Sunday, July 23, 2023

Franchise Fatigue

For two nights in a row, I exited a movie theater supremely disappointed in the latest incarnations of two franchises whose history has given me a memorable (and in one case classic) lineage. "Insidious: The Red Door" and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" pretty much broke my heart. From where both of these franchises started to the dregs of where they are now, I began to wonder if the fault lies with my old-man-screaming-at-clouds disillusion with the Hollywood project. With "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny", I could feel my heart shrinking into my chest within the first 20 minutes of an elongated action sequence that sees Jones (Harrison Ford, right digitized and de-aged) spring about Nazi castles, trains, and motorcycles as if he's trying out for the latest Marvel film. Add to the fact that director James Mangold's fifth iteration of the Indiana Jones franchise looks so murky and tactless, and it quickly became a recipe for immense dissatisfaction. Granted, I slowly warmed to the film as it went along, but with each larger set piece and a finale that dares to actually visualize the metaphysical nuances that made "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" so enthralling as young teen, it's an entry in a vaulted series of films that I will most assuredly never re-visit.

The hatred of Patrick Wilson's "Insidious 3: The Red Door" came more incrementally. For the first 30 minutes, the fourth installment of the James Wan/Leigh Whannell horror series establishes the anemia of its father-son relationship between Wilson and college-bound son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) as both struggle with the slow release of the pent up horrors of their past (through hypnosis) that eventually sees them both re-enter "the further" for more terrifying shenanigans. There are some creepy corner-screen movements that set the stage for something grand, however, the scares are ultimately neutered by the very bland performances and unremarkable scares. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that "Insidious: The Red Door" is content to create fan fiction (complete with shoehorned cameos by Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and Leigh Wannell) and serve as greatest hits for a franchise that began with a shrieking sense of old school horror and a demented, go-for-broke mentality. None of that exists in the latest film.

Looking at both films and the wonderful filmic parents that spawned them, what went wrong? Granted, this is just my rhetorical question as I'm sure both films have their admirers.... although most of the accolades I've seen for "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" range from "well, it's better than Crystal Skull" and "fun!". Ever since its premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Mangold's latest Indiana incarnation has mostly been met with subdued murmur. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to love both films. And since I was lukewarm on "Insidious 3" and could see the film getting further and further away from the genuine terror evoked by the first two "Insidious" efforts, I suppose my greatest frustration lies with "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny".... which also has strayed into a netherworld of CGI confusion and murkiness so far removed from the practical excitement of the first three Indiana Jones films that its tired set pieces play like a video game without physics or sensibility. Each action scene- its opening, a ride on a horse through the New York subway, a cart chase in Morocco- rely on so much wham-bam CGI green screen effects that they remove all heart and emotion from a series that once proudly succeeded on mixing true heroic characterizations with bracing, exuberant, practical adventures. I know this type of film is still hopeful in Hollywood, but both "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" and "Insidious: The Red Door" make the case that we're getting further away from replicating (or even marginally extending) the simple joys of what made these franchises so enjoyable long ago. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Flares and Squibs: Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War"

Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War" had me from its stunningly violent open in which a baptism ambush leads into hand grenades and helicopters. From there, it staggers into pretty much every late 80's/early 90's action film aesthetic- from the gaudy lens flares that visually accentuate Hong Kong 'actioners' of the time to the cop buddy narrative that sees two opposing worldviews combine to stop a global terrorist. Add to the mixture loads of cop swagger and "Undeclared War" is a pop masterpiece from a director known more for inspiring the skeletal outline of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" than for his own works. After seeing Lam's "Sky On Fire" at the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival and then lapping up the brutality of his Jean Claude Van Damme collaboration (one of his many) "In Hell" last year, I've had the enjoyment of discovering one engaging action film after another. As usual, going beyond pop culture lip sync to observe the original purveyors holds so much more value.

And the value in "Undeclared War" hits the viewer in the face immediately. After the aforementioned violent opening, the stage is set for a visiting CIA Agent Gary (Peter Liapis) to team up with a local special agent in Hong Kong, Bong (Danny Lee), after his ambassador brother is assassinated by a terrorist named Hannibal (Vernon Wells). Played to cool perfection by Wells, Hannibal seems like a baddie ejected from the "Mission Impossible" universe.... prone to quickly dispatching those who fail him and eluding everyone through a variety of disguises. He's also a pretty good hand-to-hand combat fighter as well.

But beyond the mechanics of a plot that sees Gary and Inspector Bong putting aside their personal differences (Gary from the "Lethal Weapon" school of policing and Bong from the respect-bureaucracy phase of detective work), what stands out from "Undeclared War" is the clean and precise action set pieces. From a funeral home to a large hotel conference finale, Lam maintains a focused, organized logistics of violence. We understand where everyone is. The gun shots feel real. The delineation of good guys and bad guys is pronounced. Unlike so many Hong Kong action films, Lam doesn't lose sense of the placement of bodies and the elongation of suspense. Just watch how he handles a bomb in the finale. Or the cool confidence of police guys doing their work. Like the films of Johnnie To or especially Michael Mann, Lam infuses "Undeclared War" with a keen awareness of both public and private space in an action universe. I love discovering works like this and look forward to more Lam.