Ola, starkinder! Yes, it's that time of year again... time for my pretentious ass to taunt you with reports from the Toronto International Film Festival, and of films I get to see before you do. Nyah nyah!
This is just a quick hit 'n' run, but I've got more reviews coming (including the new Cronenberg and Maddin joints) in a jiff, an interview with Paul "Phantom of the Rainbow Connection" Williams lined up, and I may be poking my head in during the week on a certain movie shooting up here, the teaser poster for which you've probably already seen if like most folks you're into naked, blood-soaked health care professionals.
Also, if you felt a psychic disturbance sometime around 7:30 EST yesterday, it was just Harry and I shaking hands for the first time.
The Raid (2011, directed by Gareth Huw Evans)
When Ong Bak hit the scene a decade or so ago everyone flipped out over Tony Jaa and the awesome brutality of the muy thai fight scenes, but the film itself got a few fanboy sneers for not being the polished production you might expect out of the more established film industries of the east.
The Raid might end up having just as big an impact as Ong Bak did, but the fanboys are gonna have to find something else to complain about.
Telling the story of a botched police raid on the tenement stronghold of a Jakarta crime lord, The Raid featured basically everything you could possibly want in an action film. Simple yet propulsive plot? (It's basically a Die Hard riff). Check. Charismatic star? (Iko Uwais carries himself on-screen like the Indonesian Ryan Gosling, if Gosling could kill a man with his bare hands in under five seconds.) Check. Worthy opponents? (If Uwais is the Indonesian Gosling, Ray Sahetapy as Tama the crime lord might as well be the Indonesian Benicio del Toro. And the nastier of his two main henchmen gets played by the film's fight choreographer, Yayn Ruhian, and is simply called Mad Dog.) Great fight scenes? (Silat, the Indonesian house brand martial arts style on display here, comes across like muy thai's vicious cousin.) Check. Massive body count? (This isn't a 'tap and you fall down' martial arts movie. Even beyond all the machete action, automatic weapons fire, exploding refrigerators and close-range bullets to the temple, an awful lot of people get stabbed in the throat in The Raid.) Check check check asterisk asterisk holy shit exclamation point check.
What sets The Raid apart from the recent wave of muy thai films like Ong Bak, Tom-Yung-Goong and Chocolate though is the story-telling. Welsh transplant writer/director Gareth Evans does a fantastic job of showcasing the fight scenes while still keeping the film moving relentlessly forward. The quiet moments are few, far between and placed with precision, and the rest is thunderous bloody mayhem, with none of the set pieces feeling like they were shoe-horned in just because they looked cool. It's Evans, just as much as Uwais, who's the real breakaway star here, and he's established himself as a young action director who demands that you pay attention to whatever project he's taking aim at next.
If anything The Raid feels like a next step forward down the path Ong Bak opened up. Ten years ago, the idea that there even could be an 'undiscovered' cinematic martial art style was a mind-blower. The Raid can't blaze that trail twice, but it doesn't need to, and doesn't even try. Instead, The Raid just focuses on kicking your ass so hard you're shitting out of your nostrils for a week.
And really, isn't that what we all want from our action flicks?
Killer Elite (2011, directed by Gary McKendry)
The fact that a Jason Statham film is a Gala might be the funniest joke this festival has ever played on its audience.
Now don't get me wrong: Killer Elite is a perfectly respectable Jason Statham film. It's not a fluffy piece of cartoony silliness like Crank, and even has delusions of importance, but the thought of people getting dressed to the nines and heading to the opera house TIFF uses for their Gala screenings to watch Statham and Clive Owen kick each other's ass is just hilarious. (Mind you, this year's Gala lineup also features a U2 doc, a Gerard Butler film, a Luc Besson film, and Madonna's directorial debut, so maybe it isn't that out of place after all...)
Anyway, the plot: Statham is an ex-SEAL and independent contractor in the '80s who leaves the business after a crisis of conscience. He gets dragged back in when his mentor (Robert DeNiro) is held hostage after failing to complete a seemingly impossible job for an exiled sheik: kill the three SAS bastards who killed the sheik's three eldest sons during the Oman conflict, but make all the deaths look like accidents. As if the job wasn't hard enough, the sheik wants videotaped confessions from all three, and a group of ex-SAS bigshots called the Feather Men quickly get wind of Statham's assignment and set their attack dog Spike (played by Owen) loose to stop him.
If Killer Elite reminded me of anything it was Ronin, and not just because DeNiro's in both. Now, that's not the compliment it might be from some people. I think Ronin's horribly overrated in some circles, and cool car chases (OK, REALLY cool car chases) don't make up for things like the utterly pointless Sean Bean subplot in my book. Killer Elite's story is more streamlined than Ronin's, but it's got the same 'mercenaries on a mission in a morally ambiguous universe' vibe and the same bloated sense of self-importance.
But it's also got Statham, and that goes a long way. The guy just can't help being cool on screen, no matter what he's doing (which in this case is mostly killing guys, planning to kill guys, or flashing back to shagging his hot new girlfriend back in Australia.) And it's also got Owen, who's in Sin City mode here: all barely suppressed rage and with a ridiculous moustache to boot. Those two alone make the film worth watching, although Dominic Purcell turns in a great supporting turn as one of Statham's crew, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje pops in too as their, for lack of a better word, dispatcher.
The script is wonky in spots (I dare you not to cringe when one of the Feather Men explains where their name comes from. I double-dog-dare you) and given that the film (or rather, the book that provides its source material) ludicrously claims to be based on a true story, it's kind of amazing that it works at all, but it does work. It's a perfectly respectable actiony-thrillery-conspiracy thing.
Just don't expect anything more than that.