Each month The Grumps bring you a selection of what’s new and now in the Action genre. Strap in for Round-house Round-Up!
FROM NICK SPACEK:
YAKUZA PRINCESS (2021) [NEW TO SELECT THEATERS]
You know a movie might have some issues when the comic which inspired it — in this case, the graphic novel Samurai Shiro by Danilo Beyruth — appears prominently in an early scene. Such is the case with director and co-writer Vicente Amorim’s new film, Yakuza Princess. Co-written by Amorim, Fernando Toste, Kimi Lee, and Tubaldini Shelling, this is definitely a case of a film that feels like there were way too many cooks in the kitchen.
One can’t even say that characters are really introduced. Most just appear onscreen in the midst of another scene, and we’re left to puzzle out their backstory. That’s dandy for the mysterious yakuza we see slurping noodles in the midst of a working-over of one of his soldiers, but when it’s for nearly every single other character, it gets tiresome. I’m usually one for the “show, don’t tell” school of movie-making, but giving everyone a mysterious and unknown past is overkill.
Speaking of which: the stranger (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who awakens in a hospital room with no memory of who he is is so very played out at this point that we know he’s going to be someone important the instant his eyes suddenly gape open. It’s not like The Bourne Identity hasn’t been a successful film franchise for over a decade, after having been a successful book series for two decades before that. C’mon. Try harder.
That said, Meyers’ performance doesn’t ask much of him, and he looks haunted and off-kilter and acquits himself pretty well within his fight scenes. The same can’t be said of Akemi, the titular princess, as played by pop star Masumi. This is her feature acting debut, and she’s not a natural talent as an actor. Her delivery’s a little stilted and halting, and a scene where she plays drunk is supposed to be sad, and is, but not for the right reasons.
That said, as a fighter, she’s amazing. The fight choreography in this film isn’t anything mind-blowing or especially spectacular, but there are a few scenes that will leave the viewer undoubtedly impressed. Masumi can handle a katana really well, and watching her wield the potentially mystical blade throughout is a real delight. She’s kinetic and fluid, and thanks to some really visceral splatter, Yakuza Princess does a fine job of providing action sequences worth checking out, even if the support structure on which they’re hung is a little rickety.
The film premiered as part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival and garnered a U.S. release on September 3 from Magnet Releasing.
MALIGNANT (2021) [NEW TO THEATERS AND HBO MAX]
Initially presented as a seasonal spooky show, Malignant steadily ramps up into some rather relentless action that is equal parts innovative and impressive. Chock full of challenging and often controversial themes handled with keen subtlety, Malignant offers a tasty selection of food for thought — be it dissociative identity disorder, infants born of rape, experimental surgeries, domestic abuse, and both pro-abortion and pro-life stances. Its Seattle setting and musical cues might delight film fans, but would surely annoy Orson Welles as they are indeed homages, superficially and thematically (Fight Club and a little bit of Basket Case are in there.) Architectural similarities between House on Haunted Hill’s Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane and Malignant’s Simion Research Hospital can also be spotted. But back to the action, it seems that, although James Wan has already directed two major action films (Fast 7 and Aqualad), I reckon he may have been inspired by his buddy Leigh Whannell’s so-called “horror” sci-fi thriller Upgrade and decided that he’d direct something that was actually all of that (if psychology and surgery are counted as science), but focused especially on the action and horror elements. Among the action and horror are foot chases, parkour, improbable martial arts, throat-ripping, slicing, stabbing, shootouts, and more. All of which makes for a delightful turn to the extreme. With, perhaps, James Cameron kicking himself for not having his Terminator be as unrelenting as the villain here in Malignant. It may be horror, but it’s also a thrilling action spectacle. I liked it a lot.
FROM BRIAN MILLER:
SAS: RISE OF THE BLACK SWAN (2021) [NEW TO NETFLIX]
The important lesson learned from SAS: Rise of the Black Swan is that Ruby Rose should always play the villain. Her demeanor works perfectly to make sociopaths captivating. This is also the focus of the opening scene, painting a picture of a film that will boldly be about sociopathic protagonists committing crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, that is not where SAS goes, and this opening is revealed to be about the antagonists. There is a glimmer of hope when the real protagonist is revealed, and also depicted as a sociopath, but yet again, the film steers away from taking huge risks and swings. Instead of a battle of the psychos, a slog of a grim soap opera plays out, attempting to examine the differences between those who have supposed noble careers in violence, and those who are just terrorists. Ultimately, meaningless forgiveness is given by the narrative to the protagonist and the antagonist gets painted as true evil. To what end though? Who knows. From an outside philosophical point of view, it is at best nonsense, at worst some type of misguided nationalism. This is the same yawn of a trap that far too many Russian films have fallen into lately; Blood Red Sky and Major Grom being much the same. The action is plentiful yet uninspired and lacking any sort of love in the choreography and cinematography. Meanwhile, the story attempts to be as serious as an A24 film, but with action building blocks that just feel castrated.
WARRIORS OF THE YEAR 2072 (1984) [REISSUED ON BLU-RAY BY SEVERIN FILMS]
Lucio Fulci’s take on the sword and sandal genre, Conquest, is one of the strongest works in his filmography. The surrealistic horror he is loved for is amplified perfectly by the otherworldly setting without any worry for being grounded in a civilization the audience is meant to relate to. For decades, Warriors of the Year 2072 has only been available in a full-screen, video rip format. As another uniquely rare genre offering for Fulci – in this case, sci-fi – the compromised resolution of the film has always left one questioning to what degree the less than mesmerizing overall effect of the film was due to its lower budget, late Fulci lack of inspiration, or bad home viewing presentation. Thanks to the new Severin blu-ray, restoring the film to its widescreen format with an immaculate scan, we now know the answer is a little of everything – which means that while budget and inspiration setbacks may be preventing this from being as perfect as Conquest, seeing it as Fulci intended reveals how remarkable it still is. Effects shots that, while cheap-looking, are magnificent works of lo-fi art that don’t worry about defying their budgets, but rather embrace them for a magical handcrafted look. It has a sort of made-for-tv style Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson approach. The widescreen framing also shows that no matter how invested Fulci was or not, his eye never stopped being spot on.
GODZILLA SINGULAR POINT (2021) [NEW ON NETFLIX]
The double shot of Godzilla Vs Kong earlier this year and now the Godzilla Singular Point series is a strong reminder that animation can be powerful action too. When handled well, choreography in animated battles can wow the eyes in a similar way that wire work kung fu and bullet-time do. The lens is as much a part of the physicality, and with animated fights that just extends to every level. The stand-out action star of Singular Point though is not the God of Monsters, it is Jet Jaguar. This lanky, clumsy-looking scarecrow of a mecha goes through a series of evolutions that create a narrative arc in the fight choreography that takes the viewer from genuinely worried at the start of the series to hopeful, and ultimately stand-on-your-seat screaming in celebration. This sort of wordless character growth, spoken in the language of movement, is action at its pinnacle. What else could one ask from a clash of titans?
THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) [NEW TO THEATERS AND HBO MAX]
Colors and death, not choreography, are the tools relied upon for action in the sequel to Suicide Squad. In the film’s opening, viewers are treated to the wholesale slaughter of mostly characters we haven’t met yet. It feels a bit like a 99-cent store version of the same “oh they all die” scene in Deadpool 2. The results end up being all over the place. With only a few minutes to get to know these characters before their deaths, the idea of their passings being untimely just depends on how naturally one was drawn to the one or two jokes they got to make before splattering on screen. Because the language here is simple: Bright colors. Gooey deaths. Later a much more successful take on this approach is seen as Harley Quinn makes a prison escape. This is presented in a manner very loving of her previous film appearance Birds of Prey – a testimony to the importance of having developed characters to really pull off the approach Gunn is taking. This also means that as the film progresses, the Color/Death concept of the fights resonates better as the sentient color splotches mean more to the audience. Unfortunately, none ever top the mid-film climax where Harley is the centerpiece. Also, if you fall into the camp that loves to trash talk the first Suicide Squad, now is a great time to give it another chance. The action is mapped out masterfully and the sort of The Running Man approach to wacky yet straight-faced cartoon characters lands just as strong as most ’80s theater of the absurd action classics.
KATE (2021) [NEW TO NETFLIX]
It honestly took me a while to buy Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an action star. Her career up until recent years has been made up of pretty consistent turns in the quirky horror-to-quirky comedy/drama range, all basically playing the same beautiful but easily unimpressed “hot” girl. But with Fargo, Birds of Prey, and especially now Kate, she’s beginning to step comfortably out of that Ramona Flowers box. Thank goodness.
Kate doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table. It’s another beat-the-clock neon-noir assassin’s revenge story that we’re growing more accustomed to, but this time the setting and events seem more grounded than comics-influenced. It’s a tale about a girl nefariously groomed to be a killer, but thankfully doesn’t spend too much time heavy-handedly setting up her backstory. Instead, we learn more about Kate’s character in how she interacts with others as an adult, and through her unexpected caretaking of a rebellious teenaged girl whom she kidnaps to gain leverage against her Yakuza disruptors. Kate possesses a lot of strength and know-how, and she’s presented as relatable rather than magically being able to do everything beyond explanation. In other words, Kate seems real, from her fighting skills down to her continued disappointment and ultimate satisfaction in the quest for her favorite soft drink. Real enough for me to come around on Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and real enough not to let the neon-action subgenre grow fatiguing.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (2015) [NEW TO PEACOCK]
For a movie said to have been inspired by a Dungeons & Dragons character created and played often by its star Vin Diesel, high-brow expectations may be low. But for those of us looking to have fun, The Last Witch Hunter certainly delivers with effects like a flaming sword, prehensile tree roots, and a monster formed of random debris. Oddly, though, its plot shares a great deal with that of the 2019 Hellboy, so if you enjoyed that film (as you should), I definitely recommend going back a few years and checking out The Last Witch Hunter. Our hero Vin is a dark ages homesteader who, as he battles her to the death, is cursed by the queen of all witches to live forever. I suppose it’s an odd punishment, but also a mythical one, as the Witch Queen may be aware that many centuries later she’ll have to battle him again. So here we are in present-day with Vin hanging around with not-quite Catholic priests (Michael Caine and Elijah Wood) trying to keep the centuries-old peace with modern witches and warlocks. Sounds great, but the film comes across as a bit too punch-pully for my tastes–sometimes it’s true that a PG-13 rating neuters a film that seems it could have been much more exciting otherwise. Anyway, if you’re a fan of Vin, it’s worth it alone to see him act opposite the ever-smooth Michael Caine, an American meathead alongside The Man Who Would Never Be James Bond. Kind of perfect.
FROM JUSTIN HARLAN:
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021) [new to VIDEO ON-DEMAND AND SELECT theaters]
Sion Sono is a madman. Fans already know this, but it’s never more apparent than with Prisoners of the Ghostland, his new Nic Cage joint. American (and English-speaking, in general) genre fans will appreciate Sono’s decision to dive into the English language action arena if they find themselves the type to struggle with too many subtitles. There is Japanese here, but only some throughout. It’s easy to follow, even if reading while watching movies ain’t your bag.
In this movie that the Cageman himself dubbed “the wildest movie [he’s] ever made,” we are first introduced to Cage’s character, simply named in the credits as Hero, during a bank robbery. While the scene cuts away before tragedy strikes, the viewer is left with the sneaking suspicion that the robbery did not end well. These suspicions are confirmed when we next see Hero in a jail cell. So on thereafter, a wealthy warlord called “The Governor” bails Hero out to rescue and retrieve his adopted granddaughter from Ghostland, using threatened death and mutilation as his motivator. If Hero does not return, his specially made suit adorned in explosives will send Hero to a bloody, painful, and messy death.
What we get from here is a jumbled mess of brilliance. Fans of Sono will rejoice, newcomers will be won over, everyone who watches will have better lives for having done so! Out in theaters and on-demand on Friday, September 17, it’s time to saddle up and head to Samurai Town with Nic and the gang.
PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008) [NEW TO NETFLIX]
Having returned to Netflix in August, Pineapple Express remains one of the best action comedies of the modern era. Starring a still kinda chubby Seth Rogen, a pre-public disgrace James Franco, and then-comedian/now-multitalented-genre-filmmaker Danny McBride, the film is equal parts stoner comedy and action extravaganza–with hilarious fistfights, big explosions, tons of weed, and comedy gold.
Villainous henchmen Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan) and Matheson (Craig Robinson) kind of steal the show whenever they hit the screen, but every player here from Rosie Perez to Gary Cole to Ed Begley Jr. to Bobby Lee show off their comedic chops in this laugh out loud actioner. From the opening scene with Bill Hader and James Remar on, this movie is truly something special.
Since its 2008 release, it has become quite the cult film and has garnered a huge and fervent following. The film even reappeared in a “homemade sequel” featured in the guts of 2013’s This is the End. Check this one out on Netflix today, it’ll be “the dopest dope you’ve ever smoked”!
Can’t get enough Action? Take a look at last month’s Round-house Round-Up for more!