ActionFest Sneak Peek

ActionFest is the little film festival that could — except it’s not so little anymore. Interest and attendance has grown since it made its debut three years ago. It’s attracted national — and even international — attention, becoming the film event linked to Asheville. Perhaps this is because, like Asheville, ActionFest is unique. This year the festival has made its way into downtown, with the opening night film being shown at the Diana Wortham Theater and the closing night one at the Fine Arts Theatre. Last year it was the local premiere of one film — 13 Assassins — that ended up on both Justin Souther’s and my Ten Best list. This year — based on the titles I’ve already seen — it may have even more.

Here’s a look at a few of the movies.

Bad Ass: Yeah, I chose Bad Ass first. Why? Because it stars Danny Trejo. What more reason can you possibly need. Trejo is, without a doubt, the most unlikely movie star ever — and maybe that’s why he’s one of my favorites. When I say that there’s really no actor working today whose presence in a film is enough to guarantee I’ll see it, that’s never factoring in Johnny Depp or Danny Trejo. I had no idea what to expect here — other than a fact-based (for what that’s worth) story about a senior citizen turned into a cult hero and then into a vigilante. The director, Craig Moss, was unknown to me (has anybody actually seen Saving Ryan’s Privates?) and so was the news story on which the movie was based. Despite the tag line, “They messed with the wrong senior citizen,” being clearly derived from the one in the fake trailer for Machete (“The f**ked with the wrong Mexican”), I wasn’t expecting anything like Machete — and a good thing, since this is relatively straightforward. Relatively. This is more of a throwback exploitation action picture. It’s utterly preposterous, yes, but much less over-the-top about it. That doesn’t keep it from being ridiculous fun, because that’s exactly what it is — complete with a knock-down battle between Trejo and Charles S. Dutton. And I haven’t even mentioned that for all intents and purposes Trejo is the film’s romantic lead. I’m not sure you could want much more.

Let the Bullets Fly: Up next was Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly. If Bad Ass was an agreeable appetizer, this was a marvelous banquet of a movie. It immediately shot to the top spot of movies I’ve seen this year — though that may not be saying as much as it might when you consider most of this year’s movies. But make no mistake, this is more fun than your proverbial firkin of simians — and the most beautifully striking and inventive filmmaking I’ve seen this year. In essence, it’s about a bandit (Jian Wen) posing as the appointed governor of an incredibly put-upon town that’s under the heel of the utterly corrupt local nobleman (Chow Yun-Fat). What transpires is ever more complex double-crossing and general duplicity — with Chow Yun-Fat obviously having a grand time as he revels in his barefaced villainy. Some have compared the film to The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which played at the first ActionFest. That’s understandable — and it’s what immediately occurred to me during the film’s opening sequence — but it’s a comparison that sells Let the Bullets Fly short. This is much more sophisticated in every way, and much better, much more inventive filmmaking. Don’t miss this one!

The Aggression Scale: Feeling in need of a kind of a break from the epic nature and complexity of Let the Bullets Fly, I opted for The Aggression Scale. This is a much more modest film that might be described as kind of being Home Alone with psychosis. This bare-bones exploitation drive-in fare when all is said and done. It’s all about an out-on-bail crime boss (Ray Wise), who sends hitmen out recover some stolen money in order for him to flee the country and live in comfort. What these boys don’t reckon on is that one of the accounts they’re planning on collecting is a man with a totally psychotic son (Ryan Hartwig), who teams up with his step-sister (Fabianne Therese) — at least once she reconciles herself to the fact that he’s crazy — to take care of the miscreants. This isn’t made for heavy thinking, trust me, but it works well on its own modestly nasty aims. And there’s no denying that the various ways in which the bad guys are dispersed rate high enough on the creative death scale.

I Declare War: This is an odd one — and one where I apparently saw a work-in-progress, though I’d never have known that had I not been told. The idea of the film is to present a group of 12-year-olds engaged in playing soldiers. Yeah, I know that sounds pretty dire if you read it cold, but what if — the film suggests — we view it through their eyes, with the effects and weaponry becoming uncomfortably real? Well, then it’s another animal altogether — and a sometimes disturbing one. What makes it even more disturbing is that the psychology of the kids is spot on. It’s the sort of movie that I find it hard to say I liked (and harder still to figure out who its intended audience is), but I have to say I was impressed by it — and I haven’t forgotten it, nor do I expect to any time soon.

A Gang Story: Generally, the French come up with surprisingly good crime movies, and while Olivier Marchal’s A Gang Story isn’t one of the best of the breed, it’s a solid entry in the action/crime genre. This is a fairly basic gangster yarn with a career criminal (Gerard Lanvin) who has retired from the game — until the inevitable (at least in this type of movie) happens and an old comrade (Tcheky Karyo) shows up in need of “one last favor.” Most of the film is built around flashbacks of their history. It’s nothing new under the sun, but it’s well done.

The Lost Bladesman. I accidentally saved the best — or at least the equal of Let the Bullets Fly — for last. The Lost Bladesman comes from Alan Mak and Felix Chong (who were responsible for Infernal Affairs, which became Scorsese’s The Departed) and stars martial-arts star Donnie Yen (who also stars in ActionFest’s closing night film Wu Xia) and Wen Jiang (co-star of Let the Bullets Fly). The film is an historical epic on the life of Guan Yu (Yen) — and when I say “epic” I use the term in the classic sense of a large sprawling tale. Yet it’s a little unusual in that it starts out with its biggest battles and scenes and becomes a more personal story as the film progresses. It’s a serious film — much different in tone from Let the Bullets Fly — and a beautifully staged and mounted one with genuine spectacle. At the same time, it is by no means a humorless work. In fact, one of its best moments is the subtle payoff to the set-up for a big scene that serves as a comedic take on the utterly impossible nature of so much of the battling seen in movies of this sort. I won’t spoil it by saying anything specific about the scene, but when you see Guan Yu about to do battle with the guys in the purple outfits you’ll know you’re there. Do not miss this.

That, of course, is only a sampling of everything that’s being offered. The major film I want to see that I haven’t yet is Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, which looks to be the subversive masterpiece of the year. Whether or not I’ll make it to anything other than the Friday evening screening of Brian DePalma’s The Fury that the Asheville Film Festival and the Xpress are hosting remains to be seen, since I’m down for an unusually heavy reviewing schedule this weekend, but I’m certainly going to try. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Full Movie Schedule

Thursday, April 12:

Solomon Kane 8:30 p.m., Diana Wortham Theater

Friday, April 13:

All films at The Carolina

Trailer War 12:00 noon (Free)

Let the Bullets Fly 1:00 p.m.

A Gang Story 2:00 p.m.

The Wild Bunch 4:00 p.m. (Free)

Goon 4:00 p.m.

Wonder Women 6:00 p.m.

Sinners and Saints 7:00 p.m.

I Declare War 7:30 p.m.

Asheville Film Society screening The Fury 7:30

Comin at Ya! 3D 8:00 p.m.

Headhunters 9:30 p.m.

Transit 9:45 p.m.

Manborg w/Astron-6 Shorts 11:45 p.m.

Saturday:

The Raid: Redemption 12:00 noon Free for Passholders

Let the Bullets Fly 12:00 noon

Trailer War 2:00 p.m. Free

True Romnce 3:00 p.m. Free

The Lost Bladesman 3:30 p.m.

Manborg w/Astron-6 Shorts 4:00 p.m.

The Aggression Scale 6:15 p.m.

The Day 6:15 p.m.

Headhunters 6:30 p.m.

Bad Ass 9:00 p.m.

Dragon Eyes 9:15 p.m.

God Bless America 9:30 p.m.

Comin’ at Ya! 3D 11:45 p.m.

Sunday:

Wu Xia 12:00 noon

I Declare War 12:00 noon

Bad Ass 12:15 p.m.

Secret Screening 1 12:15 p.m.

Sidekicks 2:00 p.m., at Asheville Pizza & Brewing, Free

The Lost Bladesman 2:00 p.m.

Goon 2:00 p.m.

The Day 2:15 p.m.

The Aggression Scale 4:00 p.m.

Solomon Kane 4:00 p.m.

Secret Screening 2 4:15 p.m.

God Bless America 4:15 p.m.

Wonder Women! 6:00 p.m.

Closing Film: Wu Xia 7:30 p.m. at Fine Arts Theatre

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “ActionFest Sneak Peek

  1. Me

    Do these things usually sell out, should i pre order a ticket to God Bless America?

  2. Ken Hanke

    Hard call. I think you’ll be okay, but I know that several things today were nearly full.

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