Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

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The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables undertake a seemingly simple mission that evolves into a quest for revenge against Jean Vilain, a rival mercenary who has murdered one of their own, and who threatens the world with a deadly weapon.

I enjoyed the first Expendables movie. It was great fun. It was very thin on story terms but the fact that all those action stars grouped together made it a fun guilty pleasure. When it wasn’t delivering action scenes, it was giving male banter, which I have a very big soft spot for. Even though I liked it, I would never recommend The Expendables to somebody else. I assume other people excited for the first Expendables movie would already rushed to see it. People going to see The Expendables coming out disappointed complaining about mindless action only have themselves to blame, right?

No, I have been proven wrong.

The Expendables 2 is bigger in scale and budget, but it’s not a better movie than the first.  The writing is fairly lazy, much lazier than the first movie. It relies too heavily that the audience is coming in with pre-existing knowledge of the 80’s and 90’s action era. There’s too much of a void that the audience needs to fill in their own heads. There’s no sense of who these characters are, instead we are meant to supplant them with their action hero personas.

One thing that really took me out was I was becoming very aware of the production schedule of the movie from seeing which actor was onscreen at different points throughout the story. I was disappointed how little Jet Li was in it, he may as well have just said no to reprising his part. I knew they shot his portion of the film in Hong Kong. The film was not interesting enough to take me away from that thought.

There’s some really key about henchmen in action movies that I was always want to bring up. There’s this one gag in the first Austin Powers movie where a henchman in Dr. Evil’s lair dies, and then we got a cut scene where there’s a birthday party in a suburban house where the family members of that henchman are told that the henchman is dead. Suffice to say, the family’s day is ruined. In The Expendables 2, as little as there already is that clearly establishes the enemy, we’re never really clearly see visually who these henchmen are. In the action scenes, the camera is focused on showing the heroes delivering the blows. This shifts how the audience experiences the fight because we’re watching the action movie star firing a huge weapon as opposed to the character in the movie shooting a henchmen to get over an obstacle in the story. There’s a pornographic sensibility within that hurts the film. At the finale, it gets to a Last Action Hero level of ridiculous self-parody, as there is a “line-o-rama” sequence where the heroes take turns sputtering their famous action catchphrases in a row. I laughed, but it was a cheap one-off laugh.

The fight between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone was pretty disappointing. It wouldn’t even have been hard to do. Only if there were more kicks… there’s really no excuse for this. That’s what I learned from watching The Expendables 2: there’s “dumb fun” ,which I would define as the first Expendables movie, and then there’s “way-too-dumb”, which is its sequel.

On a side note, Arnold Schwarzenegger can still deliver lines. Watching Schwarzenegger on screen really made me think about what a movie star he was and how odd that he is a movie star. It was a combination of the kitschy taste of the 80’s combined with the audience loving the presence of this hulking Austrian muscle man. Think about it, we do not think of him as a trained thespian and in his 80’s films we’re never really asked to buy him as anything but Arnold Schwarzenegger. Usually the things that are happening in his films are pretty far-fetched and insane, whether it’s him playing a machine, shooting an alligator in the face or teaching kindergarten. But whatever it was, we let it slide as an audience, he ultimately remains a very watchable screen presence. He’s also hilarious because he’s given these crazy lines to say and part of the fun is watching him deliver them with his thick Austrian accent.

Call me crazy, but I do not see a new action star rising to stardom the same way in 2012. That thought alone makes me miss the 80’s action era more than what The Expendables 2 managed to evoke. I really look forward to Schwarzenegger’s cinematic return.

NOTE: I’ve been away for a while. The movie I worked on is now officially in the can. It’s in post-production now and my part is currently over. I’ve drafted a lot of reviews that I intend to finish. So bear with me as I catch up.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark is always hit-and-miss with me. My favorite Tsui Hark films are Once Upon a Time in China 2 (the epic face off between Jet Li and Donnie Yen), Time and Tide (some insane action scenes) and Double Team. Yes, I said it. I love Double Team. It’s insane, crazy kitschy fun. Seriously, who could have thought the idea of casting Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke in a coloful action movie?

I saw this film back in December. I haven’t seen any incarnations of the Dragon Gate Inn films. I was aware it was a remake or re-imagining of the story and that it was going to be in 3D. I viewed in this interest of seeing where Chinese special effects have gone and what Tsui Hark would do with such a huge production.

Tsui Hark is an imaginative filmmaker but often is undisciplined. He’ll imagine fascinating places and sets up great set pieces but he often wants to do too much. It all ends up creating thrilling sensations in parts than telling a story from beginning to finish as a whole. The worst example being The Legend of Zu, where the visuals and the world was interesting, there was nothing remotely emotional for me to hold on to. Eventually, it goes so long, I just tired out and tap out. As a side note, I thought it was very smart to have him helm the first third of Triangle (the three’s collaboration between him, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To).

I’m sad to say, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is Tsui Hark going way too far with his imagination again. There is no story or much character to speak of. Jet Li is here to fight, he does not get a full character at all. Zhou Xun is a charming solid actress but she does not have much to do here. She breathes humanity into the story every time she’s present but there’s not enough of her or humanity. There’s a gag with Aloys Chen Kun playing two roles (as both the villain and a lovable oaf) that goes on way too long. Shake this film and half an hour would have fallen off. I am not a punitive or bitter person, but let’s call a spade a spade.

The 3D looked awful. The CG was very fake at times. I’m never one to niptick special effects but I would have forgiven it if there was something else there to distract me. It was very forgettable. I honestly cannot recall a particular scene or sequence worth mentioning.

The Mainland Chinese film market is on the rise. There’s a lot of money being thrown around to played with. I just think it should be executed with some discipline, like in Bodyguards and Assassins in where the epic scale of production was used to enhance a story.

Seriously, I would have wanted to see Double Team re-released in 3D. Or heck, give me Time and Tide 2 in 3D. Now that would be something!

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Double Team by Tsui Hark