Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


It seems we're living in an age where feminist worries about the detrimental effects of sexual violence in the media really have proven valid. Popular cinema is awash in white slavery, child abduction, sexual sadists, date rapists (the horrible disillusioning for those of us who loved Cosby as a child) and dead hookers as nothing more than 'what stays in Vegas' punchlines. Was Laura Mulvey right, the male gaze is a horrifying all-consuming evil? Her "Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema" essay opened a dialogue on the male gaze but unfortunately spawned a downer academic feedback loop as, in their drive for tenure, liberal arts faculties have sometimes erred on the side of humorless baby stifling in the interest of highlighting all the dirty bathwater. But at least it keeps them off the streets, which aren't safe, if the last million films starring Nicolas Cage or Liam Neeson are correct.

But as winter melts away and pollen and seasonal depression lurks, a man needs deliverance, need a break from the heavy theory and artsy shizz, and liberal arts guilt. And I'm supposed to go to a damn Laura Mulvey lecture/film screening at 6PM today/tonight (no joke)!  Jim, I'm becalmed, and no avant garde collage detournement deconstructions of 50s Hollywood's feminine ideals can raise me spirits. Not tonight, Josephine!

I'm sure Mulvey will crush it, or whatever term is gender-awareness allowable, but her film will probably be shrilly inert, dispiriting in its correctness. Fuck that! I need to see women literally crush it to feel better instead of worse. Not the usual direct-to-cable bimbos in halter tops running along some Philippine beach with plastic guns in hand, nor dour sermonizers who feel bad about all their finely wrought violence. I'm talking women who are confident, fearless, and could believably put a hole through a windshield with a single kick....

(1985) Dir. Corey Yuen
This Hong Kong hyperkinetic comic ballet has as its comic center three bumbling petty crooks who accidentally grab a MacGuffin microfiche; the ballistic Cynthia Rothrock and graceful Michelle Yeoh as cops trying to get it from and/or protect them from evil spies or something. Both women are great, but Rothrock is ballsy and fights like she's really fighting (she was a karate champion). Yeoh fights like she's dancing which is perfectly fine, and her balletic style matches that of most of the guys she battles. But she tends to kick a guy then let him recover and kick back and then kick him again on and on, like one might at a martial arts demonstration rather than a competition. Rothrock never gives her opponent time to recover, she just moves in bam bam bam, like a boxer, no chance for her opponent to shake off the previous blow, or even the one before that, until he's down and out for the count. Yeoh is supremely graceful but her kicks never seemed believable to knock over big guys, whereas you can believe even really big dudes would be falling bloody at the feet of Rothrock. Best part is a great climactic knockdown brawl wherein their two styles merge and they bond, and its glass-and-face-smashing greatness elevates the soul. The three doofuses wear on the nerves quickly but you'll believe a girl can fly through a glass window to dodge a guy's kick and then swing around underneath it and kick him through the same hole in the glass all in one smooth flip. And you'll be right: ROTHROCK RULES!

(1986) Aka: Righting Wrongs / Dir. Corey Yuen

Biao Yuen stars as a Hong Kong lawyer who watches as a Dirty Harry-era scumbag rich criminal gets off scot-free by having all the witnesses, plus their children, blown-up and/or shot (by a black guy in an American army uniform); there's an undercurrent of the old British rule being corrupt and the powdered wigs they all have to wear in court look horribly itchy. Yuen winds up so pissed off he takes the law into his own hands and goes gunning for the bad guys on his off hours, but where's the 'fu? He's not a very good driver but he's good at close quarters fighting when hired hit men try to run him over in a third-story parking garage. Cop Rothrock talks about the evil of vigilanteism while watching a toy train run its track and the only drawback is the slovenly cop she picks as her assistant; he's one hell of a sloppy gross eater, to the point a sensitive guy like me has to look away. Rothrock though, man, she can fight... so I have to look back.

The final climactic brawl occurs in an airplane hangar and makes good use of everything from a propellor to an on-airplane fight to the death. Yuen more than holds his own, but its Rothrock--as an HK cop who starts out investigating the murders of all the high level scumbags but winds up on Yuen's side--who really registers. She's not here to make friends, and though she doesn't get near enough screen time, it's enough to make us realize just how much ROTHROCK RULES!

(1989) AKA Lady Reporter, Righting Wrongs 2 / Dir. Mang Hoi

Lots of the typical HK action-comedy elements, this time centered around an American FBI agent (Rothrock) who works the SF Chinatown beat and has friends in HK, so she's sent back there to crack a counterfeit ring by posing as a reporter. As per usual, all the men are either spastic morons or grinning evil bad guys, crooked pols and cops with shady motivations. Rothrock isn't quite the boxy brawler from YES MADAM! and ABOVE THE LAW anymore. She's more along the Yeoh lines: graceful, acrobatic, agile, but the fights are often sped up slightly more than usual and her kicks don't look like they hurt as bad as they did a few years ago. Now the guys just bounce back up again and the spastic imbeciles with their bugging eyes run hither and yon with equal speed, the main offender being the director Mang Hoi, though we must make allowances for Asia's love of 'big crowd pleaser' comedy, the kind that gets theaters full of all ages people rolling in the aisles but seems labored when you're watching at home with your discerning film snob cronies. Still, the lame jokes make the bumbling crooks in MADAME seem like the goddamned Danny Ocean's Eleven. That said, the two films (this and MADAM! I mean) are a lot alike... this time it's an incriminating file that winds up in the hands of Rothrock's female boss at the paper. There's a great fight on bamboo poles along the three or four stories of a half-finished domicile of some sort. Its DVD is OOP but it's streaming free on the old YT and one day I swear I'll spring for the iOB. 

(2011) Dir Steven Soderbergh

Smoky-eyed UFC fighter Gina Carano is most believably ass-kicking American babe since the early Hong Kong Rothrock, but this is no Hong Kong street brawl, this is Soderbergh making up for the outrages of his ill-conceived CONTAGION. Here Carano herself is the contagion and there ain't no cure.  I could go press play and re-see it right now. This is Steven Soderbergh's big masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. I've probably seen it ten times and I can't get enough.  I wish it had a bigger ending and I sure wish it made a ton of money so he'd make a dozen sequels.

There's so many things to love about this film: the touching military sense of cool in the face of danger that bonds her to her father (Bill Paxton), a former Marine (like her) now writing books on WW2 desert warfare; the cold blue-eyes of Michael Fassbender as an MI6 agent lured into thinking he can kill her easy; the way Michael Douglas as a Washington insider doesn't buy her high level betrayal frame-up, and just encourages her to keep killing her way up the ladder; Channing Tatum as her lover / would-be assassin and their great diner brawl opeber; the confused but smart hipster who gets told the backstory; the cool reflective Soderbergh surfaces to post-modern globalism that only he and a few other directors--Assayas, Liman, Greengrass--can really deliver. It's cool, in short.

Too bad though, that Carano hasn't been given much other proper material after this. She could be a new kind of Jenn Bourne, instead her best post-HAYWIRE work is in the most recent FAST AND FURIOUS, which allows her one big subway steps battle, where we're supposed to believe Michelle Rodriguez would have a chance against her.

(2014) Dir. John Stockwell

We see the importance of Steven Soderbergh's way of pulling out great depth of dark-eyed beauty from Carano's face and movements, the way she seems to be leaning way back into herself, even while throttling guys in waves of UFC leglock mount moves. Here in IN THE BLOOD all the best moves occur early on in a big nightclub brawl where a honeymooning Carano rescues her new husband from pimp Danny Trejo's club girl stable. That said, there's sunshine, island mood, and unrepentant violence including some sideways likenings of Carano's actions to those of Shagur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. She even commits some cold-blooded outright murder, including several cops. I enjoyed that aspect because female action heroines are seldom more cold-blooded than even their most despicable enemies. The story is a kind of THE LADY VANISHES or BREAKDOWN as a zip-lining accident leads to Gina's new husband's disappearance, and his rich father (Treat Williams) and sister accuse her of killing him for the inheritance. It's up to her to carve a bloody torturous trail through the brush; her particular set of skills ensnaring several mostly innocent people along in her swath. Director Stockwell gave us the excellent INTO THE BLUE and BLUE CRUSH, so he knows his tropical island island action, and TURISTAS, so he knows his gringos on the organ chopping block racism. But has he ever seen a lassie go this way and that way, so goddamned fast? He tries to catch up via limb-shredding and gun fire brutality, but we'd rather just see Gina kick some crap out of some Triads or Golden Tongs and aside from that nightclub scene, there's woefully little fight choreography. The anti-climactic Danny Trejo speech at the end is priceless, though. His island ladies need tourists after all, and when rich white people are attacked, it's no good for anybody's business.

(2014) Dir. Christopher Ray

Zoƫ Bell has stunt doubled for Xena and Buffy and Uma long enough. She's stepping into her own here (after breaking out atop the Challenger in DEATH-PROOF) and her hair looks great. Directed by the ersatz maniac behind MEGA SHARK VS. CROCOSAURUS, This is the B-chick version of THE EXPENDABLES, with fellow Tarantino alum Vivica Fox, Asian American badass Nicole Balderback and TERMINATOR 3 babe Kristanna Loken teaming up with Bell against a dyked-out RED SONJA babe Brigitte Nielsen. The unsavory white slaver angle is handled with some level of tact, though a massive machine gun carnage leaves a bad taste. There is a lot of mean talk and discovered girl bodies dealt with via vengeance of a mostly cathartic order and everyone seems to having fun in the boondogle EXPENDABLES tradition, albeit with around a 1/100th of the budget (its director is Fred Olen-Ray's son, as if the word 'Crocosaurus' wasn't enough of a tip-off). Mostly it's a chance for Bell to kick some serious ass and for Cynthia Rothrock to pass the badass torch and take her seat in the pantheon of action heroes-turned-action movie 'behind the desk' good guy government liaisons who send younger ass-kickers on their dangerous missions. Low budgets never stopped Hong Kong actors from delivering the goods, so why should the word 'Crocosausus' convince these ladies to phone it in? Ray can barely figure out where to put his camera but Rothrock rules eternal, even when leaving the high kicks to the kids.

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