Saturday, September 23, 2006

Jet Li's Fearless

Li's swan song is a smidge flat on the story, but is in-tune with the fighting...

I've always been firmly convinced that the purpose of a martial arts movie is not to make us learn anything new about life or even to encourage us to sympathize with the characters so much as to see various versions of a morality tale as told through the fluid, effective, well-choreographed kicking of ass that the movie's star lays upon his or her victims. We can say that we walk out of one of these movies a little more enlightened about the karmic perils of arrogance and revenge, but what we're really feeling (if the movie is good) is the aorta-shattering adrenaline that's a result of watching the amazing weapon of the human body deliver the Wushu-smackdown. If there is an interesting story woven throughout the (hopefully innumerable) combat sequences, then the martial arts movie can be upgraded from adequate to masterful.

Jet Li's final forray into the martial arts genre seems to fall between the two. In Fearless, he tells the story of a real-life figure, Hua Yuanjia, a Wushu master from the early 1900s who founded the now-internationally famous Jingwu Sports Federation. The young Hua is a weak, sickly child whose father is a master of the sport. Driven to overcome his asthma, Hua abandons academic studies and concentrates on Wushu. As a young man, his drive to become the champion fighter of his province results in a staggering, mindless arrogance that you really only see in movies about fighting. He's a great, merciless competitor, but ignores the core philosophies of self-discipline and restraint as he drinks heavily and cavorts with his many disciples.

As predicted, Yuanjia's selfishness leads to great tragedy, and he begins a self-imposed exile where he learns wisdom from kind, humble farm workers, and makes friends with the peaceful Zen master within himself, setting the stage for a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of his previous shame. After a few years outside of general civilization, he returns to a home that is more and more under the hand of Western influences, where English ladies and gentlemen stroll like snooty caricatures among the natives in their stately dress. Seeing this, Hua decides to compete in an international fighting competition to resurrect the hopes of his disillusioned countrymen.

In other words, formula, formula, formula. The story plugs perfectly into all of the pre-established variables, and surprises are few and far between for anyone who is familiar with this genre. I could bemoan this film on that basis alone, that it is maybe a little dry on innovation, but Li and the other characters are likeable enough to keep the film from being boring between fight scenes, and I found I was pulled into the film in spite of myself.

While not the perfect way for Jet Li to end a successful run in the martial arts genre (Hero was a much more superior film in every way) Fearless is solid, competent weekend entertainment. And perhaps most importantly: the fight sequences are quick, ferocious, and do a fantastic job of showcasing the skills that made this Wushu champion an international film star.

Gouda's Final Grade: B

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Perhaps they're trying to make sense of the dismembered plot as well...

The murder of Elizabeth Short in 1948 has remained one of Hollywood's most chilling unsolved crimes and a horrific representation of American hopes and dreams dashed. A young girl, struggling to break into acting, greusomely murdered, mutilated, and left for display in a neighborhood lot, the Dahlia became a source of obsession for those who searched desperately for her slayer, and remains a dark legend haunting the minds of those who still ferverently pursue her tragic, limited backtrail.

In fact, the case of the Black Dahlia encapsulates all of the elements that create a classic noir story. Beautiful, mysterious young girl, drawn by the allure and glamor of Hollywood's silver screen lifestyle, cut down brutally before the flower of any promise could begin to bloom. Take this and then add in the seedy, unorthodox history and tactics of the LAPD in the 1940s, some background involving the pornography industry, a few of Hollywood's elite families, and a couple of detectives obsessed enough to track the footsteps of a psychopathic murderer, and you have the makings of a captivating, chilling film that few who see it would forget.

The problem is, you won't find this in Brian de Palma's film. You will find the flower of promise, but it remains stubbornly in its bud form, despite the competent acting and superbly constructed classic film noir atmosphere that the director captured so well in his other films The Untouchables and Scarface. What makes The Black Dahlia a surprisingly weak execution in the genre is the story. Writer James Ellroy's novel was rife with sprawling complexities and plot layers, and they are a mess translated onto screen. We aren't sure if we are watching a tale about the dark twists of the obsessed mind, as portrayed by grizzled police officers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) who are hot on the case, or if we are watching a procedural about Short's killer. That's because intermingled in all of that are vague plot threads and distractions that take away potency from both possibilities. By the end of the film, when all of those loose threads are finally connected, it makes little sense and it's just so silly and contrived that we don't even care.

The most interesting character in the movie, the femme fatale Madeline Linscott (played with cunning, sexy brilliance by Hillary Swank), makes a late appearance as a lookalike/former lover of the Dahlia, but the manner by which her storyline resolves itself is an exercise in wasted talent.

The film's strengths are all technical, with incredible camera work that is reminiscent of Hitchcock and beautiful wardrobe and set designs that capture the era when Hollywood never looked better, but it's not enough to escape the convoluted mess of a plot that inspires more apathy than empathy about this tragic, compelling real-life murder.

Gouda's Grade: C