The Fighter

I finally got around to watching 2010’s The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell and starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo, and I’ll say I’m so glad I did. The film is based on the true story of professional boxer Micky Ward, played by Wahlberg in his third collaboration with Russell after 1999’s Three Kings and 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, and Micky’s older half-brother Dicky Ecklund, played by Bale, who would go on to star in Russell’s 2013 American Hustle. It was  nominated for 7 Academy Awards, of which it won two – Best Supporting Actor (Bale) and Best Supporting Actress (Leo).

Micky Ward is a rising welterweight boxer who’s losing his confidence due to being called a “stepping stone” following a losing streak and a series of poor decisions on the part of his mother-manager (Leo) and his crack-addicted brother-trainer Dicky. After a particularly nasty loss to a man 20 lbs heavier than him, Micky seriously considers retiring, until he meets and falls in love with bartender Charlene (Adams), who encourages him to think about his future and consider leaving his family, who seems not to care about him, behind. When Dicky runs afoul of the law and gets in a fight with police officers, Micky tries to intervene, gets his hand broken, and the two are arrested. After Dicky is sent to prison, Micky decides finally to sever his ties from his mother and let others train and manage him, and from here his star rises until he’s given the opportunity for a title shot. For some reason, I thought The Fighter was the story of two boxers who were brothers who ended up having to fight each other, and that Dicky was going to come out of retirement after leaving prison and eventually face Micky in the ring. I now realize that the movie I was thinking about was 2011’s Warrior, starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two brother MMA fighters who are eventually pitted against each other. While Warrior also has themes of familial estrangement, the two are not the same. I have to get my act together.

Despite my seeming love for martial arts, I’ve never been much of a boxing fan. It always seemed kind of quaint to me, the idea of two men just throwing punches at each other. I’m like, throw a kick in there, a roundhouse, throw a fireball or something! Yes, I’ve a fantastical mind informed by years of martial arts fantasy films and video games. I’ve not seen Robert DeNiro’s Raging Bull, but I did have a Rocky marathon over the course of two days after I decided to watch all six films for the sake of being familiar with the pop culture phenom. (My Rambo marathon came shortly after.) Also, I’ve never seen a real boxing match. I point out these shameful facts because it’s in this part of my review that I normally would talk about the film’s fight choreography, but since I’m a rookie to the boxing world, I don’t feel like I’ve a place to say whether The Fighter has incredible boxing sequences or standard. I’m leaning toward excellent and on par with every other boxing movie I’ve seen, like Rocky, um, Rocky III, and um, that other one… Rocky V, that one. However, the focus of the movie isn’t necessarily on the boxing matches, but rather on the familial drama. If I’ve offended any boxing fans out there yet, you might be pleased to know that after seeing The Fighter I have a new-found respect for the sport and an eagerness to put on some gloves and step into the ring myself, if only to lose several years from my life from getting my brain rattled.

While every actor turned in amazing performances, including Wahlberg (whom I love), and Adams, who is so attractive, Bale obviously stole the show as Dicky Ecklund, a strung-out crack addict who’s always late to his brother’s training sessions, and who’s desperate to keep alive the legend of how he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring in 1978. A compelling and contentious theme throughout the movie is: did he really knock down Sugar Ray or did Sugar Ray trip? Both Wahlberg and Bale studied their real-life counterparts closely to turn in the most accurate performances possible. Micky Ward was on set almost constantly to help Wahlberg, and during a brief period of time the two brothers even moved in to Wahlberg’s home. Wahlberg used no stunt doubles and took real punches, almost breaking his nose a couple of times, and hired Freddie Roach as his boxing trainer to match his fighting style to Ward’s as closely as possible. Bale studied his counterpart Dicky Ecklund very closely to match his mannerisms, lost a lot of weight (which he gained back and then some for American Hustle three years later), and stayed in character throughout filming. The role of Ecklund was originally meant for Brad Pitt – can you imagine Pitt playing a strung-out junkie? I can. (12 Monkeys comes to mind.) But not like Bale. And while most movies that say “based on a true story” seem anything but (Pain & Gain anyone?), The Fighter was apparently strikingly true to real life events, though it did take liberty with Micky’s fighting record throughout the film. For example, in the movie, as Micky is preparing for the 1988 Mike Mungin fight, he’s on a losing streak. In reality, at that time his record was 18-1 and he was on a four-fight winning streak. In the movie, Mungin beat the hell out of Micky and crushed his spirit. In reality, the fight went the full ten rounds and was actually very close. These sorts of details should only bother the most anal of boxing fanatics.

I love movies with strong family themes, especially when familial bonds are stressed and tested and potentially broken. There’s something Shakespearean about The Fighter, but since the movie’s still relatively new, I’m not going to spoil the second half of the movie for anyone. Suffice to say, it caused me to reflect on my relationship with my own younger brother, from whom I was very distant for the first 21 years of his life. We’ve gotten closer since he joined the Army, and we’re in fact going to be living together within the next few weeks to make up for lost time. However, I doubt either one of us will be taking a shot at a welterweight boxing title any time soon.

I’m ashamed it took me so long to see The Fighter, but I’m glad I finally did, and I feel the same way now that I felt after seeing Wahlberg in Pain & Gain – I feel like going out and punching someone in the face. Not really. But I do feel like getting more in shape and taking boxing classes myself. I really can’t recommend The Fighter enough, to those who’ve not yet seen it, and even for those who aren’t necessarily fans of the sport of boxing.

The Fighter has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes with 233 reviews. It’s available on Blu-ray from Amazon here. (ssw)

Score
10/10

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Tony Jaa

Jaa-1Japanom Yeerum, formerly Tatchakorn Yeerum or Panom Yeerum, better known to western audiences as Tony Jaa and in Thailand as Jaa Panom, was born 5 February 1976 in Surin province, Isaan, Thailand, about 400 km away from Bangkok. Growing up, Jaa was fascinated by the martial arts exploits of actors such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Bruce Lee and Vince Lam, and would imitate them whenever he had the chance. At 15, he became a protégé of stuntman and action-film director Panna Rittikrai, and under his instruction he went on to attend Maha Sarakham College of Physical Education in Maha Sarakham province. An athlete through and through, Jaa has won gold medals in Thailand for track running, swordplay, and gymnastics, and in university he was a high jump athlete, an acquired skill which still allows him to jump 2 meters high. His athleticism and martial arts ability made him a natural fit in Panna’s Muay Thai Stunt team. In 1999, Panna’s stunt team partnered with Prachya Pinkaew and Prachya’s production house, Baa-Ram-Ewe, and Panna hand-selected Jaa to star in their first collaboration – Ong-bak, which Prachya was to direct and for which Panna was to do the fight choreography. Prior to his breakout role in Ong-bak, Jaa’s had smaller roles in other films, from 1994’s Spirited Killer to 2001’s Nuk leng klong yao, and he even had an uncredited involvement as Liu Kang’s (Robin Shou’s) stunt double in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

Jaa, Panna, and Prachya’s collaborations continued with 2005’s Tom-Yum-Goong, known in the west as The Protector. In 2008, Jaa directed himself in Ong-bak 2, while Prachya was busy directing Yanin Vismitananda in her debut starring role in the film Chocolate, and in 2010, Jaa and Panna wrote and directed Ong-bak 3 without Prachya’s involvement. After this, on 28 May 2010, Jaa retired from acting to become a Buddhist monk in Surin, Thailand, and he officially married his long-time girlfriend Piyarat Chotiwattananont on 29 December 2011. In 2013, Jaa left the monastic life behind and the trio of Jaa, Panna, and Prachya regrouped for another sequel, this time Tom-Yum-Goong 2, with Prachya back in the director’s chair.

Jaa’s future film plans for 2014 include a team-up with Dolph Lundgren in A Man Will Rise, and in 2015 he will have a role in his first Hollywood film, Fast & Furious 7. Also in 2015 he will be reteaming with Lundgren for Skin Trade, and appearing in a currently unspecified role in SPL 2: Rise of Wong Po, sequel to 2005’s SPL: Sha Po Lang, known in the west as Kill Zone. He has announced he will not be appearing in the planned fourth movie in the Ong-bak franchise, due to be released 2014.

Training and Style
Starting at the age of 8, Jaa was trained in muay Thai, or Thai boxing. Since then, he’s earned a black belt in taekwondo, although it is unclear whether his TKD training was formal or a part of his stunt team apprenticeship. In addition to his TKD and muay Thai training, Jaa is also familiar with Judo and Wushu, and he has taught himself krabi-krabong (a weapons-based Thai martial art), lethwei (an unarmed Burmese martial art), and kino mutai (a specialized subsection of some Filipino martial arts that highlights uninterrupted biting and eye gouging). He and his mentor Panna studied for four years the art of muay boran, or ancient boxing, which was the precursor to today’s muay Thai, and it was this training and a subsequent video demonstration that led to the creation of Jaa’s first breakout film, Ong-bak.

Trivia

  • Jackie Chan was so impressed with Tony Jaa’s work that Chan convinced director Brett Ratner to give Jaa a role in 2007’s Rush Hour 3. However, Jaa could not take the role because he was busy making Ong-bak 2 at the time. “I gave the director videos of Tony Jaa because I think Tony Jaa is the most well-rounded of all action stars,” Chan told the Associated Press. “The director liked him a lot.”
  • Jaa had small cameo roles as himself in Petchtai Wongkamlao’s 2004 action-comedy The Bodyguard and its 2007 sequel. Petchtai played Sergeant Mark in Tom-Yum-Goong and its sequel, and has also appeared in all three of Jaa’s Ong-bak films, so the two are frequent collaborators.
  • In 2005 Jaa lent his voice and likeness to a PC video game adaptation of Tom-Yum-Goong, and it’s very difficult to find any information about this game except through YouTube videos, like this one. I’m sure a truly motivated fan will be able to acquire a copy of what looks like a terrible game through… questionable… means…
  • Here’s a pretty great compilation video of Jaa and Vin Diesel training together for Fast & Furious 7.

(ssw)

Top 5 Sequels I Want Before I Die

Many seem to decry the death of creativity and to consider Hollywood filmmakers to be incapable of producing original content. Instead, production companies like to play it safe and produce sequels to and remakes of established franchises – and it isn’t just films. With a new Call of Duty and a new Battlefield coming out every year, each seemingly offering nothing new to their genres, the gaming community seems to be getting pretty sick of sequels as well. But I have a different opinion about sequels and remakes, an opinion I expressed in my recent review of Spike Lee’s 2013 Oldboy (my review). As far as remakes are concerned, I believe that if a story is good, it deserves to be updated, reinterpreted, and retold over and over again, especially if in the retelling it can reach a new audience. For example, I love the story of the graphic novel and anime movie Akira, but not every human being in the world is going to want to watch an animated film from the late 80s, let alone with its original audio track. Some people feel that because they do enjoy the original, they’re the only ones who deserve access to the story. These are the hipsters who whine every time something they once enjoyed has “gone mainstream, man.” Every time I hear mention that Akira is getting a live-action American remake, I get excited at the possibility of sharing that story with people who before would never have experienced it. This post is about sequels, though, which some might consider only slightly less creatively bankrupt than remakes. My argument is, if you liked the original, why wouldn’t you want the story to continue, to spend more time with the characters? If you didn’t like the original, why complain about the sequel – you don’t have to see it! If you liked the original but feel like the story shouldn’t continue, again – you don’t have to continue the story. You can stay at home and watch something else. Whether or not a sequel works is another story, but at least keep the cry-baby voice toned down until you see for yourself, and then make your own decision as to whether the continuation was worthwhile. There are five sequels coming out soon(ish) that I’m very excited to see, and they are:

  • Ghostbusters III – has been in development hell for nearly two decades, with Dan Akroyd desperate to bring the franchise back for a third go and Bill Murray seemingly unwilling to be involved in any capacity. With the passing of Harold Ramis on 24 February 2014, the project’s script was reworked and Sony expects to begin shooting sometime in early 2015. Even if the end product only features one or two of the original Ghostbusters, I’m still down to revisit this world and I have no reason not to trust Akroyd to treat the project delicately and with respect to our 1980s nostalgia.
  • Dumb and Dumber To – The prequel to the Farrelly brothers’ 1994 comedy Dumb and Dumber was called Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd was so disappointing that I only got about half-way through, and I haven’t revisited it yet to give it a proper shot. Without Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, I just wasn’t willing to sit through it. The next film, though, will see our heroes return, albeit 20 years older. With the Farrelly brothers back in the directors’ chairs, there’s no reason Dumb and Dumber To, set to be released 14 November 2014, shouldn’t live up to the original.
  • 22 Jump Street21 Jump Street, which came out in 2012, was a pleasant surprise for me and my sister. We’d not watched the show before so nostalgia wasn’t a factor, though the trailer looked hilarious. The movie did not disappoint and gave us both newfound respect for Channing Tatum, and I think we both squeaked with glee when Johnny Depp turned out to be an undercover DEA agent in the biker gang. Though the sequel’s trailer, which shows the boys heading off to college, didn’t look quite as funny as the first, I’m still excited for its 13 June 2014 release date, and I wonder if I’ll be able to get my sister back in town so we can see it together. (She lives 8 hours away.)
  • Star Wars: Episode VII – Like any Star Wars fanatic, I felt a little confused when J.J. Abrams, the director of the last two (excellent) Star Trek movies, was announced as the director of the new Disney-produced Star Wars installment. Given the long-standing and very meaningless conflict between Trekkies and Warsies (is that what we’re called?), can I really trust Abrams to do as good a service to my world as he did to the Trek one? Answer: Yes. I trust Abrams to do a fair service and bring back Star Wars in a big way. Theories and conjectures abound, of course, but last I’ve heard, most of the original cast will likely have minor roles, including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and even Harrison Ford, which will be amazing, even if they’re only present in this first entry of the new trilogy such that they can pass on the torches to a younger, less terminal cast. Its anticipated release date of 18 December 2015 will likely be a day that will  live long in geek infamy.
  • Wreck-It Ralph 2 – Pixar has long been considered the king of CG animated films, with Disney’s animation studio just struggling to keep up. When Wreck-It Ralph came out in 2012, Disney became a contender again. (And don’t even get me started with Frozen, which just KILLED it.) I didn’t expect to like it so much, probably because I consider myself a hardcore gamer (or used to, anyway), and doubted an animated film could capture my world. But it did, and I loved everything about Wreck-It Ralph, especially Sarah Silverman, who voices the mad adorable Vanellope von Schweetz. There’s no release date set for the sequel as writing and preproduction has only just begun, but I’ll definitely be one of the first in line – as long as Silverman comes back.

Given my excitement for the five sequels I just listed, only one of which I believe has a chance not to get made depending on the circumstances (that one being Ghostbusters III), you might be able to tell I don’t mind sequels so much. I’m even intrigued by the new Jurassic Park movie that’s supposed to come out in 2015, called Jurassic World, even though I don’t know anything about it – I got very excited when I heard that Keira Knightley was going to have a role, but that seems to have fallen through. With all these sequels sure (or almost sure) to come out within the next few years, and with my health still pretty good, I’m likely to see them all.

However, there are sequels I don’t think will ever get made, but which I’d love to see some day before I die – even if it’s a reboot and not really a sequel. I don’t care. Just give me what I want. Without further exposition here are the 5 sequels I hope to see before I buy the farm:

The A-Team II

Before I saw 2010’s The A-Team adaptation, starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley and Quinton Jackson and directed by Joe Carnahan (who previously directed the critically divisive Smokin’ Aces), I’d only a sideways familiarity with the show as it existed in pop culture, and I might’ve caught a few scenes from random episodes on TV here and there. After I saw, and loved, the film, I collected every episode of the show, and devoured the first season. While I’ve yet to continue my adventures with the A-Team due to “scheduling conflicts,” I love that world and I loved this film. After Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith and his band of eccentric soldiers, including Lt. Templeton “Face” Peck, Cpl. Bosco Albert “B.A.” Baracus, and Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, are framed for treason, Hannibal escapes from prison with the help of CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson), assembles his team of fugitives, and goes about tracking down the villains that betrayed them.

It’s such a wild adventure, with incredible, ridiculously impossible action sequences, like a parachuting tank versus drone jet battle that’s strenuous to describe with words (see the picture instead), The A-Team was one of the better American action films I think to come out in quite awhile. Given that the film served as a reboot to the origin story of how the A-Team became the A-Team, it could easily have set up a franchise with as much juice in it as Jason Bourne. The cast and director all expressed interest to do a sequel, but acknowledged that it depended on revenue – and since The A-Team ultimately did not make enough money, any plans for a sequel were, sadly, canned.

Bad Boys III

Wait a minute. I hit the old Google machine for information on my Bad Boys 2 write-up and have just learned that Michael Bay (who directed the first two) HAS announced a third and fourth entry into the series. We’ll come back to this in a second. First, I loved Bad Boys, but I loved Bad Boys 2 even more. It ratcheted the ridiculous up to 11 and pitted our hero detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) up against a ruthless Cuban drug lord named Johnny Tapia (Jordi Mollà). Joined by Marcus’s sister Syd (Gabrielle Union) and antagonized by Police Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), the boys go deep to take down Miami’s ecstasy epidemic.

I feel like Bad Boys II got a lot of flack from critics, probably for its very dark subject matter (that whole scene with the dead girl with big boobies, for example, and the scene where Lowrey pulls a gun on a 15-year-old kid and asks him if he’s ever had sex with a man before, these come to mind), but as far as action movies go, Bad Boys II is right up there with the best of them. You can hate on Michael Bay all you want, but the man knows how to make an action pic pop. He’s on record as saying he’d love to do a third film, but the most prohibitive factor would be the cost, as both he and Smith currently demand the biggest paychecks in Hollywood. As for what I said earlier, about the third and fourth entries, it turns out that was likely an April Fools’ joke on Bay’s part. You son of a bitch! Until I hear legitimate news about Bad Boys III, this one remains on the list of sequels I want to see before I die, but probably won’t.

Lethal Weapon V

Arguably the Lethal Weapon series, which consists of four movies so far and stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as suicidal, deranged Captain Martin Riggs and straight-laced family-man Captain Roger Murtaugh respectively. I’m probably wrong about this but I’m pretty sure the first Lethal Weapon, released in 1987, established the rules of the buddy cop genre. Directed by Richard Donner, Lethal Weapon got three sequels, in 1989, 1992, and, most recently, 1998, with none other than Jet Li appearing as one of the main villains and Chris Rock as their hilarious sidekick. The last film left us with a happy ending and a great close to the franchise, with Riggs finally finding closure over the death of his wife and settling down with Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), and with Murtaugh accepting Butters (Rock) into his family as his son-in-law. Both men also welcome new life into their families, with Lorna giving birth to a son for Riggs, and Murtaugh’s daughter giving birth to a grandson.

Lethal Weapon IV was, to me, the best film of the franchise, or at least on par with the first, and I’ll eventually have to review it as a martial arts film due to Jet Li having a prominent role. As for the series ever coming back, given Gibson and Glover’s advanced ages (I mean, Gibson is still kicking it, but what’s Glover been up to lately?), it’s not likely – however, Warner Bros is supposedly in the process of rebooting the franchise with the same characters but a new, younger cast. It’s easy to see how this news could disappoint fans of the original, but, repeating the sentiments I expressed earlier in this post, if you cherish the original so much that the idea of a reboot physically hurts your heart, then don’t see the reboot. While all your friends are out having a good time at the theater, stay home and rewatch your DVDs and cry a little, but then move on.

Indiana Jones and the Long-Term Care Facility

Harrison Ford is getting old, like, really old. The dude was born in 1942, after all. He can’t have much juice left in him. And although he’s supposedly got a small role reprisal as Han Solo coming up in Episode VII, we certainly can’t expect him to pick up the whip and do any crazy archeologist stunts anymore. In the last installment from six years ago, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we caught up with Indy and saw that those bones were starting to creak and the whip just wasn’t cracking like it used to. But Indy IV disappointed many long-time fans, including this one. Does Ford have enough juice to come back yet again and make up for the perceived popular failure that Crystal Skull was? Sure, it made a ridiculous amount of money – but that was from brand recognition and fan anticipation. And don’t even get me started on Shia Labeouf, who plays Indy’s son. I didn’t mind him in Transformers like many of my peers did, but he’s not the guy that should’ve been given the Indiana Jones mantle.

It took 19 years for a fourth film to materialize after The Last Crusade. Unless Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas move soon (they’ve all expressed a willingness, but none of them are Benjamin Buttoning on us), another Indy sequel may never materialize, unless it’s a reboot, and given that Disney now owns the franchise, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Maybe they’ll give us a younger actor, or maybe they’ll take Indy into the animated realm – either way, with or without the original players, I highly doubt Disney will just sit on the Indiana Jones cash cow.

The Chronicles of Riddick II

When the David Twohy-directed Pitch Black, a generic sci-fi horror film starring Radha Mitchell and Vin Diesel, came out in 2000, I don’t think anyone expected that Diesel’s character John B. Riddick would become the star of his own series, from the 2004 animated short Dark Fury to the 2008 blockbuster commercial disappointment The Chronicles of Riddick to the modesty successful, if not much less ambitious, 2013 Riddick. When we last left our anti-hero, Riddick, who had previously gained control of the Necromonger army after defeating their old leader in a duel, had just escaped from the hostile planet on which he’d been left to die. The Chronicles of Riddick was a big-budget sci-fi spectacle that was meant to become a franchise of its own, but when it didn’t make the money necessary to justify the cost, Twohy and Diesel went back to the drawing board and came up with the simply-titled Riddick, which took the character back to his Pitch Black roots.

The gamble paid off, because the cult popularity of the character led Riddick to becoming a box office success. According to Diesel’s Facebook page, Universal Pictures has expressed an interest in a fourth film, and he and Twohy are currently seeking co-financiers. Given the popularity of the series, I don’t doubt the a fourth feature-length Riddick flick will hit the screens within the next few years. But when I say I want, specifically, The Chronicles of Riddick II, I mean literally that. Riddick was a sequel, but it was more of a stand-alone side story that didn’t meaningfully advance the over-arching plot of Riddick’s conflict with the Necromonger army. In fact, it deliberately and wisely served as a narrative bridge between Chronicles and whatever the fourth movie will be. Hopefully, the filmmakers will be able to gather up enough capital to give us another high-budget sci-fi epic spectacle, rather than another low-budget creature feature. Either way, I won’t complain. I love Riddick and the fact that both Diesel and Twohy also love the character and want to see him survive makes me giddy with joy. Now you know what I’m excited about and what I’m hopeful for – what about you? Are there any sequels/reboots/remakes coming out soon that you’re excited/scared to see? Any that don’t seem likely but you’d like to see someday before your kids put you in a nursing home? (ssw)

My Top 5 Films Set in Greco-Roman Times

Earlier in March I took my mother to the theater to see 300: Rise of an Empire, directed by Noam Murro. The sequel to the 2007 Zack Snyder-directed 300, Rise of an Empire stars Sullivan Stapleton as Athenian General Themistocles, Eva Green as Greek-turned-Persian naval commander Artemisia, and, returning from the original, Lena Heady as Sparta’s Queen Gorgo and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, the God-King of Persia. In much the same way 300 depicted the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 B.C., this lesser sequel tells a heavily stylized version of the Battle of Artemisium, which occurred simultaneously. As a fan of the original, I was pleased to see so many cross-references, and to see how the two films were actually taking place at the same time, though this one went on long after the death of King Leonidas to show the result of the naval battle in the straights of Salamis, where Xerxes’ fleet was pushed back by the Greek city-states. While Stapleton and the other actors portraying Athenian soldiers (who wear blue capes in contrast to the Spartans’ red capes) aren’t quite as buff as those maniacal Spartan battle-lords, he’s still quite the sexy dude – not quite as sexy as the demented Eva Green, though. My respect to the filmmakers for giving us a fan-service sex scene between the two opposing generals, which I found quite pants-tightening, though I found Artemisia’s sexual rapaciousness an odd choice considering her back-story, which involved a lot of being raped as a child. I could do without that kind of knowledge in my softcore movie porn. But pornographic is the way of the Greco-Roman film, and from the people that brought us orgies, Caligula, and Futurama’s Hedonism-Bot, here are my top five favorite films set in ancient Greece. And since I couldn’t find 5 movies I really enjoyed set in ancient Greece, I threw in a couple films set in ancient Rome for good measure. Enjoy! (Oh, and vomitoriums aren’t what you might think they are.)

300 (2007)

Of course 300 would make this list. As an action fan and someone who did not major in history and therefore feel the need to gripe about all the factual inaccuracies depicted in the film, I found this adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel (which I have not read) an incredibly stylish and entertaining spectacle. And those abs! Some women complain about how Hollywood portrays female characters with these super-fit, super-thin actresses, and how that makes “average women” feel lessened. First of all, sex sells. Second of all, when Gerard Butler and his crew of 299 Spartans march into the frame and we see a forest of rock-hard bodies, us poor “average men” also look down at our pouches of belly fat and mourn over our unexceptional physiques. I’m being facetious with and poking fun at what’s a serious sociological issue, of course, but still. It wasn’t until I saw Mark Whalberg in Pain & Gain that I decided, “Okay, fat ass, you’re losing weight now.” Four months later I was 25 lbs. lighter and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life. Seeing an army of buff super-soldiers wearing almost nothing (and the female audience members who swoon over them) makes a man want to get in shape, and in a country of fast food and sodie pop, where obesity is considered an “epidemic,” fitness is as important as ever.

300 tells the story of King Leonidas, of Sparta, who, along with his small personal escort of 300 Spartan warriors, sets off to resist the advances of the Persian God-King Xerxes and his army of over 300,000. Offensive to Iranians for its depiction of Xerxes as some freakish, effeminate ruler of demons and other monstrosities; offensive to members and allies of the disabled communities for its supposed support of eugenics and “ableism” (prejudice against the disabled by the abled), for the idea that the Spartans killed off babies that wouldn’t grow up to be useful warriors; and offensive to ideologues who see the film as fascistic and race-baiting incitements to war, 300 is an epic war picture with fantastical elements that has spawned countless Leonidas quotables, including but not limited to:

“SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?”

“Madness…? THIS– IS– SPARTA!”

“Spartans, ready your breakfast and eat hearty. For tonight, we dine in Hell!”

“This is where we hold them! This is where we fight! THIS IS WHERE THEY DIE!”

“Give them nothing, but take from them EVERYTHING!”

Immortals (2011)

Based in part on the classical Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and of the war of the Titans, Immortals was directed by Indian Tarsem Singh and starred Henry Cavill, who would go on to play Clark Kent/Superman in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel. Stylistically similar to if not tonally darker than Snyder’s 300, Immortals is set in an ancient Greece where myth and reality are still intertwined, where mankind is still reeling from the after-effects of the Titanomachy, or the war of the Titans. During this ten-year engagement, after which the victors elevated themselves to the status of “gods” and imprisoned the losers, the “titans,” to a prison beneath Mount Tartarus, a magical weapon, the Epirus Bow, was lost on earth. Cut to 1228 B.C.E., and King Hyperion of Heraklion (a creepy Mickey Rourke) is tearing across the land, burning village after village in search of the weapon, with which he plans to unleash the titans to spite the gods. Theseus (Cavill) is caught in the middle of the warpath when Hyperion’s men raid his village, and Hyperion executes Theseus’ mother. Theseus then sets out to avenge her death, to find the Epirus Bow, and to stop Hyperion, and in doing so he meets up with a band of helpful folk, including a sexy Freida Pinto as an oracle, and none other than Stephen Dorff, my man from Blade, who doesn’t get enough work – maybe because he’s an American and everyone else in ancient Greece has English accents. Incongruity, much?

My favorite part of the film comes at the end, after the titans are released. Throughout the film, the gods, including Zeus (Luke Evans), Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), Ares (Daniel Sharman), Apollo (Corey Sevier), and Heracles (Steve Byers), struggle with the question, “Should we help mankind even though they don’t deserve it or should we sit this one out?” With the titans loose, the gods step up, and perhaps I give this film too much credit for just this one element. It wasn’t a fantastic film, and I didn’t much care for the brutal castration scene or the metal bull torture scene. Also, as much as I love him, I don’t think Dorff is a very good actor. What ultimately saves the film for me is the goddess Athena (Isabel Lucas). I had such a crush on that goddess, and I was so psyched to watch her kick titan butt in that holy golden armor of hers (pictured above). I can base my opinion of a film on one character in that film, right?

Troy (2004)

When Troy came out, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, it seemed like a quaint call-back to the sword-and-sandal films of old (not that I’ve ever seen any of them), and an interesting experiment to see if the epic Greek war film could still justify the expense. With a $175 million budget, Troy was a box office success, bringing in almost $500 million. I can’t think of a similar movie that has come out since, unless Immortals and 300 count, but there was something old-fashioned about Troy that was very charming. I wonder if these other films might not have been able to exist without Troy. A loose adaptation of Homer’s epic poem Iliad, Troy is the story of the famous Trojan War, which everyone knows about thanks to condoms. Agamemnon (Brian Cox), the king of Mycenae, is on a war-path, trying to conquer all of Greece, and using his most skilled fighter Achilles (Brad Pitt) to do it. One day, two Trojan princes, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) are in Sparta, making peace with the Spartan king Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), but on the return trip to Troy, Paris decides to take Menelaus’ wife Helen (Diane Kruger) with him. Understandably, Menelaus isn’t too pleased, and Agamemnon seizes Paris’ act as an opportunity to go to war with Troy. Thus begins one of the most cinematically epic battles ever filmed, and, in my opinion, a very over-produced yet under-appreciated movie.

Some critics, notably Roger Ebert, complained about Troy‘s departures from Homer’s poem, like how the movie removed gods from the narrative entirely and made it solely a mortal war – quite the opposite of Immortals, in fact. Like in real life, in Troy, the existence of “gods” isn’t taken for granted. Most believe, most pray, most worship, most depend on “omens” and “signs,” and then some don’t, necessarily, like Achilles, who says, “The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed,” and Hector, who asks a priest disbelievingly, “Bird signs? You want to plan our strategy based on bird signs?” I absolutely loved that atheistic direction. As for deviating from the source, my friend’s father didn’t like the movie because it didn’t deviate enough: he suggested that they should’ve flipped the script entirely, and had Hector win the battle against Achilles, because he liked Hector more. I don’t think he was being serious – but could you imagine the implications?! Treachery.

The History of the World, Part I (1981)

Mel Brooks is no stranger to my lists. I previously mentioned his Robin Hood: Men in Tights on My Top 5 Most Nostalgic Films. And I’m sure if I ever get around to a space-themed list, Spaceballs might work its way in there. But for now, The History of the World, Part I, which is an assembly of sketches set in various historical epochs, from the days of prehistory to the French Revolution, makes the cut because its longest segment is set in the Roman Empire. Stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks, who plays many roles in the film) lands a gig at Caesar’s palace thanks to his agent Swiftus (Ron Carey), and on his way to the palace he befriends the love of his life, a Vestal Virgin named Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes), as well as an African slave, Josephus (hilarious Gregory Hines). The trio reach the palace only for Comicus to blow his set and insult Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise), and now they must escape… for their lives! It’s actually very funny, especially the scenes with Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn, who also had roles in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles).

You’ve already seen it, haven’t you? Of course you have. At the end of the sketch, Comicus, Miriam and Josephus find themselves working at a restaurant, where they meet Jesus (John Hurt) and Leonardo da Vinci (Art Metrano). Some of the other segments don’t hold up so well as the Roman one, like the French Revolution segment (though it is from here that we get the classic “it’s good to be the king” line) and some of the Stone Age gags, and although it’s found its way into the popular culture, I don’t personally care too much for the catchy Spanish Inquisition song-and-dance routine. The Old Testament joke, though, where Moses drops the third stone tablet containing Commandments 11-15, is probably the highlight of the movie.

Gladiator (2000)

You didn’t think you’d get out of this without hearing about the Ridley Scott-directed Gladiator, did you? Set in 180 C.E., Gladiator tells the (mostly) fictional story of Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), who, after rebelling against Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) following the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), is taken out to the woods to be executed, only then to escape and return home, only then to find his family massacred and his estate burned to the ground, only then to pass out and be captured by wandering slavers, only then to be sold into the gladiatorial circuit and purchased by Antonius Proximo (Oliver Reed, who died during filming, which prompted the script to be rewritten so that his character died as well), only then to fight his way up to the royal Coliseum games and earn the love and respect of the hoi polloi, only then to rile up the populous against Commodus, thus threatening his reign, only then to face off against the bastard one-on-one in front of thousands of spectators, only then to die and be reuinited with his family in Elysium. Oh, I’m sorry, did I just ruin the movie for you? Shame on you for not seeing it 14 years ago, then. You’re not even 14 years old, you say? Kids on the Internet these days. Then go see it right now, because even though you know how it ends (he dies), it’s still one of the most incredible films of this millennium.

Gladiator was one of the most influential movies on my young sensibilities, and I consider it a classic that belongs to my generation in the way an old, old, old dude might consider Casablanca an essential part of his generation. I don’t know if it’s the very first movie that ever made tears well up in my eyes, but it’s the earliest movie I remember having that effect – twice even! I cried when Maximus found the charred corpses of his wife and child, and then I cried harder when he died at the end. For the next several times I rewatched the film, I cried again and again. I don’t cry to it anymore. I’m desensitized to Crowe’s superb acting abilities. But other movies will still make my eyes rain – and I’ll make a list of the top 5 movies that made me cry soon. Don’t judge me. As you could see, while I originally wanted this list to be only of movies set in ancient Greece, I couldn’t flesh it out enough and I had to throw in two movies set in ancient Rome. Help me out here – what are some other amazing films set in Greece?

(ssw)

47 Ronin

In Japan at the start of the 18th century, a group of ronin – samurai who have lost their daimyo, or lord – avenged in spectacular fashion the death of their master Asano Naganori. Asano had been made to perform the ritualistic suicide act seppuku after he assaulted a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. Asano, who was the lord of Akō, and lord Kamei were being instructed in the art of court etiquette by Kira, to prepare the two for their reception of the envoys of Emperor Higashiyama in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). It’s not quite clear to historians what exactly caused Asano, a devout Confucian, to attack Kira, but the general account is that Kira was being a bit of a jerk to the two men, until Asano could bare the insults to his honor no longer. Breaking protocol, Asano unsheathed his dagger and took a couple swings at Kira, cutting his face, until the castle guards pulled the two men apart. While Kira was hardly wounded at all, drawing a weapon in the house of a shogunate official is strictly forbidden, and so Asano had to kill himself. His properties were confiscated, his family name was put to shame, and his samurai became ronin. Bound by honor to avenge their master, Asano’s ronin went about plotting their vengeance against Kira. Two years later, they attacked Kira’s compound and collected the man’s head, and were then themselves forced to commit seppuku. Over the centuries, the tale of Asano’s 47 ronin has been reiterated, romanticized, mythologized, embellished, until we finally come to 2013, when Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada co-star in the fantasy martial arts picture 47 Ronin.

For historians, watching the 47 Ronin rendition of the tale would be like watching Excalibur as if it’s the true story of King Arthur. Meaning, as far as historical accuracy is concerned, director Carl Rinsch just said, “Screw that – more CGI!” I don’t mind that kind of decision. I don’t watch movies to be informed on historical matters. I didn’t watch Saving Private Ryan like it was a documentary, and I didn’t expect historical fidelity from a movie that was advertised as a martial arts fantasy film with dragons and fish-people and giant monsters. And if I’d wanted a grittier, more realistic portrayal of the event, I could instead watch one of the countless other adaptations of the story (called collectively in Japan Chūshingura) produced throughout the years. Stylistically, 2013’s 47 Ronin is what it is: some sort of Lord of the Rings set in feudal Japan. In this telling, Kira (Tadanobu Asano), depicted as a real son-of-a-bitch, is shown to be in league with a sorceress (Rinko Kikuchi), who, while visiting Asano’s compound in Akō, uses magic to trick Asano (Min Tanaka) into attacking Kira so that Kira can take Asano’s lands, much to the dismay of Asano’s ronin, including especially their leader Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Keanu Reeves plays a “half-breed” (half-English, half-Japanese) runaway boy named Kai with a mysterious past, whom Asano finds on his lands and adopts, despite the fact that none of the samurai trust him. For romance, throw in Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki), to serve as Kai’s love interest, because we can’t have a movie without an unnecessary forbidden love subplot.

Nothing stood out as far as fight choreography goes, which is disappointing, since Keanu Reeves’ other 2013 martial arts film Man of Tai Chi (my review) had such incredible fight sequences and even made excellent use of Reeves’ athleticism. In the beginning of 47 Ronin, there’s a brief fight between Kai and some monstrous dude in a shiny suit of armor (and I love that Wikipedia describes this guy as “Lovecraftian.” Why, because he’s big and doesn’t talk?), but that’s over in about ten seconds. My biggest problem with the whole movie, though, is this: it’s PG-13, and it feels like a PG. The only sight of blood comes near the end, when the ronin are all using their sword edges to cut their thumbs to sign some scroll with their fingerprints. I understand that companies sometimes want their movies, especially big-budget spectacles like this, to be rated in such a way that they can sell tickets to as many people as possible, but that’s only okay in my opinion with movies like Transformers and The Dark Knight. When I’m watching a movie with sword fighting and with people committing suicide by slicing their guts open, I want to see blood. I want to see violence with consequence. I’m sure many people aren’t into that sort of thing and this may only be my personal preference, as I fall back to the fact I prefer my movies to have some grit to them. To feel unclean, to feel real. It’s not like Universal’s “appeal to everyone” gamble even paid off for them. They dropped somewhere between $175 and $225 million on this picture (someone got fired for this, right?), and made back slightly over $148 million globally. It even knocked out Mars Needs Moms for first place as the biggest box office bomb ever. Maybe next time, spend about $140 million less on subpar CGI and give us an action film that appeals to grown-ups? How much better would Chronicles of Riddick have been if the filmmakers didn’t have to score that PG-13? Do parents even look at these ratings anymore?

At the end, there’s a whole subterfuge element to the ronin seizing control of Kira’s compound that was fun to watch, but, again, the actual fight choreography was, for lack of needing a better adjective, boring. Oishi ends up fighting Kira and Kai ends up fighting some unimpressive CGI dragon. Fantastical creatures like this abound in the world of 47 Ronin, some of which are based on Japanese mythology, such as the Kirin, a giant, eight-eyed moose-looking thing that terrorizes the land of Akō and which Kai slays, and the Tengu, a clan of bird-people (whom I thought looked more like fish-people) from whom Kai learned all his magical tricks. The CGI was mostly serviceable, but for the budget and for it being 2014, I expected better. Set design and costuming were excellent, at any rate, as was the music, especially the suspense tune that was playing while the ronin infiltrated Kira’s compound.

I said that the lack of violence was my biggest problem. That was an overstatement. My biggest problem with 47 Ronin is the fact that this is a Japanese tale, set in Japan, with all-Japanese characters, that was produced, written, directed, and headlined by Brits and Americans. It’s British director Carl Rinsch’s very first film. Could someone please, for the love of all that’s unholy, give me $200 million to make a damn movie? I know I don’t have any experience, but I can do better than this. It’s written by American Chris Morgan, who’s previous credits mostly include the Fast & Furious movies including and after Tokyo Drift, and punched up by Iranian-British screenwriter Hossein Amini. The entire cast (barring maybe a few pirates) is filled with recognizable Japanese actors, but the main character, Kai, is played by Canadian Keanu Reeves. His character doesn’t exist in history, is absolutely unnecessary for the plot, and was obviously shoehorned in just so that there would be a character to whom American audiences could relate. Every spoken line, by the way, is not in Japanese, but in English, since American audiences apparently can’t read subtitles or find them too frustrating. Many of the Japanese actors struggle to spit out their poorly written lines, and I wonder if the decision to make everyone speak horrible English was made just so that Reeves did not have to speak horrible Japanese. Reeves’ performance, perhaps to some not surprisingly, pales in comparison to those of his Japanese costars, especially Sanada. I’m disappointed in Reeves, whom I thought did so well in Man of Tai Chi. I’ll still watch anything he’s in from now until the day he retires, thanks perhaps to Bill & Ted and The Matrix. Sorry, but you’re coasting at this point, buddy.

It’s not necessarily difficult to tell a Japanese samurai story that appeals to American audiences. Just look at The Last Samurai from 2003 with Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. Also mostly done by Brits and Americans, it cost $140 million and raked in $456 million! Rinsch and co. tried to throw away history and realism in favor of fantasy and CG spectacle and paid the price dearly, such that we probably won’t see another film quite like it for a very long time. For a lot less money you could’ve told a compelling, realistic, emotional version of the tale of the 47 ronin, and even focused a little more on the contention behind the moral of the story. Yes, the ronin ultimately gave their lives to avenge their master’s death, which to some makes them folk heroes and bastions of a lost, romanticized version of the bushido code. But to others, theirs should be criticized and reviewed as a cautionary tale. According to bushido, as outlined in the Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai, Asano’s samurai were disgraced when they did not seek retribution immediately. To a samurai, accomplishing one’s goal is not the ultimate end. Rather, what’s important is that one dies while trying valiantly to accomplish one’s goal. In the case of the 47 ronin, it would’ve been far more honorable if Asano’s samurai had attempted to take Kira’s life immediately, even if they’d failed and were cut down by thousands of guards, than it was for them to wait 2 years for an “opportune” moment.

I’m not saying westerners shouldn’t be allowed to make films set in the east, but this isn’t the way to do it. There are plenty of examples of it being done right. If you love eastern cinematic culture, but don’t feel you can respectably portray it through the eyes of a westerner, you could even remove the Japanese aspects entirely and just make a regular American action movie based on the tale of the 47 ronin. Like how 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, a western, was based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai from 1954, or how Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress so heavily influenced George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars. I can’t recommend this movie. It misses so many of its marks, and fails to draw even an ounce of blood from its targets. (Get it?) 47 Ronin has a mere 13% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 71 reviews with a user score of 52%. If for whatever reason you want to own 47 Ronin, like maybe you’re a masochist, you can find it on Blu-ray from Amazon here, but I’d give this one a rent first. (ssw)

Score
3/10

The Kentucky Fried Movie

In 1977, three years before they released Airplane!, David Zucker, Jerry Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, known collectively as ZAZ, wrote The Kentucky Fried Movie, an anthology film directed by John Landis. Based on the material of the trio’s sketch comedy group Kentucky Fried Theater, which they formed together while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, TKFM was at first rejected by all the major studios. After they attached the relatively inexperienced Landis to direct, and even after they spent $35,000 of their own money to create a ten-minute short film based on their script, the studios continued to turn them down, so they used their short film to attract independent investors, raised the $650,000 needed to shoot the movie, and got it done outside the studio system. Thus TKFM was made, and it went on to become a box office success, bringing in some $20 million. Today it is considered to be an integral forerunner to the spoof and mockumentary genres.

In this 90-minute film there are 22 distinct sketches, some as short as 15 seconds, some over 6 minutes long; some laugh-out-loud hilarious, some overly raunchy in a way that was probably a lot more amusing in the late 70s, most of them unrelated or only tangentially related to one another, but very few offer a dull moment. In the middle of it all is “the feature presentation,” a 31-minute parody of Bruce Lee films called A Fistful of Yen, starring Evan C. Kim as our hero Loo, and Han Bong-soo as the evil Dr. Klahn. After a world-annihilating missile is stolen by an evil army hidden away in an impenetrable mountain fortress, the UK government hires Loo – which I just realized spells “007” upside down. Wow. The movie just got an additional point for that – to join Klahn’s army as a double agent and stop him. I didn’t expect to have to write a review for this movie, but it’s a personal rule of mine that if I watch a martial arts film now, I have to blog about it. So, here we are.

Loo is at first hesitant to take the assignment, even after he’s offered a ton of money, because his people have a different set of values from the Brits, but when he’s told he’ll have to chance to kill 50, maybe even 60 men, he looks up and smiles, and off we go. In the fortress, he meets up with famed Chinese nuclear physicist, Ada, and the two set out to find the nuclear device. Loo is discovered, fights dozens of men, and is finally captured by Dr. Klahn. Klahn, who in true Bond villain fashion has one false hand and can plug any number of deadly accessories into his stump, admires Loo’s fighting skills and courage, and after punishing the guards who allowed Loo to wander about the facility, he pits Loo against his strongest fighter. Meanwhile, the prisoners escape from their cells, creating a distraction that allows Loo to chase Klahn into the courtyard, where the two finally engage.

Between A Fistful of Yen and the “That’s Armageddon” (2:17) segment, which has cameos from Donald Sutherland as a bumbling waiter and Bond one-off actor George Lazenby, I can sense where ZAZ put most of their money. For a spoof, Yen seemed to have some serious production value that probably unfairly rivaled the actual Hong Kong films of Bruce Lee. Evan C. Kim is no substitute for the martial arts legend, of course, but he replicates not only Lee’s physique but his animal growls quite satisfactorily, in my opinion. The gags weren’t as quickfire or as outrageous in this longer segment as they were throughout the shorter segments, but not to the detriment of the piece. I may be mistaken here but I believe Master Han Bong-soo, who plays Dr. Klahn and is in real life a martial arts instructor and the founder of the International Hapkido Federation, may have been involved in the choreography, though Patrick Strong and Russell Dodson are credited as the Martial Arts Coordinators. For a spoof, in that sense, the fights feel professionally and ably performed. At the end credits, the producers acknowledge Master Bong Soo-han Hapkido School, Chong Jhun School, Chong Lee School, Dong Lim School, Pugil School, The Arcadia School of Self-Defense, The Dovie Dena House, and Mr. Rich Markey for their participation.

Unlike other works by ZAZ, like Airplane! and The Naked Gun!, and by John Landis, like The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Spies Like Us, each of which I’ve seen a dozen times over, The Kentucky Fried Movie isn’t one I think I’ll ever feel the need to watch again. It was satisfying for a first and only go, which is about as much as I can ask for. Apart from A Fistful of Yen, the only sketches that really stood out to me were “Feel-A-Round” (4:52), the two parts of “Courtroom” (4:35 and 3:02), and “Zinc Oxide and You” (1:59), while the rest struck me as outdated or needlessly unpleasant – and I’m not one who normally complains about being offended. “United Appeal for the Dead” (1:42) was a commercial showcasing an association of people fighting for the rights of families to keep the corpses of their dead children around so that they can still be a part of the family, and that sounded like something I would’ve written for shock value during my teens. Today I didn’t find it worth a laugh. If it weren’t for Evan C. Kim and Han Bong-soo kicking butt for thirty minutes, I wouldn’t have felt obligated to compose this review.

I can only recommend The Kentucky Fried Movie to fans of the ZAZ writing team and of John Landis. You need that contextual framework to appreciate it for what it is. But if you haven’t seen Airplane!, Hot Shot! or The Naked Gun!, definitely invest your time into those instead. They’re much more refined and worthwhile, in my opinion.

Older films tend to have fewer professional reviews than newer ones, which may affect their scores on Rotten Tomatoes. The Kentucky Fried Movie has an 80% score with 30 reviews, and a user score of 68% based on 9,921 ratings. The DVD is obscenely overpriced on Amazon, so I won’t even bother linking it, but you can purchase it cheaper through Shout Factory here, or better yet rent the film through YouTube for $3.99 here. Alternatively, you can search for each individual sketch on YouTube and watch them one by one for free. Allow me to recommend the “guard game show” scene from A Fistful of Yen:

Score
6/10

(ssw)

 

Ip Man

Released out of Hong Kong in 2008, Ip Man is the semi-biographical tale before and during the Sino-Japanese War of legendary grandmaster and Wing Chun practitioner Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man), perhaps best known in the west as one of Bruce Lee’s earliest mentors. Starring Donnie Yen in the titular role and directed by Wilson Yip, Ip Man follows on the heels of Yen and Yip’s prior collaborations, 2004’s The White Dragon, 2006’s Dragon Tiger Gate, and 2007’s Flashpoint. It also marks the second collaboration between Yen and Sammo Hung, who choreographed the fight sequences due to his prior film experience with Wing Chun, and had costarred with Yen in 2005’s SPL: Sha Po Lang (Kill Zone). Lynn Hung stars as Zhang, Ip’s wife; Gordon Lam as Li, a police inspector who becomes an interpreter for the Japanese occupiers; Simon Yam, who also appeared in SPL, as Zhou, a businessman and close ally to Ip; and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi as General Miura, a Japanese martial arts fanatic.

It is the 1930s, and in the city of Foshan in the Guangdong province, the people are wealthy and affluent and many of them devote their spare time to the study of martial arts. There are many masters and many schools about town, but none so impressive and beloved as Ip Man and his Wing Chun technique. One day, a group of northerners led by Jin (Fan Siu-wong, who played Ricki in 1991’s Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky), arrive in Foshan to demonstrate the might of their martial arts in the hopes of opening their own school there. Jin provokes and defeats all the masters in town, until he arrives at Ip’s home. Ip is a humble martial artist and an honorable man who tends to respect his wife’s wishes, especially when she asks him to fight less and spend more time with his young son. Jin asks Ip, when Ip refuses to fight, “Are you afraid of your wife?” to which Ip replies, “No men are afraid of their wives. There are only men who respect their wives,” which is the lesson we will take from the film. After Jin insults Ip and all of Foshan publicly, Ip’s wife consents to the duel and tells her husband, “Don’t break my things.” Ip defeats Jin with ease, and becomes the town’s hero. Later, on 7 July 1937, the Marco Polo Incident breaks out. Japan invades China, and by October, Foshan is occupied and all but impoverished by the Japanese army. Ip and his family are made homeless and forced to scrape together a meager living, until General Miura starts organizing martial arts tournaments between Japanese and Chinese fighters, with bags of rice as the prizes. Ip, ever avoiding confrontation, is provoked to take on ten of Miura’s fighters at once after Ip’s friend is beaten to death at one of the tournaments.

Over time, Ip becomes a symbol of Chinese nationalist pride, standing up against foreign occupiers in the same way as Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) in 2006’s Fearless and Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) in 1972’s Fist of Fury. In this time in China’s history, from the First Sino-Japanese War from 1894-95 to the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937-45, China was seen as the “Sick Man of Asia.” The Japanese Empire wanted to dominate China both economically and politically, and in these kinds of films, martial arts is portrayed as one way the Chinese were able to stand against foreign aggression and retain their national pride and patriotism. Given the accurate historical context, though, most films like this are still only loosely based on reality. For example, the real Ip Man was never driven into abject poverty like is shown in the film, and he never dueled a Japanese general, though he did refuse to teach Chinese martial arts to Japanese soldiers during the war. Nevertheless, most of us don’t watch these movies for lessons in history, but rather for the beatdowns, and Ip Man delivers plenty of those.

Shot in Shanghai, as the modern day city of Fushan did not look anymore like 1930s Fushan, Ip Man offers a beautiful rendering of the place and era, from set design to costumes. Donnie Yen, who spent months preparing for the role, depicts of the grandmaster as a humble, cultured martial artist and a loving husband and father, and Sammo Hung’s fight choreography comes with a very high production value that has definitely stoked my interest in Wing Chun. Look for my exploratory essay on the subject to come soon. Even the character of General Miura, who’s in contrast to Ip a bastard because he’s a member of the Japanese occupation, seems a fair man at his core. After one of the tournaments, when one of Ip’s friends and martial arts colleagues is needlessly executed by the General’s second-in-command for picking up a bag of rice he’d earned from a prior victory, the General takes his second’s gun and points it at the man’s chin and says, “This place is for tournaments only. Never open fire here anymore.” I just love characters like this, who, despite being our villains, have at least some redeeming qualities.

One of my favorite B plots involves Ip’s friend, Lam (Xing Yu), whose younger brother Yuan (Wong You-nam) disappears after he’s publicly humiliated for causing trouble between Ip and another master. As time goes by, Lam continues to search for his brother, and we realize only too late that Yuan has joined a gang of bandits led by Jin, who robs Chinese businesses to avoid starvation. One day, Jin shows up at the cotton mill where Ip’s businessman friend works and beats him up for money. This finally inspires Ip to teach Wing Chun to others, and when Jin returns, the workers are ready, and Ip confronts Lam’s brother for the first time since the humiliating incident. The man lays the tears on thick, and it worked for me. I laughed to keep from frowning.

For those like me who are interested in the art of Wing Chun and the story of Ip Man, however fictionalized, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen released a sequel, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, in 2010, and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster starring Tony Leung came out in 2013. Ip Man was also portrayed by Dennis To in 2010’s The Legend Is Born – Ip Man and by Anthony Wong in 2013’s Ip Man: The Final Fight, both directed by Herman Yau. I’ll be sure to watch each of these films in the near future so that I can compare them to this first venture.

Ip Man earned a score of 84% with 25 reviews. It’s available subbed and dubbed on DVD and Bluray from Amazon and is a definite purchase for any martial arts film lover. (ssw)

Score
9/10