contagion, and followed by Magic Mike, Side Effects, and HBO’s Behind The Candelabra. That’s a pretty esoterically productive two years for a guy who’s giving it all up. Out Of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the remake of Ocean’s 11 may have been one of the most critically lauded, industry-rewarded and/or lucrative three year runs (1999-2001) for any given American feature film director in recent history (the three Ocean’s movies have, conservatively counting, brought in around $525 million), and the fact that major producers and studios have managed to drive this guy away tells you all you need to know about how screwed up Hollywood is these days. Like the aesthetic chasm that’s opening between major record label musical ‘product’ and the burgeoning ocean of independent bands and musicians (cultivating hundreds of independent labels and taking the streaming services to task to keep them honest) who can’t be bothered with the big corporate music scene, filmmakers, as well, are finding different ways to create and distribute their product outside of the big studio system.
In Haywire, former Muay Thai and MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a former Marine who is now a freelance Special Ops contractor for a private firm run by a well-connected guy named Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). She’s hired as part of a four-person extraction team to snatch a Chinese dissident journalist from a safe house in Barcelona – his asylum negotiations have broken down, and an influential fellow named Coblenz (Michael Douglas), working with the dissident’s Spanish handler Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) feels he’s no longer safe. He’s right; Mallory and her team succeed in their mission to secure him, but her next mission sends her to Dublin, to assist an MI6 agent (Michael Fassbender) in creating a cover to infiltrate the nefarious international syndicate of a Mr. Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz). But what does Mallory happen across there? The assassinated body of the Chinese dissident, and some clear indications that she’s being elaborately and efficiently framed for the murder. And the race is on…
This is pretty boilerplate spy movie stuff, but Soderbergh conducts the proceedings with clockwork craftsmanship and a cool and patient hand. The heavy names here (Douglas, Banderas, Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton) make solid contributions in surprisingly little actual screen time, but Carano, of course, is the draw here, occupying nearly every frame of the film. The reasons she became an MMA legend are the reasons she’s so good here – she’s gorgeous and she’s physically ferocious. But Soderbergh respects her in a way that only a few other directors might – everything he asks her to do physically is entirely realistic: no special effects, wirework or computer gimmickry, no obvious stuntperson substitutions, and close-quarters-fighting that’s impressive without being glamorized. It’s a Hong Kong aesthetic, following the lead of action performers like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh – she gets as good as she gives, and the fights are obstacles to getting to the truth, not the point in and of themselves. The script, by Lem Dobbs (Dark City, The Limey) does a great job, as well, of playing to Carano’s strengths. But it would all be less than credible without Carano’s own sense of rock-solid confidence and seen-it-all insouciance – the screenplay is almost completely humorless, but Carano is undeniably charming.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s a very good genre exercise, and very entertaining. Carano, as they say, is value-added; with having appeared in Fast & Furious 6, as well as word that she’ll be doing the reportedly all-female Expendables III, Hollywood seems poised to squander another genuine talent to their lowest-common-denominator money-making blockbuster machinery. Soderbergh may be the best director she’ll ever get to work with; check out Haywire to see what may, sadly, be her best work for quite a while.
Speaking of Hong Kong, the injured lone survivor of a meth lab explosion careens his car into a crowded restaurant. Meanwhile, police staked out at a toll crossing get far more traffic to deal with than they figured on; a green truck driven by two crackheads carrying narcotics supplies as cargo, and a pair of sleep-deprived out-of-town undercover police officers who have been trailing the truck for days, are reluctantly allowed to drive through, while, on a crowded bus behind them, a family who have ingested/ smuggled latex pods of cocaine (the stakeout’s real target) panic, run and are apprehended.
The car-crash guy in custody is Tim Choi (Louis Koo), and the green truck carries supplies that were to be processed in his now-decimated lab. The product is for distribution by the feared Uncle Bill Li (Li Zhenqi), and delay will bring the wrath of his psychotic junkie protégé Li Suchang (Tan Kai). Choi makes a deal with the police handlers on the case – Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) and his female right-hand, Xiaobei (Huang Yi); let me go through with the processing and delivery of this massive drug transaction at my other big lab, with you two posing as my major-league associates, and my guided tour of the supply chain will allow you to bring it down behind us. For this, I get prison instead of a needle. What could go wrong…?
Zhang and Xiaobei agree to the deal, and Johnnie To’s masterful Drug War (Du Zhan 毒戰) (China/Hong Kong, 2012), which has already started quite thrillingly, upshifts to its next gear. Between the poor smugglers, the truck drivers, the blown-out remains of Choi’s lab (and bodies thereof), and the high rollers they’ll now be rubbing elbows with in pursuing Choi’s deal, we get a remarkably thorough overview of how elaborate, and ubiquitous, the Chinese drug trade is. Once Choi sets the engines of the transaction into motion, Zhang and Xiaobei are yanked into a high-velocity chain-reaction of suppliers, refiners, distributors, salesmen and investors (a wildly eccentric cast of players). They obviously wield little control, despite an impressive array of technological tools on the law-enforcement side, and find that they must trust Choi far further than they’d like.
There are lots of characters, and lots of things follow one after the other, but Johnnie To has been cranking out these efficiently impressive policiers and gangster chronicles since 1988, and they’re streamlined little masterpieces of dark excitement, dynamic rhythm and narrative clarity. It’s a shame To doesn’t enjoy the wider distribution that filmmakers like John Woo or Wong Kar Wei have had; he’s one of the world’s best filmmakers, in any genre. (To’s filmography is liberally sprinkled with comic farces, supernatural fantasies and lush romances as well). The crime films are superb (but admittedly violent, if that scares you off): Life Without Principle, Vengeance, Mad Detective, Triangle, Exiled, Election I, Election II, Throw Down, Breaking News, PTU Police Tactical Unit, Fulltime Killer, The Mission; close your eyes and pick one at random – You Win! Then try one of his non-crime films – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (a smart romantic comedy) or Sparrow (a 50s-style musical about pickpockets), or The Heroic Trio (costumed female crimefighters battle evil supernatural spirits, starring Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui). You Win Again! But Drug War is as good a starting place as any. Write it down now…Johnnie To… one of the greatest (and most fun) filmmakers you’ve never heard of.
I haven’t seen The Hunger Games yet, nor have I read the books, which I hear very good things about from reliable people. But there’s an ongoing hullaballoo that asks the question: “How much of The Hunger Games is based on Kinji Fukasaku’s superior teenaged gorefest Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaruバトル・ロワイアル ) (Japan, 2000)?” HG author Suzanne Collins claims no influence, but Enquiring Minds are skeptical. Hunger Games, at least, seems to present a somewhat constructive sociopolitical allegory. Battle Royale can’t be bothered; ‘Things Are This Bad, So Now We Do This’ seems to be the raison d’etre of the whole enterprise. Otherwise, judge the similarities for yourself:
Because of widespread apathy, thoughtless crime and serial truancy on the part of Japanese middle-school youth, ‘The BR Act’ is passed into law by the government (i.e., the grown-ups). An entire middle-school (or junior-high, if that’s what your ‘burg was down with) class is randomly selected to be deposited on an isolated island, armed, and set against each other until only one student is left alive – that means the other 41 must die. Some get machine guns, pistols or grenades, some get knives or bows-and-arrows, some get GPS trackers or binoculars, some get kitchen utensils. But they all have electronic necklaces that will blow their heads off if they venture into ‘danger zones’ (which become more prevalent as the battle goes on), or if more than one of them is still alive at the stroke of 72 hours; a single survivor, or they all die. The survivor becomes a famous celebrity, but, unlike Rollerball, The Running Man, Death Race 2000 or Series 7: The Contenders, the Battle is not televised.
Some refuse to fight, and die anyway. Some start killing instantly, and die anyway. There’s an impressive array of lucky circumstances and lethal strategies, and the whole teen-aged dynamic of liked-and-not-liked, popular-or-outcast, bullied or bullying, smart or dim, conforming or eccentric, is exaggerated and enhanced. These aren’t kids who grow up suddenly in the face of adversity – they’re kids who are only capable of functioning as kids, even in these nasty circumstances. There are no bigger themes here, no important moral lessons for the rest of us, no overarching commentary on humanity as a whole – just 15-year-old kids killing each other or avoiding being killed, but inevitably being covered with blood either way. But it’s not just target practice, either – Fukasaku takes time to delineate individuals, give them histories that they carry into the ordeal, and humanize, sometimes heartbreakingly, the ‘combatants.’ Fukasaku doesn’t want his kids to illustrate some parallel idea of adulthood – he wants the adult audience to see themselves in these kids. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian said, “It is as if the violence of Battle Royale is not a satire of society at all, but simply a metaphor for the anguish of adolescent existence.” Or perhaps you prefer Pete Townshend’s cautionary lyric, “Let’s get together…before we get much older.”
Battle Royale is a far more explicitly violent movie than HG is purported to be; it’ll send more than a few moviegoers to the exits quite early on. But the consensus from viewers of both seems to be that HG could have used more BR, rather than the other way around. While the general concept of kids murdering kids is a disturbing one, there’s also the idea that if you’re going to put that in your movie anyway, then be honest about it – don’t soften, or even glamorize, what’s really happening here. And, trust me, BR doesn’t. (But the HG filmmakers were saddled with keeping things PG-13; lucrative, but typically gutless.)
Filmgoers looking for a profoundly important social statement will be disappointed; we’re in Tarentino- Frank Miller -Takeshi Miike territory here, where our darkest selves emerge to find themselves right at home in the world our better selves had been keeping them from. It’s pretty nihilistic, but all sorts of people believe that nihilism fits these times perfectly. A majority of Japanese filmgoers certainly thought so; it was a big, big hit there, even as the Japanese hesitated to distribute it to other markets. In the U.S., it’s a cult movie, relegated to college screenings and midnight movie showings. There are very few American distributors who would be interested in investing in a wider release.
There are plot holes you could drive monster trucks through, and the ending is kind of a mess. But Battle Royale is a ferociously entertaining, batshit-crazy film for those of us who appreciate a little Clockwork Orange-style grand guignol. To those who wouldn’t go near this stuff, I understand. But for those who already know they’re up for this, I highly recommend it.