erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2018 posts

Friday May 04, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Remember when they said you couldn’t make a successful superhero movie if you had, like, two supervillains in it? Another piece of conventional wisdom bites the dust. Along with half the Marvel universe.

To be fair, “Avengers: Infinity War” really features just one supervillain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), plus a few of his powerful minions, plus a slathering army of whatchacallms that attack Wakanda. But it also has, what, two dozen superheroes? Three dozen? Just naming them all, and the actors playing them, would take half this review.

Avengers: Infinity War movie review And it works. It's fun. They did it. Yes, some characters inevitably get short shrift—see: Captain America (Chris Evans)—but I was enthralled from the get-go. “Avengers: Infinity War” is both galactic in scale and allows space for the usual Mighty Marvel petty bickering (Iron Man vs. Dr. Strange, the battle of our  cinematic Sherlocks) and spot-on humor (Ben & Jerry’s, “Rabbit,” “Wait, there’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?” “Why was she up there this whole time?”). Smart people are obviously behind this, including directors Joe and Anthony Russo, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Marvel impresario Kevin Feige. They’re playing the long game. DC should take notice. It should cry at everything it’s already lost.

Malthusian
The movie begins in medias res. Scratch that. It begins in media res even for those who of us who have watched the previous 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now that’s some serious in media res.

Last time we saw Thor, in “Thor: Ragnarok,” the 17th of the MCU movies, he’d lost his hammer, his father, his eye, and Asgard; but he was on a spaceship, wasn’t he, with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and the remnants of Asgard, heading toward Earth. OK, I guess there was some mid-credits sequence when their ship was overtaken by a bigger ship. I’d forgotten that. This movie begins with the smoldering remains of the battle that followed, while a bureaucratic voice, Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), intones how the defeated should rejoice at falling before Thanos; that it’s an honor to lose their meaningless lives in this way. It’s a good bit. Chilling. It will be repeated.

Thanos, our purple-skinned supervillain, is after the infinity stone in Loki’s possession and tortures a defeated Thor to get it—but not before Loki gets to use the line that Tony Stark used on him in the first “Avengers” movie: “We have a Hulk.” Back then we relished it because we knew what it meant. (It meant Loki being slapped around like a rag doll.) For a second, as Hulk pummels Thanos, we think it still means something ... until Ebony Maw holds back Thanos’ other minions, saying, in effect, let Thanos have his fun. And he does. He pummels Hulk into the ground. Hulk. No bigger statement could be made about the menace to come.

And this was Thanos with just one infinity stone in his possession. He soon gets the second from Loki. He’s collecting all six:

  1. Power (which Thanos has at the outset)
  2. Space (which he takes from Loki)
  3. Mind (in Vision’s forehead)
  4. Reality (with the Collector)
  5. Time (in Dr. Strange’s amulet)
  6. Soul (on another planet)

Apparently these stones are what’s left over from the beginning of the universe? Or something? The bigger point is they give the holder immense powers, which means that as the movie progresses, our villain, who has already pummeled Hulk, becomes even more powerful. So how do you stop him? How do the filmmakers come up with a credible rationale for defeating him in the final act (when he's a virtual god) when they couldn't in the first? That mind puzzle intrigued me throughout. 

Maybe, I thought, they don’t need to defeat him. Maybe as Thanos acquires these stones, particularly Mind and Time and Soul, he’ll become wise and abandon his plans. He’ll change. Right? How could he not? How could anyone take in the vastness of the universe and not change?

Well, he doesn’t. The filmmakers don’t go that way. The gems don’t affect him that way. I was particularly disappointed in the Soul stone, which is hidden on the planet Vormir, guarded by, whoa, of all people, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), and which demands that Thanos sacrifice something he loves in order to attain it. That annoyed me. Really? A sacrifice? So the Hawaiians were right after all? Worse, Thanos is standing there with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the girl he orphaned and then raised, the daughter who hates him, and she laughs because she assumes Thanos doesn’t love anything, has nothing to sacrifice, and won’t get the stone. Which would’ve been a great twist. But no, they don’t go there, either. They go where we know they’re going. Amid tears, Thanos kills Gamora, whom he loves. She’s the last to realize this. It’s beyond telegraphed, and thus a little disappointing.

Are our heroes a little disappointing? Three of the six stones Thanos acquires in the exact same way—by torturing a sibling/compatriot of the holder:

  • Thanos tortures Thor until Loki gives it to him 
  • Thanos tortures Nebula (Karen Gillan) until Gamora gives it to him
  • Thanos is about to kill Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) so Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives it to him*

* More on this later

Our heroes know the horror that awaits if Thanos gets all six stones, and yet they still give it up to save one life. What’s that “Star Trek” quote? The needs of the many outweigh the news of the few—or the one? Well, the Avengers turn it on its head. The lives of a known one outweigh the lives of unknown trillions. Including, potentially, that one. Bad math.

What is the horror that awaits? I actually like this part. Thanos figures the universe is too full, and it’s creating unending misery, so if, say, half of all life were gone in the blink of an eye, the rest of us would get along better and enjoy ourselves more. That's what he plans to do: kill half the universe. It's particularly chilling because it has its logic. Thanos isn’t some cackling, hand-rubbing bad guy. He’s a Malthusian. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, and Brolin, through motion-capture, gives him and his monstrous face and body a kind of weary dignity. He sees himself as burdened with this task. And when it’s over, he tells Dr. Strange, he’ll finally get to rest, “and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”

That’s some fucked-up shit right there.

Even more fucked-up? It happens. Throughout, I kept wondering how our heroes would defeat Thanos, this ever-stronger madman, because that’s how it works in the movies. The good guys win. Well, not here. Thanos wins. He gets the six stones and kills off half the universe, including Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Nick Fury, Spider-Man and all of the Guardians of the Galaxy—billions in worldwide box office, mind you—and then returns to, I guess, his home planet, where, on a kind of cottage in the hills, he sits down on some porch steps, sighs, and watches the sun rise.

You know the Hollywood sunset ending? The hero riding off into it? This is like that—but with the villain. Who’s just killed trillions.

That's pretty audacious. That's showing some fucking stones. 

But it leads to an obvious problem.

The obvious problem
How are they going to get all these superheroes back? It’s beyond the billions in revenue. Some of these movies are already in development with the actors attached: “Untitled Spider-Man: Homecoming” sequel with Tom Holland. And can you imagine the uproar if Chadwick Boseman doesn’t come back as Black Panther? #AvengersSoWhite.

One solution is for one of our heroes to steal the glove with all the infinity stones, then reverse everything—either through time, or, you know, just willing it. Poof. Everyone’s back. 好久不见.

There’s also the Dr. Strange factor. When Tony Stark admonishes him for giving up the Time stone to Thanos, and before he turns to dust like half the universe, Strange says, “There was no other way.” Now this could just be a self-justifying line, an idiot line to justify furthering the plot, but I don’t think so. Earlier, Dr. Strange used the Time stone to see 14 million possible outcomes to their battle with Thanos, and in only one were they victorious. So part of me thinks that’s why he did what he did: It’s the one path to victory. Apparently I’m not the only one thinking this.

“Infinity War” had its slow spots. I could’ve done with more Earth time and more Captain America. I didn’t particularly like Tony’s pause on whether to call Steve Rogers with the Earth in peril. Really, dude? You guys had a spat; get over it. And the opportunities to defeat Thanos that were lost, from Peter Quill in particular, left me shaking my head. C‘mon. Who squabbles with allies instead of banding together to fight the enemy? Besides Bernie bros, I mean.

But overall this “Avengers” is what a superhero movie should be: big, powerful, fun, and never forgetting the human equation. It even includes heartbreak. While most of our heroes simply fade and crumble silently before our eyes, Peter Parker, speaking to his mentor, Tony Stark, says these lines apparently ad-libbed by Tom Holland: “I don’t want to go. Please, I don’t want to go, Mr. Stark.” It’s heartbreaking. You realize how young he is. He wanted adventure but he didn’t want to lose everything. He had such plans. We all have such plans. 

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Posted at 07:10 AM on May 04, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Saturday April 21, 2018

Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Ready Player One” feels like the death of entertainment to me. The old master, Steven Spielberg, creates escapist entertainment about a shitty, dystopian world (2045) in which the escapist entertainment is a virtual reality video game with the sweep of the internet called “The Oasis.” It was created by a near-autistic genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in conjunction, somehow, with a dude named Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), whom he eventually pushes out in a sort of Bill Gates/Paul Allen-style putsch. Except Halliday never seems ruthless the way Gates was/is. He’s just a fucked-up gentle soul. Who passes his disease, or the Band-Aid for his disease, onto the rest of us. Thanks, nerdlinger.

Wait, it gets worse. Because the iconography of this game is based on Halliday’s youth. Which just happened to take place in the 1980s—the worst decade ever for pop culture. So we get the Zemeckis cube (after Robert), the alien from “Aliens,” the Iron Giant, etc. Also Batman, Catwoman and King Kong, and on the soundtrack, Van Halen and Twister Sister, all glommed together into one noxious stew.

Ready Player One movie reviewWait, it gets worse. Because Halliday died in 2040 but left behind a video message in which he said there were three “keys” in The Oasis; and the first to gather all three keys gains control over the whole thing—the whole Oasis. Which is like gaining control of the whole Internet. Which means, yes, every fucking asshole in the world is going for it. Or at least one: a corporation named IOI, run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who used to run errands for Halliday. And ... no one else? Really? No other assholes or asshole corporations? Are there other asshole corporations in 2045? Who knows? Our POV is fairly constricted here. Almost claustrophobic.

Wait, it gets worse. Because you know who else is gunning for the grand prize? Gamers. With like tats and shit. A group of them have banded together to ... Nah, kidding. It’s all loose and jangly. The corporation is greedy and pure evil, using indentured servitude to further its machinations, while the kids are pure, just doing their thing, yo, in between tries at that first key.

The world, in other words, is divided between hipster gamers and a big asshole corporation, while ’80s iconography swoops in and out. Doesn’t get closer to hell than that.

And I haven’t even gotten to Superman’s spitcurl.

In The Oasis, nobody knows you’re exactly who you are
Our focus is a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”), whose father named him alliteratively in the manner of superhero alter-egos—like Peter Parker. The fates rewarded Dad by killing him off before the opening act—like Richard Parker. Wade lives with his white-trash aunt, who ain’t no May, in “The Stacks,” which is like make-shift trailer homes piled one on top of the other, in the most populous city in the world, Columbus, Ohio. He has nothing to do and nowhere to go. “Nowhere,” he says, “except ... The Oasis.”

I’m curious: Did Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero,” “The Avengers”) and Ernest Cline (the 2009 doc “Fanboys”) consider putting us in the Oasis first? Before meeting Wade and hearing about Columbus? Could’ve been interesting. Or not. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and in The Oasis it’s the same—anybody could be anybody. The sad part is anybody turns out to be exactly who you expect. 

Wade, a short white kid with dark hair, chooses to be a short white avatar with blonde hair named Parzival, who looks anime, struts like Travolta, and hangs with Aitch, a big black first-person shooter/supermechanic (Lena Waithe). Parzival also has a crush on a cute, kick-ass girl named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She has friends named Sho (a ninja) and Daito (samurai), Chinese and Japanese, respectively (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki, respectively). They wind up being early leaders in the battle for the key. They’re called “the High Five.” 

But who are they really?

  • white male avatar = white male
  • white female avatar = white female
  • black male avatar = black lesbian
  • Chinese dude avatar = Chinese dude (albeit 11 years old)
  • Japanese dude avatar = Japanese dude

No cultural appropriation here. Not much imagination, either. I like that Aitch warns Parzival/Wade about falling for Art3mis, since she could be anybody, not at all like her cute white-girl avatar, and she turns out to be, you know, Olivia Cooke, as cute a white teenage crush as any lovestruck white teenage boy could ask for. It’s the jackpot. But ... oh no ... she has a birthmark around her eye. She feels it disfigures her. She hides it with her hair like Veronica Lake.

Right. It’s still the jackpot. The odds against him finding someone like Olivia Cooke on the other end of her avatar are greater than the odds of actually winning The Oasis.

Watching, I kept thinking, “We’re not far removed from ‘The Mod Squad,’ are we?” That hipster 1968 show gave us a white male lead, a white female sidekick, and a black male sidekick. That’s here. We’ve just added a Chinese and Japanese dude for effect. Or for international box office.

Parzival is, of course, the first to the first key, but Art3mis manages to be first to the second key. Made me hope for a second that maybe Wade/Parzival wasn’t the answer to everything. Nah. He still is. It’s still just that: one white male to unite them all.   

The horror
Once they team up, it’s mainly the five against Sorrento, whose villainous avatar sports Superman’s spitcurl (I would sue, but I have no standing), and who, in real life, knows nothing of tech or pop culture—just big business. Apparently those are our options now: big business vs. pop culture. As if pop culture isn’t  big business. As for real culture? Literature and art music and art? Not a whisper. Mr. Kurtz, they dead.

I like that Parzival attains the first key via research. Get to the libraries, kids. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Stand On It” blasting midway through the film. I’d forgotten all about that great B-side. I truly enjoyed the fact that the battle for the second key takes place within a virtual version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” That was fun.

But the rest? It felt like the flotsam of the last 40 years. It felt like they regurgitated '80s crap, put it on a roller coaster, and called it a movie.

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Posted at 08:09 AM on Apr 21, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Tuesday April 03, 2018

Movie Review: Game Night (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Game Night” is another of those suburbanites-out-of-water comedies (cf., “Date Night,” “The Hangover,” “Central Intelligence”), but better than most. Subtler anyway. It has a nice, dry, off-hand sense of humor. Jason Bateman is a master at this, while his on-screen wife Rachel McAdams is so good we wonder why she isn’t doing more comedies. Witness her paroxysms when she plays the kids-at-home card after a gangster gets the drop on her, and he responds, “Not with that ass you don’t.”

We also get regular laughs from Billy Magnussen as Ryan, the dopey friend who favors bimbos, and Jesse Plemons as Gary, the creepy, needy neighbor/cop who just wants back into game night. I laughed a lot. At one point I laughed so hard my wife shushed me in the nearly empty theater at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. And initially I didn’t even think much of the bit. 

The absurdity of the situation
Game Night movie reviewIt’s that moment, mid-chase, when most of the gang is in Gary’s living room, faux-playing, but really allowing Max (Bateman) time to sneak into Gary’s bedroom and look up intel on the police computer. While there, he unknowingly drips blood from his gunshot wound onto Gary’s white terrier, Bastion (Olivia). Horrified, he tries to rub it off with a towel, which turns out to be a T-shirt with Gary’s beloved ex, Debbie, on it; and when that doesn’t work, he adds water and makes it all worse—both dog and T-shirt turn pink. This kind of thing never makes me laugh, by the way, just anxious. It’s a little too “I Love Lucy.” He’s not doing the smart thing to extricate himself from the situation; he’s doing the dumb thing to keep himself in the situation. So I was just nodding along, waiting for the stupid scene to end, when, covered now with water and blood, Bastion does the dog shake and winds up splattering slow-mo blood all over Gary’s already-creepy shrine to Debbie. That’s when I lost it.

The plot: Max and Annie (McAdams) are a fun, competitive couple who have weekly game nights at their small home in a nondescript cul-de-sac; but this one is hijacked by Max’s older, more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), to the trendy apartment he’s renting in town. There, he announces game night will be an interactive role-playing game, and whoever solves it will get the keys to his 1976 Corvette Stingray. “Just the keys?” Ryan asks.

A faux FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) soon arrives and announces one of them will be kidnapped before the night is over. And sure enough, two toughs break in, knock out the agent, and battle and take away Brooks while the others ooh and ah at how real it looks but mostly keep up the normal patter. “You have to try this cheese,” Max says. 

Of course, the kidnapping is real, and our couples spend the rest of the movie in pursuit and pursued. Each has its subplot:

  • Max and Annie have been having trouble conceiving, and Max is maybe thinking it’s not a good idea anyway.
  • Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, distractingly pretty) lets slip she once slept with a celebrity, and hubbie Kevin (Lamorne Morris) spends the evening guessing.
  • Rather than his usual bimbo, Ryan brings along a smarter, older colleague as a ringer (Sharon Horgan), and throughout they maybe become closer. Or maybe not.

Max also has older brother issues and maybe they’re related to why he can’t conceive? Maybe he lacks confidence? Because of Brooks?

The absurdity of us
Many things aren't what they seem, though. Brooks is not a Wall Street trader, he just sold coke to those guys, which is why he’s been kidnapped. He was supposed to deliver a Fabergé egg to “the Bulgarian” (Michael C. Hall), and someone else got it. But the egg isn’t an egg, either. It’s a fake containing a list of names on the Witness Protection Program. Even the game night that seems so deadly? It’s part of an elaborate plot by Gary to get back into game night. Gary, of course, didn’t know Brooks was a crook, so he didn’t know about the Fabergé egg and the Bulgarian. Also, if you unpack it, it means Gary—a cop—planned an assault (on the faux FBI agent and Brooks) and a kidnapping (on Brooks). I know he doesn’t seem smart, but he’s not that dumb.

But all that’s maguffin. What matters, as always in a comedy, is the comedy, and “Game Night” has enough of it. At one point, after Max is shot in the arm, Annie gets supplies to remove the bullet from a nearby mart. No rubbing alcohol, she informs him, so “I got you this lovely chard.” He: “Way to pivot.” My favorite part? She also picks up a magazine, Country Living, for its corn chowder recipe. It’s that. It’s almost never the absurdity of the situation; it’s almost always the absurdity of us.

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Posted at 07:30 AM on Apr 03, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Wednesday March 14, 2018

Movie Review: Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Our B movies are coming back to haunt us. They’ve lived abroad for three, four decades, and they’ve affected—or infected—the way people see the states. These people are now making movies. 

Here, for example, is what we learn about New York from writer-director Chen Sicheng's new Chinese action-comedy “Detective Chinatown 2.” Apparently if you duck into an Irish pub in Manhattan you‘ll find yourself in a biker bar—packed with tough, bearded dudes in leather, each of whom carries a sawed-off shotgun. Also, if someone threatens the Mandarin-Chinese teacher in Harlem, every black student in class pulls a gun. Every one.

The U.S.’s most recent and embarrasing export is also visible. Apparently New York City has a police chief who has messy strawlike hair, talks in a bullying manner, and mentions the need to build a wall along the west coast to keep the Chinese out. In case anyone missed the connection, the first time we see him he pops up in front of a giant portrait of Pres. Trump.

Didn't think much of the first two bits. But the Trump one? 非 常 好. 和 不 好 意 思。

爸 爸 打 我
“2” is very much a replay of “1”—just set in New York rather than Bangkok.

Detective Chinatown 2 movie reviewIt’s another everything-but-the-kitchen-sink comedy that once again convolutes the mystery with a second mystery—or a second resolution. Just when you think it’s solved, nope, here’s another layer. Kind of an unnecessary one, too. But our leads continue to have good chemistry, even if one continues to be way over-the-top. 

As the movie opens, our Beatle-banged and brilliant millennial, Qin Feng (Liu Haoran), a student now at the Chinese police academy, is using an international online app, Crimemaster, which has him ranked #2 worldwide. He’s in New York for the wedding of his former partner, and distant cousin (his great-aunt's husband's cousin's wife's nephew), Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), who isn’t really getting married. Though he greets Feng at the airport in celebratory fashion, with black bodyguards and a limo full of babes as is the American way, he just needs Feng to help solve a case.

It’s a creepy case. Someone is killing people and removing parts of their bodies: a liver here, a kidney there. Tang and Qin aren’t the only ones on it, either. Because one victim is the grandson of Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang), the longtime “Godfather of Chinatown,” who’s offering a $6 million reward for a resolution, we’re introduced to a virtual “Clue” board of potential detectives:

  • Sherlock Holmes as pre-teen British girl
  • a grunting western muscleman (a sad staple of Chinese cinema)
  • an older wheelchair-bound black woman who knows Chinese kung fu
  • a cute lollipop-sucking Asian girl hacker

Most remain in the background except for the cute Asian hacker, Kiko (Shang Yuxian). She shows up when necessary to spring our heroes, since, with an early-but-acquitted suspect in tow, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), they are being pursued around New York by Uncle Seven’s larcenous nephew (Wang Xun) and his gang. Also on the case is a New York detective, Chen Ying (Aussie actress Natasha Liu Bordizzo), whom Tang Ren is sweet on. She, however, is interested in an American doctor, who shows up midway through, who’s played by Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Funny Games”). As soon as I saw him, I went, “Well, there’s your killer; why else would he be in the movie?”

The answer to the crimes does for the Tao what “The Da Vinci Code” did with Catholic/Vatican history and “Se7en” did for the deadly sins: everything matches. Otherwise, our heroes race (or strut in slow-mo) in matching tan overcoats around Manhattan. I laughed at two recurring bits: an old forgetful sifu who mistakes Feng for a pretty girl and keeps complimenting him; and the western muscleman (Brett Azar), who asks how to say “Stop!” in Mandarin, and is told “Baba, da wo” (Daddy, hit me). He keeps saying it. Enthusiastically. 

Meanwhile, the scene where our heroes steal a Central Park carriage and race through Times Square, shouting exuberantly, is almost a shout-out to America and Hollywood about the new status of Chinese cinema on the world market: We have arrived. Related: “Detective Chinatown 2” has already grossed $519 million in China. That's more than any comedy has ever grossed in the U.S.

Detective Chinatown 2 in Times Square

唐 人 街 在 那 里?
The biggest problem with the film? At least abroad? Too broad. Again, I like the dynamic between Feng and Tang Ren, which plays off perceptions of new international China vs. old crass China. But Wang Baoqiang’s Tang Ren doesn’t make me laugh. Cringe, more like. He’s so over-the-top he makes Chris Tucker seem as subtle as a Michael Stuhlbarg character. I wish he'd tone it down a notch. Or 10.

Plus there’s just not enough Chinatown in “Detective Chinatown 2.” The title is a play off of Wang's character (Tang ren also means Chinatown), as well as the Chinatowns they‘re visiting (in Bangkok and New York), and I thought the series would give us the flavor of different Chinatowns around the world. Not. Maybe because Chinese audiences don’t want to see different Chinatowns? They want the exotic, not the familiar.

Next stop: Tokyo. 

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Posted at 06:42 AM on Mar 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Monday March 12, 2018

Movie Review: Operation Red Sea (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Who knew China’s humanitarian/military adventures would be so lucrative?

In March 2015, as fighting in the civil war in Yemen intensified, the Chinese Navy evacuated roughly 225 foreign nationals and 600 Chinese citizens from the southern port of Aden. It was a triumph: logistically, symbolically, internationally.

Now: cinematically.

Operation Red Sea movie review“Wolf Warrior II” (战 狼 II), released last summer, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and elite wolf warrior Leng Feng (Wu Jing) in a fictional southern African country. The film grossed US$854 million. It’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.

“Operation Red Sea” (红 海 行 动), released last month, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and its elite Jiaolong Assault Team in a fictional northern African country, Yewaire, along the Arabian peninsula. The film has grossed $520 million and counting. It’s about to become the second-biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.  

The movies share more than real-life inspiration and big bucks. Both begin with the hero/heroes taking down Somali pirates. Both end with callouts to Chinese citizens abroad: that the Chinese motherland has their back (“Wolf Warrior”); and here’s the number to call or text if you run into trouble (“Red Sea”).

The differences are interesting.

他 们 是 谁?
“Wolf Warrior II” is more cartoonish, vaguely racist, anti-American. It needs not only China steaming to the rescue but America cutting and running. In “Red Sea,” America doesn’t factor in; it’s not even mentioned. 

Leng Feng, despite the title of his film, is really a former Wolf Warrior; he goes where he wants. In this way, he’s a more traditional action hero: the lone wolf. The eight PLA heroes, meanwhile, still follow orders. They’re more professional and buttoned. And dull. Also tougher to follow. Who’s who again? None of the eight are recognizable stars (to me), they all wear the same clothes, none have backstories. What do we really know about them? One guy likes candy; the new sniper is cocky and chews gum. That’s about it. I wound up differentiating them so:

  • The Captain
  • Big Eyes
  • Candy Man
  • The Spotter
  • The New Sniper
  • The Girl

That leaves two; I don’t even remember which two.

The plot: As the Yewaire civil war heats up, the terrorist group Zaka tries to get its hands on Yellowcake and the secret to making a dirty bomb. The latter is stored in a locket hanging from the neck of an industrialist, whom we see kidnapped and brutalized. The terrorist leader, an imam, speaks soothingly to him as he examines a Christ-like wound in the man’s side; then he calmly opens up the wound with a knife; then, as the man screams, his sticks his hand in. 

Most of the fighting involves machinery—sniper vs. sniper; tank vs. tank—so there’s little in the way of traditional cinematic martials arts battles. At one point, though, the Girl, head shaved, battles a terrorist in hand-to-hand aboard a grounded plane. It feels real. There are no clean movements, nothing balletic about it. It’s just a constant, close, sweaty struggle to get the upper hand, to get the right hold, in order to kill the other person. It’s kill or be killed. She kills.

Early on, the Chinese military seem so well-equipped and trained that I wondered how director Dante Lam was going to make a battle of it; how would he make them underdogs? Then the mortars start flying. Then the teenage Arab sniper with the scar (a great find, by the way; the kid has intensity) begins to pick off targets. After that, eight are left, and of course they’re ordered to attack the Zaka stronghold and free its one Chinese hostage. “Eight against 150,” the Captain says.

There you go. Movie odds.

糖 果 人
This is probably the biggest difference between the two Yemen-inspired movies: As violent as “Wolf Warrior II” is, I’ve never seen a level of violence like in “Red Sea.” It’s relentlessly, viscerally violent. It’s literally viscerally violent—as in here’s another shot of human innards splattered around what remains of a bus. “WWII”’s Leng Feng gets mussed, right? He winds up sweaty and dirty with dashing cuts on his face—like any Hollywood movie star. Here, one of the eight loses a finger, another an arm. Candy Man loses half his face. He spends his last five minutes on screen screaming in pain before finally succumbing to his wounds.

French director Francois Truffaut once said—via Roger Ebert—that even anti-war films are pro-war because they can’t help but be thrilling. I’m wondering if Dante Lam has managed to do the opposite: make a film so gung-ho, so full of his chest-beating love of guns, missiles and gore, that it’s actually anti-war. I’d be curious to hear from people who normally like war movies. For me, the violence is so brutal I kept turning away; the gunfire is so relentless, I just wanted it to end.

“This mission is a message to all terrorists,“ a Chinese Naval Officer says halfway through, ”that you will never harm a Chinese citizen.” Right. I would say the movie has a mixed message then. Chinese citizens may not get harmed, but everyone else does. Just ask Candy Man.

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Posted at 06:09 AM on Mar 12, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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