Back in the day when many of us first started a lifelong infatuation with movies, one of the best places to experience them was the grind house. These once stately theaters have been neglected, relegated to exploitation flicks. Here are several types of these movies but arguably one of the most fun were the so called ‘chop sake’ flicks, alternately referred to as ‘Hong Kong Wire Works’. Of course this pertains to the often spectacular martial arts stunts that defy the natural laws and laugh in the face of gravity and physics in general. The genre has retained the enthusiasm of its fan base thanks to the non-stop action that it perennially provides. This has set a definite bar for any filmmaker to reach out for. In the case of the movie under consideration here, ‘Four Assassins’ an honest attempt was made but in a twist in circumstances there is far too much steak and insufficient sizzle. The film is the first feature length outing by writer/director Stanley J. Orzel. Considering the world renowned Shaw Brothers have been peached at the zenith of the genre fir decades Mr. Orzel had a truly intense challenge on his hands, especially for a freshman effort. The Hong Kong Setting and title promising old school action is more than a little misleading. The more appropriate category for this movie might be crime drama or thriller. The marketing company is to blame for the misdirection altering the original title from ‘Far Away Eyes’, in favor of the promise of a grind house action flick. I mentioned the obvious connection to the Kung Fu flicks since everyone in my group of friends jumped to the same conclusion. Several were disappointed with the failure to deliver on the expectations but I cannot fault the filmmaker in this instance. His artistic vision was compromised by the hope to increase sales rather than trusting the artist and his audience fir being able to appreciate a psychological approach to the themes. Once you come to grips with this and realize it is a business you can settle down to enjoy a reasonably solid and entertaining movie.
According to some of the material pertaining to this film it is considered a member of a subset of martial arts movies called Wuxia, literally a chivalrous hero within the martial arts format. It tends to focus heavily on the honor bound traditions and tropes inherent in this ancient form of personal combat. This paradigm shift might be unexpected or misread by the audience but let go of preconceived notions, let go and enjoy a deeper examination of the themes. Marcus (Will Yun Lee) is a paid murderer, a killer for hire. The setting for much of the story is an inexpensive yet properly appointed hotel suite. He is there awaiting the final reimbursement for his most recent contract. Marcus is son joined by other members of his deadly profession including his mentor in the art of assassination, Eli (Miguel Ferrer) and a newcomer to the trade, Eva (Emilie Guillot). Rounding out the titular quartet is Chase (Oliver Williams), a killer with a rapidly growing list of clients. Marcus and his peers have gathered together for a mysterious purpose that extends beyond waiting for a paycheck. This becomes a sizable portion of the meaty plot points previously mentioned.
Several requisite plot devices have been brought into play here creating a film that exhibits imagination and drive. The tension included instilled from a familiar source; bring several individuals devoid of conscience and highly trained in the most efficient methods of terminating a designated life and there is sure to be a high level of discount, animosity, rivalries and out right hatred. After all this is not a group that typically plays well with others. As each member of the foursome is introduced the sinister interactions are established and set in motion. There might be a valid case made for the application of the term tedious but upon further reflection and continued viewing the purpose of the story becomes apparent. Much of the objections may be the misplaced anticipation, expecting something the filmmaker never intended.
There is a simplicity pervading the movie that can be overlooked but is more importantly the strength of the work. A story purposed to be a psychologically based thriller it takes time to blend the ingredients. Like a chef crafting a meal each contributing element must be afforded the right time and conditions to elicit its best effect. Here the primary location is the claustrophobic setting of a hotel room. This created a look and feel of a classic mystery stage play. It also places an additional burden on the filmmaker obvious in a relative newcomer. It also demonstrates he had the convictions of his craft. Even though there are mistakes of a technical basis it was an interesting choice to create a movie that would stretch his growing abilities.
The simple location afforded a visual representation of the underlying premise. Four expert killers are brought together in the same place at a unique time. Waiting for the phone call infuses the situation with a palpable sense of growing anxiety, a deadly dread that turns the room into a crucible. That deconstructs the principle characters reforming or destroying them in the process. This is an exercise in style; part film noir, part pulp crime paperback with a strong foundation of Wuxia. In several ways it is an experimental movie, an auteur still in the process of defining his style. This is perhaps one of the most interesting factors of the film, watching the creative process in an early stage of development, embryonic in its nature. The backbone of the cast is veteran character actor, Miguel Ferrer, who has refined his intensity over the course of numerous films and television projects. Representing the next generation of assassin is the central character portrayed by Will Yun Lee, familiar to fans of the prematurely action fantasy TV series ‘Witchblade’. The director built on their rock steady performances to provide the audience with an interesting thriller. I certain look forward to watching Mr. Orzel’s career as it matures.