The second day of ActionFest started bright and early…right at the crack of noon. It began with a revisit to the traumatically violent and unstoppably awesome The Raid: Redemption. Despite having seen it during SXSW, it was all-too-thrilling to watch a fresh audience react with groans and id-fueled guffaws as the carnage unfolded on the screen. Following a quick lunch, again at Zaxby’s, I took in the live stunt show in the parking lot of The Carolina theater. A motorcycle stunt rider named Crazy Mike put on an impressive display of two-wheeled insanity culminating in his blazing across the parking lot, stopping on a dime, and crushing a pop can as his elevated back tire finally came down. This was the highlight of the show, until Haywire beauty Gina Carano appeared and lit record-breaking stuntman John Cann on fire. It was hard to deny that we were all truly in action country.
The Lost Bladesman
Donnie Yen is one of my favorite martial artists working today. I was therefore very excited to see him star in this period Chinese epic. Also enticing was the fact that it was co-directed by Alan Mak who also co-directed Infernal Affairs. The film, like many of this ilk, is based on the true story of longswordsman Guan Yu. Yu cut his way through several generals and turned the tide of a civil war that eventually toppled the Han dynasty. Like most Chinese epics, The Lost Bladesman is gorgeously shot and, typical of films for which Donnie Yen serves as fight choreographer, the martial arts sequences are incredible. Yen creates new ways to explore the fight space and incorporate ancient weapons into his signature speed and acrobatics. My biggest problem with the film is that the story is complicated to the point of being impossible to follow. I understand that a large portion of this stems from a lack of cultural/historical context for the true story on which this is based, but it made for a rather frustrating narrative.
One of the great things about ActionFest is that in many ways it served as my second chance to catch movies I’d missed at other festivals. For example, many of my critic buddies went absolutely gaga (clinical term) for this Norwegian crime thriller. The film centers on Roger, a hotshot corporate headhunter who moonlights as an expert art thief. A series of conspiring events lands Roger into the most dangerous fix of either of his careers and he must use all his devious wit and cunning to escape…and survive. Ok guys, now I see what all the fuss was about. Headhunters is a wonderful work of dark comedy. With each new complication that arises, the body count seems to pile up and yet you’ll find yourself laughing the entire way through. Headhunters is well shot, superbly edited, and features unforgettable performances from its leads. I’ve heard this film has already been picked up for remake, but I would strongly encourage viewing the original before that occurs.
It was an easy sell for me; a retelling of Yojimbo with martial arts starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Peter Weller. Not only that, but it was directed by John Hyams who also helmed the highly enjoyable Universal Solider: Regeneration. In fact, Dragon Eyes was preceded by a ten-minute clip of his next outing: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The clip showed franchise newcomer Scott Adkins taking a vicious beating, and also revealed the return of JCVD himself. This clip turned out to be far more interesting than Dragon Eyes. MMA-fighter-turned-actor Cung Le stars as a mysterious ex-con who moves into a rough neighborhood controlled by two street gangs, both of whom are controlled by a corrupt cop. Le engages in what is possibly cinema’s most convoluted scheme to eliminate all criminal elements. Shot through what appears to be a greasy lens, poorly preformed in both acting and fight choreography, and boasting a script with more holes than any number of the film’s gunshot victims, Dragon Eyes is an unfortunate disaster. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme and Peter Weller are utterly wasted.
With day two ending with a cold fizzle, day three admittedly began late. The appearance of Gina Carano at the fest inspired me to take in a screening of Haywire, also playing at the theater. This sensational, but surprisingly quiet action thriller was followed by a series of geek-out sessions with various attendees and visiting press over a few rounds of beer and Cheerwine, a southern-born cherry soda. Finally, sadly, it was time for the closing night film, which was screened at the Fine Arts Theater in downtown Asheville. The energy in the room remained electric even as the fest wound down. The film chosen to send us out on a resounding high? Wu Xia again starring Donnie Yen.
Structurally, Wu Xia shares a great deal in common with A History of Violence. Set in a small Chinese village around the turn of the 20th century, two bandits enter a local shop demanding money. A seemingly mild-mannered papermaker manages to “accidentally” thwart the thieves, both of whom end up dead in the skirmish. The village, and most of the police force, is ready to declare the man a lucky hero, but one inspector believes there is something sinister in this man’s past that might offer a more accurate explanation for his heroics. Wu Xia was easily one of my favorite films of ActionFest. It adopts a number of interesting storytelling devices to weave together a tale that is simultaneously uplifting and eerily dark. The performances, particularly those of Donnie Yen and Jimmy Wang Yu (who also starred in the fantastic The Man From Hong Kong in the 70s) are moving and larger-than-life. The fight sequences again showcase Yen’s blazing speed and are even more bruising than those in The Lost Bladesman.
With that, we toasted one more Cheerwine and bid adieu to ActionFest, beginning our long drive back to Austin. Somehow managing to skirt burns, broken bones, and bloody noses (but not for lack of trying), we vowed to return next year for more raucous, unrelenting, and, above all action-packed adventures.