Monday, August 20, 2018

Tokyo, Seoul, and Europe Raiders

I kind of put much more effort into seeing Europe Raiders than this not-very-good movie deserves, Yes, sure, you absolutely see the Hong Kong movie when it plays - which has actually been more often of late, as the mainland ones due for release have either been pulled or pushed a lot, creating absolute mayhem with China Lion's release slate - but it was not exactly easy, since it was playing matinees only during the weekend, and the shuffled times for the week aren't great either (last show of the day at 6:10pm). And though it didn't look like there was a whole lot of continuity between films - Tony Leung Chiu-wai is the only person in the cast who carries over - but, hey, it's probably worth knowing the series so that I don't ignorantly say that the problem with #3 is something that's baked into the series from the start. It is, sure, but give it some context!

So, Tokyo Raiders is on Amazon Prime Video, for free if you've got Amazon Prime (aside: whatever branding consultant decided to call every video you can stream from Amazon "Prime Video" as oopposed to just the ones that stream for free with Amazon Prime needs a whack upside the head). I'm kind of zonked after The Spy Went North Friday night, so I watch it Saturday morning, and I'm surprised just how much I like it. But then, they don't have Seoul Raiders. Apparently the only place that does in the US is Google Play Video, and in Standard Definition at that. My Roku does a decent job of upconverting it to either HD or 4K, but that's still kind of rough for a movie that's got Shu Qi in it to look at.

(Kind of rough to watch, too, as I fell asleep watching it Saturday night and had to try again Sunday morning!)

As kind of expected, there was just me and one other person in the theater for a show at noon on Sunday, so I don't know how this would have played to an actual crowd - maybe better, because there's a lot of stuff in it that seemed like it was just on the wrong side of fun, but maybe an environment where other people are laughing gives it a nudge.

I was amused as heck that someone involved must have either been a pretty serious Trekkie or went looking for synthetic languages and decided to backfill. There's a Christmas dinner with a bunch of people wearing Spock ears and not-quite-infringing knockoffs of TOS uniforms, and Kris Wu's character both swears in Klingon and uses it to communicate with Lin so that people around them can't understand them. It's funny because two years ago, there were stories about Paramount hiring a company to make sure that people in China knew what the heck Star Trek was before they released Beyond there. Obviously, Hong Kong is not China in general, but it's still kind of impressive that you will see both this kind of Trek nerdery and Journey to the West references that they would have had to explain the heck out of had this been made for an American audience, but both kind of just left there like the audience is expected to get them.

I'm tempted to add "Klingon" as one of the movie's languages on IMDB, although I'm not sure whether that's silliness or accuracy. And though it's not really a very good movie, I appreciate the weirdness of having a Chinese movie about people working for the American CIA set in Italy quite possibly having more lines in Klingon than English or Italian.

Dong Jing Gong Lue (Tokyo Raiders)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 August 2018 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Amazon Prime HD)

Tony Leung Chiu-wai always seems like "the other one" to me - Tony Leung Ka-fai seems to have had the more distinguished career, and "Little Tony" always seems to pale in comparison to the other action guys who emerged at about the same time (Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yeun Biao). Heck, in this very movie, he seems to be constantly upstaged by second-billed Ekin Cheng, enough to make me wonder whether this became his series by virtue of his being able to return for Seoul Raiders a few years later.

Despite Leung being kind of forgettable in it, Tokyo Raiders is a really fun movie. It starts off with a bouncy score and a goofy opening gambit (presumably so that it isn't twenty minutes before Leung's character is introduced) before dropping an entertaining odd couple in above their heads and then just having everybody get deeper and deeper in, with tons of secrets revealed that make just enough sense to not feel completely random. It's good-looking - director Jingle Ma made his bones as a cinematographer - but in this very specific way, grainy and with lots of grey-ish costumes for the guys and perky charm for the ladies, almost like the filmmakers are intentionally saying that they cut corners to shoot in Japan (though it seldom gets the expected beauty shots) and put together a decent cast and have them do some fun action. It's not quite a winky, self-aware B-movie, but the sort of Hong Kong action flick that prioritizes certain things and gets by elsewhere.

Plus, man, the rest of that cast! Ekin Cheng has some action chops and the right attitude for the screwball plot. Kelly Chen, gorgeous, charming, and able to take all the betrayal the film throws at her character and build someone the audience likes and cheers on more than they feel sorry for her. Cecilia Cheung, a "special guest" who makes the most of a throwaway pretty-girl sidekick. And Hiroshi Abe, who maybe wasn't yet much of a star in Japan, but who certainly feels like a great get as the brutish but charismatic local villain in retrospect.

I've got to admit, I initially wasn't really looking forward to this one; it felt like unnecessary homework for a sequel that wasn't really anticipated enough to get any evening showings here. But, it turns out, this thing's a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to completing the series over the next couple of days.

Han Cheng Gong Lue (Seoul Raiders)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18/19 August 2018 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Google Play SD)

Once again, Tony Leung is overshadowed by his co-stars in this sequel to Tokyo Raiders, only this time, he is placed closer to the center, with little room for Richie Jen and Shu Qi to take over the way Ekin Cheng and Kelly Chen did in the first. Most of the action winds up focusing on Lam and his all-girl squad of assistants (who, unfortunately, are never really individual enough to make for a fun squad), chasing around Seoul to find missing counterfeiting plates, eventually killing enough time in light enough fashion that the big reveals of who is actually working together don't feel entirely like cheats.

It feels little cheaper and less ambitious than the first, and a little more prone to being on the wrong side of the self-parody line, too. Fortunately, it seems like they're saving up for the big finale with a chase through Seoul that involves a Cessna that just came out of nowhere. That bit is enjoyably destructive and crazy, with fighting in and on top of the airplane as it plows through city streets. It reminds you right away that, wow, Hong Kong filmmakers used to do some insane things without much apparent CGI enhancement, and at least must have sent people out of the theater happy.

Ou Zhou Gong Lue (Europe Raiders)

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2018 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Released 18 years ago, Tokyo Raiders wasn't a great movie, which goes double for 2005 sequel Seoul Raiders, but they're fair examples of early-aughts Hong Kong movies - relatively-low budget, scripts that aren't great, a bit of brain-drain going on as some of the big names were heading to Hollywood or China, but nevertheless kind of fun because you could still put together a heck of a cast and nobody in the world did action better. Europe Raiders, meanwhile, is a fair look at what movies have in many cases become almost two decades later - some of the same people are involved, but the result feels more processed, with less to be impressed by.

It opens in 2006, on Christmas Eve, when private eye/bounty hunter/CIA agent Lin Zaifeng (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and his team - Steelskin (Lo Mang), Sureblade (Lau Ka Yung), and Megafoot (Yuen Qiu), rather than the adoring young women of the previous films - rescue both master hacker Mercury (George Lam Chi-Cheung) and his two children, though he suspects Mercury wouldn't be caught unless he wanted to be. A decade later those children have grown up, and Sophie (Du Juan) has just stolen the "Hand of God" surveillance system Mercury built for the CIA, and is demanding the release of her brother Rocky (Kris Wu Yifan) from a secret prison. To catch Sophie, the CIA recruits Wang Chaoying (Tiffany Tang Yan), who is not only a top security professional in her own right, but the only one who can contact her ex-boyfriend Lin.

It's kind of odd that the third entry in this series is the first in which Tony Leung Chiu-wai's Lin is firmly placed at the center of the story despite Leung being first-billed in all three, and it still doesn't really allow him to make a strong impression or even feel that important: Though Lin talks about Hand of God being something Mercury regrets like they were close friends, there's nothing in the movie to support that, and his relationship with Wang is very much carried by Tiffany Tang's side of the story. It's bizarre what a relative void Leung is in these movies, considering what great work he's turned in elsewhere. He's far from a negative - he brings a light, playful charm to the part, can still hold his own in a martial-arts scene, and has good chemistry with Tang - but there are a couple times when it looks like the plan here is to relaunch the series with Tang as the star, and it's not just her snappy outfits (compared to Lin's gray suits) that make that an appealing idea. Tang gets to play the prickly, sarcastic agent with something to prove and has a blast selling it, to the point where she probably should have been the star of this movie in a more indisputable manner.

Full review at EFC.

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