Silent but not deep: The Silent War (Felix Chong & Alan Mak, 2012)

thesilentwar

The Silent War takes place during the conflict between the China Republic Government and the Kuomintang in the 1950s. Despite the massive team and extensive equipment at their disposal, espionage unit 701 somehow can’t track down enemy mastermind “Chungking”. They need the aid of a blind man, He Bing (Tony Leung), who has a superhuman sense of hearing. This plot veers into improbability and spoils the period drama that The Silent War seemed initially to be.

The actual espionage in this film is complicated and, at times, surprising and quite gripping. I had to pay close attention to keep up with unfolding events and even with the subtitles (something that rarely happens). However, the character of He Bing is just silly. His Daredevil-esque abilities cheapen the feats of intelligence and bravery that other characters possess. Scenes where he intently listens to enemy signals are sensationalised through camera swoops, slow-mo, and overlaid images. His “eccentric” japing around also isn’t funny in the slightest. Leung is fine but not notable in the role.

Almost everything good about this film comes from Zhang Xuening. She’s a totally dedicated operative, played with great restraint and subtlety by Zhou Xun. The pointless love triangle in which Xuening deflects Bing’s attractions (and subsumes her own feelings) by pairing him up with decoder Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) is only made watchable through Xun’s performance. Not to mention, her fashion sense is impeccable throughout. It remains puzzling, however, that Xuening can ascend to the leadership of 701, and still pursue solo missions that put her out on the front lines…

Aside from Xun, the costuming, and the plot twists, there’s not much else to like about The Silent War. The pace is a crawl for most of its middle. The overall context of this conflict is ignored. Even the Kuomingtang’s dastardly goal is only revealed a little before the end. The film could have benefited from having some le Carré-style cynicism and subtlety in its approach to this inherently low-key espionage – but given that Chinese cinema now plays a duel role of propraganda, that was never going to happen.

Whoopi’s post-The Color Purple blues: Fatal Beauty (Tom Holland, 1987)

Fatal Beauty is a messy, obnoxious, and really quite stupid movie. There’s something fascinating, though, about its tonal mishmash and sheer 80s loudness. Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, an LA cop who’s bent on cleaning drug dealers off the streets, any way she can. When a botched batch of coke lives up to its name, Fatal Beauty, and starts killing everyone who tries it, she has her sights set on meteoric businessman Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin). Kroll sends his head of security, Mike Marshak (Sam Elliott), to keep her in line. Disbelieving Rizzoli’s suspicions about his boss, but quickly growing to like her anyway, Marshak takes his orders seriously and is a great help in her encounters with psycho dealer Leo Nova (Brad Dourif). Rizzoli hates Kroll enough, however, that she tries to stay resistant to Marshak’s charm.

Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.
Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.

Goldberg made several action comedies after her Oscar win for The Color Purple, none of them good. She’s given a raw deal with this script and barely manages to carry it. I want Rizzoli to be a tough, capable cop who’s devoted to protecting vulnerable women, but the movie quickly shows she can’t be both. Disguised as a hooker, Rizzoli blows a sting while defending one of her female informants from a beating. More than that, a guy kicks the crap out of her while using the N word with quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Charles Hallahan and M. C. Gainley onscreen at the same time? I’m freaking out!
M. C. Gainley and Charles Hallahan raise the film’s character actor quotient.

Fatal Beauty fails almost totally as a comedy, in no small part because Rizzoli faces constant, brutal misogyny and racism. The put-downs she deals out in return rely on lazy jokes about dick size, leaving me exasperated both at how she’s being treated and by the writers’ inability to make her a genuine wise-ass. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s jokes fall flat; a facial expression from Elliott that did make me chuckle was quickly followed up with a line that over-explained something he’d just capably expressed on his own. There’s also some racist jokes about Mexicans and the Japanese that show just how blind the writers are to what they’re doing.

Is this outfit supposed to impress me? I can’t tell.
Is this outfit supposed to look good? I can’t tell.

Fatal Beauty’s thoroughly dated style must be the first thing the viewer notices. The soundtrack has a typical 80s sound while having no distinctive songs whatsoever; it’s stock music with lyrics. The costumes, meanwhile, are a neverending cavalcade of neon, sparkles and spandex. The hair, of course, is big all round. You won’t be able to look away.

Despite the movie’s silliness, the subject matter gets quite bleak. Dozens of people are killed by drugs, and many more are gunned down. Rizzoli’s back story is as dark as it gets, even if the writers’ decision to have her reveal it all in one exposition-dump monologue makes it as hard to take seriously as Phoebe Cates’ famous scene in Gremlins. Fatal Beauty isn’t a gritty cop drama, and it isn’t a fun comedy. It wants to be both, and the conflict between them tugs the movie in too many directions.

A few actors in the movie seem to know what they’re doing. (Goldberg just about has the right attitude, but the aforementioned terrible jokes let her down; she does better in scenes that rely on tension instead.) Elliott in particular is giving his role far more credit than it deserves. Rizzoli treats Marshak worse than she needs to, but Elliott sells Marshak’s growing affections for her, as well as his moral conflict.

Checks and houndstooth? We're dealing with a madman.
Checks and houndstooth? We’re dealing with a madman.

The other actor of note in Fatal Beauty is Brad Dourif. One of the big problems with the movie is that there’s not enough of him, in fact. There’s too many needless characters in the script, and it’s not always clear which villain is the real threat. It’s got to be Dourif: he’s the one who manages to be funny and threatening, who fits best into this live-action cartoon of a movie. Kroll isn’t interesting at all, and the other villains can’t get the right goofy/nasty balance. If the subject matter was lightened up a bit, and the story was centred around Leo, Fatal Beauty would be much more coherent and enjoyable.

The writers seem to have some sort of grasp on the fact that Leo is the most arresting villain here; he’s the last one standing. His final line is undoubtedly the best thing about the whole movie. Seriously, go here and skip to 11:15. Creepy, crazy and hilarious. Rizzoli’s retort is pretty good, too.

Okay, I like this outfit.
An outfit with genuine style.

Dourif would have the last laugh. A year later, Tom Holland made Child’s Play, with Dourif in the role of Charles Lee Ray, or rather, Chucky. It was Holland’s experience with Dourif in making Fatal Beauty that led to this casting. With his obscenity screaming and running-while-shot acting, there are some similarities between what Dourif’s doing in both movies. There’s no puppet here, though.

Chucky became a horror icon, but who remembers Fatal Beauty? To its credit, it is entertaining. This is a movie where people don’t die without letting off a hail of bullets first, and where you can’t see the lead character near a swimming pool without intuiting that she’ll wind up punching someone into it. The romance involves her shooting out the guy’s tires, turning down his gift of a $5000 dress, and punching him in the crotch. Meanwhile, several of the actors do good work regardless of what’s going on around them, and of how well the script serves their characters. Fatal Beauty isn’t boring. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be but sure makes a lot of noise doing it.

Enter Yuen Biao: Knockabout (Sammo Hung, 1979)

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Yuen Biao had worked as an acrobatic stuntman in Hong Kong films throughout the 1970s, and finally made his mark as a leading man in Knockabout, Sammo Hung’s fourth directorial effort. Biao plays Yipao, close friend of Ka-Yan Leung’s Tipao. The two are con-artists who are frequently bested by Fat Beggar (Hung). They attach themselves to a skilled master, Silver Fox (Lau Kar-Leung), who turns on them when they discover that he’s a wanted murderer. Yipao must get on Beggar’s good side to learn the skills he needs to defeat Wu-Tai.

This film is simply aiming for action and comedy, with no goal other than to entertain. The comedy may make or break it for the viewer: it’s non-stop, over-the-top slapstick all the way. Plot doesn’t matter, with breaks between fights rarely lasting more than a few minutes. The characterisation is also quite basic and, rather damningly, none of the characters are especially likeable.

The martial arts is not impressive at the film’s beginning, reflecting Yipao and Tipao’s inability to defend themselves. It’s well over an hour into the film before Biao’s skills truly shine through, with the Beggar training him in cruel and unusual ways before the two of them launch into a lengthy battle with Silver Fox. The uses of a jump rope during the training and a rope of thorns during the final fight are unmissable. Biao is capable of amazing feats and his timing with mentor Hung is fantastic.

Biao is confident and charismatic as a leading man, pulling off the comedy on the same level as Leung (a more experienced, but usually more serious actor). Kar-Leung is funny in a different way as Silver Fox – he walks around with a self-serious, slightly sad expression, looking like a mopey 70s singer-songwriter. His character’s shift into pure evil makes no sense, but he’s still fun to watch. Hung, however, is highly irritating as the Beggar, pulling endless face twitches in every scene.

Anyone with a low tolerance for slapstick martial arts will not enjoy Knockabout. Nonetheless, the skill shown by Kar-Leung, Hung and, especially, Biao in the last half hour is something special, and the most enduring aspect of the film.