1 February 2010

BLOOD!

If you love your vengeance movies, multiplexes are currently serving up lashings of retribution all over your cinema screens, eyes and, if we've entered the 3D revolution by the time you read this, faces. The makers of V For Vendetta have given us a bright red martial-arts revenge movie, Ninja Assassin, and Mel Gibson goes from spraying the stuff from behind the camera on Passion of the Christ to occasionally getting splattered with it as he searches for the truth in his comeback film, Edge of Darkness. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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The titular Ninja Assassin is Raizo, a man who's been trained as a deadly warrior by the orphanage where he was raised. After about half the film's running time being dedicated to flashbacks, we can garner that there has been some kind of tiff between them. So Raizo provokes the ire of his adopted family by abandoning them to make his own way in the world. Meanwhile, an Interpol agent called Mika begins to delve into the murky truth behind a number of political assassinations going on worldwide and becomes a target herself. She teams up with a vengeful Raizo to take on her own bosses as well as a horde of angry ninjas.

Now come on. Any film with "a horde of angry ninjas" in the synopsis isn't really going to be Howard's End, is it? The first five minutes of Ninja Assassin will make your mind up about the entire film. It's as audacious and blood-soaked an opening as you'll see at the cinema this year, and it's daft as nuts to boot. It's a film that firmly plants its flag in guilty pleasure territory from the very beginning. Personally, I wasn't really er... pleasured guiltily? Unlike James McTeigue's massively underrated previous feature, V For Vendetta, this one doesn't really distinguish itself from any other film about ninjas. And it's quite a feat to make a forgettable film about ninjas. In the producers' chairs are Andy and Larry Wachowski, and more than ten years after The Matrix, they're overseeing a martial arts film with one of the least original and most clunky scripts I've heard of for a long time.

Naomie Harris and Ben Miles have to wade their way through dialogue with the texture of custard, and it's hard not to feel sorry for them. The film is essentially a star vehicle for Stephen Colbert's nemesis- Korean pop sensation, Rain. He doesn't have to talk much and thus his probably limited acting ability isn't really put to the test. Instead, there's a bit of wire fighting and CGI to make him look brilliant. And there's a hell of a lot of CGI. The fountains of blood pouring from this film's every orifice is largely animated, and while it never reaches the laughably ineffective levels of last year's Blood: The Last Vampire, it does leave the violence feeling almost weightless. However, the comparison to that film is not to be taken lightly, because there are a lot of similarities- two-dimensional characters and somewhat uninspired action.

Ninja Assassin is another attempt by Hollywood to break into martial-arts cinema without pairing off Jackie Chan with a sidekick. It's not nearly as fun as the premise suggests, and is instead an over-familiar retread of many action film cliches. It's never overblown, and it's certainly not bad, but all you'll really remember it for about six hours after watching is the quite spectacularly awful dialogue. I think that there's a scoring system somewhere that counts this film as a point to Stephen Colbert. Then again, Colbert appeared in The Love Guru. The war continues, and James McTeigue's concerted efforts are otherwise sadly irrelevant.


By comparison, you can only call Edge of Darkness a revenge movie in the loosest sense. It's certainly nowhere near as bloody, but I couldn't resist that title for the post. Based on director Martin Campbell's BBC TV series from 1985, this remake is all about Tom Craven, a Boston detective whose daughter Emma is gunned down on his doorstep. The authorities' working theory is that some hoodlum was trying to kill Tom instead, but the involvement of government fixer Jedburgh suggests it's not as open-and-shut as they might expect. Tom seeks out the truth, as the shady operatives of a corporation called Northmoor try to scupper his detective efforts.

Midway through Edge of Darkness, I realised what the film was reminding me of. It's like 2005's The Constant Gardener, only with a lot less subtlety and a grizzled, post-"sugartits" Mel Gibson in the lead role. There's probably a more prudent comparison to be made with the original series, but I didn't have that as a frame of reference while watching. Tom Craven resorts largely to violence and intimidation rather than the impotent indignation of Justin Quayle, but with a 15 certificate, Campbell doesn't really go all out with the violence. And the moments of excessive violence seem almost comical by contrast- see for instance the Team America-esque fall as Emma is assassinated at the beginning. There are more than a few unintentional laughs amidst the melodrama of Edge of Darkness, not least due to the bizarre accent that Gibson has been saddled with.


That quibble aside, Gibson really is very watchable in this. It marks a strong comeback after all the controversy around his private life, even if he is in the familiar territory of the kind of films he made in the 90's. You know, bereaved/concerned parent will go to extreme lengths for justice, blah blah. The camera doesn't flatter him in this film like it has in others, but that lends him more gravitas as Tom. That and the fact that you could believe they just pointed a camera at him and watched him go nuts with bereavement- the guy looks crazy, and always has, really. Ray Winstone and Danny Huston do exactly what Ray Winstone and Danny Huston usually do in films, and it's especially a shame to see the latter having settled into the dastardly businessman typecast in the way he has.

Edge of Darkness veers between melodrama and unintentional comedy, but levels out as a reasonably satisfying conspiracy thriller. I suspect it doesn't hold a candle to the much revered original series, but I couldn't call it for sure until I saw both. What I do know is that the moments of truly visceral violence seem cartoonish in a largely restrained film like this. Especially that climactic scene, which is just unspeakably daft and out of the left-field. Mel Gibson works well with the middle-of-the-road script, but the last film he starred in before this was the remake of another 80's BBC serial, The Singing Detective. Come on, Mel, give us something new! I must say I'm really looking forward to seeing him in is The Beaver, due out later in the year. Until then, his fans can enjoy this as a sign he's back. He's sounding a little like an Australian Peter Griffin, but he's still back.

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If you've seen Ninja Assassin and/or Edge of Darkness, or just want to bitch about the compulsive ease with which I've paired film reviews of similar content in 2010 so far, why not share your comments below?

The Oscar nominations are revealed this afternoon, so I can promise some commentary on that. Yeah, imagine that! From such a soft-spoken film fan as myself. You can probably expect another run at Avatar if it's widely nominated, with some rant-juice bubbling over the course of its meteoric seven-week success at the box office. More than that, I'm sure to be raging at some of the glaring omissions the money-driven Academy like to make each year.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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