High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

My Photo
Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

This is fiber optic cable, which is the future. This is culture, which is delicious.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Street Fabulous Must Insist That You Bounce Bounce: The Protector and Ong-Bak

I find that, somehow, I never wrote about Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior, which is ridiculous. Not only was it my first exposure to Tony Jaa (aka Phanom Yeeram), who is truly crazy awesome, but it also had insane rap in French from Street Fabulous. As you may remember from District B-13, I have strong feelings about the juxtaposition of insane French rap and martial arts movies. In fact, I believe that, for a time, I refused to respond to my slave name any longer and insisted that M address me as "Street Fabulous Bounce Bounce."

Not having written about Ong-Bak, I guess I can't use it for shorthand. Instead, I can give a plot summary of both Ong-Bank and The Protector (Thai title: Tom yum goong, but also inexplicably known as The Honour of the Dragon in Europe and slightly less perplexingly Warrior King in the UK). Both are directed by Prachya Pinkaew, who also wrote the stories (but not the screenplays).

Tony Jaa is (Ting [Ong-Bak]/Kham [Protector]), a young man raised in an idyllic traditional setting in rural Thailand. Nobody likes an idyll so Bad Modern/Urban People hatch a plot to steal (the head from the village's Buddha/the elephants that the village raises for eventual use by the king). Rural though the villagers may be, they are not stupid. They recognize that Tony Jaa is a freak of nature and that there is little reason for everyone to get all het up when (Ting/Kham) can journey to the big bad city (Bangkok/Sydney) all by his lonesome, find a savvy fuck-up of a sidekick (Petchtai Wongkamlao as Humlae/Dirty Balls/George in Ong Bak and the the more minimalist "Mark" in Protector), kick asses, and get back the sacred doohickey while still retaining his fundamental innocence. Not the most complex or original plot ever, but also not mired in WTFness of some martial arts films like, say Master of the Flying Guillotine (which I love, so please remove yourself from being all up in my face about it).

If you don't like martial arts movies for the constant escalation of ludicrous kickings of asses, I suppose it's unlikely that you'll find anything in this pair of movies. That's the most honest assessment that I can give, but Tony Jaa strongly tempts me to lie, a la the Frugal Gourmet, who once told me "If you like liver, you'll love sweetbreads; if you hate liver, you'll love sweetbreads." I don't know that you'll love these movies if you hate martial arts and/or action movies. But Tony Jaa is worth taking a chance on.

Like his heroes, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Jaa doesn't use any stunt doubling or computer images (for humans in fights---the jury is still out on whether or not it's ok to throw a baby elephant in Thailand and/or Australia). In Jaa's movies, though, there is the added h0tn355 of no wires. His fighting style (Muay Thai), at least to my ignorant eye, presents something that is visually new and fascinating to watch. I'm not arguing for the superiority of a fighting style (which I'm wholly unqualified to do) or martial artist (you'd better believe that I love watching Jackie Chan and Jet Li and will continue to do so), but watching Jaa, I find myself constantly surprised and almost re-learning how to watch a fight.

There's also the fact that, as an actor, Jaa is just so cute and earnest. As seen above, the movies are somewhat formulaic. The wistful message about the loss of habitat and traditional ways is pretty standard within a subset of the genre. But Jaa is ideally suited to play the elements. He sells the single-minded, hyper-honorable sense of drive and purpose. It's true that Ong-Bak pulls things off with more finesse, because it's a better script, but Jaa plays the emotional material well in both.

In general, I have to give the nod to Ong-Bak as the better of the two films. The more straightforward story and smaller canvas makes the rural vs. urban/traditional vs. modern message easier to sell. Both M and I had the feeling that The Protector had been edited to hell and back, so some of the Chinese/Thai politics were baffling, and the two nonevil (or moderately evil) female characters were totally p@5t3d 0n Y@y! Also, we were unable to determine the reasoning behind what was dubbed and what was subtitled. All the Thai seemed to be subtitled, whereas Chinese seems to have been dubbed (at first, it seemed as if Evil people were dubbed and Good people were subtitled). Some of the Australians were dubbed, even when they appeared to have been speaking English during the original filming. In any case, it was a bit bewildering and unfortunately motivated the fucking gaggle of teenage pindicks behind us to demonstrate their rapier wit verbal diarrhea at high volume throughout.

In terms of fight-y goodness, it's more of a draw between the two films. Enjoying the pure Muay Thai style as I did, I didn't mind that the fights focused more on showcasing it, rather than constantly escalating the props, paraphenalia, and styles. That said, The Protector features and amazing capoeira fighter (Lateef Crowder) and some of the biggest men in this or any other universe. Also, there is nothing not funny about the Vietnamese Johnny Depp pulling a cord marked (and I swear, I am not deliberately making this up, although it may be faulty memory) "Redfern" to summon his gang of 3xxxtr3333m3 5p0rtz ninjas: inline skaters, dirt bikers, and even an anonymous fetishest on a 4-wheel ATV. Similarly, you have to give props for ambition to Prachya Pinkaew for the 4.5-minute one-shot fight. One-shots are always cool. In this case, though, it did mean we lost some of the ass kicking as Jaa ducks behind walls and sends heads through latticework and whatnot, so he does lose some points for execution.

No one wants to see Tony Jaa achieve international and mainstream success more than I do. (Ok, that's ludicrous. Of course Tony Jaa and his nearest and dearest and financial backers want that more than I do, but you get the idea.) The Protector is certainly a step in that direction with its larger budget, more diverse cast, and filming in Australia. But some of the things that, presumably, were included to appeal to Westerners ended up being downright goofy. The first fight, for example, takes place in a Thai gangster's lair. I swear, they had a time machine and filmed it either on the set of Mitchell or one of the sleazy pr0n movies Ed Wood did toward the end of his career. Similarly, everyone loves a fast boat chase, but not really being able to see what's going on (leaving aside for the moment the question of WHY it's going on) and asking yourself if that really IS Jan Hammer music you're hearing and if you're having some kind of highly specialized stroke that involves hallucinations of Miami Vice kind of detracts from the experience.

I think, ultimately, Tony Jaa will make it. His physical abilities are too amazing to go unnoticed for long. And hopefully he'll wind up crossing paths with people who'll tailor vehicles to him, rather than forcing him into an already well-trodden path. Again, I hasten to point out that I love that path. I get real pleasure out of watching the tried and true martial arts movies, whether they're new or old. But still, it's exciting to have something new on the horizon.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nihilism, Surrealism, Priapism: Crank, Reviewed

There's a scene in Season 5 of Stargate: SG-1 in which Teal'c informs O'Neill that he has "heard of a place where female warriors do battle in a ring of jell-o." O'Neill immediately tosses his cell phone across the truck and says, "Call Daniel." This is pretty much our standard operating procedure with L whenever a movie with Jason Statham comes out.

Some might think that the plot of Crank might disrupt this ritual. It's Speed meets DOA meets something fundamentally Stathamy like The Transporter. If you are in the camp that thinks that, I pity your Stathamless life. That's exactly the kind of movie that Jason Statham needs to be in for us to watch. Unfortunately, this movie isn't really any of those things. Even more unfortunately, I'm not certain it's actually a movie.

Conversation during the credits

M: Actually filmed in LA.

Me: I'm not sure it was actually "filmed" in LA. I think it was "filmed" in the sense that Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song was "filmed in LA."

M: You mean permitless?

Me: I mean I think they just got Jason Statham stoned and followed him around for an afternoon.

I actually have never seen Speed, but I take it that, at least, Jan de Bont had read his Hitchcock/Truffaut and understood about building tension. If that is the case, Crank is not really like Speed at all because Jason Statham's heart has no specific velocity in mind that must be maintained lest it explode. In fact, it is quite mercurial in terms of its demands. This makes it difficult to care whehter Chev (Statham's character) finds the next car, kill, or drug of the moment, because the heart seems just as likely to demand a funnel cake or a shrubbery as anything else to "keep the adrenaline" (or sometimes "psuedoadrenaline") pumping.

Crank is definitely not like DOA, because Chev knows from his very brief and nauseating (literally, thanks to a crack-addled camera operator and some serious ADD issues on the part of the "director" and/or "editor") time as a character in a first-person shooter game that he's been given the "Beijing Cocktail" by a Hispanic thug from a rival gang. Chev, it seems, has been killed in this bizarre and attenuated fashion in retribution for having knocked off Don Kim, the leader of yet another rival Chinese gang played by Mr. Wu (and if you think that the dialogue of this film, such as it was, was not liberally punctuated with muffled COCK. SUCKAHs from our row, well cue the Ray Charles).

Chev might, quite rightly, wonder why Verona has a sudden case of the The Grendels. He's just the trigger man and the decisions come down from corporate, you know? But 'twas ever thus before the Revolution came: The workers snipe, snipe, snipe, and never unite against Management. Anyway, Chev goes looking for Verona and makes numerous calls and stops along the way.

This section of the movie (I retain use of the term until something more accurate presents itself) seems largely to have stuck to (what I think is) the (somewhat confused) mission statement: to be a live-action version of a "living city" game like Grand Theft Auto and its sequels and imitators. It's visually true to this in that the frame often pans out and zooms over the city to provide a label for the next destination. Thematically it's also true to these as, at every turn, we are reminded that Chev is a thug, just as depraved and amoral as the company he keeps.

At his first stop to see "Orlando" (tragically played by Reno Wilson of the late, lamented SciFi original series "The Chronicle"), he first clues into what's going on and what he needs to do to stay alive. He snorts coke off a filthy bathroom floor and taunts Orlando and his "nigguhs" with enough painfully bad dialogue that they eventually kick his ass and throw him out of the establishment.

Next he gets a return call from Kaylo. Kaylo really should have been Chev's sidekick, except they seem not to have been able to get Efren Ramirez and Jason Statham on set at the same time. As a cost-cutting measure, Crank includes absolutely no character development or motivation, so I'll just ask if you have heard Patton Oswalt's Gay Pride Parade bit. No? That is a fucking shame. Go get the CD. Anyway, Kaylo is, more or less, the Overenergetic Puerto Rican Wearing Nothing but a Cock Sock. Being vaguely effeminate seems to be the extent of his depraved thuggishness. So yeah . . . um . . . moving on.

With Kaylo's . . . adjacency . . . (assistance is certainly overstating the case), Chev manages to cut off the hand of Verona's brother, kill him, and steal a piece of jewelry with sentimental meaning. Chev taunts Verona with the jewelry. Verona threatens Chev's girlfriend (oh yeah, he has a girlfriend who appears to have slept through his phone calls despite her Amish answering machine). I suppose this is meant to keep the tension between them high, but as both parties seem to forget about the conversation almost immediately, I don't think I can give this plot element a good performance review.

Next is the revelation that Chev's boss, Carlito, is stoned, depraved, and has more money than sense. Seriously this scene was like something out of a Dolemite movie with Carlito in his speedo giggling like he'd overdone it with the hash brownies. This scene, in which Chev learns that Carlito has had second thoughts about ordering the hit and is eager for Chev to be his scapegoat, goes on for fucking ever. I appreciate an underwater shot of a menacing, fully clothed Jason Statham as much as the next gal, but Jesus, people, get an editor.

During all this running around, Chev has been receiving semi-regular calls from Dwight Yoakam. No, that's not me being clever (as if). Dwight, like Efren Ramirez, seems to have been reluctant to be on set with Jason Statham. As a result, he usually appears against a white wall with an extra behind him and a phone in his hand as he gives Chev dubiously pronounced medical advice of even more dubious efficacy.
And yet, he is in no way responsible for most of the stupider stuff that Chev does of his own volition (e.g., demanding that someone defibrillate him; running around in a hospital gown, navy socks, and black shoes with his ass hanging out).

Probably by now you've realized that Crank has been missing the romantic subplot. And if you had already caught that Amy Smart basically shares top billing with Statham, that might be confusing you. Sadly, why she shares top billing still confuses me, and I have putatively seen the movie. Most of the usual cliches are in place when she rears her blonde head: She has no idea what he really does for a living; he's been trying (unsuccessfully) to hide the relationship from friends and enemies alike, etc. But some of the conventions are flouted as well. She's not particularly virtuous or innocent (there's a bong on her coffee table, for example, and in the cringe-worthy "Sex on the Street" scene in Chinatown, she initially is fighting him off quite vigorously, but then she "gets into it" as he pounds her doggy style over a newspaper box while a busload of Japanese women in anime sailor/schoolgirl outfits look on [again, this is not me being cute or funny, alas]; later she gives Chev a pointless, truncated blowjob while he drives), she does not have a small child or other helpless family member to offer up for kidnapping purposes, and she herself is never kidnapped.

However, there is a "plot twist" connected with Eve (Smart) that is so lame I am not entirely convinced that it was not introduced well after the shoot began. As Chev is pouring out his real life story (which, naturally, Eve does not believe), he reveals that he had a last-minute and completely unprecedented moment of empathy for Mr. Wu and did not, in fact, shoot him. Although he claims that this was the moment when he decided to give it all up and get out of the business for her, the relationship to killing vs. not killing Mr. Wu remains unclear, especially given that he tells Mr. Wu to get out of town for 48 hours, then promptly goes home, gets drugged, and kills his television, thus winning the title of least likely Wilco fan ever.

And . . . oh, this trying to sort out actual plot is rather tiresome. After all his travel and long-distance calling, Dwight Yoakam cannot save you (and if that statement isn't the ultimate nihilistic manifesto, I don't know what is). All he can do is give you an insulin pump that is dispensing ephedrine. This gives Chev an hour in which to interrupt Verona and his thug while they try to play a video game that was old and busted before either of them was born, set up a gang war between the new Carlito-Verona alliance and Mr. Wu's people (against the backdrop of women in fishbowls for no apparent fucking reason other than the eternally stoned nature of the entire crew), and achieve the world's most pyrrhic victory over Verona while falling out of one of those famous helicopters capable of achieving geosynchronous orbit.

Don't get me wrong. Crank has its moments. Jason Statham is actually quite a brilliant comic actor in his way. He gets to play that to an unprecedented extent in this movie, but it always feels like an accident. Conversely, Statham does almost nothing in the way of ass kicking in this movie: He drives; he steals; he takes coke, meth, something Haitian (for no real reason), and a hallucinogenic Dwight Special; he sings We Are the World to remind Amy Smart of that night he fucked her in the Pet Cemetery (ok, I did make that up); and he arranges for other people to kick one another's asses. But to say that Statham's core competency is not really exploited in Crank is the grossest understatement.

I can't think of any explanation for this ridiculous oversight. Even the fact that the film has two directors, both rookies, seems inadequate. However, that little directorial factoid may explain some of the other mysterious elements of the film. The nauseating camerawork and seizure-inducing editing are commonly mistaken for a unique and artistic stamp by n00bz. The intermittent "arty" subtitling and Chev's hallucinated conversation with himself and his mother in the elevator may have been intended to add something resembling depth to the character's plight. Not so much, boys. And perhaps chickening out on the question of whether any kind of morality was to be or not to be in the film is also explained by the dual nature of the directorial team. The fact that I don't play games like GTA has little to do with any belief that I'll suddenly be seized by the uncontrollable desire to bust a cap in everyone's ass (like, duh, there already) or any high-minded objection to the existence of games depicting crude and utterly gratuitous violence. On the one hand, I think it takes a mindset that differs from my own to really enjoy watching a story (or something story adjacent anyway) based around the concept. On the other, though, I recognize the hypocrisy of the usual plot contrivance that has the protagonist drawing his moral line in the sand and turning on the past during which he's mindlessly committed countless acts of violence.

The ineptitude of Crank's script, though, winds up making it a tour through the worst of both worlds. Chev has pretty much no redeeming qualities other than Stathamy goodness, which is really not going to carry the ethical day when you're using your sidekick's dead body a shield (And, no, shouting "THAT'S FOR KAYLO" 45 minutes after everyone has stopped wondering both who Kaylo was and why Chev's own peeps felt the need to kill him horribly and pointlessly doesn't buy you any Code of Thugs street cred either. Also, no, you don't win moral relativism points when your former boss uses a live minion as a grenade shield.) And the romance between him and Eve is played primarily for laughs, so it's hard even to accept the urp-making cliche that he's been reformed by his great love. The writer-directors don't even go the soap opera route of introducing "good gangsters" who don't sell drugs to children and keep women in fishbowls. Although, to be fair, I did not see Mr. Wu putting any of his ancient Chinese sweatshop workers into fishbowls. Ah, at long last, the chewy moral center.

Labels: ,