Friday, March 5, 2010
MOVIE REVIEWS: LITTLE BIG SOLDIER AND THE BOOK OF ELI
By FRANCIS DASS
LITTLE BIG SOLDIER
Directed by Sheng Ding
Starring Jackie Chan, Wang Lee Hom, Steven Yoo Seung-jun, Lin Peng
As far as I can see, Little Big Soldier is a movie that marks a dramatic shift in Hong Kong filmmaking. Having watched quite a number of Hong Kong flicks, this is probably the first time that the former British colony has produced a legitimate buddy-movie, and set in a period piece too!
The film, like all Chinese films do, glorifies ancient Chinese history and transports the audience to a period when a battle is waged by the Qin and Liang factions centuries ago.
Jackie Chan plays a lowly soldier from the Liang side and in the opposite camp there is Wang Lee Hom who is the general from the Qin faction. The movie begins with the duo being the only two survivors of a bloody battle where everyone on both sides are practically mutually massacred. Jackie's character survives by feigning death with a trick arrow while Lee Hom's General barely survives, being badly wounded in battle. As Jackie's character (he is nameless in the film and is not interested in war) takes the general hostage for the purpose of collecting a reward and owning his own plot of farm land, an-initially-antagonistic-and-then-respectful friendship develops between the two. In the process, the General is treated with Jackie's secret family potion to speed up his healing.
The director Sheng Ding has done a remarkable job of sustaining the audience's interest in the unlikely friendship that develops between these two protagonists. To have only two actors carry the bulk of the movie is quite a feat indeed. Sheng Ding displays a firm grasp of the techniques and art of filmmaking which indicates that future projects from this director are worth looking out for.
As the buddy-film brews at the centre, on the side is the traitorous Prince Wen (Steven Yoo) who is pursuing the General in the hopes of silencing him -- as Wen had a hand in betraying his own soldiers, resulting in the bloodbath that we see at the start of the movie, The Prince had hoped that the General would have died in battle. The General, aware that only a betrayal could have caused him to lose the battle, is determined to get revenge.
There is also a horde of barbarians who cross paths with the film's two central character as well as Prince Wen and his men. Such instances provide some worthwhile action sequences in the film.
Oh, there is the gratuitous addition of the ornamental actress Lin Peng who serves no purpose at all.
If anything, the film is watchable for the novelty of seeing pretty boy Wang Lee Hom actually delivering a very decent performance throughout. However, Chan disappoints as he is obsessed with playing the doofus with acrobatic skills. Someone should tell him that many people find this very tiresome. Worse crime of all, the script is written to glorify Chan's character and makes him a martyr of sorts at the film's end, referencing Ridley Scott's Gladiator. For film aficionados, the ending makes a film that is initially somewhat watchable a bit of a letdown and lose its artistic integrity.
THE BOOK OF ELI
Directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, Chris Browning
If there is one man in Hollywood who takes his craft very, very seriously, then that man is surely Denzel Washington. He does not fail to deliver in this latest outing of his.
It bears saying that this mystery-thriller-drama-action-&-sci-fi mashup is brilliantly directed, acted and scripted.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is a man walking his own chosen path in a post-apocalyptic world. But unlike the other survivors who have no purpose in their lives, Eli is a man on a mission. He is carrying a book and feels compelled to take it to an unnamed destination on the west of the United States.
Along the way, this lone man is under threat from all sorts of post-Holocaust thieves and hooligans.
(The look of Mel Gibson's Mad Max films is present, although the look and colour of The Book of Eli is all its own.)
Eli, when faced with danger, is quite deft indeed with a knife and guns. The violence brought on by such face-offs is staggering -- probably a first for Washington -- but there's nothing gratuitous about it. In a brutal dog-eat-dog and mouse-eat-cat (seriously!) post-holocaust world, the shocking violence is necessary for self-preservation.
Unfortunately for Eli, there is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man determined to rebuild his broken-down town. He uses his thugs to rule a nondescript godless town where he aspires for respect, which he hopes will be brought on by scriptural words.
In an encounter, when Eli single-handedly wipes out Carnegie's minions, the latter's interest in Eli is piqued. Carnegie tells Eli that he could do with a man like Eli in his team.
The book that Eli is carrying -- as you would have guessed by now -- is supposedly the last known copy of the Bible. Once Carnegie finds out of Eli's prized possession, he is hell-bent on wresting it from the hands of the lone man.
Carnegie believes that in a ruthless and crude world, the elegant wording of the Bible would win people over to his post-apocalyptic religious institution and help him reconstruct civilisation. But don't think for a moment that Carnegie is saintly or noble in any way. He feels the Bible is an excellent tool to control the stupid masses. In this, the script takes a delightful, if veiled, dig at the mafia-like construct of organised religions throughout human civilisation, i.e. serving the purpose of the delusional and self-righteous few who want to exert control over the masses.
As Eli makes his getaway, he gets an unlikely travel companion in the form of Solara (Mila Kunis), who is impressed by this mysterious man, and decides to follow him.
Mila Kunis, she of That 70s Show fame, has here blossomed into an impressive big screen actress indeed. Perhaps it is her own talent -- or maybe it is the opportunity to bounce off her performance against an excellent actor like Denzel Washington OR even thanks to the masterful direction of the Hughes brothers -- whichever one or a combination of all three factors as the reality might be, Kunis comes across as a formidable presence in this film.
As Eli and Solara make their getaway from Carnegie and his "leftover" henchmen (whoever is left from the earlier massacre) they encounter some very interesting characters, the most outstanding being the strange couple Martha (Frances de la Tour) and her devoted husband George (Michael Gambon). It is amazing how in such a serious movie, the couple bring out the laughs so effortlessly. There's also the "Engineer" (Tom Waits) who is wickedly-blackly funny in his dealings with Eli.
That's the thing about this movie -- the casting is truly inspired and almost every single performer on screen delivers an ace of a performance, no matter how small their part. The good script makes this serious movie enjoyable and something worth talking about after a viewing.
What is clever and completely unanticipated about The Book of Eli is the stunning twist at the end. You have to see it to believe it. What was driving Eli indeed!?
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