WARNING! FILM SPOILERS!

The following opinions should not be read prior to seeing the films in question. (Though it is possible you have resigned to never watch them at all...)

These are not reviews upon which you should base movie watching decisions. Rather, I write with the hopeful purpose of inciting sometimes interesting, sometimes informative, sometimes humourous discussions about cinema. What may prove unfortunate for the reader is that I often express myself in a pompous and juvenile fashion...mayhap there ought to be a "warning" in recognition of my sense of humour...

Regardless, I implore film fans to always remember that all film is art, and all art is subjective. No one can tell you if you like a movie, except you. Likes and dislikes of film can only be opinion, and opinion can never be wrong; only intelligently expressed and defended. There is nothing wrong with unconditionally loving a film that isn't necessarily held in the highest regard, so long as you understand and accept why you love it.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

DOUBLE DRAGON

Director - James Yukich
Starring - Scott Wolf, Mark Dacascos, Alyssa Milano, Robert Patrick, Kristina Wagner

The year is 2007 (as envisioned in 1994). The city is New Angeles (a new name being the universal signifier that a city has undergone some drastic changes). The obligatory catastrophe that caused a downward spiral into dystopia is an earthquake (because Earth will one day inevitably wreak her chaotic revenge). The catalyst for action is a broken, yet powerful, medallion (similar to a trinket of BFF ilk). And the inspiration for this preteen-friendly chopsockey adventure are the quarter-quenching arcade games of the same name (which feature none of the elements I have mentioned thus far). Double Dragon is set in a bleak future in which the police retreat indoors due to rampant late-night gang activity, gigantic house fans are helicoptered to the tops of buildings in order to blow away smog, and Andy Dick is the local weatherman. Terrifying premonitions, each and every one of them.

Living amidst the squalor are the Lee brothers, Jimmy and Billy, who make ends meet by kung fu fighting in underground tag matches. Jimmy utilizes a medium array of martial arts, whereas Billy seems to primarily rely on the ancient art of "clich├ęd slapstick". The brothers share a friendly/matronly/guardian(/polyamorous?) bond with Satori, a female counterpart put in place to balance the boys' testosterone; around her neck she wears half of a gold medal carved with a dragon. The other half lies in the hands of Shuko, a surprisingly caucasian corporate mogul who has diversified his portfolio by also running a gang of low-level street thugs. Granted, a throwaway line about Shuko's name change does explain the questionable moniker, but what is never addressed is the equally questionable company that he keeps - with Shuko Industries taking care of the city's drainage and Shukonet being a top tier internetworking system, one could come to think that he would be predominantly surrounded by a higher class of ruffian. It doesn't take long for us inquisitive viewers to learn that much like any typical broken medallion, when the two halves come together, the possessor will wield great power. I tried putting this theory into practice by cracking my high school Track and Field medal in two, and upon taping it back together was imbued with the awesome capability of achieving third in the Long Jump. So begins the epic quest of the Lees, seeking to unite the medallion halves and vanquish Shuko's tyrannical rule.

The trials of this quest include futuristic car chasing, high speed water craft bushwhacking, underground teen rebel rousing, and a cavalcade of mediocre hand-to-hand combat. Oddly enough, what it doesn't include is contention with firearms - all the gangs seem to have a strict "No Gun" policy. This differentiates the nefarious Shadow Warriors from their pixelated dopplegangers, who managed to scrimp up enough cash to afford one single, solitary machine gun. Everything culminates in a mystical, fist-ical showdown in which Shuko can turn into a shadow, inhabit the bodies of others, split into two nasty samurai, and fights with the prowess of a man who has taken combat training for a solid month and a half. That sure is an awful lot of plot details for something based on what is essentially two guys walking down the street and punching people. The thing is, handled correctly, that simplicity could have been enough to keep the momentum of this film going. The lesson we started to learn from the kung fu genre way back when, and was more recently hammered home with The Raid, or even Dredd, is that a movie can successfully be just one long action scene.

As far as action scenes go, the majority of these look extraordinarily okay - average, some forgettable, and falling right into that meaty section of the Action Movie Curve. The cars look cool, what with their dangerously accessible fuel injectors or their Spy Hunter-esque tracking technology. The boat chase across burning water is a neat idea, possibly too neat for a film of this overall calibre... and how those no-goodniks were prepared with their own water vessels is a movie mystery for the ages. The fighting is 50/50 - predominately of the less serious form of "fight-amidst-flight" and employing common place objects, it is a style in which Jackie Chan once spoiled us. Jimmy does toss out some nice kicks and appropriate flips, but brother Billy manages to hurl more quips then he does fists. This is certainly not ideal when we're talking about a film that is supposed to be about two martial artists. To make matters worse, not only are these verbal jabs depriving us of real ones, but every joke falls flat, hitting the ground with an almost audible 'clunk'. The ultimate jewel in the Double Dragons' fighting crown is that ridiculous "Arm-Swinging Pinwheel Kick" that the boys were practicing. Meant to illustrate the merits of teamwork, I understand what the choreographers were going for here - having grown up in a time when swinging a child in circles by their arms was considered good clean fun, I had at least 2 neighbours who can attest to the pain that stems from being on the receiving end of that maneuver. However, it is a concept that probably looked much better on paper; hell, why not have the boys Leap Frog into action?

Director James Yukich comes from a background of helming rockumentaries, which may explain why the soundtrack is full of hip, once-relevant music. It may also explain why he didn't notice certain cinematic discrepancies, like the disproportionately huge explosion caused by the Lees' boat crashing through a billboard, or Satori's on-again off-again overall strap during her final chat with Shuko. (That may in fact be a commentary on the questionable fashion trend of the time...) Certainly these could also be the fault of the editor or whoever was in charge of continuity, but it's always easier to (often unjustifiably) blame the director. A documentarian is tasked with deciding exactly what to shoot; when shooting a work of fiction, the "what" to shoot becomes "how" to shoot it. When shooting doc style, it's possible that one isn't necessarily watching out for continuity because, well, reality is continuous - it's just waiting to be recorded. Theories... True or not, they are still no excuse for something that could have been rectified were someone just paying attention.

Billy and Jimmy Lee are played by Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos respectively, leading to the biggest leap of faith required by us viewers. Forget the magic, forget the mutations, it's the fact that "One-Man-Melting-Pot" Dacascos and the "Whitest-White-Guy-Ever" Wolf are on-screen kin that really tests audience acceptance. Thankfully, they are constantly adorned in their signature blue or red attire, not only affording us a means by which to tell these dreamboats apart, but also reminding us exactly who is Player 1. Performances like the ones turned in by our protagonists, and most everyone in this film, are difficult to write about - were they extremely good or extremely bad the commentary would flow like water... But how does one express that a performance is the equivalent of a shoulder shrug and a muttered "Meh"? Sometimes "fun/cheesey" but moreso just "cheesey", the actors are often burdened by dialogue but are absolutely not without enthusiasm. My own curiosity does get gnawed at when I question the fates that befell the career of Dacascos. So much promise exhibited in Only the Strong and realized in The Brotherhood of the Wolf, I've always felt he was an embodiment of untapped potential. Does he not have a beneficial industry acquaintance in Jet Li, or did everyone involved in that Cradle 2 the Grave debacle just walk away angry? I know that I left that experience wearing a frown.

Early on in their journey, our heroes come across the Power Corp., a teenage resistance group dead set on toppling the current regime. Cloaked in bright colours (to denote youth and vigour) and preferring the rollerblade mode of travel (to denote early 90's modernity), their greatest unforeseen accomplishment lies in firmly dating themselves. They are both an era personified and a reminder of why we left said era behind. Leader of the teenage insurgents is Marian, another tenuous name-only connection to the source material, played by Alyssa Milano. She, too, is competent enough to be in front of the camera without raising any eyebrows for doing an above average job. Of course, given my personal proclivities, you won't hear me utter any disparaging remarks about Ms. Milano - she was, after all, the first real person I had a crush on. When my childhood romance with Wonder Woman came to an end, (it wasn't me, it was her) I sought solace in the arms of Alyssa. Sure, Who's the Boss? was a mainstay on my family television screen, but it was her vulnerable yet resourceful "Jenny" in Commando that made me long to rescue her from both her fictional and factual woes. Watching her toss a couple torso-range kicks in this outing only serves to reignite that one-sided flame. Can't say I care too much for the pixie cut she's sporting here, though... Alright, one disparaging remark.

Shuko is played by Robert Patrick; hot off the heels of Terminator 2 and before whatever the hell else he's done, he chews so much scenery that you can almost see teeth marks in the set pieces. He may have been the most fun character to watch were his hair not so offensive to the eye.

Now for the million dollar query; why are there no good movies based on video games? (Though I do like the Mortal Kombat: Legacy series.) One may be inclined to partner that inquiry with the other side of the same question coin, and ask why are there no good video games based on movies? (Though I do like Jaws for the NES.) However, I believe we, at least partially, know the answer to the latter. Often enough, tie-in games have a creative motivation behind them that is firmly rooted in deadlines and money, whereas other games have the good fortune of being constructed due to passion... and money. Being hounded by the marketing clock or forced to work in elements of source material that will appease the already existent fanbase are not the most ideal of circumstances surrounding an artistic endeavour. Regarding the first question, I can posit some speculation, though I'd be hard-pressed to believe there was one solitary reason. In the 8-bit days of yore, video games had very little plot - screen writers had to scramble in order to create a story out of almost nothing, incorporate a myriad of fantastical elements, all while maintaining enough of a connection to the original material so it can keep the audience already built by the game. There were 6 incursions of Double Dragon when this movie came out; that means 6 times the familiarity is required, balanced with trying to deliver something new. This is probably why Abobo went from being a silent bad-ass hydrocephalic to being a surgically mutated steroid junky simpleton whiner. Conversely, the modern video game is often teeming with story - more and more we are witnessing stunning cut scenes, extensive character development, and complex plot lines. Oddly enough, this puts today's game-to-film adaptors into a similar predicament as their forefathers. They, too, have to create a story sheathed in loyalty but their situation is more akin to constructing a sequel. For them, the initial story has already been told successfully, and they must continue with predetermined components while adhering to the aspects that attracted the fans in the first place. Where it used to be that screenwriters had to create something new because there was too little material to fall back on, it now stands that they have to create something new because there is too much material to work from. Add to that the large amount of game content that needs to be transferred to the big screen, and writers may be faced with quite the arduous task.

And what type of an off-topic rambler would I be were I to not put in my two cents regarding movies, video games, and the future? Namely, will video games one day usurp film (and TV...) as our primary source of entertainment? That seems to be the direction in which the winds are blowing, what with cut scenes satisfying the cinematic element while being generously sprinkled with the added enticement of 'choice'. And what could possibly be more enticing than 'choice'? How about 'choice without ramification'? The more interactive and detailed the games become, the more they resemble "Choose Your Own Adventure" movies. But, let's never forget the relaxative properties of the "pseudo-passivity" of watching a film. I say "pseudo-passivity" because the amount of interaction we have with a film can fluctuate based on the effort we put in - otherwise, my little film rants could be broken down into Newspeak phrases of "Movie plusgood" or "Movie ungood." If anything, watching our entertainment will be what we retreat to when we need a break from playing our entertainment; making choices can be tough work. Thank you, Double Dragon - only a film of your magnitude could force me to plumb the depths of my media consumption theories. If somebody produced a monthly comic, a cartoon series, and an action figure line, I could probably write a book.

Yup, it's a strange and curious expansion of lore that is created by this film. A strange, curious, literally colourful expansion. A world where one Lee brother can kick the other Lee brother into a Double Dragon arcade machine with complete disregard for the diegetic consequences. Quite the sacrifice for a small, mildly amusing, in-reference. Which came first; the brothers or the machine? Did two guys base themselves (and their entire belief-systems) on a side-scrolling beat 'em up? Or did the boys blow through a bunch of sweet royalty cash before settling into their current caste? It's a world that really only speaks to a specific generation, when arcades were a cool place to hang out, wheels on feet were strictly in-line, and plaid flannel was a secure statement around every other teenagers waist. Does anybody think that a kid of today's day and age is going to watch this and find any of it cool? Fuck no. A world that makes me wish Netflix allowed me to give out half stars. Torn between biased nostalgia and general crap, I proudly straddle both sides of the reviewing fence. I would earnestly give Double Dragon a 2.5 stars. I would give Street Fighter (Van Damme, not Chiba...) a 2.5. I would give Mortal Kombat a 2.5. I would give Super Mario Bros. a (generous) 0.5. (Not a typo.) But until the day Netflix bows to my whims, I'll patiently work on the first installment of my 36 part series, Minecraft I: Hitting Crap With a Stick, and keep my wishy-washyness to myself.

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