ActionFest is my kind of film festival. When I heard that there was an ActionFest, I was sold. Just the fact that it exists means I should be there. The second annual ActionFest was held April 7 – 10 in Asheville, NC. In addition to Sundance and SXSW films like Hobo with a Shotgun, Super and 13 Assassins, I reviewed 13 films listed here in alphabetical order.
Bail Enforcers – Trish Stratus’s action heroine debut gives her lots of cool fights, shot clearly so you can see all her flips and takedowns. In particular, two battles with an Asian hit woman (Andrea Lui) are wild and sexy. The film is a basic plot about bounty hunters going after a big bail jumper. The novice filmmaking is apparent and the script isn’t really an acting vehicle, but it’s all about the fights. Anyone who’s going to find Bail Enforcers will know what to expect and it will deliver on the action.
Bangkok Knockout – The latest Thai martial arts extravaganza takes cinematic Muay Thai to the next level. A stunt team competes for an audition, only to be drugged and forced to fight in a warehouse full of levels and villains. The Saw/Hostel like premise gives the fights a structure and they build up from heroes bouncing around cages to a finale fight under a speeding truck. The showcase illuminates many great fighters who can support Tony Jaa’s legacy, and it never slows down even when American gamblers discuss the odds of who will survive.
Bunraku – The style of this homage to Japanese puppet theater is the strongest part of the film. The two dimensional sets make the actors’ interaction very interesting. Even this original look gets old in the film’s second hour and as the story plods on, it can’t support the running time. The fights are simple and klunky (probably because they didn’t have a Matrix sized budget to train Josh Hartnett and Kevin McKidd) although there is one cool sequence covering multiple levels of a villain’s stronghold in a single take. Good effort, but it’s just a simple man on revenge tale that could be wrapped up more concisely.
Fightville – This documentary on MMA does more for the sport than any Never Back Down version. Following Dustin Poirier and other fighters in a local pro fight circuit, the film captures an understanding of the combat. The camera gets in close as fighters execute strategy and blatant strength both in the gym and in the ring. The characters become fully fleshed out as Dustin commits himself to training and others slack off and pay for it. It’s as rousing as any Rocky movie.
Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie – This documentary is aimed at viewers who are just getting into kung fu cinema. You can tell by the animated narrator who talks down to the audience as if they don’t know anything, and as if they’re Neanderthals who only care about dudes hitting each other. The clips of actual films showcase the variety of kung fu and cinematic styles, and there’s bound to be something you write down for your Netflix queue. Die hard fans will already know all of this, but it’s still a fun trip down memory lane.
The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch – This French movie is based on a French comic book about an international adventurer. The movie is clearly working with a lower budget than Daniel Craig, or even Roger Moore was used to. Largo becomes the heir to his adopted father’s corporation and has no interest in wearing a suit, but he does stop the evil corporate takeover to protect his family’s interest. The corporate plot gets really slow and feels like it’s padding out the movie. The action scenes are energetic, with foot chases, rooftop fights and car crashes, though nothing outrageous or explosive. There’s certainly room for a series of heroic adventures to go, and it’s kind of fun just saying the guy’s name. Largo Winch!
Ironclad – A great cast is wasted in this medieval sword clanking movie. James Purefoy and Brian Cox lead a gang of soldiers defending a castle from the corrupt King John (Paul Giamatti). It’s very macho and 300-y but the action is not. Shot in that modern shaky cam style, you can’t really see what’s going on. There’s some blood and head bashing but the camera is too close to really get the impact. The film ends up looking dim and ugly because of the cinematography.
Little Big Soldier – Jackie Chan’s latest Hong Kong movie still has more action than his American ones, but this isn’t as memorable as even Rumble in the Bronx, Who Am I or The Myth. The film has more to say, because it’s about the Wei and Liang clans battling in B.C. China, but the action is simple. Chan plays a Liang soldier who captures a Wei general and plans to bring him home and become a hero. Along the way they bicker and fight and run afoul of other troops. Chan is playing it like a simple farmer who doesn’t know how to fight like Jackie Chan, so he doesn’t show off his true moves.
A Lonely Place to Die – The festival’s big winner (for Best Director and Action Movie Of The Year) is a solid mountain climbing thriller. A vacationing group of climbers rescue a little girl buried in the woods, only to be pursued by her kidnappers. The mountain climbing scenes are intense and director Julian Gilbey constructs suspense expertly. The dialogue is a bit basic, gets the job done and will probably mean more to mountain climbers. It probably won’t hold up against Fast Five but for a smaller scale adventure, A Lonely Place To Die is impressive.
Machete Maidens Unleashed – This documentary chronicles the films that were shot in the Philippines during the decade where Marcos opened the country up for inexpensive locations. Roger Corman pounced on the jungle settings and readily available stuntmen, and a few locals built up a filmography there too. None of the movies look remotely good, but the clips have lots of nudity. The stories behind the productions are far more entertaining, as the likes of Corman, Joe Dante and even Pam Grier recall their stint in the Philippines.
Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown – The loose sequel to the MMA Karate Kid ripoff has even less backing down than ever! A new group of teen fighters train for The Beatdown, and coach Case Walker (Michael Jai White) teaches them. The fight scenes are great. White, who also directed, knows how to showcase fighters, not only himself but the next generation. It would be nice if the film didn’t adhere to a traditional clichéd plot, considering the actors aren’t really up for it, but this is how straight to video sequels should go. Take the premise, make a superficial nod to continuity and then just fight!
Outrage – Takeshi Kitano’s latest Yakuza thriller is violence in top form. The retaliations between two rival gangs keeps escalating, and Beat Takeshi coasts through them with his aloof charisma. Like most Kitano thrillers, Outrage isn’t so much about elaborate action, although he shows more of it on screen than he often does. I didn’t notice any quick cuts skipping over the violence, and there was plenty of brutality to show that you don’t want to mess with any of these guys.
Tomorrow, When the War Began – This Aussie Red Dawn features a group of high schoolers return from a camping trip to find an army taken over their neighborhood and captured their parents. On the smaller scale Australian production, the action isn’t Wolverines level, but the kids do fight back. The film takes their point of view, so they only see the tanks and jets that cross their paths. I don’t know if they’ll get the sequel they blatantly set up at the end, but Tomorrow will probably end up being better than the Red Dawn remake that hasn’t come out yet.