Showing posts with label Action Movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Action Movies. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (Film Review): Is AMERICAN ASSASSIN a Film Franchise in the Making?

Creating a new action franchise is a difficult process. It requires some combination of strong IP, star power, compelling narrative, and innovative action sequences. As was demonstrated ably by John Wick in 2014, it does not require a giant budget. CBS Films' recently released American Assassin featuring Vince Flynn's CIA "consultant" Mitch Rapp, has many of the requisite components, but are they enough?

In 1999, Vince Flynn's first Mitch Rapp novel Transfer of Power hit the bookshelves and rose to number 13 on the New York Times best-seller list. While Transfer of Power was subject to some mixed critical reviews, it was strong enough to build an audience big enough to support fifteen more novels and a movie deal. Though Mitch Rapp has a dedicated following are many reasons that Transfer of Power was not the book selected by Hollywood to introduce the character to a wider audience. The first and foremost reason is that Transfer of Power is about terrorists hijacking the White House and that storyline has been played out with Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. The second is that the critics were right to complain that Transfer of Power takes a long time to get to the action. Films are a visual medium and they need stories that are suited to visual storytelling. Long scenes of Mitch Rapp and a retired Secret Service Agent discussing how they are going to slowly scout out where the terrorists have hidden bombs and booby traps makes for a plausible narrative, but it's not the stuff of a great action film. In the end, producers selected the 2010 novel American Assassin, which details Mitch Rapp's origin, as their franchise entry.

One of the things that makes Mitch Rapp a good literary character is that he is what author/screenwriter Steven Barnes described as "a nerdy guy who suffers a tragedy and turns himself into Jason Bourne to get revenge against 'the terrorists.'" While Mitch Rapp is a very physically capable character, NCAA Lacrosse player in the books, he is first and foremost a thinker. In the books, he speaks French like a native and a number of other languages. In the film, he's taught himself Arabic. He's an autodidact of the highest order. It's a quality that makes him difficult to cast though because the actor must be both athletic and "geeky." Dylan O'Brien fits the bill perfectly. The charm that he displayed in Teen Wolf is still evident, but it's suppressed a little as the filmic Mitch Rapp is suffering from a severe case of PTSD.

Michael Keaton portrays Mitch Rapp's mentor/tormentor Stan Hurley in typical Keatonesque fashion. Which in this case means that Keaton turns a relatively unlikable character in the books into a character that is kinder and gentler than the literary version while somehow managing to retain the cold lethality that Stan Hurley embodies in the books. Sanaa Lathan does an effective job of portraying Irene Kennedy, Mitch Rapp's handler and the person who recruited Rapp into a secretive off the books CIA program. Taylor Kitsch chews just enough scenery as "Ghost" that audiences will believe that he's blinded by a need for revenge, but not so much that he spirals into farce as a villain. Much more could have been done with the back story between Hurley and Ghost, but there is enough presented in the film to make Ghost's motivations clear.

Where the film begins to falter is in it's selected narrative. The underlying premise of the film is that some Iranian hardliners are unhappy with the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. These hardliners have come into contact with a former US operative (Ghost) who has agreed to deliver nuclear material to them that they can use to make a nuclear device. What the hardliners don't know is that Ghost plans on using the device himself and in doing so get revenge on the country that abandoned him behind enemy lines. There are some twists in the plot that aren't given as much time to sink in with audiences as they deserve. Chief among these is that the Iranian government itself has been monitoring these hardliners and has sent their own agent to infiltrate the CIA's investigation. This is played off in a "OMG we have a traitor...oh, wait...not a traitor, but valuable resource" sequence that lasts all of five minutes.

Typical of many modern films, American Assassin isn't satisfied with smaller stakes. It takes what could have been an effective kidnap revenge story, which is one of the narratives in the book (though not with Ghost), and dials it to 11 with the addition of a nuclear device. Instead of learning from John Wick, Casino Royale, and The Bourne Identity that personal stakes can drive an action movie, the film relies on the staid ticking clock to maintain dramatic tension. This particular ticking clock falls flat and the story has other events that could have been used. One is reminded of how effectively Guarding Tess utilized one during the final kidnap and rescue sequence. In better action narratives, the personal drives the drama. In American Assassin, there are personal reasons for all the drama, but they play second fiddle to McGuffins.

Similarly, many of the action sequences of American Assassin lack aesthetic and emotional punch. Fans of martial arts films know that martial arts battles are beautiful dance sequences and they require similar attention. The fight, like the dance, must tell a story and viewers must be able to see what's going on. John Wick incorporated grappling techniques into the film in order to minimize the number of cuts in an editing sequence, a choice that resulted in some very elegant fight sequences. Mitch Rapp, in both the books and in the film, is a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which has been featured in John Wick and Red Belt in some wonderful action sequences but is underused in American Assassin. Michael Cuesta's direction of the fight scenes fails to convey the dance the stunt team is providing. These scenes are over edited and confused and this more than anything is the film's biggest failing. An action film can be cliched and derivative, but the action it portrays must be compelling.

American Assassin has many of the components for a solid mid-budget franchise, but future writers and directors would do well to remember that the best action stories are personal and that fight scenes should be treated like beautiful dance numbers around which the rest of the film is structured.

Images: CBS Films

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN and Hollywood's Frequent Spectacle Problem

When I first saw the trailer for American Assassin a couple of months ago, I was blown away. Here was a spy film starring Michael Keaton, Dylan O'Brien, and Taylor Kitsch. Michael Keaton has long been one of my favorite actors because of his ability to provide convincing performances in films like Clean and Sober even as he worked on classic comedies like Mr. Mom . Taylor Kitsch's career has been more mixed than Keaton's, but his strong performances in Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor and many other projects more than make up for his less successful work. Dylan O'Brien is a star on the rise who is well known enough to younger audiences that he might just be able to launch an action franchise.

The earliest teaser trailers focused on the origins of the "American Assassin" Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien), giving audiences a glimpse of his ruthless capabilities and the tragedy that inspired him to become a killer. It was these early teasers that convinced me to begin reading the Mitch Rapp books by Vince Flynn. I'm a fan of spy films and novels, but given the breadth of my pop culture tastes I usually need some catalyst to get me to start up yet another long running series. I was grateful to those trailers, because the Mitch Rapp books I've read - Transfer of Power, American Assassin, and Kill Shot - are engaging and plausible stories. Mitch hasn't knocked John Wells out of first place for my favorite modern spy, but he's starting to get close.

What impressed me most about these three books was how they never presented Mitch as superhuman.  In the first book written in the series, Transfer of Power, the White House is taken over by terrorists and it's up to our hero Mitch to "save the day." Except it isn't up to him at all. Transfer of Power was published in 1999, before Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, so the premise was fresh at the time but that book could not be used as the franchise launching film. It was also very different from those other White House has been taken over films. Instead of being a "single man against the small army" tale inspired by Die Hard that Olympus Has Fallen portrayed, Mitch spent most of Transfer of Power sitting in a closet with a retired Secret Service agent trying to figure out how to turn off a communications jamming device and locate explosives the terrorists set throughout the building. Mitch is doing this so that Delta and Seal Team Six can come and save the day. The book focused more on surveillance and planning than on action and dealt with Beltway Politics more than witty one liners after kill shots. There were no "Ho, Ho, Ho, now I have a machine gun" or "You've had your six" moments. It was as plausible as this implausible story could be.

This veneer of plausibility continued through the next two books I read. In American Assassin (the book), the main story line after Mitch's training is about an op gone bad and how Mitch adapts to the situation. Mitch's team is supposed to attempt to free a CIA agent who has been captured by terrorists and things go awry. Much of the book details the effects of emptying bank accounts and the paranoia this causes within the espionage community. There is action in the book, but there are also "follow Mitch as he pretends to jog in order to do surveillance" sections. The highest the stakes get is that the "bad guys" capture Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton's character in the film) and the danger of what will happen if they are able to interrogate him and find out everything the US has done. Very plausible stakes.

These plausible stories, minus Transfer of Power because Hollywood has done explosive versions of that movie, are the kinds of stories that make the best spy films. The best Bond film is Casino Royale and it's one of the most down to Earth of the series. My second favorite On Her Majesty's Secret Service is similarly plausible in its stakes. No giant space battles or massive underwater cities in those two films. When the Bourne films work best, it is because the stakes are personal. Similarly, Body of Lies works because it is realistic to the layperson and Hunt for Red October is so good because even with very high stakes the story doesn't go for too much spectacle.

American Assassin is directed by Michael Cuesta and his work on Kill the Messenger (which is exactly this kind of story) and Homeland seem a perfect fit for a plausible actioner similar to the books. Add to that a modest budget of $33 million, and we should be getting a "street level" spy story right?


Apparently not. It seems that CBS Films wants American Assassin to have SPECTACLE, so they incorporate a nuclear device. A nuclear device that by all appearances they blow up at sea in a manner that causes mayhem during a hand to hand battle. At least that's what the most recent trailers seem to be showing me. I haven't seen the film yet, and reviews by the Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire are good enough that I still will, but I really wish that the producers hadn't gone for the big bang. Hollywood has been overly trapped by the big bang in recent years. Almost every superhero movie is a big ticking clock protect the castle from the big bad movie lately, and let's not even start on how Transformers movies have become all spectacle and no narrative. Every Star Wars movie seems to be about blowing up yet another Death Star or mega huge spacecraft/shield generator. This year was the worst summer for box office in a long time. Maybe it's because producers don't trust audiences with smaller action stories. That's too bad, because what made the first John Wick movie work was how personal it was. Not every story needs to be a ticking clock to save the world. Sometimes it's enough to have the clock be to save one's self or even a friend.

That's what the books are about, and what I was hoping the movie will be about. We'll see if it delivers. I hope it does, but fear that Hollywood is going through one of its "Bigger is Always Better" phases.

Friday, April 22, 2016

ID4 Resurgence: I See Your H.G. Wells Clone and Raise You FOOTFALL and ROBOTECH

Independence Day is probably my favorite adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic tale War of the Worlds. It captures the desperation of defending a world against an overwhelming force and does a nice job of updating "microbes" into a computer virus in a way that requires no small amount of suspension of disbelief, but somehow still seems appropriate. One of the best things about the film was that it knew what it was and didn't care to be anything more. It was just a good time bundled into a nice 2 hours and 25 minutes.

It looks like the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, is happy to follow the formula of its predecessor. Just as ID4 borrowed from one of the all-time classic SF stories, arguable THE STORY that established the Invasion narrative plotline that every invasion movie has followed, the new movie looks like it is inspired by a host of classics as well. From the Macross inspired reverse engineering of alien technology in preparation of invasion, to the larger than life "war ending" impact crater of Footfall, this trailer has a little bit of everything.

I cannot wait for this to come out!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE GRANDMASTER: Tony Leung and Wong Kar Wai's Take on Ip Man Looks Amazing

I've already discussed how excited I am about the upcoming Wong Kar Wai film THE GRANDMASTER. That excitement increases with every new preview. THE GRANDMASTER a new addition to what has become a large catalog of films about Ip Man, a catalog that includes one of the most entertaining martial arts films ever made. In fact, the Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip entry into that catalog is so good that it makes one wonder why anyone would even try to tell another Ip Man story.

But then I look at the trailer and I see Tony Leung bringing all of his charisma to bear, Wong Kar Wai's insanely beautiful cinematography and style, and Zhang Ziyi.

Good grief, this looks amazing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Ron Howard's RUSH: Will It Be One of the Rare Breed?

For as popular as motorsport is domestically and internationally, one would expect there to be a long list of quality motion pictures depicting the excitement that brings fans to watch race after race. Sadly, this is not the case.  The vast majority of films about motorsport are poor at best, and sometimes downright awful. It seems that too often directors get caught up in trying to have exciting crashes and forget that the most important thing that a film can do is tell a compelling story.  The Sylvester Stallone vehicle DRIVEN is the perfect example of this flawed approach to the subject.  To much time and money was spent depicting cars launching from the race track in spectacular ways, and too little was spent on telling a plausible tale.

When I heard that Oscar Award winning director Ron Howard would be directing a film about Formula 1 entitled RUSH, I was filled with excitement and dread. Howard is a truly talented film maker who has directed films in many genre with a human touch. The interviews with Howard about the process hinted that he was taking his subject seriously, but in the back of my mind -- as an F1 fan -- there was the underlying fear that this would be yet another spectacle film and not one that focused on story.  F1 is filled with compelling stories, and I thought it would be a shame if a modern F1 film failed to capture some of the sport's magnificent history.

Then I saw the first trailer for RUSH...and all my fears melted away.

RUSH focuses on the 1976 rivalry between drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.  Lauda had been World Champion in 1975, and would win the title two more times before his retirement, but 1976 was a year of struggle and a near fatal accident. Niki's story alone would make for a compelling film, but add to the seriousness of Lauda's season the playfulness of James Hunt and you have a combination of elements that could make for a wonderful film. Hunt's party boy attitude is legendary and when one of my favorite drivers -- Kimi Raikkonen -- wants to race incognito in non-F1 events he has been known to use James Hunt as his nom-d'fun.

You can see the real footage of Lauda's accident in this short piece:

And you can catch a glimpse of Hunt's wild personality here:

If you are wondering what racing films are worth watching, here is my list of 6 or so racing films that are worth your time (in no particular order).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Jackie Chan's ZODIAC --- Okay, Now I'm Interested

Seeing Jackie Chan in the teaser trailer for ZODIAC, I was really worried.  The luge body suit stunts were impressive, but they were also stiffer and less fluid than a typical Jackie stunt.  I wondered how much of his natural grace had been worn down by the various exertions he has put his body through during his career.

After seeing the extended trailer I still may hope that Jackie is able to enjoy a long and well deserved retirement, but I am no longer worried about him going out with a fizzle.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Donnie Yen's Dragon (aka Wu Xia): Watch It

Donnie Yen's latest martial arts film was recently released in the US under the relatively uninformative title DRAGON, a title that brings to my mind thoughts of Bruce Lee and his many classic kung fu films.  It is also a title that does a disservice to the film.  As awe inspiring as Bruce Lee was as a performer, using any of Lee's major works as a reference point is completely off base as the vast majority of Lee's films were of a different film genre than DRAGON.

DRAGON follows in the wuxia tradition in which martial artists live in the world of jiang hu and are inexorably trapped within an epically tragic tale, often a romantic tale.  Think CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and you are on the right track.  But DRAGON, directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan, brings in elements of American Film Noir to the traditional tragic fantasy elements of a typical wuxia film.    DRAGON begins as a murder mystery of a kind, a murder mystery that reveals that Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is more than the humble paper maker he appears to be.  It is a mystery that ends in proper wuxia tragedy.  It is a heartfelt film with fine emotional beats, even if the martial arts themselves don't quite live up to the remarkable high standards Yen has set of late.  This isn't to say the film isn't beautiful, it is, rather that this isn't a rapid paced actioner.  This is a film of investigations, fear of the loss of a mundane life, and tragedy.  It has some echoes of the Shaw Brothers classic ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, but is entirely its own creation.

Given the narrative tensions of the film, I wouldn't have marketed the film under the title DRAGON.  I would have based the title on the original title Wu Xia, a term that literally means "martial hero."  Given the connotations of honor in the phrase, I would have called the film AN HONORABLE MAN.  The title would then echo the tensions in the movie and provided context for potential viewers.  Is Liu Jin-xi an honorable man?  Has he always been an honorable man?  Will he leave the tale an honorable man?  These are the questions the audience faces as they watch the film.  They are questions worth asking and the investigations of Takeshi Kaneshiro's character answer only one of these questions.  The answer to the others are revealed through the subtleties of Donnie Yen's performance.

Monday, October 22, 2012

David Lo Pan Style: Big Trouble in Little China meets PSY

As many of you know, I am of the opinion that John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China may well be the best film ever made.  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you know the way that some Gen-Xers constantly reference Star Wars or Star Trek in conversation?  I'm that way with BTiLC.  I lost count of how many times I have watched the film a decade ago.

The film combines everything I love from Western genre film, Shaw Brothers over the top acting, and post-Tsui Hark Hong Kong cinematography and action.  In short, it is all things great about film that aren't in Singin' in the Rain.

BTiLC doesn't need a remake, but it does need more awesome fan creations like this.  If only Dennis Dun managed a cameo in the video.

If you don't like this video, you must be monumentally naive or already living in the Hell of Lacking a Sense of Style or Humor.  What can I say?  The Chinese have a lot of hells.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Jackie Chan + Street Luge Suit + 101st Film = Win?

It looks like Jackie Chan's 101st film CHINESE ZODIAC is a return to classic Chan-esque action.  The trailer from the film features Jackie Chan performing a series of stunts wearing what can only be called a Street Luge Suit.  While the concept is interesting, and hearkens back to JC classics like ARMOR OF GOD, Chan does seem to be showing his age in the sequence.  I'm excited to see the film, but I think I'll be spending more time than usual worrying if Jackie Chan is going to be seriously injured than I did when he was younger.  Given that he fractured his skull in ARMOR OF GOD, maybe I should have worried more then too.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A COMPANY MAN (2012) -- Guns, Love, and Middle Management

Earlier this year, Showbox/Mediaplex Inc. (the company who brought us Dragon Wars) released THE THIEVES at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Maggie Lee at The Hollywood Reporter described THE THIEVES as "A debonair caper that brings together Korean and Chinese cat burglars for a diamond heist in Macao, "The Thieves" owes much to the sparky gamesmanship and glamour casting of Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean" series, as well as to the physical verve and unpretentious goofiness of '90s Hong Kong actioners like John Woo's "Once a Thief" (1991)."

Now Showbox is promoting another film that combines many of the tropes of East Asian cinema with A COMPANY MAN.

The film follows the story of a hitman who quits his job for love only to find himself hunted by his former employers.  Can he escape with his life?  Is love all a dream?  Will there be betrayal?

Only time can tell.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

[RPGS] C.O.P.S. -- French Cyber-Noir RPG is on My White Whale List

Years ago, I saw the cover for a French RPG entitled C.O.P.S. and ever since I have had an itch to hunt down a copy of this foreign language rpg.  It has a lot of elements that appeal to me as a gamer and as a SF literature and Noir film geek.
Image from C.O.P.S. copyright 2003 Asmodee Games

Based on the game's cover, and some of the interior artwork I have been able to track down on the internet, C.O.P.S. looks like a mash up of DISTRICT B13, ROBOCOP, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and TRAINING DAY.  As an action film aficionado, can one really ask for much more?  Check out some of these images.

Image Copyright 2003 Asmodee Games

Image Copyright 2003 Asmodee Games

I have yet to track down and purchase a copy of the game, though the game is available on, in large part because I don't speak or read French.  That said, the game's product line has such a distinctive and evocative look that I'm tempted to do so just for the inspiration the art might bring to my gaming table.  As I wouldn't be able to understand the game system, I'd have to use Savage Worlds, Gamma World, Feng Shui, or some other system to run adventures in this setting. 

If there were ever an RPG that I'd like to see someone start a Kickstarter campaign in order to secure rights, pay for translation into English, and for release in the US, this is that game.  While I'm not sure how well the game plays, the game was designed by the French game designer Croc (Bruno Faidutti's profile of Croc is here) who has designed a couple of other games that have done well in the United States (In Nomine and Claustrophobia for example) so I think it might be possible to build some buzz for the game.

Okay internet.  Here is the challenge.  Watch the preview for District B13 below, followed by the fan video for C.O.P.S. and then tell me there shouldn't be an American Edition of this game.

District B13


Make it happen.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

[Movies] The Man with the Iron Fists -- Red Band Trailer

Long time kung fu film fan -- and hip hop artist -- RZA has partnered with Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino to bring us this little bit of Hong Kong inspired goodness.

 I love it when fans get the opportunity to tinker with the things they love. Sometimes those opportunities end up nightmarish -- like any of my attempts to emulate Michael Whelan art. Other times, they can lead to great entertainment. I'm hoping that RZA's "The Man with the Iron Fists" is able to inspire a new generation to experience the joys of classic Shaw Brothers films like "5 Deadly Venoms."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

[Film Trailer] VIRAL FACTOR -- Forget CONTAGION, Give Me Gunfights and Amnesia

Thanks to for pointing me to Daniel Lam's latest science-fiction suspense actioner. It looks like a combination of Hard Boiled, The Bourne Idenity, and Outbreak. The folks at Beyond Hollywood recommend that you familiarize yourself with the plot before you watch the video:

A mission to escort a witness from Jordan to the Netherlands leaves International Security Affairs agent Jon severely scarred: a bullet is lodged in his brain, his fiancée and fellow agent Rita is dead and their traitorous colleague Sean has nabbed their witness. While contemplating leaving the force, he finds out that his father and brother, Wan Yang, are still alive. In his search for them, he discovers that his brother is working as a mercenary for Sean, who has evil plans to force scientist Rachel to cultivate a mutating virus to unleash on the world. The brothers unite to stop Sean but finds out that he has an even bigger plan for international blackmail. The battle heads to a showdown in Hong Kong where Sean has decided to release the strain of deadly virus.

I am currently wondering how I could translate this film into a Night's Black Agents campaign.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

1911: Revolution (2011) -- Jackie Chan's 100th Film in Theaters October 7th

Jackie Chan's 100th film releases in American theaters this Friday.  It also marks the 100th anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising, the topic of Jackie Chan's latest film 1911: Revolution.

Unlike a majority of Chan's work, this film is not a martial arts or action comedy but like much of Chan's work the film is a patriotic one.  For example in Drunken Master II, the viewer gets a sense of Chan's deep patriotism as Wong Fei-hung battles a ring of antiquities smugglers.  In that film, Fei-hung battles for the preservation of China's history.

In 1911: Revolution, Jackie Chan stars as Huang Xing  who is fighting for the soul of China.  Huang Xing was one of the founders of the Kuomintang and one of the revolutionary leaders who fought against the Qing Dynasty in a series of uprisings.  These uprisings finally culminated with the defeat of the Dynasty in the Wuchang Uprising and establishment of the Republic of China.

From the trailer, one can see that director Zhang Li has lost none of the aesthetic talent that made Red Cliff such a beautiful visual experience.  His camera work captures broad strokes in a way that doesn't overwhelm the view, and he is a master of highlighting an emotive figure in a chaotic environment. 

Filmgoers in the Los Angeles area will be able to see the film at the following locations:

Monrovia -- Krikorian 12
Los Angeles -- Rave 18
Los Angeles -- Mann Chinese 6

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sony Pictures THE RAID -- Holy Moly!

I'm not deeply familiar, or even moderately familiar, with the action film scene in Indonesia.  But if this is any indication of what they have been creating, I'm going to have to change that soon.

THE RAID was a selection at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (apparently still the go to festival for all things awesome) and the preview looks remarkable.

The film is the tale of a SWAT raid on a tenement controlled by a Drug Kingpin that has almost every possible thing go wrong.  I can't wait to see this action with real sound effects, and a real score.