Wednesday, November 25, 2009

two from Nu Image: "Command Performance" and "Ninja"

Command Perfromance [**1/2]

As far as “Die Hard” riffs go this is a pretty good one. It falls behind the sequels and just a notch under “Under Siege,” but it is miles better than “Sudden Death,” the other “’Die Hard’ in an arena” picture. I’m sure there are a couple of others I’m forgetting but I think you know where I;m going with this by now. This one stars Van Damme’s sometime mortal enemy Dolph Lundgren as Joe, an ex-biker from California-cum- Russian rock band drummer who finds his unique talent for asskickery called upon when terrorists seize the concert his band is playing at and take the Russian president and his tween pop superstar/slut worshipping daughters hostage. It’s up to Joe and a green presidential bodyguard to save the day after military men and bodyguards are slaughtered by the dozens as they try to affect an extraction and are thwarted.

The most significant difference between this film and “Die Hard” (formula wise, at least, because we all know that the film is a pale if entertaining shadow of the grand daddy of them all) is the reversal of villainous intent. The hostile takeover is normally disguised as the means to get political prisoners rescued when in reality it is just a smokescreen for a heist of some sort. Here they demand money so that they have a time frame in which to work, but their intent is to exact revenge for a failed military coup some seventeen years ago that laid the groundwork for the current president’s ascension to power. Even this reversal transcends the political and is ultimately personal to the villain.

Dolph Lundgren has a keen visual eye, his action scenes are astonishlingly competent and bloody if a little too dependent on CGI blood spray. He does, however make nice use of musical instruments as weapons with which to exact bloody justice. I can’t recall ever having seen someone get stabbed with drumsticks and a broken guitar in the same film before. Lundgren even has a penchant for blue filters much like “The Rock” era Michael Bay. Also, Lundgren’s dedication to delivering satisfying violence is underscored by the fact that he brutally murders two bad guys in front of little girls and equips a third with the means to brutally murder another. That’s probably not satisfying to thei children and their impending therapy bills, but I liked it. It’s take no prisoners like.

Unfortunately, “Command Performance” begins to fall apart in the final twenty minutes. It’s not a precipitous fall from grace, but the acting in international productions is rarely particularly good, but the worst offenders are given even more to do towards the end. Screaming awful are the performances by the ladies who play pop superstar Venus and the president’s duaghters, respectively as is Dolph Lundgren’s attempt at coining a memorable catchphrase: “Rock and Load” is pretty pathetic. But as the mortal peril and desire for vengeance of the girl’s increases, so naturally does the pitch of their grating voices. The film also tries to do something punny, (a risky gambit when you don’t know thing one about Lundgren’s sense of humor (i.e. if he has one, how Russian is it, is it worse…Swedish. See “Kenny Begins” to get a gander at Swedish humor) ) but its most amusing moment comes from its dedication to stoicism. Agent Capiska, the aforementioned green bodyguard, explains to his superiors who is helping him on the inside, he says, “an American drummer” and then there is brief pause before he responds “I’m being completely serious.”

“Command Performance” isn’t all bad, it certainly commits to delivering on all your “Die Hard” clone expectations and reasonably tries to deliver on what fans of Dolph Lundgren’s recent output might expect but towards the end it overreaches…looking for a mile when you give it an inch. It plays some of the notes right, but it can be pretty rough. Next time, I want a showstopper.

Ninja [***]

Some of the clips of the film released beforehand didn’t instill within me a sense of hope, but luckily the vehicle as a whole is a cheesy, grand, gloriously violent and fun ride. I never thought that Scott Adkins had yet lived up to his potential as the second coming of anything, he was always kind of there until “Undisputed II” then he becomes really easy to take notice of, but then he gets relegated to third to die in the surprisingly awesome “The Tournament” but Ninja is finally the Scott Adkins vehicle, I suppose it also helps that he is front and center as a good guy for a change.

Adkins is Casey, the western anomaly known as the title character of an Eastern artform, I guess what I’m saying is he’s Ninja. Casey was raised by ninjas and trained in their ancient and deadly arts for twenty-some odd years along the way gaining favor with the master while another pupil named Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara) became the also ran in the arts and the master’s eyes. Over the years, Masazuka’s resentment builds and during a battle to decide who will become the new sensei Masazuka takes the battle too far and tries to kill Casey. He is expelled and begins to ply his trade as an assassin.

Masazuka works for an oil corporation taking out their competition. The corporation is also prone to secret meetings where they wear hoods and brand people. They are their own fraternity of killers apparently so why they need Masazuka’s help is really anyone’s guess. I suppose being a ninja has its advantages when it comes to invisibility and all. Somehow Masazuka manages to time a target’s death so that it becomes the spectacular end to a press conference.

Masazuka still not quite over what happened to him at the orphanage vows not only revenge but to take back everything he believes he is owed which includes the school he was expelled from and a feudal Ninja suit called the Yoroi Bitsu. The Bitsu is going on display in a museum and Casey and a few others have been deemed the protectors so Masazuka leaves a trail of bodies on his way to New York and even enlists his old employers to try and kill Casey and his former teacher’s daughter (Mika Hijii).

The action scenes are pretty stellar to a one, my favorite seqeunce starts out in a coffee shop where the proprietor sells them out to assassins and the brawl spills over into the streets with guys leaning out of SUVs firing guns and then the action shifts to a subway car where some guy gets thrown through a window and nailed by another passing train. Another favorite is the brawl in the professor’s house which highlights not only how terrible shots all of the bad guys are but just how much Scott Adkins loves kicking people in the face and flipping them over.

The fights in the film are always pretty epic and chaotic, the good citizens and law enforcement finally learn not to intervene and during the final brawl which pits our hero and villain against the fraternity of would be assassins on a city street, the police circle overhead in a chopper and issue a stern verbal warning to stop and then no cops show up until it’s over. Adkins and Ihara make a great yin and yang, Adkins is stoic and heroic and even when forced to fight and kill it is clean and not done in a fashion that suggests he enjoys it. Ihara while also quiet and stoic suggests with all manner of carnage he leaves in his wake a cackling maniac who enjoys killing with great relish. They’re a good hero/villain combo.

Nu Image Entertainment who also produced the recent Dolph Lundgren vehicle “Command Performance” is dedicated to delivering the kinds of movies I spent my formative years watchig on HBO, the kind that cultivated the cheesy action junkie in me and I admire their dedeication to the art. I’m not sure how I feel about their loyalty to CG blood but I have less of a proeblem with it when used in cojunction with the blue filters their action extravaganzas have begun to favor as of late. Also, Nu Image is harvesting some of the better direct-to-video action craftsmen around. Always a pleasure to look at and easy to follow to boot. So much for hiding in the shadows ninja.

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