Monday, August 28, 2017

Average (but odd) Asian Action: Birth of the Dragon & Midnight Runners

Alternate theme to this pair: Titles meant to evoke better movies. Not that I necessarily know what the Korean title of Midnight Runners means or if the people giving it an English name were specifically referencing Midnight Run, but, well, you can't not think of that one.

Personally, they were also both movies I fit in around other things, with Birth following the 3D release of Terminator 2 on Saturday, but not both in the same theater because just hanging around an area makes me itchy and there was a 4:30pm show in Assembly versus a 4:45pm downtown. Then on Sunday, I caught the silent film at Somerville and then figured Runners would be the best bridge between that and the Films of the Gate finale. Not necessarily great choices in either case, but not bad ones, and I'm kind of glad I've seen each, although those are choices keeping me from seeing better things in theaters.

Birth of the Dragon

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2017 in AMC Assembly Row #7 (first-run, DCP)

Though the format is their bread and butter for their live shows and television programming, Birth of the Dragon seems to be the first film from WWE Studios that is actually centered around two guys talking smack about each other for a couple of weeks and then settling the matter with their fists in front of an audience; they've become a spot where directors the studios won't give big budgets can do decent, if modest, genre material whether or not they include a wrestler in the cast. That's the case here - George Nolfi's first feature since The Adjustment Bureau has its faults, but it does most of what it sets out to do better than a lot of things with bigger stars and budgets.

Before he was a star, Bruce Lee (Philip Ng Wang-lung) taught wing chun in San Francisco, with Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin) and Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) as two of his more enthusiastic students. While Vinnie's gambling gets him in trouble with Chinatown gangsters, Steve finds himself smitten by Quan Xiulan (Qu Jingjing), a recent arrival looking to study western medicine but who has been put to work in a restaurant to pay off debts whose interest exceeds her salary. As this is going on, Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) arrives in town, an event that excites martial arts fan McKee but which Lee sees as a potential challenge and rebuke to his teaching white students as well as Chinese, leading Lee to challenge Wong to a fight - one which few witnessed but which became an integral part of Lee's legend.

Some will watch Birth of the Dragon and think that making the point-of-view character basically Steve McQueen (McQueen was already a star in 1964 and wouldn't train with Lee until later, but just look at McKee and listen to his backstory) just makes what is already a thin premise ridiculous, but there's something brilliant about it, really - if you're going to build a movie out of a thin story that was so poorly reported at the time that it immediately passed into legend, why not scrape every bit of unlikely but entertaining trivia into it, enjoying the tall-take excess of it? Screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson take more flagrant liberties, which results in a film that is simple and relatively pat, but which flows easily and allows anybody to latch on, no matter how familiar they are with these people or martial arts in general.

Full review on EFC.

Chungnyeon gyungchal (Midnight Runners)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2017 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

According to the subtitles, this film's credits end with a promise that "Midnight Runners will return", which seems kind of optimistic unless the young stars are very popular in South Korea despite not being in much that has hit the film festival/general release circuit in North America. They've done some TV, though, so maybe they're big on DramaFever. Still, that's a lot of confidence in a middling movie that's got a good premise but has trouble getting the most of it.

It opens in 2015, as roughly a hundred high school graduates show up to apply for the Korean National Police University, with the fearsome Joo-hee (Park Ha-seon), aka "Medusa", supervising the initial weed-out process. Somehow, Kang Hee-yeol (Kang Ha-neul), a nerdy germophobe who seems more suited for MIT than KNPU, and Park Gi-jung (Park Seo-joon), a cocky kid who can't afford to go anywhere else, wind up not just making the cut but unlikely friends. A year and a half later, though, they're frustrated, and a night of striking out with girls at a nightclub highlights how this path isn't going to lead to respect or financial stability. A pretty girl (Lee Ho-jung) catches their eye on the way back to the bus, though, and while they're doing rock-paper-scissors to see who goes to talk to her, she's pulled into a van. Professor Yang (Sung Dong-il) has taught them that the critical window for the kidnapping of an adult woman is seven hours, but when they report the abduction to the police, they're told the entire missing person squad has been detailed for the kidnapping of a rich man's son. The only thing to do, then, is to go back to the scene of the crime and see what they can figure out themselves.

That's not a bad premise for a movie at all, with the main problem initially being that the character introductions hint at a lighter sort of buddy-cop film than what eventually surfaces (that the English-language title brings to mind one of the all-time great buddy movies doesn't help). It is a surprisingly enjoyable "cop" movie when it gets moving - there's a likable determination to the way the students start tracking victims and suspects down with more ingenuity than evidence, and later on, a few good action bits that emphasize just how hard this is and how young and inexperienced the students are. That it's not exactly subtle in how it plays up its main characters are especially dedicated but kind of shrugs at the inefficiencies of the system isn't great - writer/director Kim Joo-hwan builds the plot around poor use of resources but the tone of the film sometimes has a hard time getting past mild frustration - but it's a solid foundation for the movie even when Hee-yeol and Gi-jung are uncertain.

Full review on EFC.

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