Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 the root of all 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 and full professorship--film and media theorists have sometimes erred on the side of humorlessness. Attempting to highlight all the dirty bathwater they burn the baby, or drown it, or both. 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 whose gaze is only half Mulveyan at most needs deliverance, needs a break from the heavy theory and artsy shizz, and liberal arts guilt.

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--as is so often the case when the male gaze and its 'western eye' is unplugged or jabbed-- inert, demoralizing and irritating. 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, mind you, Laura, nor dour sermonizers who feel bad about all their finely wrought violence either. I'm talking women who are confident, fearless, and could believably put a hole through a windshield with a single kick.... Ain't many. Let's see two:

(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 during a robbery. Now all these crooks want to kill them! Cue manic slapstick! The ballistic Cynthia Rothrock and graceful Michelle Yeoh are a pair of HK (Rothrock sent across from 'the Yard') detectives trying to get it back and/or protect them from evil spies. Both women are great, but Rothrock is extra ballsy and fights like she's really fighting (she was a real-life karate champion). Yeoh on the other hand 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 strike back before she lands the next blow, 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. 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 scumbag rich criminals get off scot-free by merely having all the witnesses to their crimes, 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. 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. Investigative cop Rothrock talks about the evil of vigilanteism while watching a toy train run its track at a Xmas party. Great! 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 and/or the sullen flunkies. Rothrock isn't quite the boxy brawler from YES MADAM! and ABOVE THE LAW anymore. She's more along the Yeoh lines: graceful, 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. This spastic Lewis-esque mania can be blamed maybe on director Mang Hoi --his crooks here make the ones in MADAME seem like the goddamned Danny Ocean's Eleven. We may make allowances for Continental Asia's love of 'big crowd pleaser' comedy, the kind that gets theaters full of all ages people rolling in the aisles, but then comes off labored on video alone at home or with your discerning Rothrockian film snob cronies. Helping offset the damage is a fine centerpiece battle with bamboo poles up and down three or four stories of a half-finished domicile. 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 CONTAGION (same year). This time the liberal hand-wringers are nowhere to be find and there's only two problems: it's rushed open ending and Ewan McGregor's terrible haircut. Otherwise it's perfect. This is Steven Soderbergh's big masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. I could go press play and re-see it right now. I've probably seen it ten times already (I bought it on Amazon streaming! Six dolla!) and I can't get enough. I sure wish it made a ton of money so it would make a dozen sequels. Instead, here comes OCEANS 18.

OK still here? Let me tell you about HAYWIRE's touching military-trained sense of cool in the face of danger, the close bond between Gina's merc and her father (Bill Paxton), a former Marine (like her) now writing books on WW2 desert warfare way up in the Colorado mountains (?), or 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 all without ever saying anything over the phone that might implicate him in anything, and the intrinsic way she understands this; Channing Tatum as her lover / would-be assassin and their great diner brawl opener; the confused but smart hipster who gets told the backstory; the cool reflective Soderbergh surfaces and post-modern globalism that only he and a few other directors--Assayas, Liman, Greengrass--can really deliver.

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. Never happen, kick-boxing class or no.

(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. During the tepid 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! Female action heroines are seldom more cold-blooded than even their most despicable enemies! Mad respect.

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 now to carve a bloody torturous trail through the brush; her particular set of skills collaterally damaging several mostly-innocent people.

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 gringo organ harvesting). 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. Amen.

(2014) Dir. Christopher Ray

ZoĆ« 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) as an action hero lead and her hair looks great. Directed by the ersatz maniac behind MEGA SHARK VS. CROCOSAURUS, This is the B-chick version of THE EXPENDABLES: fellow Tarantino alum Vivica Fox, Asian-American badass Nicole Balderback (BRING IT ON) and TERMINATOR 3 babe Kristanna Loken team up with Bell against a dyked-out Brigitte Nielsen. The unsavory white slaver angle is handled with some level of tact, though a massive machine gun massacre of the imprisoned 'product' leaves a bad taste. Mostly there is a lot of mean talk and discovered girl bodies dealt with via vengeance of a mostly cathartic order and-- 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)--it walks that thin line between camp and dour angst very well.  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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