Monday, March 30, 2015

Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist

Being that I’m a huge video gamer (check out my retro gaming vlog on YouTube, The Old Ass Retro Gamer) I never pass up watching a flick based on one of my favorite properties. A little over a year ago I came across a series of promo videos on YouTube advertising an independently produced Street Fighter mini-series that would be shown on Machinima’s channel and was fully endorsed by Capcom. I immediately became excited because not only are the Street Fighter games some of my favorite brawlers, but it looked like it was going to be taking a very serious approach to the material. This is a drastic contrast to the Jean-Cleaude Van Damme cheesefest from the early 90s.

Unfortunately I completely forgot about this series until it recently popped up on Hulu in movie form. A very, very long movie. We’re talking 2 ½ hours long. I thought to myself “this had better be good”.
Martial artists Ryu (Mike Moh) and Ken Masters (Christian Howard) live a traditional warrior’s life in secluded Japan learning the ancient fighting style of “Ansatsuken” (Assassin’s Fist) from their master, Gôken (Akira Koieyama). As their skills are honed over the years they also learn about the tragic past that this way of life has brought upon their teacher, and that history may repeat itself if they cannot find a way to change their destiny.

For starters I was immensely pleased that this miniseries decided to go simple and focus on just two of the characters from the long running video game’s huge roster of fighters. Ken and Ryu have always been the main stars of the series and I was happy that they were front and center, especially after how they were mistreated in the aforementioned Van Damme cinematic abortion. I was also happy that there was some nice drama, character moments and pleasant throwbacks to the source material. There was also a clever bit about Gôken buying Ken and Ryu a copy of Mega Man 2 to play on their Nintendo to relax while not training.
However, this miniseries is basically one overlong, drawn out and pretty damned boring take on the material. It took me two days to make it through the whole film because I kept falling asleep. There’s no real plot to the games so the writers had to come up with something that not only would be worth watching for the fans, but would also appeal to those not familiar with the material. This double-edged sword rarely works and in this case I’m pretty sad to say that it failed on both sides. As a fan I’m torn…

Here’s what I liked about the film:

-       The actors really commit to their parts. Not only do they look like their respective characters, but they do all their own fighting as well.
-       The remote locations featured within are breathtakingly beautiful and some remind me of the arenas from the games.
-       The game is accurately represented for the first time and the script stays true to what the spirit of the games felt like.
-       The fight scenes are short, but well choreographed and exciting.
-       Seeing Ken and Ryu’s special moves, like the Hadoken and Shoryuken attacks, performed with some outstanding special effects and stunt work put a smile on my face.
-       The origin of Akuma was kind of rad.
-       There are plenty of throwbacks to the source material, from musical cues to lines of dialogue.
-       Seeing Ken and Ryu developing their special attacks was cool as hell.
-       The cinematography, special effects and costumes are tops for a low budget internet miniseries.
Here’s what I didn’t like about the film:

-       The acting is a mixed bag. The two leads, Mike Moh and Christian Howard, turn in decent and likable performances as Ryu and Ken respectively. Akira Koieyama is fantastic as Gôken. But the rest of the cast, especially Joey Ansah as Akuma is a total blight on this flick. He’s downright horrible and reminded me of the acting seen in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
-       The plot is so drawn out that it is tiresome in the extreme. There’s only so many times that you can see someone wandering the countryside in silence while contemplating their destiny before it loses its meaning and becomes frustratingly annoying.
-       The flashback structure works at the beginning, but it too loses its focus and in the end becomes a series of redundant scenes that serve no purpose but to pad the runtime.
-       The subplot about old man Gôtetsu (Togo Igawa) is lame and predictable.
-       The writing, while very fanboyish, meanders and doesn’t really have a point to make until the final 30 minutes or so. It is very one note.
-       While I like the idea of the film being a prequel to the games, it would have been nice to have a character or two from the series make an appearance instead of being about just Ken and Ryu. Plenty of other characters from the games trained with Gôken too, so why couldn’t they have popped up in the script to liven things up?
-       The film ends with a cliffhanger that could have easily been resolved within this film’s runtime if some of the pointless filler was excised and the narrative sped up to a tolerable level.
-       The make-up for Akuma is dreadful. Borderline racist. The character starts off as Gôki, played by Asian actor Gaku Space, and when he becomes Akuma the role is taken over by African actor Joey Ansah who is given faux-Asian features and a really bad wig. It’s insulting.
I liked aspects of this film and found the rest to be a waste of time. Sure there’s lots of fanboy love flowing freely throughout the entire production, but it felt more like a high budgeted fan film than an actual film. I understand that the direction of the script was most likely due to budget constraints, but why bother making a Street Fighter film if there’s hardly any “fighting”? It kind of defeats the purpose.

If you’re a fan of the video games I recommend you check it out just on general principal. Everyone else should just stay away and play Street Fighter IV on their iPhone or watch the superior Mortal Kombat: Legacy.

2 out of 5

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis have been getting a lot of flack in the years after their trilogy of The Matrix films ended, some might say it began right after The Matrix Reloaded was released, due to their strange affinity for making ultra cheesy films that are a lot of style with very little substance. I’m not one of those people.

I am a big fan of their heavily panned Speed Racer not only due to the beautiful visuals that fill the film, but the simple and (as far as I’m concerned) well told story that was incredibly hokey but also likable and surprisingly heartfelt. Unfortunately it didn’t make the kind of cash at the box office that their previous films had so The Wachowskis stepped back from filmmaking for a short while (and to allow for Larry to transition to Lara out of the limelight).  I also thoroughly enjoyed their super serious and somewhat convoluted co-directing follow-up project with Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas. Audiences felt otherwise and it was a huge bomb.
However, words cannot describe how excited I was about their next film, Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis excel at world building and the trailers to their newest epic sci-fi yarn looked to be filled to the brim with creative tech, bizarre costumes and (unfortunately CGI) set designs that made my eyeballs melt a little bit with how colorful and rich they were. And then it was delayed from its summer 2014 opening to the dog days of February 2015 for some unknown reason. I feared the worst since 96% of the films pulled from their release in this fashion are done so for one reason and one reason alone – they are shit and the production company doesn’t know when a good time would be to unleash said cinematic skid mark upon the world and hopefully turn a profit. Still, I held out hope that these two fellow Chicagoans hadn’t finally lost their edge and churned out some unwatchable crap like another former favorite filmmaker of mine. You might remember him… Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master).

I saw Jupiter Ascending, which was shot here in Chicago (a couple filmmaker friends of mine actually worked on the film as well), opening weekend in IMAX 3D. While it isn’t the second coming of The Matrix like some people expect it to be, it is a super fun and campy trip into the absurd that reminded me of a beloved cult classic from 1980 – Flash Gordon.
Lowly housecleaner Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) learns that she is the heir to the planet Earth due to her alien DNA, and along with a hybrid bodyguard (Channing Tatum) attempts to trace a bounty placed on her head back to its off-world source.

Honestly this is not a good movie. Not a good movie at all. What it does have is an infectious sense of fun and adventure that I ate up. The plot is simple and pulpy, and the film wears its intentions plainly on its sleeve. It is filled to the brim with insane visuals, fast paced and somewhat bizarre action scenes (that bit that takes place above the Sears/Willis Tower is completely bugnuts), stupefyingly awful dialogue (“No, my mother never cleaned a toilet in her life.”), mediocre acting, overblown CGI, beautiful costumes and sets and some of the coolest technology I’ve seen invented for a movie in years (I want a pair of those gravity surfing rollerblades). Yes, this clearly is a case of style over substance but in the best possible way because this film is just fun on top of fun on top of fun.
Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis don’t set the world afire with their thespian chops, but they do share a nice chemistry and that works wonders for their likeability on screen. Sean Bean kills it in his small part and the rest of the cast chew the scenery like no one’s business, specifically Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as the lead villain Balem Abrasax. Some of Redmayne’s dialogue deliveries are so over the top that it made me laugh out loud because most of the time he speaks in a whispery voice, but when he loses his cool it explodes all over the place. His performance is a total blast that reminded me of Gary Oldman’s Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg from The Fifth Element.

The main reason to see this flick is the ridiculously awesome technology invented for the story. Like I said, The Wachowskis are great world builders in their films and they have carefully crafted a ludicrous amount of awesomeness to fill out the weird and wonderful universe of Jupiter Ascending. Their creative touches fill every frame of every scene. If you thought some of the ideas behind The Matrix were cool you haven’t seen anything yet. And those starship designs… SPOOGE!
But this is not going to be a completely positive review. I mentioned earlier that this is not a good movie. Why? Because it is too long, features way too many characters and ideas that go nowhere, focuses on shady business deals and other pointless One-Percenter crap that reminded me of George Lucas’ simplified politics from the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the love story is a goofy joke in and of itself (“I love dogs, I've always loved dogs.”) and the MacGuffin of the story is a large scale rip-off of Soylent Green.

There also are some serious storytelling glitches that bugged the crap out of me. For example, at the top of the film we are rapidly and rather awkwardly introduced to the lead villains of the story as they walk through a demolished world. This is a completely unnecessary scene that should never have been shot. It ruins the surprise of the outer space elements that should have been shown off at the same time that Jupiter learns about them. As an audience member I would have appreciated discovering this new world outside our own alongside the main character.  What if the audience was shown the real world outside the Matrix before Neo was unplugged? The big reveal wouldn’t have had the same impact as far as I’m concerned. Ball dropped.
The Wachowskis may have come up with creative visuals and tech for this flick, but the story lacks it in the same amount. Some of it is downright stupid. But sometimes I just want to watch a big idiotic spectacle for the sake of sheer escapism which is why I love Flash Gordon to this very day. The siblings probably took some of the criticism aimed at Cloud Atlas to heart, namely the fact that it was overwhelmingly serious and intense, and decided to go for something light and frivolous for their next project. In my opinion it was a great decision since their epic space opera is a ton of dumb fun. I highly recommend it if you have a high tolerance to cheese flying at you from all angles. If that sounds appealing to you I’m pretty sure you’ll find a lot of love about Jupiter Ascending. If not stay clear as you might become lactose intolerant by osmosis.

3.5 out of 5