The summer movie season has ended. Actually, it ended some time ago, with the remnants being emptied like the pool: a Cannes flop (Lawless), a horror movie (The Possession, for yokels who don’t know what an “apparition” is and missed their fix of empty calories last weekend), a kiddy movie for desperate parents (Oogieloves in the…yadda yadda yadda). The last thing I expected to find in the churn was one of my favorite movies of the year, but here it is: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, in Imax 3D.
Not just 3D but, as drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs would say, Imax 3D fu. All kinds of Imax 3D fu: Execution fu. Log fu. Ship fu. Desert fu. Cave fu. Teacup fu. Sandstorm fu. Flying swords are just the half of it. (And it’s a shame that Imax isn’t freeing up more screens to showcase a truly aggressive showcase of the craft.) After a long hiatus the movie reunites Jet Li with filmmaker Tsui Hark, who directed him in the star-making Once Upon a Time in China series, the second of which, in 1991, may very well be my favorite martial arts movie. The end of Hong Kong’s “Golden Age” of moviemaking, and an unsuccessful period in Hollywood, left Tsui in limbo, but he regrouped with the excellent Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). Flying Swords returns him to film he wrote, produced, and co-directed in 1992, Dragon Inn, which was a remake of King Hu’s landmark production of 1967. This followup respects its lineage, then goes off in its own colorful direction. (That’s veteran Gordon Liu, familiar to Western audiences from the Kill Bill movies, in the photo with Li.)
Plot synopsis isn’t exactly easy. Suffice it to say that Li, an ass-kicking 49, is Chow Wai On, who is part of a warrior band that protects the poor and the innocent from the machinations of two ruling governments. Various factions converge in the desert at the Dragon Inn, which is now run by brigands in search of the entrance of a lost city of gold. A pregnant woman who has escaped from the palace is part of the intrigue, which is elaborated in lengthy, Li-less sequences. I thought for sure my preview audience, which rebelled at the subtitles, would reverse the 3D process and throw things at the screen–but everyone was respectful, and drawn in by the intricate, thoughtful, and humorous, reversals-full plotting. (Did you stay for the whole movie, Mike Hale?) The stage is set for a tornado of action in the last act, involving a literal tornado, razor traps, hairsbreadth escapes, and enough other crowdpleasing spectacle to make you forgive digital effects whose reach sometimes exceeds their grasp. In the absence of Westerns I loved this fanciful Eastern, and hope that Tsui and Li send more flying swords in our direction soon.
I made the mistake of seeing The Expendables 2 right after Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. I wanted more of that lighter-than-air quality to the action scenes, and much more Jet Li, who is in and out of it (though not before making short work of some bad guys with pots and pans). If you think I made a mistake going into it in the first place, guess again–the dumb fun factor creeps up on you, and I gave in to the fusillade of bullets and one-liners, which Simon West (Con Air) has directed less turgidly than Sylvester Stallone. He and the rest of the over-the-hill gang of 80s action stars aren’t going gently into that good night–there’s nothing autumnal, let alone wintry, about this series. William Holden was 51 when he led The Wild Bunch (1969) into battle one last time; Stallone is 66, a lad compared with his 72-year-old compatriot Chuck Norris, who shows up out of nowhere in an amusing scene. But Sam Peckinpah was making brutal poetry out of the Old West, where 51 was well past it for a gunfighter; Stallone and Co. are poking fun at their former selves, which were half-parodic to begin with, and inviting the audience to join in. The pain will come as they try to extend their brands into slightly more serious roles, where the Botox and steroids and everything else that’s propping them up aren’t so easily overlooked.
For now, though, it works, with kudos (judos?) extended to Liam Hemsworth, who besides bringing down the age curve handles the obligatory Big Dramatic Scene more gracefully than Mickey Rourke did the last time out, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who makes a ripe villain, named “Villain” (pronounced in a Belgian-ish way). I’ve always like Van Damme, and my Mobius Home Video Forum expendables Mark Tinta and Marty McKee have steered me to some of his and Dolph Lundgren’s better DTV work. (A Universal Soldier reteaming, 2009′s Regeneration, is pretty damned good.) It’s nice to see these old friends back in the spotlight again.
The Expendables 2 would make an interesting double bill with the growing-older comedy drama Hope Springs. Is it time to get Nancy Meyers involved and mash these things up, with Jason Statham as a hitman in a July-December tryst with Diane Keaton or mercenaries Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger pitching woo at Meryl Streep? It’s complicated, I guess. Meanwhile future installments must bring in Steven Seagal, Mark Dacascos, Kurt Russell, Danny Glover, and a Predator before the series morphs into The Dependables, with the cast in adult diapers.
Bridesmaids meets The Evil Dead in the Spanish horror comedy Rec 3: Genesis, which is likely to leave fans of the first two Rec films dissatisfied. Definitely not comedies, these are among the best of the “found footage” shockers that have variously chilled and annoyed us since The Blair Witch Project. (You may be more familiar with Rec‘s closely plotted American remake, Quarantine, which spawned its own DTV sequel.) Going solo this time the co-director of the first two, Paco Plaza, has decided to change it up, and rather than expand upon the series’ possession and infection themes has gone back to its roots, with a story that parallels the events of Rec. More daringly (and, for admirers, more infuriatingly), having hit upon a perfect venue for found footage horror–a cam-filled wedding–Rec 3 drops the format after the playfully delayed opening credits, and outside of some closed circuit camerawork unfolds straightforwardly. It’s as if Plaza and, behind the scenes, series co-director Jaume Balagueró, said, “Why must everything be the same? Aren’t you a little bored with all these cameras by now?”
Sí. The real betrayal for the initiated, though, is the relatively lighthearted tone. The setup is again basic. Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin) marry, but happy returns are few as a favorite uncle, bitten by an infected dog, puts the bite on guests and the Rec curse runs rampant in the reception hall (Quarantine does away with the religious underpinnings of the virus, which the devout can ward off for brief intervals). There are nods to the first movie (which is happening simultaneously) and buckets of blood as things fall apart, which the bride does her best to rectify (a chainsaw comes in handy). Zombie wedding fu.
Stylistically the filmmakers compose an alt-Rec, with gliding camerawork replacing the handheld and a lot more illumination. Mileage will vary regarding the humor, which works in fits and starts. A videographer who quotes Renoir and Vertov, and a children’s entertainer who calls himself ”John Sponge” for copyright reasons, made me laugh; Koldo suiting up in knight’s armor to find Clara, pushing it. But I can’t say it went overboard, and the ending is affecting. The series still means business, even if it is funny this time out.
Balagueró, who has had a Stateside career, returns to the series with Rec 4: Apocalypse, which sounds to be no laughing matter (and will also dispense with the multiple cameras). Rec 3: Genesis, which is available on VOD, opens on Friday, Sept. 7. If it catches you in the right mood, it’s infectious.