Posts Tagged ‘Martial Arts’

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

Director: Richard Donner

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li

For a series that started with a story set around the Christmas holidays, it seems fitting that the “Lethal Weapon” series should end with one that’s all about family. But, as with the transition from one year to the next, it is not strictly endings of which this movie speaks, but also the thrilling uncertainty of new beginnings. Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtagh (Danny Glover) have been dodging bullets through three movies, with Riggs in particular having very little in this world to lose. With both now feeling a little too old for this shit, and each with pregnant loved ones, the risks that come with the job of an LAPD detective have become greater than ever before for our intrepid heroes.

As with “Lethal Weapon 3” this one starts off quite literally with a bang, although slightly downsized in terms of the scale of destruction. In deflating the hydrogen-fueled rage of a flamethrower-wielding madman, Riggs and Murtagh do not have to destroy an entire building to stop him. This time, they settle for blowing up a gas station. During this fiery opening, the two reveal to one another a secret which they’ve been keeping. Murtagh knows that Riggs’ girlfriend Lorna (Rene Russo) is pregnant. Riggs likewise informs Murtagh that he’s going to be a grandfather, a fact which Riggs has fun with after he hears from Lorna that the father of Murtagh’s oldest daughter’s child is Detective Lee Butters (Chris Rock). Nine months later, Riggs and Murtagh stumble across a large boat driven by Chinese smugglers. The cargo they’re carrying? Men, women and children, intended to be sold off as slave labor. Murtagh, being a descendant of slaves, doesn’t much care for the idea, and takes in an entire family.

While much of the action at the Murtagh home doesn’t add much to the story, what is of interest is the ultimate scheme of the villains. The man behind these nefarious activities, played by action star Jet Li (sporting a haircut which I refer to as the “Rattail of Doom”), is different from any foe Riggs and Murtagh have faced before. In the three previous films, each of the bad guys all had in common the pursuit of wealth. Jet Li’s character is only interested in counterfeiting money as a means to an end. His real goal is to use that money as a bargaining chip for the release from prison of some equally dangerous men, including his own brother.

At this point, anyone watching the series can go in expecting a few things to happen. For example: 1) An incident occurs that forces a promotion/demotion for Riggs & Murtagh. In this case, they are promoted to the rank of Captain. 2) The Murtagh household is going to be in a state of disrepair. This time, there may be no repairing it. 3) Riggs is going to have to pop his dislocated shoulder back into place. This is also generally the spot in the film where Riggs becomes his most pissed off. 4) Murtagh will be forced into an embarrassing situation that serves no purpose other than to amuse Riggs. This happens not once but twice.

As LW3 did, we retain co-stars from previous outings. Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) is only a little less useless this time, if only because he has good chemistry with Riggs and Murtagh, hilarious exchanges with Butters, and a touching moment with Riggs near the film’s end. Particularly disappointing is that Lorna, who was the feminine equal of Riggs last time, is reduced to little more than a baby machine this time around (although she does get a couple of licks in during one fight scene). Chris Rock as Butters is a great new addition, but I must say that if you find him funny here, I implore you to check out Rock’s stand-up act.

After a particularly bland adventure last time, this one still lacks the punch of the first two “Lethal Weapon” films, yet never stops trying. It’s helped in part by Jet Li, whom I’ve only ever seen play a bad guy role here. In fact, now that I think about it, this was actually the first of these movies I ever saw. On its own, its an entertaining action movie. I especially like the consistency in the casting (even Murtagh’s kids are all still being played by the same actors as they were eleven years earlier), which helps generate the familiarity necessary for a movie so concerned with the subject of family. By now, we’re so familiar with these people that we almost feel as though we know them. Talks of a “Lethal Weapon 5” have been thrown around for years, but I don’t believe it will (or should) ever happen… not without interest from its lead actors, who truly have become “too old for this shit.”

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The Matrix (1999)

 

Directors: The Wachowski Brothers

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

Somewhere in the middle of “The Matrix,” one character laments having been shown the world as it truly exists: dark, depressing, and without much to look forward to except surviving. The lie fed to him and the rest of humanity by the Matrix presents a more comforting environment with places to visit, people to see, a job with a steady paycheck, and delicious food to be eaten. He would prefer to have remained ignorant of what’s really out there, much as we all were when we were young and naive. I envy those children for whom the pinnacle of their day is another episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” They know nothing of war, poverty, disease, politics or domestic violence. It would be nice to be so carefree again, but it would also be irresponsible for us as the adults to ignore all the ugliness of the world. If there were no one with the courage to stand up and protest, nothing would ever change.

In the world that Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is familiar with, he is leading a double life as a computer programmer and as a computer hacker, the latter of which has him working under the assumed name of “Neo.” All that he thinks he knows is turned upside down one day when men in suits and sunglasses referred to simply as Agents come looking for him. Soon he meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Both have been steering him towards a sort of enlightenment, waking him up to the reality that the Matrix is a fabrication. Neo is at first unwilling to accept what he sees with his own eyes. Morpheus tells him why he was awakened: It is Morpheus’s belief that Neo represents the fulfillment of a prophecy foretelling of a man called “The One” who freed the first humans and is due to return to finish the job. He believes Neo is that resurrected savior of mankind. It’s a lot for Neo to process.

After extensive training, Neo becomes a valued member of the team, even exhibiting leadership qualities when Morpheus is captured by the Agents, whom no one engages in combat if he/she can help it because of their incredible strength and speed. Neo surprises everyone, himself especially, when he shows that he can move like the Agents can. Among the superpowered A.I. Men in Black, Neo has something of a counterpart. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), although no stronger than the other Agents, seems more cunning, more intelligent. He’s had it with the Matrix, and is desperate to find a way to get out. Capturing Morpheus for information was part of his plan. Coming face-to-face with Neo (whom Smith refers to as “Mr. Anderson”) wasn’t.

“The Matrix” is a neat little anti-establishment film, but it is a fantastic action flick, littered with breathtaking fight sequences and gun battles. The scene that stands out the most comes when Neo and Trinity enter a heavily guarded facility inside the Matrix where Morpheus is being held. Both come wearing long, black trenchcoats, and both are heavily armed. Sadly, it was also this scene that was held against the movie when detractors claimed that it influenced Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teenagers who perpetrated the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999.

If Keanu Reeves hadn’t already proven himself to be a credible action star with “Point Break” and Speed,” “The Matrix” made sure that he wouldn’t be known exclusively for the “Bill & Ted” time travel comedies. Even so, his utterance of the word “Whoa!” still makes you think of Ted. Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Morpheus almost seems like an audition for a Jedi in a “Star Wars”movie, but his Obi-Wan Kenobi-like character has more feeling than any of George Lucas’s heroes who learned to use the Force.

Unquestionably, it’s Hugo Weaving who is the scene-stealer. You hang on Agent Smith’s every word even as you hope for Neo to take this bastard down. Most people probably weren’t terribly familiar with Weaving back in 1999 (I certainly was not), but he’s all over the place now. He’s been a regular staple of the science fiction and fantasy genres, portraying V in “V for Vendetta,” the Elf Lord Elrond in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the Red Skull in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and provided the voice of Megatron for Michael Bay’s live-action “Transformers” films, to name but a few of his contributions.

“The Matrix” has become as much a part of popular culture as any of the major sci-fi franchises. Even now, fifteen years after the movie was originally released both Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving have been seen once again playing their characters, this time in separate, very entertaining commercials. Agent Smith appeared in an ad for General Electric, whereas Morpheus could be seen selling cars for Kia.

Where “The Matrix” slips is in its mumbo jumbo. As “Star Trek” often does, “The Matrix” will sometimes use big words to sound smarter than it actually is. The Wachowskis are actually reaching for something profound, particularly in the choice vs. destiny debate. They don’t quite go completely off the rails with it, but it’s still best to just concentrate on the “hero’s journey” part of the action. Speaking of which, as great as the action is, I really wish that this movie (along with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) hadn’t made “wire fu” quite so popular. Martial arts films have suffered the most because of it. They were better without that unnecessary, over-the-top complication.

Of course, like most any popular movie, “The Matrix” eventually was burdened by sequels, filmed simutaneously and then released within six months of each other in 2003. In chapters 2 and 3 of the “Matrix” saga, the mumbo jumbo is raised to dangerous levels. In “The Matrix Reloaded,” there are several notable action sequences… but they go on for far too long and, because the participants never injure one another to any great degree, none of it really means anything. So disappointed was I by “The Matrix Reloaded” that I have never bothered to watch “The Matrix Revolutions” in its entirety. In my mind, “The Matrix” ends so perfectly that there really was no need for any further stories to be told. Although I know it’s not the truth, I like to pretend that, once Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” begins playing over the end credits, that’s all there is. There is no spoon, and there are no sequels.

Dragon The Bruce Lee Story (1993)

Director: Rob Cohen

Starring: Jason Scott Lee, Lauren Holly, Robert Wagner

There will never be another figure quite like Bruce Lee. Without him, it is very likely that the martial arts genre of film would not exist as the entity it is today. Lee was a great philosophical man, and an innovator to match. During a time when it was accepted that those within the Chinese community did not teach non-Chinese, Lee dared to share his culture with “outsiders.” Lee founded Jeet Kune Do under the principle that combat was too spontaneous for any one particular “style” of martial art to be effective enough for one to anticipate their opponent’s every move, merely to respond to them (“Using no way as way. Having no limitation as limitation”). The son of a famous Cantonese opera and film star, he was an actor since early childhood, eventually bringing his talents to American television (“The Green Hornet” and various guest-starring roles) and film (most notably “Enter the Dragon”). No motion picture could ever do Bruce Lee the proper justice… and so it is that none ever has. Yet, still, there is always the conceit that a dramatized biography, however lazy it is with historical accounts, is still quite capable of providing quality entertainment. Case in point, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”

The film follows Bruce Lee (Jason Scott Lee) from early childhood to his arrival in the United States, his meeting with future wife Linda (Lauren Holly) and the birth of their children, Brandon and Shannon, through his work on “The Green Hornet” and founding of Jeet Kune Do, and his all-too brief film career (highlighting “The Big Boss” and “Enter the Dragon”). “Dragon” does not paint Bruce’s life in a completely rosy picture. With the triumphs, there are also the failures… among them his crippling back injury in 1970 and his struggle for acceptance as an actor of Chinese heritage, which included being passed over in favor of David Carradine for the lead role on TV’s “Kung Fu.” Sadly, like most biopics, the story must end with the subject’s demise at a young age, leaving behind quite a legacy but also much unfulfilled potential.

Purporting to be based on Linda Lee Cadwell’s book, “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew,” this movie receives a considerably low grade on historical accuracy. A large percentage is either made up entirely, or is presented out of its correct chronological order. Bruce did compete in a no holds barred match for the rights to teach whomever he pleased (a match he won in all of three minutes), but his fallen opponent did not cause his back injury out of spite. The two also did not have a subsequent rematch. The real Bruce caused his own injury in a weight-lifting accident. Bruce could not have learned of his father’s death while watching the premiere episode of “Kung Fu” (which aired in 1972), because Lee Hoi-chuen died less than a week after the birth of his grandson, Brandon, in February of 1965. Also, these events are depicted as transpiring before the release of “The Big Boss,” Bruce’s first starring vehicle. This is also faulty, since “The Big Boss” was a 1971 film. There was no impromptu fight on the set of that movie, and certainly not with the brother of the guy he beat in the aforementioned match. The stuff about the Reaper-like Samurai/Demon haunting Bruce’s dreams? Complete bullshit, especially considering the real Bruce’s stance on religion.

The only thing that Bruce’s hallucinations of the demon does is creep you out, especially when you consider the scene where Bruce imagines himself protecting his young son from the shadowy figure, and then you remember that Brandon tragically died in an accident on the set of “The Crow” less than two months before “Dragon” was released to theaters. That is why both Lees are mentioned in the dedication at the film’s end.

Grading the entertainment value is another matter, because this is the factor that is of more importance to a martial arts action film. In this area, “Dragon” delivers most satisfactorily. The fight sequences are, to put it mildly, outstandingly choreographed. Whatever screw-ups the writers made in Bruce’s timeline, they obviously are fans of his on-screen work. There are whole sequences that feel as though they could have fit right into one of his movies. There was no way anyone could completely duplicate Bruce Lee’s charisma, his lightning quick reflexes, or that infamous battle cry, but dammit, Jason Scott Lee comes ever so close. Lauren Holly is naturally sweet and tough (and sharply dressed) as Linda. Just as beautiful as the lead actress is the soundtrack. “Bruce and Linda” is another of those musical tracks that, admittedly, got overused by numerous movie trailers over the years. But that was only because it was recognizied as the nice piece of music that it is! And the sets! Perfectly re-imagined are the ice factory from “The Big Boss” and the mirror room from “Enter the Dragon,” as well as a set from a non-existent episode of “The Green Hornet,” notable because Jason Scott Lee trashes it in the same over-the-top manner as Bruce Lee did with James Garner’s office in the movie “Marlowe.” He tells the show’s producers that he figured it’d be more exciting that way. He was right.

It is imperative that one go into “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” seeking the adrenaline rush that any good action movie provides. To truly understand who Bruce Lee was, one should either read one of the many books written about him or, better still, look up archival footage of interviews he gave. He was an interesting man, and is still fascinating to listen to. That he was the same age as I am now when he died really puts into perspective all that he was able to accomplish in the short time that was given to him, and the impact that his teachings and his other creative works continue to have some forty years after his passing. We should all be so fondly remembered for how we lived.