xXx: Return of Xander Cage

For F*** Magazine

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Director : D. J. Caruso
Cast : Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Toni Collette, Nina Dobrev, Rory McCann, Tony Jaa, Michael Bisping, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 19 January 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-posterAny action star worth his salt has got to keep more than one franchise going, so get ready for more Diesel-powered action with this continuation of the xXx series. Extreme sportsman and elite secret agent Xander Cage (Diesel) has long been thought dead, but his services are needed again as a new threat emerges. Xiang (Yen) and his team of highly skilled adrenaline junkie operatives have gotten their hands on a device called Pandora’s Box, which can be used to crash any satellite in orbit. NSA handler Jane Marke (Collette) draws Xander back into the fray. Xander calls on his associates, including sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Rose), stunt driver Tennyson Torch (McCann) and deejay Nicks Zhou (Wu) to back him up. They are assisted by tech expert Becky Clearidge (Dobrev). They must face off against Xiang and his team, comprising Serena (Padukone), Talon (Jaa) and Hawk (Bisping), as Serena questions where her loyalties lie. xxx-return-of-xander-cage-kris-wu-ruby-rose-rory-mccann-and-vin-diesel

The first xXx film was pitched as a hipper, cooler competitor to the Bond franchise. In the same year, the Bond film Die Another Day tried to pull off some extreme sports action. It was not a good look. The premise of devil-may-care thrill-seekers recruited into a spy program is silly, but in the right hands, it can be the fun kind of silly. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is absolutely the fun kind of silly. From the first scene, director D.J. Caruso practically announces that this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. What follows is a string of outlandish stunts and set pieces which, while smaller in scale, almost rival those showcased in the recent Fast and Furious flicks. Anything that was considered remotely cool in the 2000s is, by now, painfully awkward, so xXx: Return of Xander Cage boldly embraces the cheesiness and is all the more enjoyable for it.

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F. Scott Frazier’s screenplay bursts with quips and one-liners of varying quality, but at its core lies a generic spy thriller plot: one team of agents has the MacGuffin, and the other must get it back. There’s globe-trotting, car chases and shootouts, as well as shifting alliances and standard-issue plot twists. Then again, nobody’s going to watch this for the plot. There are enough bells and whistles and a spirited embrace of ludicrousness to lift this above the humdrum formula of many a disposable action flick. You will believe a man can ski through a rainforest and that motorcycles can transform into jetskis to ride ocean swells. The visual effects work is surprisingly competent, and the explosive climax doesn’t look conspicuously phony.

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Diesel’s Xander allows the star to indulge his ego as a coolly laconic, an anti-establishment rebel who lives life on the edge. This was never a particularly grounded character and Diesel seems aware of that. This time, he has an eclectic ensemble supporting him.

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Yen is on excellent form here, the film making good use of his skill set. He’s is charming and menacing as Xiang, but the character is not a moustache-twirling villain and surprisingly, there’s some nuance to him. Yen gets to perform more martial arts here than he did in Rogue One, and he plays off Diesel superbly. Jet Li was originally cast in the part, and it is speculated that he dropped out due to health concerns. We think Yen is a better fit for Xiang than Li might’ve been.

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Bollywood starlet Padukone is counting on this film to help her break into the American market. She’s a serviceable femme fatale, but is far from the most memorable actress to play the archetype.

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It’s Rose who steals the show as the smart-alecky sniper Adele. The epitome of cool, Rose seems right in her element whether she’s handling a rifle or hitting on every woman in sight. McCann, best known as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane on Game of Thrones, puts in an amusing turn as the slightly-unhinged Tennyson. Dobrev plays up the ‘adorkable’ shtick for all it’s worth, but borders on grating as the resident tech geek. Out of Xander’s sidekicks, it’s Wu who makes the least impact as Nicks, who serves no apparent purpose on the team. Each character is introduced with a title card listing their special skills, akin to the ones seen in Suicide Squad. Nicks’ just says he’s “fun to be around”.

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As the no-nonsense boss lady, Collette delivers her many dramatic declarations with gusto, and appears to be having fun being a part of a big, silly action movie, since she doesn’t do those too often. Jaa has his hair dyed blonde and styled into a faux-hawk, and his role is largely comedic. If there’s any big missed opportunity here, it’s that Jaa isn’t given more to do, and that he doesn’t have a fight scene in which he either teams up with or faces off against fellow martial arts expert Yen. Jackson’s reprisal of the Augustus Gibbons role amounts to little more than a cameo, but there are a couple more cameos sure to elicit a reaction from the audience.

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xXx: Return of Xander Cage isn’t particularly original or, god forbid, smart, but it’s good at what it does. Erring on the right side of self-aware without plunging into obnoxious self-parody, this threequel announces “this is silly, and that’s perfectly okay”. If this gang is staying together, bring on xXx IV.

Summary: The rip-roaring third entry in the xXx series put a smile on this reviewer’s face. A big, dumb smile.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For F*** Magazine

By Jedd Jong

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY 

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Forest Whitaker, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 14min
Opens : 15 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

rogue-one-posterStar Wars devotees have long known that the galaxy has innumerable stories to tell beyond the Skywalker family saga, and moviegoers are getting their first taste of that with this spin-off.

Set just before the events of Episode IV, Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the blueprints for the Empire’s planet-annihilating superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of Galen (Mikkelsen), an Imperial science officer and secret Rebel sympathiser. Separated from her father at a young age, she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a hard-line Rebel fighter. When Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected, delivers a message to the Rebels from Galen regarding the Death Star, Jyn is roped in to reach out to her father. Jyn teams up with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna), who has his suspicions regarding Jyn’s loyalties. Also part of the team is K-2SO (Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid; Force-sensitive blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Yen) and Chirrut’s partner, the mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang). Standing in their way is Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), the treacherous director of advanced weapons research who is overseeing the Death Star program.

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The premise for Rogue One seems like a no-brainer in hindsight: a war movie, with spies going behind enemy lines to complete a high-stakes mission, set within the Star Wars galaxy. Director Gareth Edwards has done everything humanly possible to assuage fears that this is merely a cash grab. Rogue One looks and feels like an authentic part of the Star Wars series, but has plenty of surprises in store despite being a prequel. We have a rough idea of where it will all lead, but the journey is still an exhilarating one with just the right amount of grimness. There still are jokes and amusing characters, but this is the right pitch of grim. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz (with Gary Whitta and John Knoll receiving a ‘story by’ credit) has a satisfying amount of depth to it. We get to experience the shades of grey and the confusion cast by the fog of war, somewhat refreshing in a franchise that often trades in moral absolutes.

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Rogue One’s visuals remain faithful to the look of the original trilogy, while also feeling dirtier and more tactile than ever. We revisit the Rebel stronghold on Yavin IV, and travel to new moons and planets including Jedha, home to a holy Jedi city; perpetually-stormy Eadu and Sacrif, a paradise-turned-warzone. There is no shortage of battle sequences both on land and in space, including a full-fledged dogfight which provides astounding spectacle.rogue-one-scarif

The effects work is an ideal combination of digital and practical, with what appear to be miniature effects used to depict the Star Destroyers in certain scenes. Every hit of blaster fire, each clump of dirt kicked up in an explosion, every time a Stormtrooper gets clunked on the head – it all feels real. That said, there are some digital face replacements which aren’t 100% convincing.

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Creating a new Star Wars character must be a daunting task, given the iconic status of Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader et. al. Lead characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor will remind fans well-versed in the Star Wars expanded universe of Jan Ors and Kyle Katarn respectively, who recover the Death Star plans in the video game Star Wars: Dark Forces. Given her slight frame, Jones might not seem like the most obvious candidate for an action heroine, but she pulls it off. While many protagonists have back-stories as tragic as Jyn’s, the Oscar nominee sells Jyn’s defiance in the face of sorrow. Despite both characters being played by English women, Jyn is sufficiently different from The Force Awakens’ Rey, steelier and world-wearier, if understandably nowhere near as fun.

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Luna’s Cassian Andor is gruff yet suave while not being a knockoff of the galaxy’s #1 loveable rogue, Han Solo. The development of Cassian and Jyn’s working relationship is believable and is mercifully devoid of twee romantic comedy bickering. They might not like each other, but they have a job to do, and are going to complete said job at any cost.

 

In Hollywood, Mikkelsen is known mainly for his villainous roles, and Rogue One gives him a chance to showcase his softer side as Jyn’s tortured father. The character has relatively little screen time, but Mikkelsen makes considerable impact in the given time.rogue-one-forest-whitaker

Whitaker gives Saw a dangerous edge – he’s ostensibly one of the good guys, but his extreme methods warrant wariness. The character first appeared in the Clone Wars animated series, and it’s fun to see a pre-existing character incorporated into a live action Star Wars film.

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Donnie Yen’s casting as a blind martial artist monk who spouts fortune cookie aphorisms should be greeted with an eye roll or two. While falling back on these stereotypes is not particularly progressive, it’s hard for us to get upset at Yen delivering an epic smack-down to a pack of Stormtroopers. Those familiar with Jiang’s work might have a hard time picturing him as a burly bruiser, but his Baze Malbus fits that position just fine, and complements Chirrut nicely.

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There is a grand Star Wars tradition of comic relief droids, but K-2SO differs from his predecessors in that he actually is intimidating. The character’s design is striking and Tudyk’s bemused, ever-so-slightly stilted delivery sounds just right emanating from the lanky, powerful droid. Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is not as memorable as the other characters, but he does get the distinction of coining the call-sign Rogue One.

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Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is everything this reviewer hoped for in a villain. Krennic is cold, supercilious and brutal, fitting right in with the Imperial higher-ups of the original trilogy. At the same time, he is eager to please and seeks the validation of Darth Vader and the Emperor. Speaking of Vader, he is used judiciously here, Edwards resisting the temptation to be overly reliant on one of the greatest screen villains ever. James Earl Jones returns to provide the voice, with “a variety of large-framed actors” donning the helmet.

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Reshoots months after production had completed and the replacement of composer Alexandre Desplat with Michael Giacchino led to rumblings that Rogue One might be on shaky ground. Edwards has soundly disproven sceptics with a film that hits all the right notes. There are homages to the series’ past without it turning into a mere parade of fan-service, the action sequences are plentiful and visceral, and the characters are easy to care about. Consider this battle won.

Summary: A riveting, richly-realised adventure tinged with the right amount of darkness and maturity, Rogue One transcends the notion that spin-offs aren’t as worthy as the ‘real thing’. An auspicious first entry in the Star Wars anthology.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ip Man 3 (叶问 3)

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IP MAN 3  (叶问 3)

Director : Wilson Yip
Cast : Donnie Yen, Zhang Jin, Lynn Hung, Patrick Tam, Mike Tyson, Karena Ng
Genre : Martial-Arts/Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 44 mins
Opens : 24 December 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
After a five year leave of absence from the role, Donnie Yen is back as legendary martial artist Ip Man. It is 1950 and things are going well for Ip Man, who is respected throughout the land, continuing to run his Wing Chunacademy. Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man and his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Hung), gets into a schoolyard fight with Cheung Fong. It turns out that Cheung Fong is the son of rickshaw puller Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang), also a Wing Chun practitioner who is making money on the side in illegal fighting matches. Said matches are organised by American property developer Frank (Tyson), a crooked businessman who has the British Hong Kong police captain in his pocket. Local gangster Ma King-sang, working for Frank, terrorises the town, threatening the school that Ip Chun and Cheung Fong attend. As Ip Man’s disciples protect the innocent town folk, he must take on Frank and Cheung Tin-chi to prove his supremacy and safeguard his loved ones.

            Yen was initially reluctant to portray Ip Man a third time, saying of the second film “I believe it’s best to end something when it’s at perfection, and leave behind a good memory.” “Perfection” is a very strong word, Donnie. The sheer number of Ip Man-centric projects that cropped up after the success of the first film were also a factor in turning Yen off returning. Somehow, Ip Man 3 happened anyway, with Yen saying this will close out the series for good. This is a mess, with the feeling that a great deal was changed from what director Wilson Yip intended to shoot. The screenplay by Edmond Wong, Lai-yin Leung and Chan Tai-Li comes across as incredibly choppy and lacking in focus. Sure, the action choreography by Yen, Yuen Shun-Yee and Yuen Woo-Ping is expectedly splendid, but it ultimately needs to be in service of a solid story, which just isn’t the case here.

The initial announcements that Mike Tyson had signed on to play the villain and that Bruce Lee would be resurrected via digital trickery both reeked of unabashed gimmickry. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and Lee is played instead by Danny Chan, who does a fun, if over-the-top impression of the pioneering action star. Chan’s movements are appropriately swift, though his attempt at Lee’s signature cocky grin borders on caricature. Chan previously played Lee in the 2008 biographical TV series The Legend of Bruce Lee. Chan bears an uncanny resemblance to Lee and this reviewer is relieved that this is what we got instead of a disconcerting floating CGI head. While it was originally suggested that director Yip’s objective was for Ip Man 3 to follow the master-disciple relationship between Ip Man and Lee, that’s more a B-plot than anything else.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Tyson is in very little of the film and his is a C-plot. Those looking forward to a showdown along the lines of Rocky vs. Ivan Drago in Rocky IV will come away sorely disappointed. Ip Man doesn’t even meet Frank until more than an hour into the film. Tyson is no actor and looks extremely out of place in Ip Man 3, unable to beat the snatches of Cantonese dialogue he is given into submission. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ip Man film without a serving of anti-Western sentiment, with a supercilious British police captain also showing up. At one point, Kent Cheng’s Sgt. Po says the line “the two foreign devils are in cahoots!” with nary a sense of irony.

Yen has considerable experience playing Ip Man and his is often considered the definitive portrayal of the master. Ip Man is a combination warrior-sage-saint with no shortcomings to speak of and therefore not terribly interesting, because the filmmakers are too preoccupied with respecting his status to take any risks with the characterisation. Any and all scenes involving Ip Man’s wife Cheung Wing-sing and his son Ip Chun are treacly and cloying. Ip Man also had two sons in real life, but only one shows up. The real-life Ip Chun, now 91, served as the martial arts consultant on this film, as with the two earlier instalments. It is a massive missed opportunity not to have the actual Ip Chun interact with the child version of him in the film in a cameo. Like Yen, Zhang Jin actually is an accomplished martial artist and as such genre aficionados should enjoy seeing the two duke it out. There is a degree of complexity to Zhang’s character, who is an antagonist but not an out-and-out villain, which is appreciated in a film lacking in subtlety.



Audiences have waited a while for the conclusion to Yen’s Ip Mantrilogy and this is far from a truly satisfying final chapter. The stunt casting of Tyson isn’t exploited to its full potential and Ip Man taking Bruce Lee under his wing (chun), something which these films have been building up to, is treated like a side-plot. There are superbly-staged kungfu skirmishes aplenty, but it is difficult to recommend the film solely on that basis. Should’ve left it at two, Donnie.

Summary: Dynamic fights cannot rescue this scattershot threequel which closes out the Ip Man trilogy on an underwhelming note.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Kung Fu Jungle (一个人的武林)

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KUNG FU JUNGLE (一个人的武林)

Director : Teddy Chen
Cast : Donnie Yen, Wang Baoqiang, Charlie Young, Michelle Bai, Alex Fong, Louis Fan
Genre : Action/Thriller
Rating : PG13 (Violence) 
Run time: 100 mins
It’s a jungle out there – a kung fu jungle. In Teddy Chen’s martial arts flick, Donnie Yen’s Hahou Mo was once the king of that jungle. A skilled kungfu instructor and martial arts school proprietor who was responsible for training members of the Hong Kong Police, Hahou fell from grace after accidentally killing an opponent in a duel. In the midst of serving his five year prison term, Hahou hears about a series of murders on the news. A deranged fighter named Fung Ya-Sau (Wang) is targeting Hong Kong’s top martial arts practitioners in a bid to prove his supremacy in the various subsets – fistfighting, kickboxing, grappling, weapon-wielding and finally the use of “internal energy”. Hahou approaches Luk Yuen-Sun (Young), the policewoman leading the investigation to offer his expertise and is provisionally released to assist the police. He also reunites with his girlfriend Sinn Ying (Bai) who has been operating the school alone in his absence.

            Audiences get a kick out of seeing feats of well-honed physical prowess on display. That’s an integral part of the appeal of competitive sports and Cirque du Soleil-type performances. In cinema, the martial arts genre best exemplifies this. Kung Fu Jungle reunites star Donnie Yen with his Bodyguards and Assassinsdirector Teddy Chen, with contemporary Hong Kong in place of the period setting of that film. Here, the plot exists primarily as a clothesline on which to hang the kungfu battles but all things considered, it’s not a bad clothesline at all. Our noble hero who’s been wronged has to prove his worth by assisting the wary police in pursuit of a dangerous foe. It’s reminiscent of the 1997 Gary Daniels-starrer Bloodmoon – that film’s director Tony Leung Siu Hong gets a cameo here. Hey, beats the bog-standard “underground martial arts tournament” plot device. We get some exciting set-pieces, including a fight on and around a giant suspended modern art sculpture of the human skeleton. There are chases on foot across rooftops and through canals on speedboats. There’s also a pretty fun meta moment when Ya-Sau storms onto a movie set to face off against action movie star Hung Yip (Fan).

            However, Kung Fu Jungle definitely has its lapses in logic and spots of unintentional humour. For example, when Ya-sau enters the film set to confront Hung Yip, the rest of the cast and crew just hightail it out of there and nobody calls for the cops to, at the very least, wait outside the studio to apprehend Ya-sau. There’s also a moment during the climactic clash when our hero, brandishing a long bamboo pole, is running after our villain, also brandishing a long bamboo pole. It’s very goofy and almost worthy of spontaneous Yakety Sax music. That said, Chen has largely achieved a tonal consistency and there aren’t annoyingly long comic relief interludes as can often pop up in this genre. The action choreography by Yen, Yuen Bun and Yan Hua is energetic, intense and creative, although there is more shaky-cam employed than we would’ve liked. Computer-generated effects in Hong Kong cinema are often jarring and dodgy so it’s a good thing that apart from just a few quick bits, the stunt work is all practical and well-executed.

            At 51, Donnie Yen is still as quick, spry and proficient a martial artist as ever and he just looks awesome onscreen. This reviewer is relieved that after the very embarrassing likes of Special I.D., Iceman and the abysmal Monkey King, Yen’s dignity is more than intact here. True, his acting range is somewhat limited, but “wrongly imprisoned martial arts master” is well within those limits and the focus is rightfully placed on his fighting rather than his acting. Wang Baoqiang works those crazed eyes for all they’re worth and although he does seem like a dangerous, credible opponent for our hero, he has a tendency to ham it up. The “skyward scream” he lets out during a flashback detailing his stock tragic back-story™ really pulls one out of what should’ve been a dramatic moment. Charlie Young does make for a believable woman in charge, though it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in this genre. Mdm. Luk doesn’t let Hahou catch a break and the partnership between the martial artist and the police is always somewhat rocky. Michelle Bai’s role is just that crucial bit more than “the girlfriend” thanks to a great swordfighting scene she gets to herself.

            Aficionados of Hong Kong martial arts movies will have fun keeping their eyes peeled for cameos from personalities key to the success of the genre, including veteran producer and Hong Kong cinema pioneer Raymond Chow, actress Sharon Yeung of Drunken Master and Angel on Fire fame and film historian/screenwriter Bey Logan. The movie ends with a great montage in tribute to many influential filmmakers and actors who have kept the martial arts movie tradition alive and kicking. Kung Fu Jungle does have its overwrought moments but the good number of exhilarating fights and leading man Donnie Yen’s presence makes this worth seeing for anyone who digs kungfu movies.


Summary: An uncomplicated plot, great action sequences, a palpable affection for its predecessors in this genre and Donnie Yen doing what he does best make this a fun rumble in the jungle.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong