Monday, October 10, 2016

Movie Review: The Expendables 3 (2014)

I feel as though no spoiler alert is necessary, as you should know what you’re getting from The Expendables franchise, if you ever had any interest in it, by now. There are no surprises. You’re getting a movie that tries to draw upon the nostalgia of action movies and actors from the past three decades. However, the action-hero movie genre should not be thought of as a homogeneous monolith. There are differences along a variety of margins.

Consider the original Die Hard. We see John McClane as quite vulnerable. Whereas other action movies have led us to perceive a bullet wound in an extremity as a minor annoyance, broken glass presents a real obstacle to McClane. We don’t see him taking on a million guys at once, but resorting to guerilla tactics due to his comparative weakness in force. Because of this, the drama is far more palpable and McClane seems much more heroic.

Contrast this with The Expendables 3, which contains no tension at any point. The audience is never led to feel that the protagonists are ever in any serious danger at all, despite the fact that they are routinely vastly outnumbered and outgunned. Regardless of all the “action” that occurs in the film, it makes for a rather boring experience.

Also disappointing is the missed opportunity in drawing on the potential nostalgia of the characters associated with the cast members. For example, there is a subtle reference to the character played by Antonio Banderas in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, but why not just make up some excuse to have El Mariachi in The Expendables rather than have Banderas play some generic guy?  I mean, it’s not like it would damage the plot in terms of its plausibility or cheesiness. The payoff of seeing guitar cases filled with guns or guitar cases as guns would be totally worth it. The same goes for other beloved characters like Statham’s Frank Martin. Would a story that finds a way to bring these disparate characters together make sense? Probably not. Would anyone care? Probably not. This is The Expendables, after all.

My final grief has to do with the phenomenon of the villain having ample opportunity to dispatch the good guy(s) and for no reason choosing not to. This happens multiple times in The Expendables 3. Early in the movie, the evil Mel Gibson has Rocky Balboa in his crosshairs, but chooses to wound another guy. He is able to capture most of Rocky’s team and later sets a trap that could kill Rocky and the other guys he brings to rescue them, but instead of just blowing them up, he gives them a 45 second grace period in which to disable his bomb. Why he does this, other than keeping the movie from abruptly ending, is not explained. And, in what was supposed to be the climatic showdown between Rocky and Gibson, Gibson has the ability to shoot Rocky dead but instead decides to toss his gun away in order to have a fist fight. The reason for this can’t be to see who’s the better fighter, as Rocky eventually grabs a gun and just shoots Gibson. All of this leaves one feeling as though the villain isn’t that evil (even though we’re told he did all these bad things in the past), but rather exceptionally merciful. Needless to say, this does not make for a compelling triumph over evil.

The Expendables 3 is not really satisfying in any way. It lacks creativity, plausibility, and a reason to keep watching. With Hollywood’s preference for producing tried-and-true formulas, I wouldn’t be that surprised if they tried to make another one, perhaps with an all-female cast. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dreamcast Review: Outtrigger (2001)

Is the world craving a new review of an old Dreamcast shooter? Thrasher sure thinks so! Join him on this journey of discovery and find out the answer to the burning question: should you play Outtrigger? The answer? Ummmm, maybe. Depends.

Outtrigger is about half Crazy Taxi (or maybe half Time Crisis) and half TimeSplitters. It's a multiplayer-focused, arena-style FPS with virtually no plot and an ever-present timer at the top of the screen. Matches last about two to three minutes and the backdrop is often little more than "Collect these coins!" or "Shoot these guys!" Wikipedia's plot summary is probably too good: "The story revolves around a counterterrorism organization called Interforce, set up in response to terrorist attacks on military research facilities." I didn't get even the faintest whiff of this story, such as it is, while playing the game.

Outtrigger's two main single-player modes, Arcade and Battle, task you with completing various training exercises and eventually missions, in which you ostensibly deal with vaguely-defined threats. Really, though, there is nothing to connect the single-player exercises and missions with anything. The Arcade and Battle modes have much more in common with Crazy Taxi's "Crazy Box" or TimeSplitters' "Challenge Mode" than anything else. Though the single-player is occasionally frustrating in spots, it can be easily completed in the course of a day. And like the Crazy Box, Outtrigger's single-player experience is seemingly designed to train players for the heart of the game, which in this case is the multiplayer.

Multiplayer matches in Outtrigger play by the same rules as the "Thief" mode in TimeSplitters 2: each kill is worth one point, while another point, rendered as a coin, can be collected by any player from the kill spot. Other than a team variation on the same thing, all multiplayer matches in the game play by the same rules. This can make for a rather repetitive experience, even with Outrigger's considerable variety of weapons and maps. Given the relatively small size of the arenas in the game, deathmatches can only realistically last for about three minutes before the map in question loses what little novelty it had in the first place. And while the multiplayer mode can be played with AI bots, many of the maps feature pits, which the AI cannot successfully navigate.

In terms of controls, Outtrigger really shows its age. Dual analog control has been a standard of console first-person shooters for a long time, and returning to the single-stick controls of the Dreamcast is difficult. Although some of the options approximate dual analog controls, none of them really come that close, and I never truly felt comfortable with the pre-set schemes. The game does allow you to switch on the fly from first-person to third-person view, which is neat at the very least, but it's hardly useful.

Like many other arcade-style games for the Dreamcast, Outtrigger is enjoyable in short bursts only. Dreamcast aficionados may want to find a copy simply for the sake of curiosity, because it is a truly strange game, but everyone else can probably find something else to play.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

PS2 Review: kill.switch (2003)

I have the Wikipedia page open for kill.switch (or just Kill Switch, apparently, but I prefer the more idiotic title). I'm in need of a plot summary because the narrative of this game is opaque, and that's putting it nicely; stupid as hell is another. You play as a generic super-soldier, kind of, but not really. Actually, you play as an elusive evildoer "controlling" this super-soldier through remote neural connection telepathy or a contrivance of this kind.  You are flung about the globe on a series of random solo combat missions by your "controller" in order to create chaos and destabilize the existing global order. Between missions you are treated to a series of fantastically cheesy FMV sequences in which some lady keeps asking you to "Say my name" and eventually to save her from, I dunno, life in the simulation or the matrix or something. It's all meaningless and derivative drivel, like an undergraduate's version of Memento. And even worse, it's entirely separate and tacked on to the gameplay, and nothing you do while playing feels even remotely relevant to the narrative. You shoot things and pick up keycards and get to the exit, and that's all.

In terms of gameplay, though, kill.switch is alright. It's a straightforward cover shooter, long before that became a genre or sub-genre of its own. You hold L1 to hide behind pillars or crates (always plenty of crates lying around) and press up or over on the analog stick to poke your head out and fire off a few rounds. And unlike its goofy-ass predecessor, Winback, you can shoot while moving in kill.switch. You can also blind fire from behind cover, but it's too inaccurate to be useful. Though, while the levels are built generally built around the cover mechanic, there are a few frustratingly sticky situations and overall poor level designs. kill.switch is also alarmingly short, clocking in at four hours or so to complete for even the most meandering players. You earn nothing for completing it on any difficulty level, either. Hooray!

Technically, kill.switch is pretty neat for a PS2 game. It looks and animates very well, even though the art direction of the whole thing is pretty bland modern warfare stuff. And it sounds fine, too. kill.switch is mostly just a tech demo. It's fun to play and appeals to the senses, but it lacks depth or longevity. It's no Winback killer, in any event.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movie Review: Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

I was not a big fan of the previous attempt at a film adaptation of our favorite bald and bar-coded assassin in 2007's Hitman. It felt too much as though the writers were trying to develop 47 into a character quite unlike the one seen in the games. An example of this was the scene where Timothy Olyphant's Agent 47 reads a magazine article about animal mating in order to learn something about human women. It is true that 47 is not simply a rabid killing machine totally lacking conscience; we see his attempt at living a peaceful life at the beginning of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. However, this does not mean he is also attempting to settle down and have a family. That is just not him. Neither is 47 a curious adolescent trying to learn more about human sexuality. This scene simply didn't fit with the character and was written by someone seemingly unfamiliar with the games.

Fortunately, Hitman: Agent 47 improves upon the previous movie in this respect and is enjoyable for what it is. They do not attempt to engage in much character development of 47: he is an assassin, he is very good at what he does, and he was a clone bred to be a killer. (Which reminds me of another indication that the writers of the previous movie were unfamiliar with the games: there is a fight scene between 47 and other agents who happened to be ethnically diverse, which makes no sense as they are supposed to be clones.) But the improvement is only slight. It still feels like a rather generic action movie. What I would really like to see out of a Hitman film adaptation are the distinctive aspects of the series' gameplay. In other words, fewer shootouts and more creative smuggling of weapons where they are prohibited, over-the-top disguises, and elaborate assassination plots (perhaps of morbidly obese mob bosses). Hitman is (supposedly) a stealth game after all, and the films should reflect that.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Movie Review: The Transporter Refueled (2015)

My principal concern going into The Transporter Refueled was the replacement of Jason Statham with this non-Statham guy, Ed Skrein. I was right to be concerned, in a way. Skrein is truly a nothing actor. He has none of the childish charisma of Statham. Sure, things happen to him, but his reactions to them aren't particularly interesting, dramatic, or humorous. Thankfully, though, the things happening to him are much more fun than most contemporary action films. In this reboot of the series, Frank Martin (boring-ass Skrein) is busy transportin' stuff in France when his hip old man comes for a visit. Instead of bonding with his father as planned, Frank instead takes a job as a getaway driver for four mysterious women looking to rob a bank. They have plans of their own for Frank, however; his father is held hostage until Frank agrees to help them assassinate a Russian gangster.

Now, this is not a bad premise for an action film, but the first thirty minutes or so almost derail the whole thing. Most of this is attributable to the bland performance of Skrein, as he sourfaces his way through the introductory and characterization bits of Act I. It all gets much better once he is forced to take the job "offered" by the lady assassins. Refueled reminded me of the quality, middle-budget martial arts films that were staples of the Code Redd Net diet in the old Geocities days: Transporters 1 and 2, obviously, but also Jet Li's Unleashed (2005), for example. Once the exposition is finished, Refueled is blessedly short and lean, and the non-entity of Skrein is subsumed by the generally excellent fight scenes and car chases. There are several beautifully absurd action sequences in unusual spaces, such as a car chase through an airport terminal, and a precision missile dropkick delivered through a car window. The choreography is delightfully shaky-cam free, too. All this is to say that while Refueled is certainly not in the same league as Transporters 1 and 2, especially the boring stuff at the beginning, it's still a solid reminder of what action cinema can be.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

PS2 Review: The Bouncer (2001)

It's difficult to make sense of The Bouncer. It looks like an ordinary 3D beat-'em-up, which is commendable enough given that the genre has been rendered practically obsolete since the SNES and Genesis generation. I like having games like this around, mostly because I like pulverizing proper nouns on the streets, even when the games themselves are at their most mediocre. However, in many ways The Bouncer isn't much of a beat-'em-up at all. In fact, according to the marketing this is more of a "playable action movie" than a straightforward brawler. It may be a cliche, but The Bouncer is truly neither fish nor fowl: far too vapid to be an action movie (think about that for a moment), and far too complex and involved with storytelling to be a satisfyingly mindless beat-'em-up. Simply put, The Bouncer tries to do too much and succeeds at very little.

The Bouncer has one of the most insipid "stories" I have ever played. Most beat-'em-ups, like Streets of Rage or Fighting Force, have the good taste and common decency to save you the trouble of worrying about characters and their relationships. Instead, they essentially tell you, "Some hoodlums have taken over the streets of our fair city, and they're evil, so please, go out there and beat the dog crap out of them and don't come back until you do." It does the job for me. That's all the motivation I need. But The Bouncer tries to impress you with the cinematic. From a technical standpoint, it actually succeeds. Given its age, it still looks and sounds pretty good. In terms of narrative, however, it stinks. Without looking it up, I can only recall a girl being kidnapped by oddly-dressed thugs, and our equally oddly-dressed bar bouncer heroes going out to save her from being turned into a cyborg kind of thing by some bozo running the evil Mikado corporation. There's also something in there about satellites and solar energy, I think. You spend the rest of the game getting acquainted with others who have also made numerous fashion faux pas. An idiotic premise, for sure, but that's not what gets to me.

The Fashion of The Bouncer. Good gracious.
What gets to me is the laborious way in which that story is presented. My first trip through the game took approximately an hour and a half, about an hour of which was seemingly spent on watching the cinematics. They either go on forever or they are pointlessly short, like the numerous three second clips of the characters running through doorways. Every utterance, every development in the narrative is just, like, So What? Who Cares? and also, You Left the House Dressed Like That, Do You Not Have Friends or Mirrors? The Bouncer has multiple pathways through the story depending on which character you choose and when, but none of them are exciting, even though one of them is a thoroughly bizarre "stealth" mission.

This interminable story ruins what is otherwise a decent beat-'em-up engine: deep enough to keep most fights interesting, but easy to learn (though a counter button would have been nice). Basically, you watch and then you briefly fight, level up your characters, watch then briefly fight, level up your characters, and so on. Luckily, you have the option of using characters unlocked in the Story mode to play either Survival or Versus. Survival isn't much better than Story, mostly because it quickly becomes alternatively tedious and cheap. Versus is your typical multiplayer mode, and it supports up to four players, human or CPU. It redeems the game somewhat, but not enough to recommend it for anyone other than the most starved beat-'em-up fans.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Transporter Refuelled (2015) Trailer

Pardon us while we remodel the site. In the meantime, enjoy this trailer for the rebooted Transporter franchise.

I don't know how to feel about this one. Transporter 3 was all kinds of awful, of course, but I'm not sure I would've hit the reset button so hard.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

PS1 Review: NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC (1999)

What an ungainly title. NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC is another in the long line of NBA Jam derivatives, which includes Midway "sequels" like Hangtime (1997) and Hoopz (2001, and quite fun to spell, incidentally). Despite the name change, all three of these games play pretty much the same, although each introduces its own wrinkles to the core design. The NBA Jam formula just works, and for a variety of reasons, but of the tweaks or updates (outside of the annual roster update) offered by the various versions, Showtime happens to be the best of the lot. Everything is about the same as before, only smoother, more polished: you get 2 on 2 ball, most of the rules get relaxed if not removed, physics get exaggerated, and so on. Showtime introduces a foul system, however, which initially seems like an odd fit for the kind of no-holds-barred style of this or previous Jams. Basically, a foul is assessed each time you shove an opponent. Play remains uninterrupted until you earn your fifth foul, at which point your opponent is then allowed to shoot a free throw (worth three points) and retain control of the ball. This introduces a fairly subtle bit of strategy into the otherwise manic gameplay of the series. Foul your opponent for the fifth time late in the game, for instance, and you may find yourself on the wrong side of a six point swing. It's a small change, but at the same time it does quite a lot to change the dynamic of offense and defense, particularly down the stretch. As with all Jam iterations, Showtime can likewise get a bit repetitive if you play it for any significant duration, but in short bursts, and particularly with friends, it's terrific.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the more cosmetic changes of Showtime. There is something wonderfully nostalgic about the old NBA on NBC theme, especially (actually, more likely solely) for those of us who grew up with the peacock's Sunday afternoon matinees. In comparison with its arcade version, or even its Dreamcast and N64 cousins, Showtime for the PS1 clearly loses a bit in the looks department. This is particularly noticeable in the player models which, while understandably polygonal for the time, fail to accurately render most of the players' faces. They all look a bit mangled. However, player animations are almost uniformly excellent. I should also mention the generally terrible roster. This was not a particularly lively time for fans of the association. You're looking at a league post-Jordan, consumed by labor disputes, and pre-LeBron. "Slim pickings" is probably the kindest way to describe the squads available. Thankfully, you can create your own player, and although you can develop that player into a superstar by defeating every team in the league, this is no career mode. It's essentially no different from the game's other main mode, in which you run through every team in the league with only the players made available to you on a particular squad. No career mode, no season mode, nothing else. As a single-player experience, then, Showtime is lacking in longevity. As an isolated, multiplayer experience, Showtime is the best of the bunch.

Monday, April 6, 2015

PS2 Review Double Feature: Smuggler's Run (2000) and Smuggler's Run 2: Hostile Territory (2001)

Hey, why not. I'll do these together. I can't think of a particularly good reason to do them separately.

Smuggler's Run (2000)

The first Smuggler's Run was something else, especially when it was released as part of the PS2 launch. I say "was" because, as you can probably surmise, not everything about it has aged well. It doesn't look great, it doesn't always play great, and it doesn't move you with an involving narrative (it doesn't even really have one). You're a smuggler, and you smuggle things, and there's really nothing more to it than that. You have big (for the time) open worlds set on the US/Canada and US/Mexico borders in which to smuggle the goods. Now, there's a bit of plot from the menu that introduces each mission, read by an irritating narrator with an especially juvenile sense of sexuality, but essentially it means the same thing as the plot of the original TimeSplitters (2000), which is to say it means nothing, or just about. Actually, Smuggler's Run and TimeSplitters have more in common than such easy-going narratives: essentially, Smuggler's is nothing more than a series of deathmatches with cars (actually more like BagTag, for all you TS fans out there). You pick up packages and deliver them, or you and a team do the same, or you have an inexplicable checkpoint race with rival gangs. It's more like an arcade game than anything else. You pick up packages by driving over them, and you can steal or transfer them by slamming into other cars. It works quite well as mindless, almost anti-narrative horseplay, but like any arcade game, it can get more than a bit repetitive if you play it for too long. And more often than not, Smuggler's is incredibly frustrating and difficult, especially the latter half of the game (another similarity to TimeSplitters). Despite the difficulty, however, I enjoyed the way in which Smuggler's allows you to create your own route to mission completion. Smuggler's Run is a meat and potatoes kind of game. It does the job without a whole lot of panache.

Smuggler's Run 2: Hostile Territory (2001)

This is more like it. Smuggler's Run 2 is an improvement on the original in every way possible. This one not only has an actual story, but live-action cut-scenes with real actors and everything. They're silly as hell and probably not in a good way, but I appreciate the effort. You play as a guy who works for another guy who works freelance for some bad people with some bad goods to move. This takes you to Russia and then to Vietnam, then back to Russia for Winter Russia. Several things make this game much better than its predecessor: it looks fantastic, the worlds are bigger and the terrain is more varied, and the difficulty has been toned down to what I consider to be a reasonable level. There's still an annoying glitch carried over from Smuggler's 1, in which your pursuers' vehicles seem to be magnetized to your rear bumper. This can be a real drag because they more often than not spin you out of control, which is really frustrating when you're on the clock and racing to the next checkpoint (which is always the case). 2's missions are much better and more varied than the original as well. As before, 2 can get repetitive if you persist in playing it for too long, but for short bursts of fun, it really is one of the best arcade-style racing games on PS2.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Movie Review: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)

Evidently Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is "widely considered" (that's a fun thing to say) to be one of the worst films on this, or really any other, planet. Wikipedia has it on a prestigious list of "films considered the worst" by "reputable critics." While my dedication to reviewing numerous Jean-Claude Van Damme films, as well as nonsense like this, may lead some of you to believe I enjoy pain, honestly I trust no one, least of all "reputable critics." To be sure, this film is hideous and stupid, but it's far from one of the worst. I just had to see it for myself.

Two agents, one a family man/divorcee/chain smoker FBI agent (that would be Ecks) and the other a cold-hearted assassin/mother/ex- or current government agent of another kind/maybe? (Sever), seem to dislike each other for a general (as opposed to a particular) reason. They must work together to keep a kind of biomechanical device, floating around in the bloodstream of a child, out of the hands of other government agents/corrupt assholes/who? I'm not sure who's working for whom in this one. I'm not sure what the biomechanical device does besides something bad. In fact, I'm not sure what really goes on in Ballistic. I'm not sure the producers or the marketing people did either. I suspect nobody does or did. Please read through the following synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:
"Two former government agents square off as they search for the most deadly new weapon on Earth in this white-knuckle thriller. Sever (Lucy Liu) was once a top agent with the Defense Intelligence Agency, but she quit when her son was killed in a bungled raid organized by Gant (Gregg Henry), and has sworn to take vengeance against him and his colleagues. When Sever learns that Gant and his team are in possession of a remarkable new weapon -- a microscopic device injected into the victim's bloodstream which is benign until triggered, then kills immediately without leaving a trace -- she is determined to get her hands on it, whatever the cost. However, Gant has turned rogue, and FBI agent Julio Martin (Miguel Sandoval) has been ordered to find him and recover his new weapon. Martin needs the best man he can find for the job, and calls upon Jeremiah Ecks (Antonio Banderas), a former FBI tracker, to do the job. Ecks quit the Bureau when his wife was killed, but Martin informs Ecks that his spouse is actually alive and in hiding, and if he can bring in Gant, she will be returned to him. But Ecks has to face the most formidable adversary of his life in Sever, a master of mayhem bent on revenge."
lolz, don't work for the government, I guess. At best you'll have a hard time identifying where and with whom you work, let alone actually getting things done, saving children, capturing rogue elements, all that.

Ballistic is the kind of thing I would've liked (probably not loved, but certainly liked) when I was 13, so there were moments in this film that I enjoyed very much. Sever's shootout with the cops is serviceable enough for action cinema, although Ecks and Sever's titular showdown on a rooftop turns out to be a big ruse (more like Ballistic: Ecks and Sever, right?). Ballistic may be bland, but it has the good taste to be short and moronic, and those are the hallmarks of inoffensive cinema. Look, people get chased and cars get flipped over and secret agent-y things get done and Banderas smokes a bunch. It's filmed in a way that doesn't hurt your ear or eye holes to watch. Is it especially stimulating, revelatory, educational, beautiful? No. Is it one of the worst films around? Hardly. It's bad, but it's not that bad.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Classic Li: Romeo Must Die (2000)

More Li, more DMX (but only a little bit more). Classic Li rolls on with Romeo Must Die, one of Jet's highest-profile projects.

Romeo Must Die is supposed to be loosely based on Shakespeare's play. It is, kind of, only in the sense that most tragic love stories are more or less like Shakespeare's play. Of course, this one isn't much of a tragedy, but it does have sweethearts caught in the middle of a turf war between rival gangs of different races, and their love is forbidden because of it, so you can see how it fits the Romeo and Juliet model. After his brother his killed in the US, Jet escapes from a prison in Hong Kong to avenge him. While hotwiring a taxi, he meets and is all smitten with Aaliyah, the daughter of a crime boss in Oakland who wants to be the first black owner in the NFL or something. Jet and Aaliyah bat eyelashes at each other and try to figure out what's really going on between the factions. What happens next? Why, hip hop and wire fu and love, that's what.

Like Cradle 2 the Grave (and to a lesser extent Exit Wounds), this one gives a lot of time to the drama and only a little to the action, at least until the end of the film. For the most part, I don't mind so much drama because the relationship between Jet and Aaliyah is totally believable. They're cute together and the scenes between them seem natural, remarkable given the inexperience of Aaliyah and a still new-to-Hollywood Jet Li. This is also why the ending to Romeo Must Die is one of the most unsatisfying in all of cinema. If you've seen the film, you know what I mean. It's all wrong. Nonetheless, there's a few standout fights in this one, especially Jet's football game and his tag-team maneuvers with Aaliyah (incidentally, they put a beating on Nancy from Rumble in the Bronx). Things do slow down considerably in the middle of the film, but like Cradle 2 the Grave and Exit Wounds, most of the action is saved for the finale. Romeo Must Die is a Hollywood film, though, so the excessive qualities of Jet Li's Hong Kong films are tempered quite a bit in favor of dialogue. While this is a slick package with plenty of production values going for it, as well as a believable romantic sub-plot (a rare thing in a kung fu movie), this is also a bit cursory in terms of action. Romeo Must Die works well as an introduction to Jet Li, but he made much better films, both before and after.

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.
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