Based on the 1987 videogame sensation and later made into an anemic 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick this latest version pits the forces of evil vs. good in the slums of modern day Bangkok but fails to capture any of the excitement that made Street Fighter a legend among gamers. In this edition evil crime boss Bison (Neal McDonough) is joined by henchmen Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Vega (Taboo of The Black Eyed Peas) in taking over the Thai city using extremely violent power. Out to stop him from adding to his growing collection of heads are a group of disparate warriors including the half-Caucasian half-Asian beauty Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) who has given up her American life of privilege to help the oppressed. Joining her in the fight are her Kung Fu master Gen (Robin Shou) an Interpol cop Charlie Nash (Chris Klein) who has been tailing Bison around the world and his co-hort homicide detective Maye Sunee (Moon Bloodgood). While most martial arts films are hardly a showcase for actors this film hits new lows. McDonough utters straight-faced lines such as “when people are hungry there’s nothing they won’t do because everyone has a price ” which apparently also means himself or why else would he take the role of such a wooden villain? The acting is so bad that even the Americans including Duncan Taboo and Klein feel like they’ve been victims of a bad dubbing job. As the lead the attractive Kreuk also proves to be a fierce martial arts artist which at least partially makes up for the pedestrian dialogue and leaden narration she has to utter throughout. The one thing Polish director Andrzej Bartkowiak has gotten right with Street Fighter is the kung fu of it all but that’s hardly enough to recommend slogging through the rest of this mess. As a renowned cinematographer (Terms of Endearment The Verdict) Bartkowiak exhibits a sharp eye for color and detail but the drab look of Street Fighter makes one wonder if as director he ever bothered to look through the lens at all. This is strictly paint-by-the-numbers filmmaking of the most unimaginative order. When Klein spots a flashing red button signaling an explosive device about to go off he yells “Bomb! Everybody out!” He just as well could have been talking about this movie too.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 picks up where the first installment left off with The Bride (Uma Thurman) delivering a "refresh your memory" monologue as she drives to her next victim Budd (aka Sidewinder). These shots are cut through with flashbacks that tell the whole story of the "Massacre at Two Pines " and it's instant-gratification city. First we meet the wedding party the reverend and his wife and Rufus the piano player (Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo role). But most importantly we meet the elusive Bill (David Carradine) for the first time. (He appeared in the first film only in voiceover.) You know from the start that this movie isn't going to rely on the same suspense devices the first film did and you soon learn it doesn't rely as heavily on the blood and gore that so distinguished the first installment. The creatively shot and intelligently constructed opening scenes make Tarantino's epic of evil gripping right from the start in its own right. Amazingly considering the way she ripped her enemies apart in the first film The Bride doesn't always get her man in this one; Budd (Michael Madsen) actually gets the best of the Bride--at least temporarily--and entombs her in "The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz " one of the most horrifying scenes of burial alive ever. Flash back to "The Cruel Tutelage" of kung-fu master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu) who taught The Bride how to break through wood planks with her fists from three inches away (which comes in handy now) and the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique (which will come in handy later). Freeing herself from her makeshift grave to do battle with her victims once more the Bride dispenses with both Budd and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) who's conveniently appeared on the scene and it's on to the greatest battle of them all--it's time to Kill Bill
Thurman proves her calm cool collected mettle once more as The Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba) plucking out eyeballs bloodying her fists punching wood exploding hearts and the like. But we also see her completely vulnerable during flashbacks to the time she spent in a coma after the attack (some gnarly stuff happens in the hospital but no spoilers forthcoming from this reviewer). And there's a softer side to Black Mamba when she's awake too. In another flashback we see The Bride on her last assignment before she quit the assassination business to become a wife and mom--the stick in her EPT has just turned blue when a rival assassin comes knocking through the door and it's a poignant moment (with a Tarantino edge) as she tries to protect her unborn child. Carradine's Bill is somehow less menacing than one might have expected but there's enough creepiness in the character for an audience to imagine what a real hard case he must have been in his glory days. Hannah enjoys a splendid comeback role as The Bride's fellow assassin and she's regal in her adherence to the warrior code they share. Madsen wears Sidewinder's cowboy hat and slouchy jeans like he was born to them and swills whisky like a ranch hand yet he still captures the wistfulness of the once-great fighter if somewhat ironically.
Fans of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction can start rejoicing. He's finally made a film that lives up to the standard he set back in 1990. All the influences on the first film are still very much in evidence here--Asian martial arts films in particular--but each chapter in this installment as in the previous has its own look creating a mix n' match patchwork feel that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. If there's one criticism it's that it indulges a bit in its own cleverness and that makes it a little too long. But Vol. 2 shouldn't see the big criticisms aimed at Vol. 1's dark gory violence; instead Vol. 2 finds kinship with its creator's first big hit in its story and characters. Sure it's overblown; sure everyone is evil on some level. That's the fun of it. And every now and then a little compassion comes through or a little humor and it captures the ridiculousness of human nastiness whether it's the petty arguments you had all day at work or all the slaughter that's been perpetrated with a Hattori Hanzo sword.