Friday, 11 January 2008

Two Guns, A Toothpick, and Much 'Splodey

As is often the case, my mood-o-meter has swung from MustWatchFilms to MustPlayGames. Partly that's due to, you guessed it, Guitar Hero, an addiction-creating experience so potent that, if the US late night talk shows are anything to go by, would have already jeopardised their existence even if the writers had not balloted to strike. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both commented on its hold over the staff this week, David Letterman interviewed Slash and the Guitar Hero digression they went on ended up derailing the show, and last week Conan joyously gatecrashed a Rock Band session to play a real guitar and then sing Sabotage in the style of Edith Bunker. It was the TV highlight of the past few weeks.

Add to that Canyon's amazing Christmas coup; defying a Nintendo drought and buying a Wii for both of us to play Wii Sports (possibly the best free game ever offered with a new console) and Super Mario Galaxy, which is a hellishly addictive and scarily vertiginous masterpiece. It dominated Christmas almost totally. We only stopped playing so we could watch films (many of which were brilliant), or the Doctor Who Christmas special (which was anything but brilliant, and smelt like fried sewage). There's not many other Wii games I'm that interested in right now, but those two games (plus WarioWare: Smooth Moves) are plenty to go with for now. So yeah, with a controller glued to my hands, it's that much harder to blog, and the medium rarely lends itself to introspection. It's much easier to write about films, TV, or books (or magazines, as our new contributor Masticator will undoubtedly find). How can you write about a game? "I played Gears of War for five hours today and I totally shot a bunch of aliens in the face!" is a valid enough statement, but it's a more immersive and less nuanced experience, which makes commentary harder.

Still, let's try. This week has been devoted to John Woo's Stranglehold, a semi-sequel to Woo's bullet-ridden extravaganza Hard Boiled, which came out a few months ago. Thanks to the miracle of sales, I got it last week, along with Zhang Yimou's underrated courtly soap opera Curse of the Golden Flower, in a Chow Yun Fat double-bill. The game was received with a muted welcome, mostly because it's a pretty unambitious shooter released at around the same time as Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, The Orange Box, and many other big event games. However, I'm a sucker for shooters (I've lost count of the hours I've spent replaying Black), and this has a very big draw; Woo-style action, which is, of course, the best and sexiest kind.

With Chow Yun Fat onboard to recreate his toothpick chewing gun expert Tequila, you control him through an increasingly frenetic series of chaotic battles, using a variety of weapons to destroy everything in your path. As in Max Payne and the Matrix games you can enter a slo-mo mode called Tequila Time, but the fun comes when you use the left trigger to dive or interact with objects in the environment, such as sliding down bannisters. If a villain is in range, Tequila Time begins automatically, and killing your enemies at that moment gives you points for style, which are translated into special attacks, including Precision Aim, which triggers some gory cutscenes of guys staggering backwards with blood shooting out of their throats, and the room clearing Spin Attack, unleashing a slow-motion cut scene filled with death and doves and a manically shouting Tequila. It's awesome.

Perfect for fans of Woo; Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright would love it. That said, it triggered a burst of nostalgia for that wonderful period at the start of the 90s when Woo became known to Western audiences with The Killer and Bullet in the Head, something that I can imagine happened to many people when this game and the recent Dragon Dynasty Hard Boiled reissue came out. I had to have yet another copy of this amazing film! So I went internet shopping, and sadly found that despite its iconic status, its treatment on DVD is simultaneously reverent and appalling.

Criterion adapted their old Laserdisc, which included commentaries from Woo and others, along with documentaries and an old student film. Great stuff, but apparently the screen is not a proper anamorphic transfer, and the subtitles are actually dubtitles, meaning we're still getting the terrible translation of the dialogue that plagued the original releases. I hoped it would have a better treatment by Dragon Dynasty, a DVD distributor owned by the evil, callous Weinsteins, who have a terrible track record of delaying the release of edited versions of acclaimed Hong Kong films and then bitching about people in the West trying to find the originals. (For film distributors, they sure don't like people actually watching movies, do they?) This time the transfer is better, but not perfect, and still it has dubtitles. Plus, the extras aren't as good as the Criterion ones.

Though it's good to know the reputation of the film is such that it keeps getting reissued in new packages, why can't it get done 100% right? Here is a comparison of the many versions released, showing no one disc has the whole package. Dragon Dynasty seem to have done a fairly good job with it, though many of the other films in their library seem to be getting an even better treatment. As for Criterion, why they dropped the ball is beyond me. Every other set they've released is exceptional. Don't they realise it's a bad idea to piss off millions of John Woo fans who do nothing but rewatch his expertly edited and hyper-violent scenes over and over again?

So which DVD did I end up buying from Amazon Marketplace at a ridiculous price mark-up from some dodgy geezer with a 81% feedback rating over the past 12 months? Neither of them. What, am I made of money? Besides, my Woo-love was reignited to such a crazed extent that I couldn't wait another second to see it, and ended up in HMV just an hour after completing the game, where I bought the cheap-as-chips Tartan UK version with the proper anamorphic transfer, proper subtitles, and not even a single extra.

Who cares? I rewatched the teahouse scene last night, and it was as jawdropping as I remembered. Canyon was similarly impressed. During the lulls in the action she gasped, "Is it done yet?", and "No really, is it done yet?", not to mention, "Why does anyone consider Chow Yun Fat cool? All he does is jump through the air with two guns. Anyone can do that." [It's true!!!! -- Canyon] (I'm being a big meanie. She's looking forward to seeing the whole thing, especially as a big fan of Face/Off. Perhaps I shouldn't have hassled her moments after returning home from a nasty commute with, "Look at the 'splodey two-gun crazy!!!" Sorry Canyon! [I'd had enough of crazy on my commute, it's true. I do want to watch it, though. Btw, if Stranglehold really is a sequel to Hard Boiled, it should have been called Over Easy. No, I never get sick of saying that. -- Canyon])

One of the things I love most about his style is the way he is willing to move the camera right into the carnage. At times you get the feeling that the battle isn't just raging in front of the camera, but all around as well. Especially in Hard Boiled, which looks like a war has broken out and Woo happened to have ten cameras under his command. Also, they're not always ground-level, point-of-view shots. In the warehouse fight the omniscient camera cranes over the characters and follows them into fire and shrapnel and clouds of smoke. It's wonderfully effective. The shot below is one of my favourites. Tony Leung leaps through an exploding car to escape certain death at the hands of Tequila, and the camera tracks with him (well, his stuntman). It's a two-second shot, but it is more exciting than most movies in their entirety.

To anyone who has only seen his American movies, you really have seen nothing yet. Face/Off came fairly close, though it was on a thematic level that the movie worked so well as a John Woo film (not saying the action wasn't incredible too, but it still lacked that berserker edge his Hong Kong movies had). Broken Arrow and Hard Target are a guilty pleasure. Though they're not that great, at least John Travolta in the former and Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo in the latter seem to be having fun. Worst of all, Mission Impossible II was a disaster. Whoever made the decision to hand the film over to Stuart Baird for re-editing at the end of the shoot knows nothing about filmmmaking. Okay, so apparently Woo's original cut of the movie was about 210 minutes long (that's a lot of doves), and even I would baulk at that, but getting Baird in is an insane move.

It's like hiring a modelmaker to construct a beautiful piece of art, getting as far as allowing him or her to sculpt all of the individual pieces, all of which, while beautiful, mean nothing without the other pieces attached to it, and then handing the project over to someone else who doesn't know how it was meant to be put together, but has his own ideas and just jams them together willy-nilly. And then goes on to direct Star Trek: Nemesis. I think you catch my drift.

Woo's action scenes have a very specific rhythm, and he shoots knowing how the editing will go when he gets there. If you look at his raw footage you'll wonder why on earth he has some minor shots in slow-motion instead of just focusing on the big dramatic shots, but that's because the rhythm of the scene would only work with certain shots moving at a certain speed. It's hard to explain, but look at a scene from one of Woo's other movies, such as the shootout in Gina Gershon's flat in Face/Off (couldn't find a good enough YouTube clip, so you'll have to watch your own copy, and if you don't have one, then I weep for you). The action flips from fast to slow in an unorthodox pattern that hits every correct emotional beat without drawing attention to what is being accomplished. Then look at any action scene from Mission Impossible II. They seem to be randomly cobbled together with no relation between shots, and any momentum that might have been generated keeps being interrupted. Oh man, I know what I'm talking about, even if I can't explain it. It's like that dancing about architecture thing. Just go and compare the two. His style works well in one film and not the other because Baird. The End.

Weirdly, one of the things I liked most about Stranglehold was that during the battle scenes, I could click on the right button and activate Tequila Time manually, adding slow-motion moments whenever I thought the action needed it. It is a useful addition to your game, but more than that it's an aesthetic one. Obviously I'm not saying I'm a better editor than Baird (who is usually excellent, when not asked to mess around with material by someone with so precise a vision as Woo), but I felt that the game replicated the experience of watching a Woo movie more effectively than watching Mission Impossible II even though it actually is a John Woo movie. Hell, I even liked Paycheck more than that. I've not seen Windtalkers, as a good friend has told me on several occasions it's the worst and most laughable film ever, but even if it's John Woo's worst movie, I doubt it is Nicolas Cage's.

If you're new to Woo, check out the clip below, from the beginning of Hard Boiled. As has been said many times, when it came out many Western action movies ended like this. Hard Boiled starts this big, gets bigger, and ends with a 30 minute action scene with babies peeing, buildings exploding, a duel with one of the best movie villains ever (the incredible Mad Dog), and a five minute unbroken shot in the middle of the carnage that should be taught at film schools.



mike werb said...

admiral neck etc: just discovered your blog. really insightful, funny and entertaining. thanks for saying all those nice things about face/off -- even using the title for your "worst of 2007" list is a huge compliment. looking foward to hearing your thoughts on windtalkers, should you ever go there ...

mike werb co-writer of face/off

Admiral Neck said...

Many thanks for the comment, it's greatly appreciated. Trust me, there is a LOT of love for Face/Off here. I also thoroughly enjoyed the original pre-shooting script, which I found somewhere on the net a while back (Drew's Script-o-Rama, perhaps?). IIRC it featured many more sci-fi concepts than the final product.

Oh, and don't worry about the worst movies thing. Using Face/Off in that context is not meant as a knock. We have a (very) occasional feature here where I compare vaguely similar movies, and it seemed like a snappy title and homage.

As for Windtalkers, I will indeed go there some day, though the choice I face is whether to watch the truncated version that received such a negative reaction, or the director's cut, which hasn't seemed to change anyone's mind.

johnilf said...

Wow, top people relying to your blog but was that really Mike Werb of the much loved Face Off?

mike werb said...

admiral: that's cool you found an earlier draft. we wrote like 35 of them before it finally got shot. the original (when it was with joel silver) was indeed much more futuristic/scifi as you state. did you read the one where the opening action sequence takes place in a futuristic organ bank vault? that was the very first draft.

fyi, in no way did i take the "worst movies" list as some sort of diss. i remain genuinely complimented -- and it is a solid title for a solid article concept. i haven't seen the director's cut of windtalkers either -- so no comment there.

shout out to JOHNILF. yes, it's me. what else does a writer have to do during an ugly strike but ego surf? on the upside, i have lost 12 pounds picketing ...

Admiral Neck said...

did you read the one where the opening action sequence takes place in a futuristic organ bank vault? that was the very first draft.

The one I read started with Archer and Castor fighting on a hotel roof, and Castor getting electrocuted. It ended with Archer on the outside of a rotating restaurant hanging off a robotic drone, if my memory serves me correctly. I'm not sure which draft that would be. It was a great read, though, I definitely remember that. And Joel Silver was involved at some point? I didn't know that.

Thanks again for commenting, and good luck with the strike. We all hope it gets resolved soon, and resolved well, with proper recompense and some goddamn respect from the AMPTP.