The Asheville Actionfest Film Festival (April 15-18) is upon us — and with it come more than a few surprises of the pleasant kind. Yes, I know, when you hear the term “action film,” something like the cinematic equivalent to a tractor pull likely comes to mind. And in a lot of respects, I wouldn’t argue that assessment. Anyone who reads my columns regularly certainly knows I’m not exactly an action-picture kind of guy. That’s to say, I’ve never been prone to prefer the elusive charms of Michael Bay to a nice vintage Ingmar Bergman movie. Still, there are action movies and then there are action movies.
Action, of course, is a genre only in the very broadest sense. It encompasses so many subgenres that it can mean a great many things. As at least a partial barometer of how very different action movies can be, just consider the seven movies the Actionfest folks arranged for me to see in advance of the festival.
Not surprisingly, the showcase films — Centurion, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and The Square — are the ones that were given press screenings last week. These are certainly the films with the most buzz, and understandably so.
Neil Marshall’s Centurion opens the festival on Thursday, April 15. It’s an apt choice. Thanks to Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005) and Doomsday (2008), Marshall is easily the best-known filmmaker represented at Actionfest. The film stars Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds), Dominic West (Punisher: War Zone) and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and, all in all, is Saturday-matinee-action fare from the 1960s, but with a slightly postmodern script and a healthy helping of blood and gore that couldn’t have existed in the ‘60s.
As fellow critic Chip Kaufmann commented during the screening, “The ad campaign should be ‘Leaves no cliché unturned,’” but that’s exactly the kind of movie it sets out to be. It’s ancient Romans vs. the Picts with atrocities aplenty over the course of the movie’s reasonably tight 97 minutes. (According to the IMDb, the film was shown in Finland in a 130-minute cut, which is hard to imagine, since even at 97 minutes the movie has a few too many sweeping shots of our heroes trudging through the snowy mountains.) It verges on being an homage to every ancient-world adventure ever undertaken, and if you don’t take it seriously, it’s a good bit of fun.
The biggest drawback is that it’s impossible to tell whose side we’re supposed to be on — both the Romans (with the exception of Fassbender and his disposable band of straggling survivors) and the Picts are pretty despicable. That’s probably of minor significance here where the order of the day is spectacular swordplay and various elaborate head-loppings and methods of destruction. If that’s what you’re after, Marshall’s film certainly delivers. The film shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and at 2 p.m. on Friday.
And then there’s Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a self-proclaimed “Oriental Western.” As the title implies, there’s more than a touch of Sergio Leone about this very elaborate mix of martial arts and the Western film. But it’s more like Leone on speed. It’s one of those movies that hits the ground running and somehow manages to largely maintain a fever pitch for its entire length. That’s even more remarkable with a movie that clocks in at 131 minutes.
The film is set in Manchuria in a period that’s vaguely the 1940s (Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” is on a gramophone) and pits three Korean outlaws — the Good, Bad and Weird of the title — against Chinese forces, Japanese forces, Chinese bandits, just about everyone who comes along, and each other. It’s reasonably clear from early on who the Good is and who the Bad is, leaving the Weird to emerge by default. At the same time, each of them could qualify as weird, but then that could be said of the entire movie, which is delightfully and defiantly strange at every turn.
While The Good, the Bad, the Weird is essentially an action/black comedy (the humor is definitely of the darkest kind), it never forgets that it’s an action picture. In fact, its over-the-top action set pieces were the best I saw in any of the films. I suspect that’s because Ji-woon Kim makes the film itself as much an action movie as any of his actors. His camera constantly swoops and flies over and with the action — and it’s done with tremendous panache and precision, not to mention an obvious love of the genre. (Whenever you when this or that standard genre shot might appear, he supplies it — usually with a vengeance.) Is it the best film I saw? It’s at least close — and it’s certainly the most fun. It plays Friday at 7 p.m. and at noon on Saturday. Don’t miss this one.
The biggest buzz probably surrounds Nash Edgerton’s The Square, an Australian film co-written by Edgerton’s brother Joel and co-produced by them both. The brother status — and the fact that the film is very much in the neo-noir mold — has resulted in the Edgertons being compared with the Coens (and to a lesser extent, the Wachowski brothers). There’s some justification, since this is the genre that served as the calling card for the Coens with Blood Simple (1984) and the Wachowskis with Bound (1996). And the film has certainly received an incredible number of terrific reviews — all of which are pretty much deserved, but the Edgertons lack the Coens’ verbal wit, and the technical panache of both the Coens and the Wachowskis. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a good — sometimes great — movie.
The film is a pitch-black tale of duplicity and murder, where everything that can go wrong does — usually in the most extreme manner possible. The atmosphere is one of amused detachment on the part of the filmmakers. They merely sit back and observe — with neither sympathy nor condemnation — as the lives under their lens unravel in ever-worsening, ever-more-convoluted ways. It’s finally a case of just letting your mind go to its bleakest extreme and resting assured that the film will go there. Entertaining — if not exactly a friendly work — The Square may not quite announce the arrival of great filmmakers, but it certainly does announce the arrival of filmmakers to be watched — and so should their film. It screens at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday and again at 2:40 p.m. on Sunday.
The four titles I saw on screeners may not be quite up to these three, but they all have their degree of interest.
Pieter Van Hees’ Dirty Mind — a Belgian film — is perhaps the oddest film out of the set, if only because it’s very different from most in its genre. Rather than being an action film itself, this is a vaguely sci-fi opus that centers on two brothers who do stunt work for Flemish TV (who knew?), thereby literally staging the movie’s action scenes. The plot itself is really little more than a variation on the old blow-to-the-head shtick where a character’s entire personality is altered by an accident. In this case, the center of this is the shy, introverted half of the team, Diego (Wim Helsen). Following a stunt that goes wrong (thanks to his own ineptitude) he awakes from the resultant coma a changed man. No longer shy, he’s become outspoken, self-assured, rude and a magnificent stunt man.
The question becomes whether he should be subjected to an experimental operation that will turn him back into his dull, but definitely more socially acceptable self. (Whatever happened to the old saw that such transformations could be cured by another bop on the head?) The film isn’t terribly surprising at any point, but it’s engaging, and some of the stunts — especially the most elaborate one — are impressive in their own right. It screens Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2:50 p.m.
I can’t say I was much taken with the Indonesian Merantau, a film that purports to present Iko Uwais as the next Tony Jaa. I’m skeptical. The title refers to a traditional rite of passage into manhood that’s not entirely unlike the Aboriginal practice of “walkabout.” In this case, it involves Uwais going to Djakarta and tangling with bad men running some kind of sex-slave ring. The plot is corny and the dialogue is worse, though the action scenes may make up for that — depending on your fondness for martial-arts movies. In the end, I think it’s simply not my kind of movie. Checking out the fan sites for action movies of this stripe, I find the film is very highly regarded by people who write things like, “This movie kicked me square. I’m just now taking the ice pack off my junk.” Make of that what you will. The movie screens at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at noon.
It’s a bit difficult for me to actually judge the Chilean film Mandrill. Why? Well, the screener had no subtitles and my Spanish is rudimentary at best — and then only if it’s spoken slowly. I could tell that Mandrill (Marko Zaror) is some kind of James Bond character and that the film is a combination action-spy movie that also attempts to parody the genre. Here’s what I can say: The film is colorful and action-packed. Zaror is an appealing screen presence. The story is straightforward enough that I could follow it reasonably well. The whole thing feels a lot like a TV film — complete with spots for commercial breaks. It shows Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. — presumably with subtitles.
Finally, the Brazilian Besouro (the title means “beetle” in Portuguese and is the adopted name of the main character) is something I can judge only in part because the screener froze at about the half-way mark. But I liked what I saw of this period film about a black Brazilian martial-arts specialist (Ailton Carmo) waging war against the evil capitalist sugar barons who treat his people like slaves. It’s bright, colorful, nicely shot and — unlike anything else I saw — deeply mystical. I may, in fact, go see this on the screen just to see how it turns out. The film screens at 9:45 p.m. on Friday and at 4:45 p.m. on Saturday.
That covers what I’ve seen so far, but there’s one title I haven’t seen that I admit intrigues me: Robo Geisha. This is a Japanese movie that’s described in the press notes as, “[Set] in modern-day Japan, Kikue and Yoshie, two sisters in geisha training, are kidnapped and forced into the shadowy world of the Kageno Corporation, a steel company that uses their massive Geisha Army and a pair of seemingly supernatural, bikini-clad female assassins as a front for a terrorist organization bent on returning Japan to a period of more traditional values.” Sight unseen, I recommend this, as I see no way it can be less than wonderful.
Fact: Actionfest will present Chuck Norris with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday, April 18. For more information on Actionfest, visit www.actionfest.com. Read Xpress’ interview with Chuck Norris in the Arts & Entertainment section.