Monday, June 7, 2010

Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Protagonist

Films: Ying Xiong (Hero), Point Blank
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty bedroom television (Hero), DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television (Point Blank).

First, a note: this should have gone up last night, but Blogger was down.

When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon first came out, people either loved it or hated it. I loved it; my mother hated it. I thought it was a beautiful story, and I loved the way it was filmed. I understand the thought that the wire work used throughout made it something of a fantasy rather than a realistic film, but martial arts movies have always contained a sense of the unreal. I wasn’t bothered by it. Instead, I was taken by the beauty of the story.

The same can be said of Hero, which follows many of the same conventions. It also bears a great deal of similarity to Rashomon, in that it tells the same story multiple ways, each slightly different, and each closer to reality than the one previous.

We start with the creation of China as a united nation. In the time of the story, China is actually seven nations. The most powerful is Qin, headed by a powerful king (Daoming Chen) who wishes to unite all seven kingdoms into one. To do this, he has created a large and terrible army capable of destroying anything in its path. He is also terribly paranoid of assassination, and does not allow anyone who isn’t a most trusted advisor within 100 paces.

A nameless man (Jet Li) has rendered the king a powerful service—he has killed the three assassins who have sought the life of the king since the beginning of the war. He arrives at the king’s palace with the weapons of all three as proof of their death. The killing of Sky (Donnie Yen) allows him to come within 20 paces of the king. Slaying the pair Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) allows the nameless man within a mere 10 paces.

Nameless relates his tale of how he destroyed Sky in battle. He also tells that Sky and Flying Snow had a one-night affair, which caused a rift between her and Broken Sword. He used this to push them further apart, causing her to kill Broken Sword. Then, with her distracted, he was able to kill her.

The king sees through this story, however. He realizes that nothing had come between the pair of assassins, since they worked as a perfect team in an attempt to kill him. Instead, he realizes that the nameless man is actually a fourth assassin, who compelled the other three to allow themselves to be killed so that he might have a chance at killing the king himself.

That’s really all there is to this story, but this is not a film so much about story. Instead, it is about love, betrayal, vengeance, and honor placed in a memorable time and location. It’s also about some of the prettiest fight choreography ever envisioned.

The fights are truly spectacular. They are obviously full of wire work, as the characters have a tendency to fly, spin, hover, and are capable of bouncing across water as if treading on trampolines. This doesn’t create something silly, however, Instead, it makes for scenes filled with beauty, as much about the scenery and the movements on screen as they are about the various reasons we are given for the people to be fighting.

It could be argued here that the story, for all its twists, turns, and revisions, is straightforward, almost simplistic. This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t really matter. This is a film to watch for its spectacle rather than the story.

In Point Blank, vengeance is the entire story. A man named Walker (Lee Marvin) agrees to help a friend named Mal Reese (John Vernon) out of a tight spot. Reese needs money to pay off a debt, and the pair plan to get it by robbing couriers making a drop on Alcatraz. The money they get isn’t enough, though, and Mal double-crosses Walker for his share of the take--$93,000. In fact, he shoots Walker a couple of times, leaves him to die, and runs off with his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker).

Walker survives the ordeal and swims to shore, making him one of the few (if not the only) person to escape from Alcatraz, Sean Connery in The Rock notwithstanding. Nursed back to health, Walker has only one goal. All he wants is his money. He doesn’t care about being set up, double crossed, or two-timed by his wife. All he wants is his cash, but Reese doesn’t want to pay.

As it turns out, Reese works for a criminal organization called simply The Organization. While Walker only wants his money, a mysterious man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) wants to take down the Organization. He seems to know everything about everybody, and he manages to put Walker on the trail of Lynne. Lynne leads Walker to a used car salesman named Stegman (Michael Strong), who leads to Lynne’s sister, Chris (Angie Dickenson). Eventually, his following his money leads him to Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and Brewster (Carroll O’Connor).

Essentially, this is the entirety of this film. Walker wants his money and does whatever he can to get it, up to and including killing everyone who stands in his way. In many ways, Walker is the prototype for the badass looking to get something that was taken from him. This is Mel Gibson in Payback or Liam Neeson in Taken. Walker is the hardest of hard asses, using anyone and everyone he can to get what he wants, at one point forcing Chris to seduce Mal so that he can have a shot at his enemy.

Point Blank is fairly stylized, and because of this, it’s a little stiff in places. Certainly, since this film came out, the revenge flick has been done and redone over and over hundreds of time, so there’s really nothing new here, despite how it must have appeared in 1967. Don’t let this fool you. While you’ve almost certainly seen this film before with different stars and a slightly different plot, this is a stylish and entertaining movie. It’s very much brain candy, but it’s the good kind that leaves an audience wishing for another helping before the run time is over. Lee Marvin plays this role as well as it can be played, and Angie Dickenson works this role with a near perfect combination of spine, guts, and vulnerability. And Walker never breaks. At one point, Chris goes on a freak out rampage, slapping at him and hitting him. He stands there and takes it, and when she collapses on the floor, he sits down and turns on the television.

John Boorman shows a particular style throughout this film. Early on, we see a montage of events going on as Walker tracks down Lynne. He is walking at a brisk pace down a long hallway, his steps echoing. We continue to hear the steps regardless of if we are watching Walker or not, a nice piece of relentless sound that quickly becomes oppressive. Is it film noir? Sure. It’s also European New Wave with its rapid cuts between present and past. It’s also great fun.

Why to watch Ying Xiong: Fight choreography like no other.
Why not to watch: A simplistic story.

Why to watch Point Blank: Lee Marvin kicks ass.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen this before even if this came first.

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