January is the greatest movie month there is. Not only are we in the lesser metropolises of America finally granted access to tardiest of the previous year’s award hopefuls (see this week’s Silence), but via studio counter-programming logic, we also get Hollywood’s most interesting action films. The bloated prestige actioners get released in the summer (your Marvels and Nolans), while a handful of unstoppable forces stake their claim to winter break (the Star Warses and Camerons), while the suits and bean-counters push the films they don’t know how to exploit to the shadow of Oscar season. This is the month of Paul WS Anderson (his Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens at the end of the month). It’s also blockbuster season in China, with big titles being released at Christmastime and especially at Lunar New Year, which falls between the end of January and the end of February (it’s January 28 this year). Two years ago the big early January Chinese import was Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, last year it was Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3. This year, we’ve got Railroad Tigers, opening this week at the Pacific Place.
A historical epic with Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrian Brody, set along the Silk Road as a fugitive Roman legion encounters a Chinese security force, this was even worse than I imagined it would be. Let’s set aside the complete and utter ahistoricality of it all (despite the “based on real events” title card at the start), (OK, one point: it’s set in 48 BC, but all the Romans refer to themselves as being part of the Roman Empire: Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, and the Empire not really established until 27 BC, and even then it wasn’t called that for quite awhile later) or the simplistic naiveté of Jackie Chan’s vision of interracial harmony, the uplifting and apparently inevitable side effect of manly exercises like play-fighting and building stuff, and just focus on the action, which is ostensibly all one looks for in a Jackie Chan film. It’s pretty boring. Chan looks old and tired, the costuming pads him out (the better to absorb blows he would have taken bare-chested 30 years ago?) and slows him down. The choreography occasionally makes creative use of found objects, but that only reminds one of better scenes in other Chan films. The editing has the same peripatetic rhythm of 21st century wuxia, but with none of the surreal flair that CGI effects can give such films (Chan remains the most committed to actuality of his peers). Most absurdly though, director Daniel Lee continually frames Chan as an angelic figure, beaming beatifically on the men he has lectured and unified, awkward grin on his poorly-coiffed head (some things never change) as he is haloed by the backlighting sun. It makes one long to return to the striking image of a crucified, eyeless, John Cusack, if only out of a longing to take his place.
Dragon Blade continues, somewhat surprisingly, at the Varsity Theatre.
This week, the Cinerama is playing what they’ve dubbed their “First Mixed Martial Arts Festival”, a collection of movies, Hong Kong and Japan mostly, in which kicking, punching and/or swordplay is prominently featured. Playing two or three different movies per day, mostly DCP but with some 35mm, its an eclectic mix of masterpieces, curiosities and what amounts to an almost-complete Bruce Lee retrospective.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as mixed about a film series as I am about this mixed martial arts series. On the one hand, and probably most importantly, there are a bunch of great movies playing here, included some films that haven’t played in Seattle since the heyday of Landmark’s Hong Kong repertory run in the mid-1990s. The chance to see Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Toshiro Mifune, Stephen Chow and Jet Li in that gorgeous Cinerama environment is not to be dismissed lightly. Even under less than ideal conditions, like digital projections of DCPs and Blu-Rays, seeing these films is a treat. But there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the way this festival was put together, with many of the best films showing at the most inconvenient times, no clear threadlike connecting the films from different countries or eras and a lot of sub-standard source material for a repertory festival.