Monday, August 30, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 10-1


10. Stunt Spectacular: Closing Fights & a Falling Wall
Project A Part II (1987)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

It has taken me many viewings to come around to this finale sequence, but in the end, I felt a top ten without it couldn't be representative or authoritative. It's not the only Chan finale to stretch over ten minutes long and it's not the only Chan finale to be a hybrid of stunts, visual gags for humor, and quick fights (this is a hallmark of the Project A series), but it's quite possibly the best mixture he's ever achieved. Like the last half of The Beatles Abbey Road album, this sequence plays like a medley of half imagined ideas that when taken in individual parts isn't remarkable, but when put together and taken as a whole, achieves the level of a masterpiece. Stand out moments for me include a beat where Chan enters into and fights a bad guy in a rotating cage (The most remarkable aspect is just how fluid and easy Chan makes the whole thing appear), the numerous high level falls Chan takes, and the ending stunt tribute to Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Just as in Keaton's film, this mad cap assembly of moments is pure genius and quintessential to any Chan top ten.

9. Keeping the Towel On...From Turkish Baths to the Markets
The Accidental Spy (2002)
Category: Chase
(the sequence begins in the first video at 4:20 and continues into the second video)

Similar to a the "Rat Glue Factory" sequence earlier in my Top 100, this is a hugely entertaining chase scene devoted entirely to Chan's slapstick and visual gags. You can't make as many movies and action scenes as Chan has and continue to put out original material without constantly coming up with twists to the usual chase formula. This scene see's Chan put the simple idea of trying to keep his private parts covered and takes it to very creative lengths with a bevy of props. It could've been just one covering after another, but Chan actually decides to try and use these props to good use against his attackers as well. The scene plays more like an innocent riff on the similar 'Austin Powers' sequences, but with the goodness appeal and action appeal that Chan exudes.

8. Rooftop Fight and Slide
Who Am I? (1998)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

Perhaps the last great pure 'fight' that Chan ever filmed. When it comes to his contemporary fights, Chan can sometimes be overlooked because he employs a more slapdash kickboxing style as compared to the slicker and more traditional kung fu based styles of Sammo Hung, Jet Li, and Yuen Woo-Ping, but there is a real art to what Chan accomplishes in this lengthy and punishing fight. Like most of his 90's fights, it's less about the physicality (although there is a good bit of it) and more about the efficiency and intricacy of the fight. What starts out as a strong one on one fight eventually ramps up into an amazing two on one bout that uses the setting to its full advantage.

Once the one on ones break down (and I admit there is a little too much blocking by Chan here), there is a vertigo inducing sequence on the side of the building that I think is pure genius, not for just the athleticism, but Chan's camera placement as well. If the fight wasn't enough, it's capped off by one of Chan's most incredible stunts ever. I don't care if he used wires here, this stunt takes courage and bravery, and is filmed perfectly. All in all, a masterpiece of fight cinema.

7. Construction Site Mayhem
Mr. Nice Guy (1997)
Category: Fight -Prop

Starting off this sequence (one of my personal favorites to watch over and over again) is a doorway sequence that would make 'Looney Tunes' writers proud. Immediately following it is a masterpiece of prop fighting in a construction site. I remember walking through a Home Depot as a kid and imagining what a fight sequence would look like in a store like it and I think this sequence tops anything I could've imagined or dreamed. Again, it's less 'fight' and more intricate prop use, but how can one argue against the several perfectly timed and executed beats present here? When Chan rolls over the table saw, ducks under the grinder, slides down the rollers, its as if they were always meant to be used that way. This sequence never fails to put a smile on my face.

6. Jackie Chan vs. Bennie "The Jet" Urquidez
Wheels on Meals (1984)
Category: Fight - One on One

I wrote an earlier article on Chan featuring this fight and I commented on the fight there, here is what I wrote then about the fight, "Impressive right? It's brutal, quick, and well paced. Jackie and Bennie's fights caught so much attention because they are both not only legitimate fighters but they are legitimate tough guys as well. Supposedly Jackie asked Bennie to be more aggressive than usual hoping the intensity would come across on screen and it certainly does. They are both so well matched, their fights feel real to me. My favorite elements of the fight are the playful back and forth between them as they feel each other's skills out, as well as several well placed slow motion shots and impact shots. The flip and leg sweep combo that Jackie does at 0:19 is just beautiful." I still agree with the comment and would add that this is the finest one on one fight Jackie would ever produce. It not only rates in his top ten, but would blow away the top ten of most any other fighters.

5. Chairs, Ladders, and Brooms Oh My!
Police Story IV: First Strike (1997)
Category: Fight - Prop

What you have here is the pinnacle of the type of prop sequence that dominated Chan's output in the 1990's. Gone is the emphasis on big falls and hard hits, and what we do have is Chan's most efficient, intricate, and entertaining prop fight ever. It's not only the pinnacle in terms of choreography, but in direction of this category as well. The pacing, the angles, and the editing perfectly cohere to make each shot a perfect complement to the one before. The flow of the action is enhanced by a camera that is always where it needs to be, and an editor that knows exactly when to cut.

Despite it's relative shortness, it tends to feel longer due to a three act structure, and constant ramping up to a sublime climax including feats with a ladder that would make even WWE Money in the Bank ladder match contestants think twice. With the exception of one other fight on my list, this just might be Chan's most iconic fight ever.

4. Yuen Biao & Jackie Chan Clear Out a Heroine Factor w/Urquidez Part II
Dragons Forever (1988)
Category: Fight -Multiple People

There isn't much to say about this sequence other than, "WOW". The stunts are ridiculous, the fighting great, and the acrobatics are top notch. The fact that we get to see a rematch of Chan and Bennie "The Jet" Urquidez as the climax of the sequence is what puts this one into the record books.

3. Rope Factory Finale
Miracles (1989)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

It's telling that this scene came out in 1989 because it perfectly straddles two periods in Chan's films, his hard hitting and stunt filled films of the mid to late eighties and the more comedic, prop-driven and choreographed films of the nineties. Like Project A Part II's stunt extravaganza finale, this sequence strikes the perfect balance. What sets this one apart is that it isn't a medly of individual parts, but a greatest hits of one homerun gag, one homerun stunt, one homerun back and forth after another. Seriously, do others catch all the details of this fight? This is someone not just at the top of their particular game, but someone creating something completely unique and beautiful that transcends it's own trappings.

2. The Mall Brawl
Police Story (1985)
Category: Fight -Multiple People

Like my #3 choice and my #1 pick, watching this sequence for the first time was just jaw-dropping. As I said before, it represents not someone working at the top of their game, but the work of someone pushing all boundaries and executing such unique vision that it can't help but inspire and entertain. While it's not the most definitive or my favorite of all-time (that belongs to my #1 pick), this is easily the most brutal fight Jackie has produced and the best display of how he envisioned an all out cop vs. thugs finale should be.

This sequence might as well be brothers to the hospital gun fight in Hard Boiled, because both are the epitome of their genres, but both also have still yet to be topped. The crew workers apparently joked that the film should actually be entitled "Glass Story" because of how much glass they break in this finale. I could name all my favorite moments, but the stunts and fight beats are too numerous to share. Like the fight before it, this is one highlight after another.

1. Final Factory Fight
The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

This is Chan's greatest masterpiece. The over fifteen minute finale to his greatest film (The Legend of Drunken Master) is one of, if not the greatest, fight sequence ever put onto film. It's said that it took months to film this sequence alone, and every bit of it shows on the screen. When it comes to fight scenes, this is every bit as epic as it gets.

This is a fight fan's dream, a veritable feast of action. Within fifteen minutes we get almost every genre you want; multiple people vs. multiple people, one on many, one on two, one on one, weapons, props, and hand to hand. While it's most remembered for the final fight, it's worth noting that this progression of fights and moments is perfectly plotted. What more could one want? This is easily Chan's most definitive fight as well. Although the fight was released in 1994, it contains elements from his output in the 70's, 80's, 90's and 2000's.

Hearkening back to the old school kung fu flicks and styles of the 70's, Chan brings back his popular drunken style and throws away the slapdash kick boxing style that he thrived on since Project A. This is heavily stylized and tough to execute style of drunken boxing. Also present are the tough, stunt filled moments of Chan's mid to late 80s films. Between the fire stunts and the burning coals, this is perhaps one of the most dangerous shoots Chan has encountered. The 90's peeks its head in with Chan's clever and heavily plotted choreography featuring weapons and different objects. It's most notable in the iron bar fight between a few factory workers. Taken alone, it's a beautiful sequence that would make my Top 100. Chan's future work in the 2000's is also present in that he allows a single creative idea (often a playful one) to drive the fight, and shaping everything in it.

This is supremely evident and gratifying in the final one on one fight sequence between Chan and his most impressive opponent, the fast kicking Korean, Ken Lo. As Chan begins losing the fight to the superior Lo, watch as Chan discovers the high proof alcohol that allows him to fight fire with fire (literally). Not surprisingly after an accidental swallow, he also discovers it allows him to get drunk as well. With this discovery, Chan takes the fight to an extreme you would never guess. What follows are perhaps the most intense 5 minutes of fight every filmed. Fully red faced and going insane, Chan unleashes his full drunken style upon Lo to the amazement of even the most cynical of fight fans. After stringing together 3 or 4 full on attack combo's, the fight comes to a satisfying conclusion more than 15 minutes after it begun.

It's simply the best action sequence Chan has ever filmed. It draws on not just a part of his vision and arsenal, but encapsulates nearly everything he has wanted to accomplish on screen. What is given to us is not merely a dance of kicks and punches, but an accomplishment that engages the viewer and challenges them. It's a message to it's viewer that when one calls upon all the fullness of their faculties, executes with all their abilities, and employs their grandest of visions, they can accomplish something that speaks beyond language barriers and simple entertainment, and can inspire the world over.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Review

Overall Grade: C+

Playing like an amped up hybrid of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Kung Fu Hustle, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World triumphs when it appropriates the visual cleverness and silliness of the two aforementioned films, but fails in the delivery of its thematic and emotional content. In a film that revels in shorthand references, allow me to reference a tried but true criticism of films like this, "all style and no substance".

Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a young adult in search of a life and a new girlfriend. At a party he spots Ramona, and attempts at scoring a date with her. He eventually wins out, but there is a catch. Ramona has a bit of a past, and in order to date Ramona, Scott is forced to fight all seven of her evil ex's. You see, Scott has to fight off Ramona's past that keeps catching up to her and ruining her present, get it?

While I will get to my frustrations with the film, let me first commend several of the appealing aspects of this film. First off, the film is crisply edited and thought out. It is constantly moving, with pacing more reminiscent of Crank and framing reminiscent of the anime and arcade. Continuing the video game theme is the sound design and visual effects that are seamlessly integrated into not only the fight sequences, but throughout the whole film, including a stop in the restroom. It's topped off with several enjoyable performances including a scene stealing Jason Schwartzman.

What undermines the entire film is the 'weightlessness' of the universe that is ultimately created. While I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of an interesting premise (that there exists an super-powered league of ex-boyfriends), I'm not willing to buy into a universe that ultimately doesn't reflect the emotional weight and gravity of the real world. Let me explain further.

In what world, outside of Pilgrim's dreams, would someone like the neurotic, jobless, and mumbling Scott Pilgrim be able to land the relationships that he does? He's able to date a 17 year old high school student, Ramona 'the girl of his dreams' and apparently dated the popular lead singer of hot indie band. The film never provides a good reason for the attraction these girls have to him, and vice versa. At least the film attempts to make the girls good looking, providing some reason for Pilgrim's attraction to them. Redeeming character traits or good personalities are to much to ask for in the stylized world. After several awkward meets, Pilgrim essentially beds the 'girl of his dreams', until she puts an impromptu end to it. Even Pilgrim's gay roommate is shown bedding numerous men, including straight men, with nary a wink. These relationships are so light and meaningless, how does anyone (including the audience) really get upset or that emotional about any of them. Let alone enough to create an entire league of angry ex-boyfriends?

This same 'weightlessness' undermines what are technically proficient fight scenes as well. The film never provides sufficient reason why Pilgrim is able to fight (outside of a DDR game) at the onscreen ability shown, nor is there any gravity to the punches and falls he takes. What should be fun and entertaining (these sequences are better shot than ones in The Expendables, but are ultimately less meaningful) became dull as I just waited for them to play out. Nor is there any real connection made between why the entire universe is overlaid with video game graphics (as interesting as it is), except for the reason as to just be there. What's that? You say I should just look past it, and enjoy it because of the playful spirit?

While that may be true in regards to the fighting, it's unforgiveable when the film attempts real lessons at it's conclusion. In the climax of the film, Pilgrim is supposed to have discovered self respect and thus ultimately that the battles he is fighting in life is not for a 'woman' but for self-respect. While that's cute, it would be nice for the rest of the film to support that conclusion. What has Pilgrim come to respect about himself in the end? He is still the same neurotic, jobless, and mumbling guy as he was before. Even without this little thematic twist, the film still plays out exactly the same as if he was just fighting for the girl/ On top of that, what about Ramona's self respect? Does she have to stand by and watch as a boy fights to free her and earn his self respect? What about all the supporting characters who continue on in self-disrespecting lifestyles filled with vulgarity and cheating? Does real self respect and love exist in a world without gravity?

It's a shame because there is really a lot of good stuff on display in this film. By the climax, I really felt as though the film was exactly what you would get had you handed a geeky film student a large budget to make anything he wanted. What you end up with is a heavily stylized and 'cool' universe that floats along without scrutiny, but ultimately crashes to earth when asked to speak to its real-world audience. It's similar to what people are realizing when it comes to 3-D films these days; while it can certainly add razzle-dazzle to a film, if it doesn't help to 'speak' to a real world audience, then it's just another visual effect.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Other Guys Mini-Review

Overall Grade: C+

There's a certain point about halfway into The Other Guys when I just stopped caring because it honestly felt like the writers did as well. It's a shame because the first half of the film works pretty well and the jokes are more hit than miss. The problem is, the film just continues to play off the same jokes to diminishing returns.

Why it works in the outset I don't know, but once one realizes that half the jokes revolve around the irony of particular people saying something outlandish, like Michael Keaton making TLC (the band not the channel) references, grandma's talking sexual maneuvers, or Ferrell's quiet mild mannered character going crazy from his pimp past. If this was the first time this kind of humor was on screen then it might sustain itself for an hour and a half, but after a decade of this humor, the irony gets old pretty quickly.

While the film tries to be topical and include 'wall street' villains, it's a shame the film tries to be serious about these villains by the end. In fact, we are treated to a terribly out of context attempt at a lesson in 'wall street' chicanery over the end credits. I don't know why films that thrive on 'stupid' humor with 'stupid' plots, over-simplified villains and cardboard motivations believe they have any type of context from which to tell any lessons. What it confirms to me is that these type of comedies, as long as it thrives on 'stupidity' for its humor are inherently limited.

It's a shame because I'm always looking for one of these comedies to break out and become well-rounded, but perhaps it's a fools errand. Has there ever been a well-rounded stupid comedy that doesn't get long in the tooth? Dumb & Dumber? Anyways, point being, its a hit and miss comedy that starts out strong and wears thin pretty quickly. If thats sufficient enough, you'll have a great time. If not, then prepare for another mixed pleasure.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 20-11


20. Amazonian Woman Brawl
Armor of God (1987)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

This is a very memorable fight that could have been even higher if it didn't feel so overly produced. It's surprising because this stems from the mid to late 80's, which normally produced more of Jackie's free-flowing and lengthy fights. That aside, it's fun to watch the contrast in this fight, and Jackie exploits the differences for all they are worth. While many of the women were probably stunt doubled, it's perhaps one of the most brutal fights with a woman that Jackie has ever produced. All in all, a great fight, but perhaps a little too gimmicky and produced to make the top ten.

19. Chased Through Kuala Lumpur
Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)
Category: Chase

Initially somewhere in the top 50, but after a re-watch it's hard not to be blown away from the epic nature of this chase sequence. It's epic, its gutsy, and it's technically proficient. I appreciate that Chan doesn't just let this scene become one thing, but goes from a great car chase, to an incredible helicopter ride and finishes it out with another jaw dropping set piece on top of a train. The intensity just doesn't stop.

18. The Wind Tunnel Fight
Operation Condor (1991)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

This fight allegedly took weeks to film and it's not hard to see why. While films like The Matrix or Inception have certainly tried to push boundaries with fights in a science fiction perspective, Chan pushes the boundaries of physicality. Incredible playful, creative, and physical, I can think of no real equals to this fight. Some downgrade it because it's not really a pure fight, but that really misses the point of this sequence. For Chan, it's how he is able to utilize a foreign environment and adapt a fight within it. By that standard, this fight is a success.

17. Axe Gang Attack
The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)
Category: Weapon Fight - Multiple People

Again, how wonderful is it to see legends like Chan and Lau Kar-Lueng team up? Pop them both into one of the most well worn Kung Fu sequences (trashing a restaurant), and you get one of Jackie's best. Notice here the variety of camera work and perspective we get. This fight is at one time big and at other times tight and up close, but the camera captures both feelings perfectly. My favorite moments include Lau knocking people down a whole story and Chan going full on crazy with the bamboo as a weapon.

16. Singing in the Rain Marketplace Fight
Shanghai Knights (2003)
Category: Prop Fight

This is hands down the best sequence to come out of Chan's American efforts. Its the epitome of the light-hearted prop heavy work that marked his American efforts and it also plays like a greatest hits of Chan prop gags. If you've been following the lists closely and watching each video, you'd notice that many gags are re-used here and wonderfully incorporated to make a whole. What separates the sequence is the wonderfully inspired 'Singing in the Rain' moment. It's hard to pull off self-conscious sequences without coming off arrogant or prideful, but Chan is able to make reference of many of his inspirations (the rest of the film does so as well), while showcasing how he has put his own spin in it. Glad this sequence makes it into my top 20.

15. Rat Glue Factory
The Myth (2005)
Category: Chase

It's a sequence like this that proves Jackie is every bit the physical comedy equivalent of a Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. While not much of a 'fight', this sequence is a joy to watch and like most of his great sequences, milks the premise for all it is worth.

14. Police and Gangster Chase: Running, Fighting, Biking, and Falling off a Clock Tower
Project A (1983)
Category: Chase

Unfortunately, it's broken up into several scenes, but Project A features this mammoth chase sequence that includes some of Chan's most iconic work. Great inventive uses of a bicycle, great back and forth fighting, and one of the most incredible stunts ever put to film (an homage to Harold Lloyd in Safety Last). While, it can feel a little haphazard because it's so broken up, there is a pleasure to just watching these sequences unfold and continue on and on.

13. Fridges, Pinball Machines and Ski's Oh My!
Rumble in the Bronx (1996)
Category: Prop Fight

Three nonstop minutes of fighting that would dominate Chan's mid to late nineties output and probably provide his most consistently pleasing sequences. Would you ever think that fridges could be used as weapons as well as refuges?

12. Playground Fight
Police Story II (1988)
Category: Weapon Fight

If the last sequence was packed, then this one is overstuffed. Without a second to breathe, this might be the most quickly paced fight Jackie has ever put out. It starts out more stunt heavy and settles down into a brutal piece of weapon work. While it doesn't make the top ten because I don't think it's as distinctive a fight as it could be, this is one of those fights where pound for pound, it can compete with anything.

11. Opening Melee: Destroying Towns and Catching Buses
Police Story (1985)
Category: Action and Chase

Just missing out on the top 10, this sequence is the opener from Chan's standard setting Police Story. It's been said that disappointed that Hollywood didn't really understand what Chan wanted to do, he came back to Hong Kong to make a film that would put to celluloid the vision of action he wanted. That this epic scene opens the film shows just how ridiculously gutsy Chan was. Creating and destroying an entire shante town and following it up with some of the most risky parkour and bus stunts on film isn't just risky, it's legendary. This sequence has been remade by Michael Bay in Bad Boys II as well as by the Thai stunt teams in Born to Fight.

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