Monday, January 26, 2015

Classic Li: The Warlords (2007)

Though questionable as a Jet Li classic, The Warlords is currently available on Netflix and thus provides a readily available movie review. This film is much unlike Li's other work, only sparingly displaying his skills as a martial artist. It does, however, present an interesting tale of Chinese history, but might require supplemental contextual understanding to be fully appreciated.
The Warlords is a story about Pang (Jet Li), a general in the imperial army during the 1860s, when the Ming Dynasty was trying to put down the Taiping rebellion. We find Pang the sole survivor of a battle with the rebels, finding his way to a village where a kindly woman named Lian takes him in and feeds him (and makes happy time in bed, too). The next day he meets a bandit named Jiang, who introduces him to his brother Zhao (who happens to be the significant other of Lian). Taiping rebels raid their village that night and kill an elderly villager. The next day, the imperial army looks for recruits among the villagers, who are desperate for both protection and sustenance. Pang, Jiang, and Zhao decide to form a blood pact and attack a convoy to prove to the commanders of the imperial army that they are able to defeat much bigger forces and ask for troops to help them do so. Therein begins their military campaign that occupies the majority of the film.

What was particularly interesting to me about this film was the narrative that I thought it was presenting but then appeared to alter later in the story. Particularly after the attempted recruitment of the recovering villagers and the appeal by Pang to the imperial army officers (who appeared to be old men who had never seen combat themselves), I was prepared for a war story told from the perspective of those who populate army ranks: the poor and lower classes who have no better options. We immediately sympathize with them, as they are only trying to eek out a meager agricultural living in the Chinese countryside and have nothing to do with the wars between the Ming Dynasty and the rebels. They are put in an unenviable situation, where by joining the army they might prevent further devastation to their village by rebels, but are subservient to a political class that has done no apparent thing to earn their allegiance (other than conquering other peoples, taking their stuff, and being able to offer these villagers protection. They are like a mafia on a large scale).

Thus, the blood pact brothers' effort, along with other villagers, to defeat the Taiping rebels in order to bring lasting peace seems noble, but we still have at the back of our minds that though their early victories seem empowering (if not downright glorious, thus leading me to question the "war is hell and fought by the poor for the benefit of the rich"narrative), they remain subservient to the imperial political classes no matter what. Thus, any military victory they secure tastes bittersweet to the audience and we are not fully able to partake in them. (Furthermore, we are not informed of the grievance of the Taiping rebels, which may as well be large and justified considering the costs they are willing to bear to fight the empire.)

In the end, what I thought would be an inspiring tale of common men managing to beat the system and not be relegated to fodder for the empire, turned out to be a story that is not unfamiliar to us today; that is, warfare waged by pawns at the behest of the powerful.

P.S. But, if it was historically accurate, of which I have my doubts, then the result is unsurprising. But it makes me wonder what significance this story holds in Chinese folklore and whether the revolutionary undertones of the film that I perceived are part of that folklore.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

PS3 Review: Sleeping Dogs (2012)

There's probably three quality martial arts video games out there on consoles: our beloved Rise to Honor is the best, while Jackie Chan's Stuntmaster is a distant third. Sleeping Dogs is second best, but it's a well-deserved second place.


Rise to Honor is still tops for martial arts video games, but Sleeping Dogs is a very close second. You play as an undercover cop named Wei Shen, tasked with infiltrating a Triad organization. Honestly, there's not much to say about the narrative. It's a pretty typical Hong Kong detective story, but it's solid and performed well. You won't be surprised by Wei Shen's moral dilemmas, his loyalty to the badge conflicting with his growing admiration for his fellow gangbangers. It's been done three thousand times before. You bet it's formulaic, but it works just the same. I felt the same way about Rise to Honor: the formulaic story is actually reassuring and convenient, because you don't have to do a lot of work to figure out what's going on, you just get to fight some fools and it all feels familiar. Unlike Rise, this one is much more of a sandbox kind of game. Certainly, narrative events frame everything you do, but there's a considerable amount of freedom between missions in which you can level up your kung fu, participate in some street races, buy clothes, gamble, and so on. Sleeping Dogs pushes you to complete the primary tasks in a number of ways, but there's always time made available to you for dating or swimming in the polluted waters of Hong Kong or whatever else you want to do.

Wei's Rumble in the Bronx uniform. Not pictured: the empty
Game Gear given to that dumb kid by Jackie.
Combat in Sleeping Dogs is very similar to combat in the Arkham Asylum series. It's fluid and intuitive, and the animations between moves are super smooth. It's no match for the rhythm of combat in Rise to Honor in terms of controls, but there's plenty to love about it nonetheless. You can throw suckas off roofs or chuck them into garbage bins, similar in many ways to the interactive environments in Jet's game. Dogs does have Rise beat in terms of gunplay, however, and driving around Hong Kong is equally solid. Honestly, I have no idea if Dogs is an accurate representation of the area, but it looks great and the different districts of the city are clearly distinguishable from each other. As usual with sandbox games, you're only left with a bunch of relatively meaningless tasks once you complete the main portion of the game, but you can unlock a bunch of outfits for Wei to wear from classic kung fu movies, and you can always play through the story again. If you groove on martial arts cinema, Sleeping Dogs is perfect for you.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Movie Review: Exit Wounds (2001)

Consider this a slight detour or offshoot from our ongoing Classic Li series. Exit Wounds is like Cradle 2 the Grave, except with Steven Seagal instead of Jet. Same director, same DMX drama skillz.


Once again, cops, martial arts, and hip hop butt heads. This time a white detective played by Seagal is demoted to beat cop following an attack on the vice prez. He doesn't play by the rules, you see, and solves crimes with his unusually direct approach to law enforcement. Our favorite renegade police officer is relegated to service in a particularly nasty precinct in Detroit, and from there his new chief orders him to take classes in anger management. This makes no sense because Seagal's character never really demonstrates any significant symptoms of rage. He keeps beating people up or shooting them because they keep trying to rob or murder him. He's an unlucky bastard, not an angry one. In fact, outside of an incident in which he breaks a school desk because he's such a large man, he's a pretty cool customer overall. One night, while bumming around town in his pickup truck, he stumbles upon a heroin deal. This leads him to discover a drug smuggling conspiracy involving several of his fellow police officers. DMX seems to be involved with the smuggling, but you know, all is not what it seems, nobody can be trusted, loyalties will be tested, and so on.

Exit Wounds is nowhere near as good as Cradle 2 the Grave. Not that C2G is high art or anything, but Jet Li is so superior to Seagal, and DMX has a much larger role in that one than he does here. I've only seen Seagal in a few films, but his brand of martial arts is fairly deliberate, and in that sense it doesn't work nearly as well for me cinematically as does Jet's faster and more intricate maneuvers. Honestly, he's a big, humorless oaf and he's boring. He doesn't do it for me, but DMX sure does. Unfortunately, DMX doesn't have much to do in this one. For most of the film, he only buys expensive cars, drives around listening to his own music, visits his boys in prison, wears tank tops, and buys drugs. Seagal carries most of the film, and it suffers. DMX has more to do in the second half of the film, particularly the last half hour. Like Cradle, this film has an entertaining finale. It's entertaining enough to save Exit Wounds from being a total loss. While Seagal engages in a nonsensical sword fight, DMX ties his belt to a shotgun and uses it to fire from behind cover. It's lovingly absurd, but there's too little of this kind of thing to make it truly worthwhile.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Classic Li: Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)

We did one for Jackie, so we thought it's only fair we do one for Jet. Classic Li is our new eight-part series in which we review some classic Jet Li works. Chicken Man and I will alternate with four reviews each, though these reviews are not organized in any particular order. Up first is the Li/DMX team up Cradle 2 the Grave, a name which both looks and sounds like the title of a Prince record.

He's just so sensitive.
Cradle 2 the Grave is some very formulaic buddy cop martial arts stuff. One guy is black, the other is Asian. One likes hip hop, the other likes some different kind of music. One wears a whole lot of tank tops, the other can fight. How could they possibly accomplish anything with all those racial differences standing in their way? DMX plays the Detective Carter type, a jewel thief with a daughter and a conscience. He finds a stash of what appears to be black diamonds on a routine multi-million dollar heist, only to have those diamonds recovered by Jet, the Detective Lee type of this story. Some bozo arms dealer and his crew are out for the supposed diamonds, so he kidnaps X's daughter and holds her hostage. Naturally, reluctantly, X and Li must work together to get the little girl back, save the world from all kinds of nasty things, and promote DMX's latest single.


This is a really solid action film. DMX can't act a lick, but he doesn't have to do much besides yell/bark/hug his baby girl/gawk at a girl's cleavage while riding on a subway car, so he's palatable. Jet gets it, though; he's always at his best playing the silent but somewhat moral assassin (he doesn't particularly appreciate it when kids get hurt) like he does here. DMX does rumble a bit, but Jet really carries this as far as the martial arts are concerned. Like many of Jet and Jackie Chan's Hollywood projects, the kung fu in this one is a bit tempered when compared with their Chinese-language flicks. Still, Cradle has a nice, clean aesthetic in terms of the the fight scenes: not too many quick cuts, and not too much of that shaky-cam nonsense. It's a bit slow in the beginning, but it builds to a very satisfying climax. In fact, the final 30 minutes of Cradle is non-stop excitement, a veritable thrill-a-minute roller coaster, or something similar (I'm hoping to get Code Redd Net on the back of a DVD cover in the future, and I know how much hyphens are appreciated by the cats who make the important decisions regarding blurbs). I like Cradle 2 the Grave. I like watching Cradle 2 the Grave. I like typing Cradle 2 the Grave almost as much, but not quite as much.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

PS2 Review: Black (2006)

So loud, so pretty, and yet so soulless.


Black reminds me a lot of the original TimeSplitters, actually: both are technically sophisticated first-person shooters without much of a narrative to back them up. Sure, Black has something of a plot, even live-action cinematics of an almost unbearably cheesy kind (lots of cigarette smoke and tough guy voices), but it ultimately means nothing. It's more of a skeleton outline for a plot than a fleshed-out story. It has something to do with a black ops solider and his team's quest to take down an arms dealer/terrorist in Russia. What plot there is you get from a pre-mission cinematic in which the main character is being interrogated by an intelligence agency higher-up. But once the mission starts, you easy to lose track of what you were asked to do and why you were asked to do it. That's not to say that Black asks a whole lot from you intellectually; you simply march down some very linear levels, shoot stuff, and when an objective pops up onscreen, you do what it asks of you. "Episodic" is the nice way to describe Black, but "lazy" is the more honest way. Even for a first-person shooter, Black has precious little variety in terms of gameplay. You don't even get workable stealth, let alone vehicles to drive, and the occasional squaddies that join you for battle do nothing useful. Essentially, you run around and shoot things and you don't have to be particularly (or generally) strategic about it. It's also criminally short, and in no way does the final battle feel in any way climatic. And unlike TimeSplitters, there's no multiplayer to redeem an otherwise facile single-player experience.

I can say some nice things about Black. Everything looks phenomenal, especially the environments, many of which can be destroyed in several lovely ways. Similarly, it sounds superb, both in terms of its score and its sound effects. You also can't fault the game's attention to detail regarding firearms; there's a palpable sense of fetish for the guns, for recoil and reloading. In other words, Black will dazzle you; it's certainly immersive to a degree. The only problem is, there's just no heart to it at all. What you have with Black is a really nice tech demo for the PS2, and little else.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Finest Fights: Unleashed (2005)

Here's a new, albeit very belated, entry in our beloved Finest Fights series. As always, your friends at Code Redd Net are dedicated to occasionally bringing you the very best in cinematic butt-kickings.

Morgan Freeman needs to be in more kung fu flicks, for real.


Unleashed is one of the great Jet Li films. And this is likely the best fight scene to ever take place in a really small bathroom.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PS2 Review: Headhunter (2002)

I miss Winback. I miss the covert operations of a relentlessly optimistic Jean-Luc and his trusty laser-sight. Sure, there was a sequel, Project Poseidascrewoff, but it was worthless (to say the very least). Fortunately, Headhunter is kinda like Winback. It's good. It does the job. There's significantly fewer laser traps, but there's still plenty of crates to blow up. Always a good time with crates around.


Best part: you can toggle those sunglasses on or off at any time,
depending on your mood or the time of day, I guess.
Basically, what you have with Headhunter is a near future Los Angeles in which, among other things, law enforcement has been privatized, and criminals have their organs harvested for use by rich folks. You play as Jack Wade, an amnesiac bounty hunter who wakes up in and escapes from a funky laboratory. Jack wakes up in a hospital and an old agency pal explains that he was once the finest headhunter in all the land. In order to uncover the truth, Jack must re-acquire his headhuntin' license through a series of virtual reality tests, while simultaneously investigating the murder of a bureaucrat.

Headhunter has three main parts: the virtual reality tests, the missions, and a few motorcycle segments. First, let's pursue this Winback comparison a bit further. Like Winback, this is a third-person actioner; you hug a lot of walls while shooting it out with your adversaries. Unlike Winback, though, you can actually shoot your gun while moving around; and as a result, you rely much less on cover than you may have in Winback. Unfortunately, you have little control over your aim; you can lock on to baddies, but you can't aim for the head, and you often inadvertently target nonthreatening objects (specifically rats) instead of those individuals shooting at you. The controls are a bit sticky in general, and the camera is both obtrusive and obstinate in terms of mobility. This becomes a real problem during the occasional "stealth" segment, even though "stealth" in this game is essentially limited to a single neck-snapping move Jack performs from behind. It doesn't matter how fast or slow you approach an enemy for the stealth kill, even if you run up to him full-tilt down an empty hallway, so long as he doesn't lay eyes on you. Finally, there's the motorcycle portions of the game, which I found particularly painful. Jack's seemingly nimble Yamaha or whatever handles like a rig, and no matter how hard you slam into oncoming traffic, you come to a complete stop. When you hit the gas again, Jack invariably performs a wheelie, and why not. There's really no reason for these motorcycle escapades to exist because, with the exception of a bomb chase later in the game, you only use the cycle to get from one mission to the next; no freeway chases, no shootouts, nothing. You could've just taken the bus and it would've been just as thrilling.

I hate that bike so much. Save the environment and walk, Jack.
I like Headhunter, though. Take away that stupid motorcycle and this is a solid third-person shooter. It has some control issues, but it makes up for it in other areas. In particular, the music is fantastic (though a bit repetitive), as is the voice-over work (though the gravel-voice cynicism of Jack Wade makes me miss the earnest, pre-pubescent whine of Jean-Luc). Headhunter's writing is not much better than Winback, but it's certainly performed in a much more convincing fashion. I can't really complain about the length of this game, though I would've liked an incentive to play through it again, or even a multiplayer option. Headhunter's a worthwhile purchase.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Double the Van Dammage V: Death Warrant (1990) and Sudden Death (1995)

Hard to believe, but Double the Van Dammage is now in it's fifth installment. Thankfully, there's still plenty more Jean-Claude Van Damme movies out there for me to enjoy, so keep your eyes on Code Redd Net for more roundhouse kicks and mistaken identities.

"What is the nature of being?"

Death Warrant (1990)

JCVD behind bars. The Shawshank Redemption with spin-kicks and splits, if you will. In this one, our hero is a French-Canadian policeguy named Burke, sent undercover in the belly of the beast in order to find out the truth behind some strange prison murders. Burke uses his karate to figure stuff out, and he 'rassles the truth out of his fellow inmates. Naturally, the naive, racially-sensitive Burke has some problems with the prison's gangs, particularly his Hispanic and African-American friends. This is a fairly routine prison film. But, for me at least, there's just something about the routine of prison life that lends itself quite well to linear narrative. That's a nice way of saying I like watching people hatch escape plans and then execute them, and if there's a bit of the splits thrown in there, maybe some sack-punching, perhaps a conjugal visit, all the better. This is an entertaining enough film. All the action scenes are cleanly edited, and Van Damme has some choice lines, and the escape sequence is actually very well done. Some parts are a bit homophobic for my taste, but like, 1990, what can you do? And while some of the plot in the middle could go (the homophobia too), the rest of Death Warrant is, as usual for Van Damme, totally watchable garbage.

JCVG (Jean-Claude Van Goalie).
Sudden Death (1995)

Proud parent and divorcee JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Divorcee) at the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. D2: The Mighty Ducks with spin-kicks and splits and f-bombs, if you will. This time the big oaf's working security at a game in Pittsburgh. A whole bunch of terrorists kidnap the Vice Prez and hold him hostage. Later they kidnap Van Damme's kids and hold them hostage too. These punks are really asking for it. Sudden Death brings the cheese. There's some nice parallel editing between the hockey game and the rescue, as the terrorists plan to blow up the arena at the end of the game. I don't know if it's art, but I like it. The whole NHL gimmick gives Van Damme plenty of room for some absurd action, including his brawl with the Penguins' mascot, and an opportunity to switch places with the goalie for save or two. Van Damme sure loves the old switcheroo, doesn't he? If it weren't for the "confused identities" plot device, most Van Damme films would just be him posing in a mirror for an hour. Hell, that's mostly what they are anyway, but at least sometimes he poses in the mirror under the belief that he's actually his twin brother or whatever. Nevertheless, this is a great Van Damme film, like 4 1/2 spin-kicks to the 'nads out 5.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dreamcast Review: Fighting Force 2 (1999)

See the crates. Feel the excitement.
I love the original Fighting Force. I hate this one. Fighting Force 2 is a perfect example of subtraction by addition: it's longer, has more of a story, has more weapons, has more keycards, and it most certainly has more destructible crates. Really, the only things removed from the original are the multiplayer option, the other three characters, and just about all the fun (or, hell, just about all the functionality). Instead, you play as mercenary Hawk Manson, sent by some agency clowns to investigate human cloning experiments being conducted by a shady Japanese corporation. You bounce around the globe trying to stop all this cloning from going on, gleaning most of this story from a few poorly animated cutscenes and a whole lot of pre-mission menu briefings. Though the original barely had cutscenes, let alone text to explain why you had to pummel some fools on an aircraft carrier, I'm not sure the extra plot in 2 was worth the effort. It's nowhere near interesting, nor is it even comprehensible, so why bother?

Playing Fighting Force 2 is alternatively curiously amusing and, way more often, incredibly frustrating. If you love crushing boxes underfoot, and if you love replenishing your health with soda, 2 may be just the thing you need. If neither of those two things appeals to you, I'd avoid this one. 2 plays a lot like the original, only with more of an arsenal. That's doubly true for your plentiful adversaries. Here's the general idea of each level: proceed through drab room after drab room, get shot immediately upon entering each room, get the keycard from somebody, probably backtrack for a long time in search of the right door, unlock that door, and do this all over again. This gets old. This is compounded by the difficulty of the later levels. One level in particular, an assassination assignment on the renovated "Alcatraz 2", nearly ended it for me. It's one of the most poorly designed levels I have ever suffered through. The levels after that aren't much better.

Screw this level.
Moreover, Fighting Force 2 has almost zero in-game music. It's an odd, uncomfortable experience gunning through the tedious halls of this game without a soundtrack, and it makes your encounters with the idiotic AI even weirder. Sometimes you can jump over their heads without them noticing, sometimes you can run around a group of goons until the moron in the middle with a gun shoots all his friends, and sometimes you cannot for the life of you get through a door without being blasted. You can bet, though, that each new room will have a keycard or three to pick up, maybe a few boxes to jump on, and you can also bet that there'll be approximately 3,000 rooms to get through before the level is over. Stay away from this one. Despite the name, it's more like a mediocre Tomb Raider than a true sequel to Fighting Force.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Netflix Review: Don Jon (2013)

The adult version of Gordon-Levitt morphed from Bruce Willis into Tony Danza.


Having known the basic premise of the movie, I find myself wondering why I ever bothered to watch it. The protagonist, Jon, has his simple pleasures in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. His problem is that the latter seems to be his greatest preoccupation. What possibly drew my interest to this film was the idea that it might address the issue of porn addiction, something that would be pretty bold for a major feature film to do. However, it fails to do this and really offers nothing of value in its place.

It is intentionally repetitive in how it structures its narrative, but despite this self-consciousness it is not any less repetitive to the audience. The story moves as if on a treadmill; there is no progress or climax or resolution. Jon starts as a guy who likes to watch porn and to sleep around and is dissatisfied with it, courts and sleeps with Scarlett Johansson and is dissatisfied with it, sleeps with Julianne Moore, stops watching porn, and apparently finds things more satisfying even though he knows they have no future as a couple (she is 21 years his senior, after all). And then the credits roll, leaving me wondering, "What just happened?:

The characters are annoying throughout. Scarlett appears to be a strong reactionary to 2nd wave feminism, abhorring the idea that Jon would vacuum or mop his own floors. Are there really women who exist who prefer men who have a strong aversion to household cleaning? Tony Danza couldn't have been more obnoxious; I'm not sure if he was acting. Why am I still writing about this? Don't watch it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Movie Review: Chinese Zodiac (2012)


In this sequel (sorta?) to the Armour of God series (1986 and 1991), Jackie Chan plays a treasure hunter, and together with his merry band of thieves he goes about swindling ancient Chinese statues that represent the 12 signs of the zodiac. Though Chan is initially sponsored by a multinational with an interest in selling the statues to private collectors, he becomes convinced that his true mission is to return the statues to China. Some other jerks are after the statues, and eventually (eventually...) they come into conflict. Now, there's two versions of the film out there: one is the original Chinese version released in 2012, and the other is an edited version released this year by Universal. Unfortunately, both are boring films.

I picked up the original, unedited version of Chinese Zodiac at my local Chinatown market a few years ago. I was not impressed by the film at all. It's 20-30 minutes of decent material stretched to two hours. Clearly, Chan is no longer capable of the same virtuoso fights he was capable of even 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago. It's the law of the universe, this growing old business, but it's still disappointing. For about 20 minutes near the end of the film, though, Chan seems young again. He seems inspired. There's some decent choreography in a portrait studio and a lounge area, but the rest of the film is boring at best, and childish at worst. If this is Chan's last true action film, it's a depressing end to his career.

The edited American DVD release from this year is better simply because it's shorter. This version removes about 20 minutes of the meandering plot, and throws in some horrible (even by the standards of kung fu cinema) English dubbing, but it's not enough. Nonetheless, the edited version is your best option. There's even a career retrospective in the form of a highlight package that plays over the end credits. All it does is remind you of his older and much better Chan films.
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