Logic tells us that a film festival’s only as good as what it’s putting on screen. Considering that last year’s festival included such eye-catching action movie luminaries as Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins and the wonderfully titled Hobo with a Shotgun, ActionFest 2012 has a lot to live up to. But fret not, as this year’s edition has a everything a self-respecting movie fan might want, from the trashy to — yes — even the classy. I haven’t been given the opportunity to see any of this year’s films so far, so let this guide work as a quick and dirty primer to what I’m jazzed about seeing.
Let the Bullets Fly
Let’s start off with writer/director/star Wen Jiang’s Let the Bullets Fly — an agreeably stylish looking action comedy which co-stars Chow Yun-Fat. Set in 1920s China, and the plot involves a mobster who finds himself put upon by a bandit who’s taken over his town. Oh, and there are lots and lots of guns. The trailer makes the film look like a big, absurd and, thankfully, fun take on the Western that’s reminiscent of Jee-Woon Kim’s ActionFest 2010 entrant The Good, The Bad, The Weird. The reviews promise a film that’s part Kurosawa, part Leone, with a mix of political satire and cinematic invention, and is already the highest grossing domestic film in China’s history.
Now for a movie I won’t shut up about (anybody who knows me can attest to that), and that I originally heard about at last year’s ActionFest from festival programmer Peter Kuplowsky: Manborg. Made on the cheap (we’re talking less than El Mariachi cheap) by director Steven Kostanski and his cohorts in Astron-6 — a Canada-based group of five multimedia artists who share a love of ‘80s genre flicks — Manborg is what low-budget indie filmmaking can, and maybe should, be. With a background in make-up effects in Hollywood productions, Kostanski mixes miniatures, Ray Harryhausen-like stop-motion animation and green screen effects to make a homemade dystopian sci-fi epic with roots in straight-to-VHS schlock and video games. Early reviews paint the film as goofy, jokey fun that thankfully never acts as if it’s smarter than the material it’s parodying. Plus, there’s no way a movie call Manborg can be bad
A Gang Story
Coming from the other side of the world, there’s a couple of picks from Europe. First up, it’s the simply named French flick A Gang Story, which is billed as the Francophile’s answer to Goodfellas. Directed by former cop Olivier Marchal, the film tells the story of notorious French gangster Edmond “Momon” Vidal. The movie looks very much in the vein of Scorsese (The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer writes about a movie heavy in pop songs) and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather pictures.
And from Norway, there’s Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters. The film follows a corporate headhunter and general lout who moonlights as an art thief (apparently to compensate for a Napoleon complex). He steals from the wrong guy and soon finds himself in a situation that’s spiraling out of control, into more and more ridiculous and dangerous fits of peril. Headhunters is one of those movies that has critics throwing phrases like “non-stop thrill-ride” around, while The Hollywood Reporter calls it “thoroughly ludicrous but never unentertaining.” Twitch Film even went as far as to evoke the mighty name of the Coen Brothers. Anyone looking for a straight crime thriller should check this one out, as Headhunters looks like the most purely entertaining film on the docket.
God Bless America
The film I’ve been asked the most about is Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America. Hopefully, people have realized that Goldthwait — after sly, intelligent comedies like World’s Greatest Dad (2009) and Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006) — is more than that guy who talked weird in the Police Academy films (we do realize that, right?). The movie looks to take a much nastier turn than Goldthwait’s earlier stuff, revolving around a man (TV actor Joel Murray) who has an inoperable brain tumor, and decides to spend his final days offing only the most uncivilized dregs in American society. As a nasty bit of satirical pop culture schadenfreude, and combining Goldthwait’s pedigree as a director who refuses to pull punches, God Bless America should easily be ActionFest’s funniest film.
Looking for more comedy? Michael Dowse’s Goon is a good call. Starring Seann William Scott (who, let’s be honest, isn’t all that bad when he’s not in an American Pie movie) and Jay Baruchel (and co-written by Baruchel and Superbad scribe Evan Goldberg), Goon deals with a nice guy with a talent for punching people, who translates this into becoming a minor league hockey enforcer. Early reviews paint the film as a successor to Slap Shot (1977) but with more heart and less cynicism. Don’t let that fool you, though — the trailer promises more than its fair share of hockey-related fisticuffs.
Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
Tired of all these burly, bloodied men? The darkhorse in all of this is Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines a documentary straight from SXSW that focuses on how the role of women in the comic books of the ‘40s has evolved into the action heroines of today, and how our entertainment reflects our views of women. Featuring interviews with the likes of Gloria Steinem and Lynda Carter (and with a trailer that features my favorite Bikini Kill song), the doc shows the constant conversation between pop culture, feminism and female empowerment. In a year where actress Gina Carano is being honored for her work as a female action star, it makes total sense.
All of that’s what I’m looking forward to, and that’s not even the half of the wide array of action pictures being shown. I’d be remiss not to mention the film Ken Hanke’s most looking forward to (at least it’d be remiss to Ken Hanke) which is Bad Ass, a Machete-esque picture about a vigilante senior citizen played by, of course, Danny Trejo. Plus, ActionFest will include a couple of retrospectives, as Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mickey Gilbert presents Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch (1969), and Carano screens her favorite movie of all time, the Quentin Tarantino penned True Romance (1993). In all, it makes for a packed weekend of all the car chases, gunfights and fracas any cinephile could ask for.