(Video on Demand, June 2015) This hero-on-the-run thriller may not be particularly original, but it’s often on-point when it comes to execution. Largely set in London, Survivor follows an intelligence analyst (Milla Jovovich, ably playing her usual action heroine persona) as she finds herself framed for a terrorist plot. A great use of London locations helps sell the film, along with a decent number of recognizable actors including Pierce Brosnan unusually playing a straight-up villain. The best thing about James McTeigue’s direction is that it generally remains within the realm of the plausible despite the often logic-defying leaps in the plot. This helps explain why the film’s third act, when it abruptly shifts its action to New York, is a let-down: Not only does it break unity-of-setting, but it cranks the tension up to an artificial degree and does so artlessly. After a conventional but well-handled rising of suspense, the last minutes of the film are just conventional. Survivor is still not a bad film, but it could have been handled quite a bit better.
(In theatres, December 2009) I can imagine the arguments that got this movie green-lit: “Every kid loves pirates, cowboys and ninjas! Disney owns pirates and westerns never make any money, so let’s go for ninjas!” That, along with an unshakeable desire to recycle decades of ninja-movie clichés may be what brought Ninja Assassin to the big screens, and the result feels as familiar and redundant as the film’s title. Devoted to reviving the mystique of the ninja (even imbuing them with slightly-supernatural abilities), this film has plenty of dull dialogue and very few surprises in showcasing all the permutations that fans could ask for: Ninja-vs-criminals, ninja-vs-SWAT-team and the ever-popular ninja-vs-ninja. And yet, two things make the film stand out: First, the unnecessary amount of gore sprayed everywhere: People aren’t just cut or sliced in this film as much as they’re decapitated, dismembered and cleaved in halves. Second, though, is the general competence in which the film achieves its own objectives: As far as a B-grade action films about ninjas are concerned, Ninja Assassin is pretty much what it wants to be. Add to that Naomi Harris (whom I’d watch in just about everything), overblown CGI effects, the obligatory climax set on a burning set, a fine performance by Korean pop-singer Rain (in a Hollywood environment not known for lead roles for Asian actors) and director James McTeigue’s film is quite a bit better than the low expectations set by the boring trailer. I didn’t like Ninja Assassin all that much, but it works in some clunky fashion, and I wasn’t bored for long. For a film that indulges into two of my least-favourite action scene clichés (namely; dimly-lit sets and frantic over-cutting), that’s about as much praise as I can give.
(In theaters, March 2006) It may be too early in the year to talk about 2006’s best films, but it’s certainly not too early to say that this is the first good movie of the year. I’m always a sucker for tales of insurrection against totalitarian government, and this one is slicker than most. Somewhat faithfully adapted from the graphic novel, V For Vendetta remains faithful to the spirit of the original, and delivers a tighter, more cohesive take on the basic story: the film is likely to become my preferred version. (Alan Moore may pout and fume about Hollywood betrayal, but this one’s really not that bad.) From a cinematographic standpoint, the film is gorgeously designed and directed with a great deal of self-confidence: James McTeigue may be overshadowed by the Wachowski producers, but his work is crisp and clean. Blessed with capable lead actors, V For Vendetta showcases some fantastic mask work by Hugo Weaving and one of Natalie Portman’s best role yet. Despite the lack of action set-pieces (don’t believe the trailers), the film has considerable forward momentum and only falters slightly late in the film. Politically, it’s a loud scream against the dangers of totalitarianism, and successfully manages to integrate the Thatcher-era fears of the original with current-day concerns over the so-called War on Terrorism: If it touches a nerve, it’s only because there is something to be concerned about right now. Otherwise, unfortunately (and there’s my biggest problem with the film), it remains quite literally a comic-book fable that tackles ideas in a stylized fashion, but falters on the follow-up: Totalitarian regimes never spring up completely without popular roots, and are seldom defeated by a grandiose gesture. V For Vendetta, hobbled by the necessities of a feature film’s running length and the low bandwidth of cinema, does not seriously engage with the demands of political thought, or the solutions required by real-world trade-offs. It’s all well and good to scream revolution, but it’s not going to do much good unless there are solid alternatives behind the reform. (And it’s what distinguishes comic-book-reading teenagers from adults used to the real world). But I’m being overly harsh: After all, I didn’t say such things after Equilibrium, right? But if V For Vendetta is going to propose itself as a bold political thinking piece, it better withstand the scrutiny it invites. That rabid political point aside, there’s little doubt that V For Vendetta is going to be one of 2006’s good films. Now let’s see the competition before deciding if it’s one of the best.