As I mentioned in last week’s Worst of Netflix column, last Saturday saw me heading up to Asheville for ActionFest, the first film festival devoted exclusively to action movies.
The big draw–aside from getting to see a bunch of new and classic action movies at a theater that served hummus–was an appearance by actor/martial artist/semi-professional Internet punchline and one-quarter of the writers of Justice Riders, Chuck Norris, who was going to get the festival’s first-ever lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Action Cinema. It should be noted that the award was going to be presented by festival organizer Aaron Norris, Chuck’s brother and another quarter of the Justice Riders authorship, and while that might seem like a pretty strong case for nepotism, let’s be real here: If you don’t think Lone Wolf McQuade deserves an award, then you and I will never be friends.
Unfortunately, Chuck and his Action Jeans didn’t make it to ActionFest until Sunday, which means I missed both him and WFMU favorites The Reigning Sound, who played the awards dinner. But even without Chuck, getting a VIP pass for a day at the show was far from a wasted day, as I got to see a couple of new flicks.
First up was Kim Jee-Woon’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird, a South Korean western that was totally awesome.
Of course, it oughtta be; when you name your movie after one of the ten best movies ever made, you’d better make sure you do your best to live up to it. But then again, there’s not much else Kim could’ve called it, as it’s exactly what it says on the label: A South Korean version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to the point where I can’t even remember the main characters’ names because I spent two hours and ten minutes just straight-up thinking of them as Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes.
It’s not quite a remake, but far more than an homage, so in my head, I’ve been referring to it as a remix: The same characters–a taciturn bounty hunter, a wild-eyed bandit and a stone-cold killer playing both sides against each other–and the same plot elements–three factions out to get a hidden treasure–but spun together in a whole new way that’s as valid as the original. There’s a notable influence from Tarantino, as Kim’s basically attempting to do the same for the Leone western that Kill Bill did for the kung fu revenge picture. He even uses the same version of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to score one of his action scenes.
But what’s really interesting about the movie is that there’s not really an attempt to modernize the action as opposed to the storytelling. There’s no fancy Hong Kong style John Woo-ish gunplay, and aside from one fun scene involving a shootout in a factory that inexplicably features both chains on pulleys and a 20s-era diver’s helmet, there’s not a lot of wirework. Instead, Kim goes old school with it, setting up scenes where dudes just shoot each other, blending humor in with the action for a great experience that also ensures that very few gags get lost in the translation.
But while Leone was the master of small-scale action (really, who else can get away with just having three dudes staring at each other for six minutes, even with an Ennio Morricone score), Kim just keeps building on things, going bigger and bigger and throwing a gang of barbarians and the Chinese army into the mix for the climactic chase scene. And the final shootout between the three leads (which you know is coming from the second you see the title) is the exact opposite of Leone’s, but very entertaining on its own.
It’s a great, great time, and from what I understand, it was making its “regional premiere” at ActionFest, which explains why Amazon only looks to have the South Korean version. But I absolutely loved it, and while I can’t see myself watching it over and over and over again like i do with …and the Ugly, it’s well worth picking up or putting at the top of your Netflix queue.
Thanks to the eight-hour round trip to Asheville, I only really had time to watch two movies, and since RoboGeisha vs. Frankenstein Girl (yes really, it’s from the makers of Machine Girl) wasn’t playing ’til midnight, the other was Daniel Lee’s 14Blades. It was playing opposite Raging Phoenix, a Thai film where Yanin Vismistananda (the star of 2008’s Chocolate) played a woman who combined martial arts with the latest hip-hop dance moves.
This normally would’ve caused me to bolt for the theater, leaving only a dissipating cloud of Chris Sims-shaped dust, but 14 Blades promised Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, and that was pretty much that. In retrospect, though, I really should’ve gone with Raging Phoenix.
It’s not that 14 Blades was bad, but it brought absolutely nothing new to the table. It was essentially a new Shaw Brothers movie, with all that entails: A hero with an unbeatable new item or technique (in this case, a rectangular box spring-loaded with–you guessed it!–fourteen swords, each made to kill a different kind of enemy) is betrayed by and must fight a crooked Ming Dynasty government official, while traveling the countryside with a woman who inexplicably falls in love with him despite the fact that he literally kidnaps her and threatens her with death. I’ve seen this movie, and if you’ve watched more than three kung fu films from the past 30 years, you’ve seen it too.
But again, for what it is, it’s not bad. There’s some awesome action and some great ideas–Donnie Yen grabbing a falling leaf and throwing it so hard that it acts like shuriken is awesome, I don’t care what year it is–but its fatal flaw is a lack of ambition. You’d think a movie where Donnie Yen was carrying 14 swords, each designed to kill a different kind of criminal, would see him actually using all of them to kill said criminals, but it doesn’t. It’s just the same old thing, no matter how good he is in it.
Also, Sammo Hung’s only in it for maybe ten minutes total and does not bust out his sweet Dragons Forever moves.
So that’s what I saw. Well, not entirely: I also caught 20 minutes of a new movie starring “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, but as it revolved around him being an amnesiac who spoke fluent Spanish and Russian, I bailed to write a few Solomon Stone pages in the VIP lounge where they were doing back-to-back-to-back showings of Delta Force and Missing In Action, because that’s the most Action Age thing I could possibly do.
But it was a good time nonetheless (as was the stunt show in the parking lot that featured a guy with an actual jetpack), and I’m looking forward to seeing if they keep their promise to bring it back next year, when I’m putting my money on the Lifetime Achievement Award going to Jackie Chan.
Special thanks to Zack Smith for getting me up there as a VIP.