Sunday, 22 February 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue, 2009)

A law enforcment officer investigates a secret order of ninja assassins and finds herself a target along the way. Teaming up with an outcast from that order they fight to survive against a seemingly undefeat-able army of shadow warriors. Ninja Assassin seems like it was made with the specific intention of being the greatest ninja movie ever made. It features copius amounts of ninjas, ninja movie Godfather Sho Kosugi and it trades on the more mythological elements of ninjas considerably. More so, it tries to deliver on the potential for gore all those nasty looking weapons promise.
In fact it's probably the frequent and considerable arterial gushings that will stick in your mind. As a movie it works just fine although I didn't really find myself caring all that much. The plot and cast are all functional but never really engage and the movie doesn't truly display any chemistry or charisma. And if I'm being picky it would appear that a lot of the blood and flying blades are either digital or composited in post. As such the blades cut and blood flows a little too easily, making every kill past the opening sequence a little slick and lacking in grit and impact. I've watched this twice now and to be fair I'm having a hard time remembering much about it other than the extreme gore.
Ninja Assassin is, however, a movie that is clearly trying to please and more often than not it succeeds. The fights are nicely choreographed, the visuals and action are often inventive, it's messy and it's good fun. A more charismatic lead, some more varied outfits and some more practical effects and this could have been a contender for the greatest ninja movie ever made. That's not to say that as it stands it comes pretty bloody close.

Ninja Abilities – Blindfold fighting, super speed, rapid-fire shuriken throwing, super healing.

Ninja Kit – Shuriken, chain-scythe, swords, knives, sticks.

Ninja Colours – Black.

Notable Ninja Kills – Head sliced in half (ear-to-ear), body cut in half, repeated dismemberment (hands, arms and legs), disembowelling, decapitation, head smashed into urinal, katana thrown into forehead, chain-scythe pulled into throat.

Ninja Activity? – High

Ninja Mythology - Ninjas don't care about carpets, walls or upholstery. 

Overall rating: - 9

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! The Beast and the Magic Sword (Paul Naschy, 1983)

Chased from his Spanish home the spontaneously hirsute Count Waldemar Daninsky finds his way to Japan, were he goes on a lupine rampage that can only be stopped by a mythical magic sword. Featuring ninjas, an awesome undead samurai and a werewolf fighting a fucking tiger (some poor stuntman had to wrestle a real tiger in werewolf make-up) this is a gorgeously produced and fun Paul Naschy werewolf movie. Although there are a lot of iconic badass Japanese ass-kickers featured, all using a nice range of weapons, ninjas only pop-up for one nudey bath sequence so don't go in expecting too much masked mayhem. It's a shame as this is another awesome movie scoring low due to a minimal ninja count. I'm beginning to suspect my system is flawed, as if filling movies with ninjas aren't these filmmakers primary concern. No, never doubt yourself or your horseshit scoring systems Gogol...

Ninja Abilities – Slow-motion somersaulting.

Ninja Kit – Shuriken, Katana.

Ninja Colours – Black.

Notable Ninja Kills – Shuriken to the boob.

Ninja Activity? – Low (one appearance in full costume).

Ninja Mythology - Ninjas are impatient and not easily embarrassed. It doesn't matter if you're in the bath, on the toilet or knocking one out they ain't gonna wait.

Overall rating - 1/10

The trailer below seems to have been edited for comic effect and does not represent the tone of the movie:

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Man From Planet X (Edgar G. Ulmar, 1951)

This 50's beauty see a group of U.S. scientists conducting research into a recently discovered new planet that seems to be hurtling towards the Earth. From their outpost in rural Scotland the scientists happen across a strange alien being sent from the planet for some unknown reason.

What is most striking about this movie is that it is shot like a horror. It uses deep blacks and atmospheric greys in every composition while the exteriors are rendered with stylised miniatures and, as if working from a checklist of horror conventions, rolling mists and lighting.

At its heart this movie isn't out to scare. The tension that builds before we see the creature is palpable, yet almost as soon as the massive-faced alien is revealed we are asked to sympathise. Rather than the creature hunt down humans one-by-one the scientists engage in a battle to win its trust, trying to skate a fine line between learning as much of its knowledge as they can and provoking it into warfare.

As the two parties try to fathom each other out a more immediate threat emerges from those great pools of black. Another, more ambitious, scientist wants to capture the creature and exploit its knowledge for financial gain. It is this abuse of power that pushes the creature too far and catapults the narrative to its dramatic, if fairly conventional, climax.

The aforementioned use of shadow hides a lot seams resulting in a 50s sci-fi movie that actually looks like it has some production value. The establishing shots are clearly miniatures but effective ones none-the-less. The alien wears the fixed expression of someone that has just had lemon juice trickled down their urethra but is an iconic and cool beastie.

The Man From Planet X is a handsome B-movie that manages to ring some new ideas out of the alien invader plot. It's good fun and you could do worse than checking it out.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

Big Man Japan is an oddity that mixes genre, form and tone into a not always successful but completely memorable movie experience.

An unseen camera crew follows a quiet man interviewing him, his agent and those he interacts with on a regular basis about his career. On the surface he is not the most interesting of people, at least until we find out his job is to protect Japan from giant monsters. It transpires he is from a long line of monster fighters all of which were considered national heroes and when Japan is under threat from a monster attack he is zapped with electricity and grows into a giant CGI sumo wrestler named Big Man Japan.

Although his predecessors where essentially worshipped, our protagonist is anything but a nation hero. The public are bored with Big Man Japan to the point of contempt. His journey to work sees the streets lined with billboards protesting his very existence. His agent, who oversees the televised footage of his fights, is quite clearly spending more of his money that she is giving to him and his ex-wife and daughter barely want to know him. He is a sad a lonely individual, unappreciated and unwanted.

The documentary segments are slow and thoughtful and impregnated with pathos. The monster sequences, however, are considerably different. The CGI used to bring the creatures to life are anything but photo-real, yet there is a degree of skill within their construction that suggests this is purposeful. The monster designs are at once disturbing and funny and make for surrealistic sequences that function not unlike Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations.

As the movie progresses our hero sinks further into unpopularity. Writer, director and actor Hitoshi Matsumoto is happy to spend as much time wallowing in his character's gradual decline as he can. For some this might test patience, but Matsumoto's relentlessly deadpan approach juxtaposed with the bizarre and absurd animated monster fights created more than enough frisson to keep me interested.

More than that, Matsumoto creates a living, breathing character. Flawed, bitter yet ultimately someone you cannot help root for. How? Because despite the misery heaped upon very little of it is  his fault. His life had clearly been laid out for him at a genetic level and he is obligated to fulfil the role of protector regardless of his own desires yet he receives nothing but scorn for following this predetermined path. It is the old 'this is your destiny' cliche made new by making this destiny unwanted by everyone. He is mocked and criticised for going through the motions of a life planned for him, something nearly everyone can identify with at some point in their life. You will remember the crazy creatures and stylised graphics but at its centre this movie creates a relatable and completely human character.

And then the final ten minutes happen. Holy shit. Deviating absolutely from any approach or technique the film had used before the final moments are completely insane and frankly hilarious. I'm not sure how this will play for most audiences, especially those that don't have prior knowledge of the Ultraman series, but for me it played like a wonderfully conceived and executed sketch that prompted gut laughs and tears. I have absolutely no idea how that ending resolves any of the narrative threads introduced, or even if it was trying to. It was funny as fuck though.

Big Man Japan may be riffing off other works, but it creates an experience like no other I have seen: One that builds a mad world of bizarre monsters around an honest and relatable character study. And good god that ending...

Friday, 6 February 2015

Out For Justice (John Flynn, 1991)

Out For Justice is Cobra meets Goodfellas. I am not for one second going to suggest the film is as accomplished as Scorcese's masterpiece, but it introduces the rhythms of the mob movie in order to make the journey between traditional action movie beats much more interesting.

Crack addled wanna-be wiseguy Richie guns down a cop in broad daylight. Along with his small gang of tracksuit-wearing thugs he then cuts a path through Brooklyn, the unravelling of his sanity and self-control accelerating the body count of those that try to stand in his way. The mob wants him dead as much as the cops want him in jail. Steven Seagal's Gino Felino, an old friend and partner of the executed officer, wants him even more. And so Felino vows to hunt Richie down and bring him to justice. So far so conventional.

Out For Justice is littered with cliches, but they are dismissed as quickly as they are thrown at us. Seagal's character is a recently divorced one man army of a cop who takes no shit and dispenses brutal beatings well outside the parameters of his authority based entirely on his own sense of right or wrong. As such you'd expect the usual friction between him and his superiors, especially when flat-out asking to hunt down and kill a man. When Felino talks to his Captain about going after Richie ("Give me an unmarked and a shotgun") he receives no resistance what-so-ever. Even the Mob, who want to get Richie before Gino does, are generally co-operative and helpful even when being insulted by the renegade cop. The familiar beats are discarded as quickly as possible in order to get to the movies main purpose: To set up Richie as an utterly despicable character so that we can enjoy seeing him taken to pieces in the final act.

The stakes are really small in this movie centering on loyalty, family and tradition more than they are global terrorism or a plot to pull off the biggest heist ever. To keep the momentum it needs the movie adopts a very loose approach to performance. Characters don't (always) blurt out hack cop-speak, but converse in a naturalistic, even improvisational, way. Seagal has never been a great actor but has always been comfortable delivering dialogue naturally. Here he riffs with Italian mobsters without a problem, bringing intensity and humour into the role without it ever feeling forced. Casting actors like William Forsythe and Gina Gershon help sell this energy and having The Beatsie Boys on the soundtrack also helps a little.

There is a scene half hour in that epitomises this mix. Felino walks into a bar looking for a lead on Richie. It's the old 'cop beats up a bar of thugs' scene but is again handled in a very different way. Rather than take on everyone in a sustained action set-piece Seagal works the room, using his size, presence and charisma to hold the attention of thugs and audience alike. As a cop he is a violent brute and one you'd probably want on
charges himself, but in the movie world there is great joy to be had watching him interrogate and humiliate these career criminals. Shit gets real when a slick-hairded wiseguy calls him out for hiding behind a badge and a gun. Felino empties his clip on the ground and tells everyone the badge is their trophy. One-by-one Felino is attacked, fending them off with pool cues, a hanky full of pool balls and whatever else comes to hand. It's familiar territory but handled like a Tommy DeVito tantrum. Even Felino's put-downs shy from the usual puns and tough talk, opting to refer to his target as a "chicken-shit fucking pussy asshole" and "a fucking puke who likes to pervert kids and stuff". On paper it's no less ridiculous than seeing Chuck Norris fight an army of bar thugs in Code of Silence, yet it is handled with an eye for naturalism that convinces you he can do this rather than just showing you he can. When Seagal leaves the bar in tight close-up and with a deep electronic heart-beat scoring him, you feel he has earned every bit of his place in the narrative as a tough guy.

Which makes it all the more cathartic when he finally meets up with Richie and destroys him. Felino doesn't even break a sweat making an absolute mess of this awful prick. The guy barely gets to even lay a finger on him. Whatever Richie attacks with (frying pan, rolling pin, corkscrew) Felino uses it against him. It's brutal, nasty and really quite funny, playing more like a Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson sketch than an action finale.

I'm not trying to say this is anything other than an action movie. Ultimately it's just as absurd and politically dodgy as any cop on a rampage flick. The moment Seagal turns up to the scene of his best friend's murder in a sleeveless top and a beret you know what kind of movie you are watching. He even knocks someone out with a sausage at one point. Despite this Out For Justice valiantly tries to legitimise itself and, in doing so, separates itself from other action movies of the time. In the end it feels like a jazz cover of an 80's rock anthem: the melody and lyrics are still cliched and obvious, it just sounds so much looser, personal and natural.