POSTED ON NOVEMBER 7, 2012:
Evil vs. Evil
Of anti-heroes and physics-defying fun
It's official. Disney now owns everything that was cool. After absorbing Marvel Studios and all of its superhero franchise treasures the bomb dropped that they had bought Lucasfilm Ltd. and by definition Star Wars -- not to mention Industrial Light & Magic -- fast tracking a new, seventh film in that galaxy far, far away. In fact, the Mouse House's latest feature, Wreck-It Ralph (the studios 52nd animated film) even has a little Star Wars Easter egg -- one among many -- for sharp-eared viewers; the mechanical breath of a certain Sith Lord whose name rhymes with Ralph Nader.
I'm not even totally unconvinced that the Ralph of the film (John C. Reilly), a video game bad guy who wants to be a hero, isn't somewhat based on Ralph Nader. Not to give too much away, but essentially he's a lonely outsider in his own system who wants to upend the rules and become something he isn't. In the process he winds up spoiling an election. Sort of. Maybe I'm way off, but when a little kid decides to make the political system of her game a constitutional democracy you have to wonder if the writers aren't laughing at a not-so-subtle in-joke.
Ralph (Reilly) is the antagonist of an '80s video game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. which finds Ralph destroying an apartment building (Rampage-style--this film is obviously thick with videogame references) while the player controls the hero of the game, Felix (Jack McBrayer) who fixes the destruction, eventually banding the tenants together to toss Ralph off the roof.
At least that's what it looks like to the player, but inside the game world, Ralph finds himself a pariah to his fellow characters. He isn't even invited to his own game's 30th anniversary party. So Ralph starts going to Bad-Anon, a support group for arcade bad guys who must come to grips with never being particularly well-liked or heroic.
On The Level. Video game worlds provide the backdrop for Wreck-It Ralph.
He drowns his sorrows at Tapper (the bar from the titular 8-bit classic) where he learns he can win a medal and become a hero in a different game, Hero's Duty -- a newer, more violent, Starship Trooper's-like first-person shooter. While game characters can move in between game worlds, via a central station inside a power strip, if they die in a different game they cannot re-spawn -- in essence, they are de-rezzed (Ralph's conceit owes a significant debt to TRON).
Though the good-at-his-job Ralph claims the hero's medal, his clumsy nature sets in motion a chain of events that spell doom for his game and another called Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart meets Candyland knock-off; when Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a game avatar with a "glitch", steals his treasured medal -- and Ralph inadvertently infests Sugar Rush with murderous bugs he saved from Hero's Duty.
There's quite a bit to like about Wreck-It Ralph, particularly if you came of age in the era of '80s arcade culture. The script, by Phil Johnson and Jennifer Lee, is rife with knowing in-references that run from the obvious (Bad-Anon meets at the ghost holding cell in Pac-Man) to the obscure (when Tapper gets off work he hits up Burgertime) to the fun (stalactites of Mentos suspended above a hot springs of diet soda become a plot device). Visual cues run the gamut from Alien to Indiana Jones -- and the aforementioned Star Wars -- and there isn't a gigabyte of the movie that doesn't have some sort of nod to the many game characters of history 8-bit history -- even the ones whose clearly labyrinthine licensing deals wouldn't allow in the film (Mario is only mentioned but King Koopa makes a cameo).
The voice work from John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch as a space marine bent on saving Sugar Rush from the fate of Planet P is uniformly wonderful, particularly Silverman who manages to work her trademark pixie weirdness into the hyperactive (sugar rushing?) Vanellope.
It looks great, with an army of animators rendering the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush and the dystopian Hero's Duty with insane detail and great art design. But it's the story, guided adeptly by director Rich Moore that makes the pixels worth watching.
Sweet and knowing and with only a few dips into fart humor, Moore weaves the multiple plot threads together well and with a good sense of pace. So while the little ones gawk and laugh the adults won't find their brains bleeding out of their ears from too much generic, pandering banality. In fact, they might be laughing, too.
Wreck-It Ralph deserves your quarters; which is good. You'll probably be pressing play on this one for a while.
The Man with the Iron Fists
One of the reasons the Staten Island-born rap legends, Wu-Tang Clan, have that name is due to a love of mid-'70s, Shaw Brothers martial arts films. Violently over the top and physics-defying before anyone heard of wire-fu; films like Five Fingers of Death, The Flying Guillotine and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin were among many classics that no doubt influenced RZA --one of Wu-Tang's founders -- to make his directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists.
That combination, an untested director with a tangential talent and an admirable love of genre specifics doesn't always inspire hope -- see Stephen King's directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive. But with the guidance of Quentin Tarantino as a producer and with Eli Roth co-writing the script from an original story by RZA, The Man with the Iron Fists turns out to be an unevenly successful, though ultimately fun slice of FUBU action.
RZA plays a blacksmith in the feudal Chinese town of Jungle Village, the control of which has several different clans going to war. His weapons are in high demand by the various clans, putting the blacksmith in the Yojimbo-like position of playing one against the other while biding his time to escape with his true love, a prostitute known as Lady Silk (Jamie Chung).
Iron Lady. Lucy Liu owns a brothel and a tiara in The Man With The Iron Fists.
Meanwhile, the fairly noble leader of one of the clans, Golden Lion (Chen Kuan-tai) is assassinated in a coup by his lieutenant, Silver Lion (the hilariously scene-stealing Byron Mann) who must also assassinate Golden Lion's son, The X-Blade (Rick Yune), an uber-warrior who is heir to the Lions and will be none-to-pleased to learn of his father's assassination.
When a massive shipment of gold is sent from the emperor to another magistrate, and which must pass through Jungle Village, Silver Lion descends upon the town to steal the gold -- only to find his way thwarted by one of the clans, led by Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu); and a white, drifter mercenary named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, hamming it up like a champ).
Joining forces with the blacksmith and X-Blade they find themselves up against not just the Lions and a gigantic freak who can morph into solid brass (David Bautista) but also the Gemini Killers -- learned madmen of death who will annihilate Jungle Village ("The motherfuckers got a Gatling Gun," intones RZA during the film's copious narration) if they don't wind up leaving with their Emperor's gold.
RZA obviously has something of an eye for the genre. His unabashed love is written on this flick's sleeve -- and as uneven as it can be it's still eclectically conceptualized and energetically made. Watching Crowe channel Old Dirty Bastard alone is pretty much worth the price of admission.
It is RZA's sense of pace that belies his inexperience, one spent more in front of the camera than behind it--channeling his peers without threatening to surpass their more honed talents. He purposefully and admirably avoids dated visual tropes. While this is essentially a grindhouse film he doesn't try to make a faux one. Instead The Man with the Iron Fists is closer to a kung-fu/blaxploitation mash-up whose best qualities are the vision that distinctly belongs to its creator. But it is a disjointedly paced film with a narrative that flows with an ironic lack of chi.
On a technical level the fight scenes are fine, and the FX are well rendered--particularly the gory stuff by KNB. The performances are the kind of awesome that happens when they are delightfully cheesy--Rick Yune has a problem with wooden while RZA plays the blacksmith as if he were RZA in 19th Century China. Byron Mann, as Silver Lion, is absolutely amazing though, and his performance, along with the anachronistic soundtrack by Wu-Tang Clan, collaborating with the likes of The Black Keys and Kanye are probably the only elements of this flick that could legitimately be nominated for something.
The Man with the Iron Fists will live a longer life in living rooms, late at night and under the influence. And that's its own kind of perfect.
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