Furie (Lê Văn Kiệt, 2019)

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It’s not often we get a Vietnamese movie here on Seattle Screens, much less an action movie as kinetic and thrilling as Furie, a Taken-clone starring Veronica Ngô, the actress who stole the opening moments of The Last Jedi a few years ago. Like Ong-Bok: Muay Thai Warrior, from Thailand, and The Raid, from Indonesia, before it, Furie is a further marker in the spread of high quality martial arts cinema outward from Hong Kong and Japan across Southeast Asia at a time when the Hong Kong industry itself is having its lifeblood sucked away by the vast opportunities and resources but complicated politics of the Mainland Chinese market, like Jupiter stealing the Earth’s atmosphere in the biggest action hit of the year so far. Resolutely low-scale, Furie follows a mother’s quest from the pastoral countryside to the neon-lit criminal underbelly of Saigon in search of her ten year old daughter, kidnapped by an international cartel of organ harvesters. The plot is familiar, and its beats are nothing new, though the emphasis on the femininity of its heroes and ultimate villain is unusual. But the stunts, the stunts are terrific.

Unlike Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, Ngô is more an actor than a martial artist, though like many a great actress before her (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Kara Hui, Cheng Pei-pei) she is a dancer as well (she one the first season of Vietnam’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Director Lê Văn Kiệt, along with his stunt crew, do a fantastic job of covering any weaknesses as a fighter she might have, honestly I didn’t notice much of anything (unlike with Brie Larson in Captain Marvel, who just looks out of place in every fight). The fight scenes are fluid and brutal, in the bone-crushing-to-electronic-beats style that has dominated martial arts movies this century, ever since Donnie Yen discovered MMA at least. Best of all is that the fights actually build, they have a sense of rhythm and pace that is almost entirely missing from Hollywood filmmaking, and frankly from a lot of what comes out of Hong Kong these days. The final 15 minutes are spectacular without restoring to special effects or outlandish stunts: they’re simply the best fights in the movie, charged with emotion and skill and captured with a minimum of editing. It’s the best on-screen action since Paradox, and possibly since SPL 2: A Time for Consequences.

Other than that, and outside of Ngô’s soulful performance, which brings to mind some of Hui’s better work (the recent and very fine Mrs. K, for one), and the novelty (at least for us in the US) of seeing contemporary Vietnam on film, that there isn’t much to the movie. Where Paradox and SPL 2 complicate the simple missing kid/organ harvesting plots with complex conspiracies and some beautifully outlandish storytelling, Furie is a simple straight line: a mother doing the impossible for the sake of her daughter. But I’ll take the purity of this efficient, brutally exciting adventure any day over the bloated CGI artifacts and winking, middling politics of whatever corporate Hollywood blockbuster it is we’re supposed to be caring about this week.

Wolf Warrior 2 (Wu Jing, 2017)

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Somewhat surprisingly, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 is smashing box office records across China, on pace to overtake last year’s The Mermaid as the number one Chinese film of all-time. Wu is probably the greatest Chinese martial arts star of his generation, best known here in the US for his starring role in SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, which the best action film to play here last year. He both stars and directs, as he did with Wolf Warriors, released in 2015. In the first one, he plays Leng Feng, a badass soldier who gets recruited into the Wolf Warrior brigade of the People’s Liberation Army, an elite special forces unit. During a training exercise, he and his squadmates are attacked by a multiethnic band of vicious mercenaries led by Scott Adkins who was hired by a drug lord seeking revenge on Leng for murdering his brother, and also as the cover for a scheme to steal a virus that only kills Chinese people. The film is an unabashed propaganda piece about the skills, technology and valor of the PLA, but it’s got a lot of cool jungle action and it moves along quickly.

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