Magnolia Action Double Feature
There seems to be something in the psychological make-up that compels normal, rational human beings to be enthralled by stories concerning criminal behavior. What is truly notable with this phenomenon is that it not only spans most cultures it has been around throughout history. Many ancient myths revolve around criminal behavior just as the film industry of every country releases movie after movie featuring the actions of outlaws. Perhaps it is some sort of mental safety valve t o allow people to secretly and harmlessly rebel against authority by living vicariously if only for a couple of hours through s larger than life movie criminal. Naturally most films have to depict law and order wining so these films typically have a lawman up to the challenge. While American films traditionally used gangsters as the basis of these stories complete with machine guns blazing Asian film makers have placed their own cultural stamp on crime oriented action flicks through the use of martial arts exhibitions that defy all natural laws. Within this specific sub genre the movie coming out of Hong Kong are considered the touchstone to judge all others by. Even a fairly mediocre flick is much better made than the ‘chop-Saki- flicks most of us grew up watching. One example is the 2006 Cantonese action flick, ‘Fong juk’, or as it was released here, ‘Exiled’. While not the best example of this type of movie it does provide the action that the audience craves. It manages to deport itself incredibly well making come off as one of the better movies of the genre despite some technical missteps. ‘Exile’ contains somewhat more in the way plot than is typical found in a Hong Kong action movie but not so much that the audience will be distracted by putting too much thought following a story. This movie is just right for those last Saturday afternoon when a bunch of your friend are over for some beer and pizza, it has the entertainment quotient of the old grind house flick with much better production values. This is not the faded, passed around action film of our youth but an explosively driven movie that more than holds its own against anything created on our shores.
One thing that helped to set this film above the ones we used to watch in those broken down theaters started with the script. As noted this type of movie is not known for strong screenplays but there is a need for something to provide a scaffold for the fight scenes. In this case the story comes from a pair of writers with plenty of experience with this sort of movie; Kam-Yuen Szeto and Tin-Shing Yip. Between them they have provided scripts for a sizable number of movies like this. The plot lines are fairly typical with an emphasis on commitment and the proverbial honor among thieves. This may be one of the aspects that make gangster movies so universally popular; they depict the worse gangster possible with an unbreakable code of honor. Even if you never took a walk on the wrong side of the tracks there is something intriguing about a code that is strong enough to bind such men so tightly together. This is the situation that former gangster Wo (Nick Cheung) finds himself in. he wants to stay out of the deadly profession that dominated most of his life. He would be content to remain with his wife Jin (Josie Ho) and their recently born child. A mob boss he once attempted to murder, Fay (Simon Yam) is not about to let old grudges go so he hires a pair of professional killers, Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) to get rid of Wo. They are somewhat over the hill but still deadly enough to get the job done. Their mission is not fated to go well when they encounter another team of hit men, Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) who has been charged with protecting Wo. This lays the ground work for an explosive confrontation where all of the killers realized they came up through the ranks of the same gang. Over a meal the plot to take on a big score together. One thing that mobsters seem to have in common no matter what ethnic origins they might have is the killing stops when the meal arrives. If that doesn’t sound right just check out any episode of ‘The Sopranos’ for reassurance. This may be great for Wo and his family but is brings a terrible anger to Boss Fay who now wants the entire group dead. The story may be extremely familiar but in the hands of this talented cast and crew the result is above and beyond the typical offering of the genre.
Directing the film was the internationally acclaimed Johnnie To. He built his reputation by surrounding himself with a cadre of talented people including the writers and many of the actors here. This translates to a sense of community in the production where the cast and crew know each other’s strengths and weaknesses allowing them to get the best possible work out of each other. Like many directors To has several themes that pop up in most of his films. One such motif is the dichotomy between destiny and self determination. Wo wants to alter the path his life is own but situations in his past have created circumstances that remove such decisions from his hands. Many of his influences include some of the pioneers in American cinema including several known for violence like Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah. Much of his work highlights the thematic similarities between gangster flicks and old school westerns. His films are visually interesting keeping the audience fully engaged with his use of shadow and color played against the characters. this film has been released by Magnolia Pictures awhile ago but it is also available in a special double feature action release.
For a lot of guys a martial arts flick is a lot like pizza. You aren’t always up for it but when you are even if it’d not particularly good it is still a lot of fun. Now this is axiomatic mostly for us guys but I have come across a few women with similar sensibilities. This behavior is typically programmed into us as kids when a Saturday afternoon hanging out with friends frequently encompassed both a martial arts flick at a nearby Grind house theater and a couple of slices and a soda at the neighborhood pizza joint. I recently had an opportunity to relive one of those afternoons with my friends while watching one of the latest action movie offering; ‘Dynamite Warrior’. With a bucket of popcorn, a bag of Red Vines and my audio system set to emulate the acoustics of that old movie house. With the pizza on its way we popped in the disc to have some fun. While this movie is never destined for a ‘Best" list it did provide better than expected, solid entertainment. There are several factors that elevated this film above many of its peers but its country of origin is near the top of those factors, when you hear martial arts flick your mind might naturally think ‘Hong Kong’ and that would be valid since that is the most common source for this genre. ‘Dynamite Warrior’ hails from Thailand and it is extremely interesting to note the often subtle cultural differences between two Asian societies as seen through their interpretation of the action hero. One similarity is the use of comedy to provide a break in the action, there is a lot that this film has going for it making it an excellent flick for when friends drop over; a bunch of guys with a martial flick that is funny and features explosion, you really can’t go wrong.
One thing that is becoming a defining aspect of Thai martial arts movies is the way they are able to embrace sheer whimsy without much concern about looking silly. These films are not created with the intension of being taken too seriously; they were made to provide a diversion from reality and give the audience a rocking good time. Thai action movie have explored a more serious side with the popularity of ‘Ong-Bak’ but this flick is much more akin to a Jackie Chan movie than Jet Li. In some ways it is difficult to assign a particular genre to this film. Director Chalerm Wongpim is relatively new to the business and is still able to get away with straddling several different genres without a care. There is a touch of feudal drama mixed with sorcery spiced with just a dollop of fantasy. The setting is Siam in the late 1800’s where Jone Bang Fai (Dan Chupong) takes on the role of a local Robin Hood who recovers livestock stolen by poor farmers by unscrupulous cattle rustlers. Unfortunately for the bad guys Fai is extremely well trained in fileds that makes him the bane of the outlaws’ existence. Not only is he a high degree expert in the martial arts discipline Muay Thai but he is quite adept in the sciences of rocketry and demolition. It is not uncommon for him to charge into the fray astride a blazing rocket. Considering the parameters of this genre permit sword fights while balancing on thin tree branches obeying the laws of physics are not among the primary concerns of the film maker.
The main driving force behind the plot is the heinous action of local nobleman Lord Waeng (Phutiphong Sriwat). A new age of technology is dawning and Waeng invested heavily in steam powered tractors. His marketing plan is an old, albeit brutal one. Waeng hires a huge enforcer type (Somdet Kaewleu) to murder the local cattlemen and steal all of the oxen. Without the animals the framers will not be able to plant the rice crop and the community will starve. The plan hits a major bump when the thugs run up against a cattleman, Nai Hoi Sing (Samart Payakaroon) sporting an ominous tattoo and incredible fighting skills. This forces Waeng to seek the aide of the Black Wizard (Panna Ritikrai), who has a long standing curse based grudge against Sing. The curse prevents the wizard from being in the sunlight unless he is cured which requires the menstrual blood of a virgin. As you might have gathered by this point the script may have had the involvement of at least one psychotropic substance. One thing is certain, there is bound to be some aspect of this story that appeals to you. The juxtaposition of such a myriad of genres is primarily done to achieve a humorous effect. The inclusion of magical elements affords the director a certain amount of freedom in what is permissible. This said, the film, is not as visually interesting as the Hong Kong variant but it makes up for it with the tongue in cheek treatment of the characters. There is a touch of the peculiar genre called steam punk that is typically set in this time period. The thing with those films that shows up here is 1800s technology utilized to achieve modern effects. This is just another strange twisted thrown into the mix here. Many hard core martial arts junkies will be disappointed with the slap stick approach taken here but try to remember that Thai film making is still in the process of discovery its own unique path and establish itself in the global climatic community.