★★★ / ★★★★
While Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) and a gang leader (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) figured out what should be done after a breach in territory, Masashi couldn’t help but notice Zin (Ammara Siripong), a woman with a scar across her left eyebrow who happened to be the girlfriend of the gang leader. Masashi and Zin eventually had an affair. When Zin’s boyfriend found out, they were warned never to be seen in public again or they were to be killed. Masashi moved to Japan; Zin had raised their baby on her own. When Zen (JeeJa Yanin) was born, the doctor informed Zin that her daughter had autism. However, Zen had an unusual ability: by simply watching someone perform martial arts, whether it be in person or on TV, she absorbed the moves like a sponge and executed them exactly when things got tough. “Chocolate,” based on the screenplay by Chookiat Sakveerakul and Napalee, featured characters that were paper-thin but its action scenes were so intense, so enjoyable, its shortcomings were almost secondary. However, that wasn’t meant to imply that the writers didn’t attempt to inject some heart into the script. Before the bone-crunching violence, a montage, accompanied by sad music, was dedicated to Zin and her love for her daughter. Although obvious, this needed to be expanded, not necessarily in using words because communication was at times very difficult for Zen but through quality time they shared, because the audience was asked to invest in the relationship later on. When Zin became ill, while it was easy to feel sympathy for her, the details in terms of who she was outside of her former role in the gang were, at best, vague. Furthermore, the father was gone for such a large chunk of the film, I’d almost forgotten about him. When Masashi finally reappeared, however, it was such a pleasure because the actor commanded a strong presence. The fun began when Zen and Moom (Taphon Phopwandee), a portly boy who’d been friends with Zen since childhood, stumbled upon a Zin’s book which contained names and how much money each person owed her. Since Zin needed medicine, Zen and Moom felt it was their duty to collect the money. As expected, none of the men on the list gave the money without a fight. Each passing battle sequence was more difficult, therefore more fun, than its predecessor. The locations of the fights couldn’t be any different. More importantly, the environment was actually utilized by the characters instead of just offering a different look for the sake of experimenting with lighting. The meat market scene was especially impressive. The sight of those hooks and beheaded pigs made me as comfortable as seeing contorted limbs and cries of pain. I would also like to note the roles of transsexuals in the film. I was very entertained by them because they weren’t featured as misunderstood victims. They actually held guns and were quite deadly when messed with. Although they were villains, there was a part of me that rooted for them because it was so refreshing to watch them play something unexpected without the script forcing them to wink at the camera and look stupid or cheesy. The transsexuals were simply a part of this Thai underworld and that is worth commendation. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, “Chocolate” was expertly paced but letdown somewhat by aggravating sentimental music meant to hide its lack of character depth. Still, once the dizzyingly energetic punches and kicks were thrown, it was impossible not to pay attention and admire it for what it is.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
The Karate Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother (Taraji P. Henson) and her son Dre (Jaden Smith) moved to China for better opportunities. On their first day in China, Dre developed a crush on a girl (Wenwen Han) with a talent for music but a bully (Zhenwei Wang) just as quickly interrupted their conversation. It turned out the bully was not just someone Dre needed to watch out for around his apartment complex because they both attended the same school. The fact that the bully knew kung fu did not help Dre’s confidence. The film was without a doubt commercial and at times cliché, but I could not help but enjoy it. There were three elements I loved about it. First, the maintenance man (Jackie Chan) did not teach Dre kung fu until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the story. I thought it was a big risk because the film had the challenge of keeping the audiences interested. It was a smart decision because it successfully established why Dre was someone worth rooting for. For instance, although Dre was bullied, he was not afraid to fight back. Unfortunately, he did not have the technical skills to stand up against other boys who knew martial arts. I found it very easy to relate with Dre moving to a different country and having trouble fitting in. When I moved to America when I was twelve, to say that the transition was difficult is an understatement because I didn’t know the language well and I wasn’t fully equipped to adapt a new culture. So when Dre finally confronted his mom about how much he hated being in China, that scene had a special meaning to me. Second, Henson was pure joy to watch. I’ve mostly seen her in Tyler Perry’s movies so I knew that she was very capable of delivering angst and sadness. I was surprised that she could actually be funny. Every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile because she injected a certain enthusiasm in her character, that everything in China was great, and she was ready to be strong for her son when the occassion called for it. Her facial expressions were priceless. Lastly, the scenes in the tournament made me feel like I was there. The build-up regarding Dre’s hardwork, the bullying, and honor at stake finally came to fruition. Even though Dre’s mentor consoled him that winning or losing did not matter as long as he earned the audience’s respect, I thought Dre had to win no matter what. I was so invested in what was happening, I couldn’t help but vocalize my thoughts. “The Karate Kid,” directed by Harald Zwart, worked as an interpretation rather than a remake. It did not have anything to do with karate (the filmmakers should have just named it “The Kung Fu Kid” to silence the haters–a simple solution) but I was entertained for over two hours.
Ninja Assassin (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I wanted to see this movie because the trailers looked so much fun. I thought it was going to be action-packed and it would be above trying to justify itself with creating ridiculous storylines. Instead, it was bogged down with melodramatic character history and I couldn’t help but question when those scenes were finally going to be over and actually feature some martial arts. Rain played an orphan who was raised to be a ninja but decided to seek revenge against his clan (led by Shô Kosugi) after they killed his close friend who also happened to belong in their group. Meanwhile, Naomie Harris, despite knowing about the lethal nature of ninjas, decided to expose the ninjas and the murders they committed. I honestly had no idea why she did it. I guess it was hard for her to decide between how valuable her life was and fame via unveiling a group of people who were experts in hiding in the shadows for centuries. Any reasonable and logical person would know that choosing the latter would be downright stupid. But I suppose the picture needed to have a reason–any reason–for her to meet a ninja who she could run around with all over Europe and get into action sequences. Speaking of action sequences, as limited as they were, I was even more disappointed with the fact that it was almost incomprehensible. I didn’t mind much the disappearing acts that the ninjas seemed to innately had but I had a big problem with the way the action sequences were shot. Although there were some interesting ones such as the battle scene inside Harris’ home involving shadows and a flashlight, the rest were either annoying because I couldn’t discern who was who or if the good guys or the bag guys were winning or the scenes had no feeling of tension at all. Of course I flinched when I saw gratuitous amount of blood–I liked the bathroom scene–but that was about it. I wasn’t actually excited that the action was happening and I wasn’t impressed with the choreography. Overall, even though I was willing to look past through the weaknesses of this film, “Ninja Assassin, directed by James McTeigue, couldn’t help but disappoint. At times I felt like I was watching a really bad music video where I had no idea what was happening or why. At least music videos, on average, only last about three to four minutes. It was a mind-numbing experience and I wished I saw something else that wouldn’t have resulted to losing my brain cells.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on Lionel Wigram’s comic books, “Sherlock Holmes,” directed by Guy Ritchie, was an underwhelming experience because it was very confusing at its worst and only somewhat exciting at its best. Unlike most people, I didn’t mind the “upgrade” from the traditional Sherlock Holmes. Holmes in this film was a sleuth who was extremely observant, logical and knew martial arts. In fact, I welcomed such a change because I like watching different interpretations of characters embedded in our pop culture. In “Sherlock Holmes,” the popular detective (Robert Downey Jr.) and his partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law) investigated the strange murders Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) promised would happen right before his death. Was something supernatural going on or was there a logical explanation to all of it? To make things more complicated, Holmes’ former love interest (Rachel McAdams) came into the picture with tricks up her sleeve and loyalties that were even harder to read. I didn’t like the fact that all the explanations were given to the audiences toward the end of the film. It would have been so much more engaging and less confusing if Holmes shared what he was thinking from time to time instead of just trying to be funny or getting under Watson’s nerves. After all, despite the modern interpretation, his core character should have been a detective first and perhaps a comedian second (or fifth). While Downey Jr. and Law did have good chemistry, it wasn’t enough for the movie to feel concrete as we headed toward the climax. I also didn’t feel like they had a really strong bond–like they complemented each other. The picture was too busy shaping the action sequences (which I found entertaining) that it neglected (or didn’t care about) character development. However, in a way, I kind of expected it because Ritchie’s films are usually heavy on style and light on substance (“RocknRolla,” “Snatch”). Still, I hoped that he would strive for something more as a filmmaker instead of resting on what he already knew. The picture also could have used another dimension by standing on the line between logic and magic throughout most of the film. When the answer is too obvious, it’s difficult to feel engaged. “Sherlock Holmes” isn’t a bad movie but it is a generic one. That’s my main problem with it. If you’re going to take a really popular character and change it drastically, you’re going to have to be willing to push the envelope all the way instead of just halfway through. Perhaps the sequel will do a better job with taking risks because the cast and crew will be more comfortable in their respective roles. (Or at least they should be because this installment was a success in the box office.) It needs to stop trying to be so amusing and focus on the detective work at hand without confusing and alienating their viewers.
The Transporter (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I have to give it to Jason Statham for always impressing me in his movies even though the movie itself is pretty average. I guess it’s because I find him so charismatic to the point where I am able to watch him in any movie and maybe even convince myself that I like it even though I really don’t. Thankfully, I don’t need any convincing here. Sure, the action is over-the-top, there isn’t much story, and somehow pretty much all characters know martial arts but I didn’t care about its flaws at the end of the day because I was really entertained (not to mention it was over in just about an hour and twenty-five minutes). Statham is all over the place (in a good way): one minute he’s being shot from under a truck, the next minute he’s diving off a plane. He is so convincing as Frank Martin, the transporter who likes to adhere to his rules of business but one day decides to break the rules because he sees something in Lai (played by Qi Shu). Statham expertly balances quiet intensity and vulnerability and that’s what separates him from other action stars. Matt Schulze (as Wall Street) and Ric Young (as Mr. Kwai) are pretty good (but average) villains because they can look mean and shoot guns. I wish the two would’ve had two separate goals, which could’ve been a better movie because that would mean that the story wouldn’t be as predictable. “The Transporter” is harmless fun with one outstanding scene (the grease fight). It’s definitely more for the boys because it’s hyperkinetic, there’s a lot of bodies getting shot and bones being broken. However, there’s also eye candy for the girls.