Monday, 28 September 2020

'Extraction' and "I Came For The Set Piece"



Sam Hargreave, 2020

Screenplay -  Joe Russo


I feel the urge to write about ‘Extraction’ because I did recommend it to a couple of people a while back and feel the need to clarify. I wasn’t recommending the film as a whole, because, as Film Critic Hulk says: “Honestly, so much of it feels right out of the modern generic action movie playbook.” And it is. It’s generic and tends towards the tedious, though professionally executed. The “father figure” stuff is a tokenistic bid for seriousness and texture, but mostly it is “haunted soldier” propaganda. He murderously kicks ass, but feels a bit guilty about it (the kind of apt avatar for those that like movie violence but are a touch aware of the difference to real violence and perhaps feel a bit awkward about that awareness). You know, he has hurt that not even shades can hide. It’s based upon a graphic novel by Ande Parks and Joe and Anthony Russo, illustrated by Fernando León González; but Joe Russo’s screenplay has none the wit and deftness that the Russo brothers brought to Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ films.


Of course, this will be comfort food for certain action fans, delivering righteous violence with moral questions overcome by simplistic emotional and psychological characterisation.* Standard American Action genre. The time spent ‘humanising’ Tyler Rake (heh) feels more a perfunctory obligation than engaging texture. As Film Critic Hulk notes, films like The Raid’ (a favourite) and John Wickknows that the action needs only the most functional frame to jettison from. In the former, we know he has a baby at home and we’re good to go; in the latter, it’s his dog.


So, regarding set-pieces: I remember when I went to see ‘The Raid 2’, my friend and I were practically tapping our feet and bursting for the action set piece to come. But this sequel - rightly and smartly - took its time with set up, so that when Iko Uwais was eventually trapped in the toilet cubicle with a Tsunami of bad guys piling in, we practically laughed with glee: Oh! Here it comes! But there was already a wealth of story set up,  and part of the enjoyment of ‘Raid 2’ is that it takes the opposite approach to its predecessor: it dense with narrative, being expansive where the predecessor was stripped to genre essence. We came for the set piece – and were not disappointed – but what we also got was a proper story, the kind familiar from a wealth of sprawling yakuza films. That was all for the good.


But why did I find myself recommending ‘Extraction’? For the one long-take action sequence in the middle.


I didn’t come for the story but was ready to be surprised; but I wasn’t, and my investment in character and story was quickly perfunctory. I mean, Chris Hemsworth radiates likeability, so that helps, but… The only reason I was watching was because I had heard it had a fantastic action long take, which is one of my weaknesses, so I was curious. The rescue generated some interest but something in the nastiness of this first fight-scene didn’t quite sit with me; probably because I am less impressed with gun-action and gun-fetishism than the dance and skill of melee. You see, the bid for seriousness when it was predominantly superficial meant I could not just accept it as “fun” action, so questions of ethics and cultural representation crept in. And director Sam Hargreave is a stuntman so that’s an asset when things start happening.


But then the long-take action sequence started and then I became interested. Drama had been abandoned for dilemma and technical performance and I could enjoy the artistry of execution. 


It’s about taking what’s good and having to ignore the weaknesses. The one-take in ‘Extraction’ is apparently a trick, like ‘Birdman’, but nevertheless there was that WTF? element that makes all good action transcendent and fun. It’s why I enjoy the first act of ‘John Wick 3’ so much whilst I can take or leave the rest of it. I Came For The Set-Piece. It was that moment in ‘Extraction’ I was recommending, not story, acting, or other elements, but the technical execution of that one sequence. Because it’s easy to reject an entire film on its general flaws, but for me, that set-piece was still solid, entertaining, fun and free of the generic dramatics around it. My main intention is, after all, to enjoy what I’m watching.


Like I go for ‘Frankenstein’s Army’ for the monsters rather than the camerawork. Like I go to ‘Jurassic Park’ for the T-Rex reveal and kitchen velociraptors. I go for Mr. Vampire  for the action rather than the humour. I defend I, Daniel Blake for its important polemic and humanity over its narrative contrivances. I go to ‘Exists’ for the bigfoot and wish it had more than lukewarm characterisation. I go to ‘1917’ for the continuous-shot gimmick and cinematography, not quite the contrivances of events. I go to ‘The Black Hole’ for the sci-fi visuals and not the weaknesses of drama and cutesy robots. The first ‘Star Wars’ trilogy has so many iconic set pieces and glorious sci-fi pulp visuals and details that I just have to forgive the appalling dialogue. Ad Astra scores with me mostly for its moon-buggy pirates and space-monkey set-pieces. In ‘Barefoot Gen’, the gruelling bomb afermath sequence is undeniable.  I always liked the dinner table scene in ‘Talladega Nights: the ballad of Ricky Bobby’ more than the rest of the film. I go to Fulci mostly because I’m curious about the set-pieces rather than any coherence. Similarly, I go to giallo for the aesthetic rather than coherence or plotting. I ignore my reservations of Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’s descent into comic book wish-fulfilment so I can appreciate the initial excellent set-pieces.


Okay, so I have fallen into listing wider elements that I don’t prefer, but my meaning is that sometimes there is one thing that means you can’t quite dismiss the whole.


If you want depth with your action, go to ‘Sicario’ and have genuine tension and ethics troubled. It does so much of that right that I can even go with that “oh-really?-come-on!” moment in ‘Sicario 2’ (this comes under that thing of crazy shit really happens but if you put it in fiction, you lose to the people who are scoffing).


So ‘Extraction’ has a really good central action sequence. That’s all I’m saying.


  • * The same way standard horror-slashers often leapfrogs moral questions with the pleasure of the shock kill and effects.


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Shinjuku Triad Society

新宿黒社会 チャイナ マフィア戦争 

Shinjuku kuroshakai: Chaina mafia sensô

Takashi Miike, 1995, Japan


“Actually, I am a lazy person,” says Takashi Miike, the man whose video, cinematic and TV output is legendarily prolific. Certainly not when it comes to filmmaking. Between 1991 and 1995, IMB lists that he had already made twelve straight-to-video and TV films before this, his first theatrical release, so perhaps it is no surprise that  ‘Shinjuku Triad Society’ comes as a practically fully formed Miike, full of the touches that would define his cinema. The melting pot vibe that runs through Miike’s films seems to erupt from the basis that it’s all been done before, that we know all the tropes and so let’s go mixing things up a little.

The opening to ‘Shinjuku Triad Society’ is not quite as fevered as ‘Dead or Alive’, but it works up a similar appetite of expectation with its cuts between several incidents and letting the audience find its own way in by recognising the tropes it is working with. A nude man on a bed, a hustler, a throat slashing, an invasive strip search, all before the credits. And, like ‘Dead or Alive’, ‘Shinjuku Triad Society’ then settles into that oddball melancholy that characterises Miike’s work.  It is this trait that has come to strike me most upon second viewings of his films. Like many in the West, it was ‘Audition’ and ‘Ichi the Killer’ that introduced me to Miike, then ‘Visitor Q’, so it was truly only when I saw ‘Rainy Dog’ that I sensibly saw past just the shock value and was fully aware of how focused on the downbeat he was. It’s an unhappy chaos. The first time, you just have to go with the ride as with scene-to-scene there are tonal shifts and quirks that keep you a little disorientated.

This carefully controlled balancing act of provocation and an underworld characterised by resignation and doom is what keeps a constant draw of fascination. Typically, ‘Shinjuku Triad Society’ is peppered with the violent, the outrageous, the despondent and the grim. But Miike offers the offensive and the empathetic in equal measure so buy the time we get to the rape-by-salaryman, we are already in a heady confusion of the bleak and the transgressive. This is the first of Miike’s ‘Black Society’ trilogy, followed by ‘Rainy Dog’ and ‘Ley Lines’ which all focus on social rejects as antiheroes. There’s no one really to root for as you have the Triad on the one side, battling over turf and business, and on the other there’s our protagonist Detective Kiriya (Kippei Shina), who is guilty of brutality and rape and only gets to do what a cop has to do by – and isn’t this always the way? – going untamed and off the grid. Established as abhorrent, Kiriya then embarks upon a principled quest to save his brother from falling in with an unstable gang leader, which follows a trail of gang war and organ trafficking.

Miike and writer Ichirô Fujita offer as much a portrayal of the underclass of crime as ‘City of God’ or ‘Gommorah’, but this is not so obviously neo-realistic because the tone is so offbeat. Each scene has a little idiosyncrasy that seems offhand, even goofy, but informs and speaks to a wider context. Like a gang leader defiantly exposing himself to his rivals as an act that is simultaneously eccentric, excessive, and confronting the machismo that defines the Triad world. But it should be noted that this is a gangland drama very much defined by homosexuality, and this alone criticises that macho realm/genre. Michael Mann this isn’t, and the angst here is more freaky than whiny.

And yet Miike has weird sympathy for the grotesques and warped ones of this most depraved context. One detail that stands out across this ‘Black Triad’ series is that the protagonists exist between Japanese and Chinese cultures, being mixed-race or/and displaced, but at home in neither and vulnerable to prejudice. It’s a theme that runs throughout his work. There’s slim room for morals or betterment – although it does depend on which Miike you are watching. It’s the sad and outrageous world for outsiders. 

Monday, 7 September 2020

Mr. Vampire

Ricky Lau, 1985, Hong Kong

Writers: Ricky Lau, Cheuk- Hon Szeto, Barry Wong & Ying Wong


I hadn't seen 'Mr. Vampire' for decades, but I remember it being a lot of fun. And it is.

The simple ingredient that made ‘Mr Vampire’ a crossover hit in the Western world in the 1980s is surely simply its slapstick. But not just the slapstick-fighting, but also that the humour was recognisably of the ‘Carry On’ kind, plus more sophisticated farce. Foolish assistants, lovely ladies mistaken for prostitutes, mugging and gurning, trousers down, that kind of thing. On the surface, all that buffoonery, running and jumping and kicking and crashing with each other and with hopping vampires is thoroughly beguiling in the art of its performance. None of this needs words and is often somewhere between Buster Keaton and Benny Hill. Both impressive and somewhat base. The subtitles can only hint at the wordplay going on for a non-Cantonese speaker (as in the coffee episode), but even so it’s easy to parse that the joke is about not being aware of cultural mores and laughing at the expense of the innocent.

If broad comedy is a Western audiences’ way in, the jiagshi – the hopping vampires introduced by this film – are exotic and goofy enough to be instantaneously appealing. They are less a horror threat than a farcical obstacle to be overcome. It is the buffoonery of Master Gau’s (Ching-Ying Lam) assistants (Siu-Ho Chin and Ricky Hui) that are the actual cause of most of the problems. But the fact that the jiagshi are mindlessly, mechanically relentless – Wikipedia says they are also known as hopping zombies – gives them enough intimidation that as they are stiffly hopping, the characters are swinging, jumping and kung-fuing around them for both thrills and comedy. It doesn’t take an instant to get the rules that a prayer pinned to or marks on the forehead stall them. Or to hold your breath in comic fashion to avoid them. However, we also learn that sticky rice absorbs their evil. If only Father Merrin had known this in ‘The Exorcist’. There’s the Taoist context to, but as with Indonesian horror Pengabdi setan’ that uses Muslim beliefs, it easy to acclimatise to a differing perspective because it’s all playing from the familiar universal horror playbook. (There are evident similarities between ‘Pengabdi setan’ and ‘Phantasm’, for example). 

  If the humour is left a little wanting sometimes, there is an agreeable free-for-all about proceedings, but the farce is well structured and never bogged down by a bid for seriousness or poignancy. The story even throws in a subplot about a seductive ghost. All the while, Master Gau is the straight man throughout the hijinks who will sort this out with Taoist magic. As James Oliver contextualises:

“The intellectual current of those times was strongly hostile to traditional beliefs and traditions, emphasises modernity and its corollary, modernisation. ‘Mr Vampire’, though, stresses the primacy of the Chinese worldview, taking the efficiency of Chinese folk practices as a given, so casually accepted that Man Choi can use Taoist magic to humiliate Wai for comic effect.”*

So this doesn’t differ from the dominant strain of horror that cautions against modernity, that warns that the past and the dead will always terrorise us and that only the old ways will beat them. But what it does have is a spritely pace, a colourful palette, just the right side of zaniness, relentless slapstick and impressive fight choreography that is bound to win you over and – for a Western audience – the novelty of  the jiagshi to spice things up. 

James Oliver, 2020, Eureka! ‘Mr Vampire’ Blu-ray booklet.