Tag Archives: donnie yen

Review: ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’

dfn-xxxreturnxandercage-300Explosions! Gun battles! Dead bodies galore! Smug, self-righteous quips!

Yes, xXx: Return of Xander Cage has all those things, as well as a great number of scenes that resemble action sequences. All that “action” is shredded into bite-sized bits that go down easily and never catch in the throat — or memory.

The long-delayed third installment in a series that originally aimed to replace supremely-confident secret agents with supremely-confident extreme sports athletes, xXx: Return of Xander Cage can certainly be commended for employing a great number of stunt people. The movie can also be commended for employing an extremely diverse cast of good-looking people in what we laughingly called “acting roles” in another life.

All cast members here are equally at sea, whether because of their own inexperience in acting or due to their limited command of the English language or because the “dialogue” is so inelegant and witless. None of that would matter, however, if the action sizzled in compensation. Far be it for me to criticize a b-movie that knows it’s a b-movie and focuses almost all its energy on delivering high-intensity, high-velocity action sequences.

We may never know if xXx: Return of Xander Cage ever had such sequences because the finished product more closely resembles a ‘cut and paste’ fan edit of the trailer, stretched out (somehow) to 107 minutes. Director D.J. Caruso moved from television to feature films with the somber drama Salton Sea in 2002 and followed that up with the dark thriller Taking Lives and the sports drama Two for the Money.

After that, Caruso made three thrillers aimed at young adult audiences, Disturbia, Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four before shifting to a younger audience for Standing Up, which was well-received critically, though it didn’t make much of a popular fuss. All that to say xXx: Return of Xander Cage is his first attempt at this sort of ‘blam blam’ project, one that is utterly without logic or grace and, one suspects, guided more by the artistic taste of producer and star Vin Diesel than anything else.

Indeed, the movie feels like a big wet kiss to Diesel, returning after 15 years to the role of Xander Cage. Perhaps feeling the onset of age — he turns 50 later this year, though he looks younger — and finding comfort in familiarity, he has nudged the xXx franchise toward the Fast and Furious series. Other than the opening sequence, extreme sports are rarely showcased. And rather than killing off all the characters, only a few select cast members get the axe, the better to lay the groundwork for a continuation of the series.

Donnie Yen rises above the other players who support Diesel. Surprisingly, it’s not because of his physical abilities as a martial artist and on-screen fighter, where he has always excelled. No, it’s his acting that enables him to stand out. He’s learned that the right facial expression is worth a thousand words, and that body language speaks louder than weak jokes.

The others? Well, Deepika Padukone and Ruby Rose look good as professional killers and Nina Dobrev works hard to manufacture comic relief. His hair dyed blonde, Tony Jaa makes funny faces and shrieks. Kris Wu tries to stay out of the way. Toni Collette recites her lines adequately, though without much menace. Samuel L. Jackson portrays Samuel L. Jackson.

The appeal of the movie is summed up in its title: xXx: Return of Xander Cage. If that sounds good, help yourself.

The films opens wide in Dallas theaters on Friday, January 20.

Review: ‘Ip Man 3’

There’s definitely something special about a martial arts teacher when not one, but multiple films are made about his life and legacy. So goes the canonization of Ip Man (1893-1972), who lived and taught his powerful brand of kung fu in Hong Kong from the end of World War II until his death in the early 70’s. Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) remains my favorite of the bunch with its swooning atmosphere, ethereal editing, and magical sense of body and space.

The more populist of the bunch, though, lies in the hands of Wilson Yip and his Ip Man trilogy. As Master Ip, Donnie Yen embodies the kung fu expert with a serenity and grace that immediately aligns Master Ip as a comfortable and humanist hero to root for.

In this third installment of the trilogy, Ip Man 3 continues its linear voyage with Master Ip as his style of kung fu, known as Wing Chun, is firmly established as the most powerful form of fighting in Hong Kong in 1959. As Ip Man 2 explored, it wasn’t an easy thing for him to find acceptance among his ‘grandmaster’ echelon, however, times-they-are-a-changin’ and Master Ip’s brand of fighting  has taken roots in the city and grown in stature.

Like any solid foundation, the chips and cracks begin to emerge and a succession of would be usurpers challenge the talent and honor of Ip Man once again. The first arrives in the form of genial Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang Jin), the father of a young boy who goes to school with Ip’s son. Relegated to a lower class status and desperately wanting to make a name for himself with his own martial arts school, the two – at first – are bound as allies when local thugs want to enforce their will and close down the school in an attempt for a land grab scheme.

Just when that nefarious activity is averted, Ip Man comes in contact with the business boss leading the activity, played by – yes – Mike Tyson, who dispatches an especially nasty looking Taiwanese fighter to deal with Ip Man. And, of course, one can’t put Mike Tyson in a film and not have him show off his own pugilistic gracefulness.

After all this mayhem is settled, Master Ip then has to eventually deal with troubles closer to home, including Cheung Tin Chi’s jealousies and the sadness of caring for a sick wife (Lynn Hung).

If there’s one complaint to be had with these films, it’s that all three develop a certain template and then follow it accordingly. Ip Man himself is never really in danger. The fun of the efforts is in their stylish stagings and video-game like progression of bad guys. And like a video game with the cheat coed enabled, Master Ip handles all challenges with verve and bone-crunching efficiency.

That minor quibble aside,  Ip Man 3 is the best of the bunch. Filmed in seamless long takes, cinematographer Kenny Tse and action director Yuen Wo Ping allow the logistical carnage of the fight scenes to resonate clearly. Not a part of the first two films, Yuen’s contributions infuse Ip Man 3 with a vitality and clarity that are striking. Likewise, the emotional stakes are higher in this third film. Like all mortals, Ip Man and his wife are faced with sickness and heartache and the film registers their bond more affectionately than the other films. Watching the two of them share a dance lesson together – when Ip Man has been challenged to a dual across town – speaks volumes about the realization Master Ip has embraced concerning the shifting priorities in his life. It’s a tender, touching moment.

If part 1 laid the framework for his emergence into the world during the hellish days of World War II, and part 2 succumbed to the nationalist and individual struggle for acceptance post war, then part 3 has finally transformed Ip Man into the real life superhero that history (and pop culture) have always adorned him with. It’s no wonder Bruce Lee (hinted at in all three films) fought so vehemently to have Master Ip be his teacher. Legends bespeak legends and Ip Man 3 is a thrilling and kinetic conclusion to the trilogy.

‘Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster’ is the Real Deal

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster
Sammo Hung faces off memorably with Donnie Yen (Variance Films)

For the most (legal) fun you can have this weekend, check out ‘Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster,’ opening today for a limited engagement at Cinemark Web Chapel 17 and Cinemark Legacy in Plano. Donnie Yen stars in the sequel, which doesn’t require that you see the highly-recommended original. All you need to know is that Yen plays an honorable martial arts master, the man who will eventually teach Bruce Lee.

“Following World War II, Ip Man moves his family to Hong Kong, where he intends to start a martial arts school. He is strongly resisted by the other martial arts masters in town, who question his skills and then demand a monthly stipend for their approval. Emotions remain contentious until a bloodthirsty American boxing champion arrives for a demonstration and kills a respected master in the ring. Differences are set aside as Ip Man fights for the honor of all Chinese people against American imperialism.

“For action junkies of all nationalities, the first hour or so of the picture is glorious, highlighted by something I’ve never seen before.”

You can read my entire review at Cinematical, where it was published after the film debuted locally as the centerpiece presentation of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. This is a rare treat, indeed, so don’t miss the opportunity to see it on the big screen.