Sunday, August 26, 2007
As a longtime action junkie myself, I can attest to the fact that we're a forgiving lot. Give us action that really sings on the screen and we'll even forgive a lame plot and wooden performances. Just make our jaws drop in amazement at the on-screen action--or even at one action set piece--and we'll be lining up for seconds and buying the DVDs. That's why a standard Asian actioner is generally leaps and bounds above even a decent American action film--because Asian directors know how to make action films for action fans. People like John Woo and Jackie Chan understand that action films are essentially like musicals, only the choreographed numbers involve violence instead of song and dance. They also understand that when you're shooting an action scene, you need to let it play out with a good amount of wide shots and as little editing as possible. The action or kinetic energy should come primarily from the performers not from the film editor. Overcutting in an action film is usually a sign that the action is badly done or that the director doesn't have confidence that the action can carry the scene.
In War, Jason Statham plays Jack Crawford, an FBI agent whose partner is killed by a mysterious hitman named Rogue who's constantly altering his physical appearance in order not to be caught. Three years after his partner's death, Crawford discovers that Rogue (played by Jet Li) has resurfaced in the U.S. and may be involved in a gang war between the Yakuzas and the Triads in San Francisco. Crawford figures this will be his best shot at avenging his partner's death but Rogue is, as one would expect, a slippery customer with a few tricks up his sleeve.
The man who should have been director, Corey Yuen with Jet Li (Lionsgate)
Corey Yuen, the action choreographer on War, has worked with both Staham and Li before. He was the martial arts director on Li's High Risk , New Legends of Shaolin , and Li's American debut Lethal Weapon 4. He also directed Li in the Hong Kong classic My Father is a Hero. Yuen also guided Staham through all the action in the Transporter movies. So Yuen knows how to do more than just stage a fight, he knows these two performers well. But in War , he's only allowed to choreograph the action while newcomer Philip G. Atwell (a second unit director on National Treasure and a music video director) takes the directing helm. But Atwell is at a total loss for what to do with this standard revenge tale. Atwell falls back on music video conventions and just overcuts the action, and tries to sex it up with music and technical flash. But he shoots the action so badly that we can barely appreciate Li's skills and Yuen's work. There are moments that still shine (like a brief chase over a rooftop and through a building) but not nearly as many as there should be. And there are no action set pieces to dazzle us. Even Yuen's loopy femme actioner D.O.A . had better fights.
After watching this film I had to run home and cleanse my palette by watching some Asian action. War's showdown between two rival mobs made me pull out a recent South Korean film called City of Violence, which shows you how to stage a real showdown that makes the audience feel the exhaustion of battle as much as the characters.
Statham and Li shares little screen time, and has little opportunity to develop the kind of cat-and-mouse relationship that could have invested the film with some interest. The film also falls into cliches about honor and family values in Asian mobs and never rises above meager formula.
Jason Statham as FBI agent Jack Crawford in War (Lionsgate)
War (rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, sexuality/nudity and language) could have been made so much better with not much effort and no added cost. It's just ashame to have a pair like Jason Statham and Jet Li, who have proven both their appeal as performers and action stars, to be wasted in a film that lets them display neither their acting abilities nor their physical prowess. It's like making a music video and then telling the star not to sing or dance.
Here's a nice little palette cleanser featuring the best of Jet Li . Take note of how the Asian action tends to be filmed in wider shots that take in more of the action and shots that hold longer to appreciate the choreography.
JUST ADDED: And, here's a great blog called Kaiju Shakedown by Grady Hendrix where there's a discussion of the differences between Hollywood and Hong Kong action . Okay, now I really have to go and get an action fix... should I watch the opening of Hard-Boiled or Jet Li taking on Kurata Yasuaki in Fist of Legend or...
Companion viewing: My Father is a Hero , So Close , Lethal Weapon 4 , City of Violence and a couple of good recent American action films, The Matrix (with Hong Kong's Yuen Woo Ping doing the action choreography) and 300 .