Tag Archives: China

Movie Review: Blackhat (2015)

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I’ve been waiting for a cyber-terrorism movie to hit our cinemas, and Michael Mann answered the call with Blackhat, a brooding mystery-thriller film that forces Chinese and American authorities to join forces following an attack on a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong.

The film polarised viewers for different reasons, and I’m afraid I fall in the less complimentary camp. Michael Mann is no doubt a great director, having made the likes of classics such as Manhunter and Heat as well as strong films like Collateral and The Insider. But even his stylish, atmospheric approach, a considerable US$70 million budget, and the sexy power of Chris Hemsworth and Asian stars Wang Leehom and Tang Wei, can’t save Blackhat from being a failure.

The thing is, Blackhat is not poorly made. Based on the trailer and some word-of-mouth criticism, I had expected a hackneyed effort; a pedestrian plot, poor performances and an overall B-grade feel. That wasn’t the case; the film actually had solid production value, a sophisticated plot, and perfectly fine performances all around. The problem, sadly, is that Blackhat is just plain boring.

With the exception of the action scenes, the pace is decidedly slow, though the bigger issue is that it’s largely flat and plodding until the final act. For a 132-minute film, that’s a lot of typing on computers and chatting about hacking to sit through.

Like many others before him, Mann hasn’t quite figured out how to make typing on computers exciting. He uses special effects to show us how all the little circuits inside operate at microscopic levels, but that’s more aesthetics as opposed to something that genuinely elevates the tension. It also doesn’t help that the storyline is made to be a lot more convoluted than it had to be, sometimes making me forget what the heck the protagonists were trying to achieve.

Speaking of the protagonists, Chris Hemsworth’s character is designed against the hacker stereotype. He’s built like a brick house, can beat up three or four guys in close combat, and he’s even pretty handy with knives and guns. Not to say world class hackers like that can’t possibly exist, but it does stretch the believability factor, especially when we know very little about his background other than that he went to MIT and was put in prison for computer crimes.

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The Chinese characters, on the other hand, were fleshed out better than expected. Apart from the 1980s hairdo, Wang Leehom’s US-educated People’s Liberation Army cybercrime hotshot is well-rounded and backed by a solid performance. Tang Wei, whom I have seen in anything since Lust, Caution, plays his sister, and she impresses with a fluency in English I had not expected. It’s unfortunate that her character is more or less an obligatory and arbitrary love interest for Hemsworth (you can tell this about two seconds after their eyes meet). The only other female character, an FBI agent played by Viola Davis, gets almost nothing to do except move the plot along.

The culmination of all these factors makes Blackhat a film that’s difficult to get excited about. Apparently, audiences thought the same, as Blackhat ended up having one of the worst debuts if all time, earning less than US$4 million in its opening weekend in the States despite playing on more than 2,500 screens.

There’s not enough action — at least not action that feels fresh — to appeal to people looking for a thrill ride. The grounded approach to cybercrime is not cool enough for the tech crowd. And neither the drama nor the characters are executed well enough for those looking for a more sophisticated experience. It deserves more than its appalling box office numbers, but it’s not shocking that Blackhat has underperformed for both audiences and critics alike.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dragon Blade (2015)

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I had prepared myself for a colossal turd, but I have to give credit where it’s due. Dragon Blade is not THAT bad.

One of the most expensive Chinese movies ever made with a budget of US$65 million, Dragon Blade is a sprawling war epic has already made nearly double that at the box office in China alone. It has plenty of CGI, tons of battle sequences — be it one-on-one or massive armies — and the biggest Chinese action star there is, Jackie Chan. What made the headlines, however, was the casting of two Hollywood A-listers, John Cusack and Adrien Brody, as two Roman soldiers. Honestly, it had all the elements of a massive flop.

Despite its questionable motives and its fair share of annoying flaws, Dragon Blade is actually one of the more acceptable Chinese action films I’ve seen in recent years. The more I think about how bad it could have been, the better I think it actually is.

If you want action, the film definitely delivers, with much of its 127-minute running time dedicated to fighting, fighting and more fighting. It’s all nicely choreographed, albeit a little repetitive, going for the more traditional approach as opposed to the modern stylized version popularized by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Grandmaster or even Hollywood flicks such as 300.

The special effects are generally well done, but not quite on par with Hollywood productions. There are many sweeping shots of the landscape and ancient architecture that look like paintings (probably because they are), and in my opinion they look fake. If the whole movie had that type of feel (a la 300), then it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, though here it’s jarring because it doesn’t match the rest of the film’s grounded presentation.

The film also falls prey to problems that plague other ambitious Chinese films hoping to crack the international market. The plot is simple but they had to make it unnecessary convoluted. You can tell Hong Kong director Daniel Lee was trying to make the narrative more stylish by making things jump around a little when telling the Roman back story, but I think he made it more confusing instead. They also had to find some other non-Chinese Asian actors to appeal to the wider market. In this case they chose Korean-American pop star Yoo Seung-jun, who has a small token role.

The worst mistake, however, had to be the moronic and unnecessary “modern” link they forced into the plot, starting and ending the film in the present with a couple of unconvincing Asian-American archaeologists (Taiwan’s Vanness Wu and Hong Kong’s Karena Lam) looking for something pointless. It’s the typical “let’s throw some popular Asian starlets in there for no reason” idea Chinese movies love so much. Wu and Lam are cringeworthy. Both the acting and the dialogue are laughably bad.

The central characters are relatively well-developed, I suppose, for this type of film. The big signings, Cusack and Brody, really had to earn their paychecks. Cusack plays the good Roman and has to endure a lot of crap, while Brody plays the bad Roman who has use all his Oscar-winning acting to give his stock-standard villain some much-needed depth. Both guys get opportunities to wield swords, and they actually look convincing. Neither guy has been tearing up the box office as of late — Cusack’s in danger of becoming the next Nicholas Cage with some of his choices of late, and most of Brody’s roles in big films these days are of the supporting kind — so I guess they needed the money.

I find it interesting that Cusack’s role was originally said to have been for Mel Gibson. It makes me smile thinking that he would have agreed to play a Roman — you know, the guys who crucified and killed Jesus Christ — and to star alongside the Jewish Brody.

Anyway, as headline-grabbing as the Americans are, Dragon Blade is of course still Jackie Chan’s film. Unfortunately, Huo An is like every other character Chan has ever played. He’s a big hero; he’s courageous, morally upstanding; he never backs down from doing what’s right. And even though he’s now 60 years old, Jackie’s still getting 20-something actresses to play his love interests as though that’s how it’s meant to be. That said, he’s still got the charm. You can tell he’s desperately trying to show off his acting skills — Jackie has said that he really wants to win an Oscar — which is why there’s nearly half a dozen crying scenes for him in this film. Of course, he also does some singing. Because he can.

Pardon my cynicism. Growing up, Jackie Chan was my guy. Everything he did was the shit: Project A, Police Story, Armour of God. I loved it all. I’ve grown up now, but Jackie’s still the same, except a lot slower and no longer capable of the innovative kung fu acrobatics he’s known for. Oh, and now I also think he’s a bit of a Communist Party stooge.

It doesn’t help that Dragon Blade looks and smells a lot like a piece of Communist Party propaganda. Chan plays Huo An, a commander during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tasked with keeping peace on the Silk Road when a bunch of rowdy Romans come knocking. And guess what? Last year, Beijing announced its new “belt and road” initiative, comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land-based belt connecting China to Russia to Europe via Central Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa. China says the project promotes mutual interests and peace. A coincidence?

What makes it seem even more like propaganda is that the film is filled with unsubtle and unabashed corniness regularly found in Jackie’s movies. It’s a bona fide corn field out there, with an over-the-top musical score and a plethora of “f%*% yeah” moments. I like to call it “Team America-style cheering with Chinese characteristics.” Chinese people want peace! But we will fight to the death for what’s right! We are so righteous even the Romans are willing to follow us!

That’s why no one should be faulted for suspecting that Dragon Blade has a hidden political agenda. It’s a film that demonstrates China can make big blockbusters like Hollywood now, AND they can afford to get top Hollywood actors and even Academy Award winners to join them. China is depicted as a keeper of peace in a volatile world, while the film’s Chinese protagonist is depicted as incorruptible and just. Ethnic minorities are portrayed as uncivilized folk who need the Han Chinese to unify them. I doubt it was an unintentional decision to make Chan’s wife in the movie, played by Mika Wang, an ethnic Uyghur. For those who don’t know, Uyghurs — who say Beijing suppresses their cultural and religious freedoms — are a big problem for China and have been blamed for all the terrorist attacks across the country over the last few years.

The only thing in the film I can think of that really goes against China’s current political philosophies is that Huo infringes Beijing’s principle of non-interference when it comes to the internal matters of other countries — in this case, the Romans. Then again, the Romans were “making trouble” on China’s doorstep, something Chinese president Xi Jinping once said he would not tolerate (though that was in reference to North Korea).

Perhaps I’m over-analyzing. Maybe Dragon Blade is just an innocent action blockbuster after all. Whatever the case may be, it’s not a horrible effort. It is by no means great, or even very good, but at least it’s not boring and it’s not pretentious. The production value is relatively high; Cusack and Brody don’t embarrass themselves like I had anticipated, and the action is solid and occasionally spectacular. As I said, it could have been much much worse.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

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It’s a sad world we live in that Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, is 2014’s most successful movie, not only in Taiwan but around the world.

To be honest, I actually quite like the first Transformers film — watching special-effects-made giant transforming robots battle it out on the big screen while humans ran around screaming and making cheesy jokes was kinda fun. The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was more of the same, but made some improvements both visually and stylistically, and though I found the experience wearing me down by the end I still felt there were some positives to take out of it. By the time Dark of the Moon rolled around I was firmly entrenched in the anti-Michael Bay crusade. It was far too loud, too long, too abrasive, too obnoxious. It was just too…everything, and it made me wonder how the hell I ever enjoyed the first two.

And so I thought the fourth Transformers film would be a welcome and much-needed fresh start. They kept the machines but got rid of unbearable leading man Shia LeDouche, replacing him with the likable Marky Mark Wahlberg. Instead of unrealistic love interests in the form of Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, they got Marky Mark a daughter (Nicola Peltz), who probably never (mistakenly) thought she’d be a in worse movie than The Last Airbender. They also threw in a new hunky race-car-driving boyfriend, played by Irish actor Jack Reynor. The rest of the cast was filled out by solid veterans like Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar, all of whom are, let’s face it, looking for a paycheck. Surely it couldn’t be worse, or so I thought.

I don’t know if Age of Extinction is worse than Dark of the Moon when judged as a standalone film, but if you’ve seen the other ones in the franchise you’ve effectively seen them all, and the accumulated damage is something that’s almost impossible to overcome.  Age of Extinction is vintage Michael Bay. It’s 165 minutes of robots blowing shit up and beating the crap out of each other, with the gaps filled in by bad acting, trite dialogue and cheesy humour.

Marky Mark is a struggling — albeit very buffed — inventor (yeah right) who finds a dormant Optimus Prime while trying to ways to pay for his daughter’s college education. Meanwhile, there are some government agents who are trying to kill all robots, good and bad (makes sense to me), a Transformer bounty hunter wreaking havoc, and a desperate need to get the film to China at all cost to appease its Chinese co-producers.

If the film was cut down to about 100-120 minutes and it was the first time I ever watched a Transformers movie, then I can see how I might have enjoyed it. Instead, I spent the entire film trying to shake the feeling that I had seen all of this before, except not as loud, not as excessive, and certainly not as long. After a while, I became totally numb to all the colourful robots causing carnage to each other and their surroundings. Ironically, all the “action” made the film less exciting. It actually wasn’t that easy to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys amid all the rolling around and explosions and shit, and frankly, I didn’t care. And every time I thought the movie was about to end, more stuff happened.

It was just too much of the same, cranked up to 11 (and that’s Michael Bay’s 11, which is like 37 for everyone else). There’s always some special, magic object that bad guys want to get their hands on. For some strange reason humans, who are basically like ants to the Transformers, always tend to be tasked with important things and are the key to saving the universe. The male leads love to act macho but are goofy and love to spew one-liners. The girls are always dressed in tight outfits, love to scream, and have no brains. And there’s always some massive battle in the end where half a city gets destroyed before the humans help the good robots claim an unlikely victory.

I do see attempts to add something fresh to the franchise, like the idea of the Transformer bounty hunter. But seriously — Tranformer dinosaurs? Transformer rabid dogs? Transformer laser guns that are perfectly human-sized for some reason? Ken Watanabe as a Samurai Transformer? And that whole “Chinese elements” crap that dominated the whole second half of the movie. I was more distracted by Li Bingbing trying to speak English and all the cameos from Hong Kong and mainland actors — and even Chinese boxing Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming — than trying to keep up with what was happening in the movie.

Fans of the over-the-top nature of the franchise — and they are clearly in abundance — will likely lap this shit up as they wait for the fifth and sixth instalments, which will probably be exactly the same as every entry except longer and louder. Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse. Transformers was never that good to begin with, but at least it was fun and flashy. What Age of Extinction proves is that the franchise is in dire need of a new direction, something I doubt Michael Bay will grant us as long as he’s raking in the big bucks.

1.5 stars out of 5