Director: Byung-gil Jung
Stars: Ok-bin Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung
Released: 15th September 2017 (UK)
Reviewer: Ren Zelen
Like so many recent Korean action flicks, Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess starts off with a humdinger of an action sequence. One is barely settled in one’s seat before being immediately thrust into the midst of a violent melee with arterial blood spraying in all directions.
The film’s intricately choreographed opening sequence offers nearly 10 minutes of nonstop carnage from a subjective POV, as in a video game, with the audience taking the perspective of the mysterious assailant – shooting, kicking and stabbing their way through a corridor of bloodthirsty gangsters, ‘OldBoy’ style.
Having finally hacked their way to the room at the other end, the panting antagonist is now faced with the kingpin and his cronies, gearing up for another onslaught. When the intruder is thrust headlong into a mirror by one of the gang, we finally see that shockingly, it is a young girl – a black-leather-clad-killing-machine, certainly, but also a mere slip of a thing. This revelation finally explains the look of comic incomprehension on the faces of some of the victims that lie bleeding in her wake.
Ok-bin Kim plays Sook-hee, a girl trained to be a deadly assassin since childhood – this opening bloodbath is her revenge on the thugs who murdered someone she loved. During this change of perspective to the objective, the camera work really begins to get crazy (at one point it seems like the camera is on a swing) setting the tone for the rest of the insanely inventive action sequences that The Villainess inflicts upon us.
Barely escaping alive from the murderous mayhem, Sook-hee is nabbed by South Korea’s Intelligence Agency who recruits her as a sleeper agent. She accepts the chance to start a new life with a promise from her handler, Chief Kwon (Seo-hyeong Kim), of complete freedom after ten years of service.
Western audiences will see analogies with Hanna (2011), Kill Bill (2003) and the French film La Femme Nikita (1990) as like that female assassin, Sook-hee can gain her freedom only by killing government targets.
Unlike Nikita however, Sook-hee is pregnant with her dead husband’s baby. He (Ha-kyun Shin) was killed on their honeymoon, but the Agency allows Sook-hee to have her baby and raise her daughter to toddlerhood during her training, giving them a means to exert extra incentive on their operative.
After her training is complete, Sook-hee goes out into the world taking on a new identity as Chae Yeon-soo, a 27-year-old theatre actress and single mother. Hyun-soo, (Jun Sung) an angel-faced charmer in the apartment next door, takes a romantic interest in her. There is certainly a mutual attraction, but, for someone whose previous existence has revolved around being an efficient killer, slipping seamlessly into a normal life is not an easy transition for Sook-hee.
What complicates matters is that her new beau has actually been primed and planted by the Agency to keep tabs on her, and soon there are also indications that her erstwhile beloved spouse may not be entirely dead.
Ok-bin Kim gives a marvellously committed performance as Sook-hee, expressing a subtle eroticism and, despite her femininity, striking features and petite frame, exuding a fierce energy in her combat scenes.
Stunt coordinator Kwon Gui-duck and cinematographer Park Jung-hun present some outstanding vehicle chase scenes. Kwon stages an astonishing sword fight on speeding motorbikes at night in a tunnel, and a jaw-dropping climactic pursuit that starts with an alley fight, continues in a car accident, builds to car chase choreography and acrobatics as good as anything in Baby Driver and ends on top of a speeding bus.
It’s impossible to tell where the live action ends and the crazy drone cameras and CGI trickery begins. Kim’s action sequences come across in unbelievably long-takes, but she is so fierce in the lead role that she needs little help to hold our attention.
The fun is in the details, as when sniper Sook-hee picks off the obstacles around her target so that they crumple and give her a cleaner shot. Or when moments before her wedding ceremony, Sook-hee, in her wedding dress, is called upon to enter the venue’s toilet, fish out a sniper rifle and start shooting – and when she shoots someone’s sunglasses off from half a mile away, she gets the shock of her life.
Western audiences will see references to several Western films (although Byung-gil Jung denies any influences) while seasoned Asian film fans will recognise Nikkatsu’s ’70s female exploitation films and Hong Kong’s long history of martial arts heroines, (Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Shu Qi, Maggie Q).
Nonetheless, The Villainess succeeds in being hugely exciting, offering delirious action choreography, breakneck pacing and even a dramatic, (if over-fussy) narrative thread. What is new about The Villainess is that it marries its revenge scenario to a melodrama of maternal suffering. She is a lover, a mother, a betrayed woman and an angel of vengeance, allowing Sook-hee to be vulnerable, tragic and ruthless.
In the West, critics have generally admired the other current, female-led, action flick, Atomic Blonde. I too enjoyed Charlize Theron’s frosty secret agent being sent into a gritty 80s Berlin to retrieve information devastating to Western intelligence. Atomic Blonde is a triumph of style thanks to the outrageously beautiful, steely Theron, but she offered us a different kind of female protagonist – a cold, focussed, female survivor, with a hollowness at heart.
The Villainess instead resembles Atomic Blonde director David Leitch’s other creation, John Wick. That film worked partly because Keanu Reeves’s Wick was allowed to show his heartbreak and mourning as he pursued his vengeance. The Villainess has a similar emotional core.
The problem with The Villainess is a muddy narrative – there are plot machinations, layers of betrayal and a jumbled chronology containing some disorienting flashbacks which all contribute to a bit of a muddle. However, the lack of a clear and coherent narrative is nearly offset by a staggering performance by Ok-bin Kim in a film which contains the kind of grim melodrama, cartoonish violence, and mayhem and destruction that Asian cinema revels in, and that makes most viewers, gasp, laugh and weep, all at the same time.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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