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Dragon [Wu Xia] Review


Excellent

Combining a period drama, police procedural and raucous wu-xia action, this superbly made Chinese thriller grabs our attention from the outrageous opening scene and never lets up. Not only are the fight sequences exceptionally inventive, but the acting is first-rate, stirring up emotional resonance as well as lots of mysterious intrigue.

It's set in a sleepy village in Yunan province in 1917, where the mild-mannered Jin-xi (Yen) lives with his family. But when two ruthless killers attack his stationery shop, something about the way Jin-xi "accidentally" defeats them looks suspicious to big-city detective Xu (Kaneshiro). As he pieces together the events, he begins to suspect that Jin-xi is simply too skilled at battle. Could he even be the nation's most-wanted criminal: the missing commander of the notorious Demon gang? If this is true, Xu knows that Jin-xi will do almost anything to protect his family and maintain his tranquil new life.

Director Chan cleverly peels apart the opening assault as the Sam Spade-like Xu investigates it, using slow-motion and freeze-frames to reveal secrets in ways that are both fascinating and thrilling. This also cleverly lets us know right off the bat that there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye. And all of the actors fill their scenes with churning subtext, which not only adds spark to the interpersonal drama but also makes the action sequences that much more exciting.

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Ip Man Review


Good
A terrific true story, clearly elevated to mythical proportions, this film benefits hugely from the lucid fight direction by the master Sammo Hung, which gives the film a remarkable resonance by letting us see the characters' personalities in their every move.

In 1930s provincial China, Ip (Yen) is a very private wing chun master who doesn't want to run a school or prove his skill. With virtually no aggression, he easily beats anyone who challenges him, so the town knows he's the true local master. And an interloping thug (Fan) finds this out the hard way. Ip remains quietly devoted to his wife and son (Hung and Li), but after Japan invades China, things get very difficult. Especially when Ip stands up to both the returning thug and the Japanese general (Ikeuchi).

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Flash Point Review


OK
If you're a fan of Hong Kong police flicks, then you know that at any given moment, it seems like 50 percent of the force is deep undercover in the triads. You'd think by now that when some new guy shows up and wants to join the gang, the triad bosses would simply say no thanks, but then we wouldn't have any screenplays.

In Flash Point, the undercover cop in question is Wilson (Louis Koo), whose partner, the volcanic Jun Ma (Donnie Yen), keeps in touch via cell phone. Wilson is working for a drug gang led by three psychotic Vietnamese brothers (including Collin Chou as Tony) who, when they aren't torturing and killing people, are worrying about their sweet old mother, who is slipping into dementia. That's a unique touch.

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Shanghai Knights Review


Terrible
I was in the minority of critics that actually gave Jackie Chan's last buddy picture The Tuxedo a passing grade. Sure, the plot is a throwaway and as Chan's super-spy partner, Jennifer Love Hewitt is a complete miscast. But thanks to Chan's great charisma, the movie transcends its doldrums. So with Shanghai Knights, the follow up to the entertaining Shanghai Noon, I feared this buddy story would suffer from similar inadequacies.

In Knights, Chan returns as Chon Wang, who along with sidekick Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), take their latest adventure from the Wild Wild West to London, where Chon seeks to avenge the brutal slaying of his father and obtain the stolen Chinese Imperial Seal. While there, the pair teams up with Chon's much younger, hotter, and ass-kickinger sister, Lin (Fann Wong) to hunt down their father's killer, Rathbone (Aiden Gillen) and foil Rathbone's plot to assassinate the Royal family. The three certainly have their work cut out for them.

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Hero (2002) Review


Excellent
After political (Raise the Red Lantern), sexy (Ju Dou) and reflective (The Road Home) films, writer-director Zhang Yimou embraces the aerodynamic action of digitally enhanced kung fu swordplay made famous in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The object here is to outdazzle that genre landmark and, perhaps, to outdo it at the box office.

It's probably too late and too familiar a technique to do either, but there's plenty to admire despite those limitations, for which it has already received critical and award level acclaim. At the time of this writing, it is one of the 2002 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.

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Iron Monkey Review


Excellent
The American action film has been slowly drowning to death in a sea of Asian wire-fu copycats. It's not a pretty death, and it's leaving the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme wearing cement galoshes at the bottom of a kung fu sea.

Sometimes, the mix results in a mind-blowing spectacle unlike any other. Quality action with amazing and exciting stunt work, as in 1999's The Matrix, can be a real gem. But too often Hollywood gets it wrong, even when they pay off Chinese directors. Flying ninjas and floating karate masters have been replaced by soaring Bronx detectives and slow motion kicking scientists. Mostly it's laughable. In Hollywood's rush to emulate the success of The Matrix, trademark Asian stunt choreography has become more of a joke than an art form. But Iron Monkey, the latest Asian import, shows us how to get it right.

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Blade II Review


Grim

Visually and atmospherically, the video game-like vampire-action sequel "Blade II" is slick, dark and cool, yet it doesn't take itself too seriously. The flick's fancy-schmancy martial arts fight scenes even incorporate low-brow wrestling moves like the pile-driver.

But strip away its elusive sense of humor and its expensively hip Hong Kong-spawn sheen, and what's left is a sloppy plot, lifeless characters (no pun intended), and elementary execution masquerading as something more.

Based on one of those now-ubiquitous comic books set in a dusky, dingy alternative reality, the movie is about a vampire hunter who is half vampire himself -- he has all the usual bloodsucker powers but he can go out in the sun. Wesley Snipes, sporting a flamboyant flattop coif, wrap-around shades and a black leather duster, reprises his title role from the 1998 original, which was pretty much nothing but blood-splattered nightwalker-daywalker showdowns set to a rave music beat. Knowledge of that movie isn't a prerequisite for this one, which is a marked improvement while still being saddled with all the same problems.

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HERO Review


Excellent

The most expensive and highest grossing film in Chinese history, Zhang Yimou's "Hero" went on to snag one of 2002's Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film. Unfortunately, the notorious Miramax snapped it up and sat on it for two years, as if somehow ashamed of their newest acquisition. Indeed, naysayers quickly dismissed the film as a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoff.

Earlier this year, Miramax very cautiously allowed "Hero" to open the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and now they've suspiciously dumped it at the end of August, where unwanted films usually go to die.

Despite all this, when Hero finally exploded on the big screen it quickly and effortlessly established itself as one of the two or three most exceptional, spectacular and beautiful martial arts movies ever made.

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Iron Monkey Review


Good

In a transparent attempt to jump on the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" bandwagon, Miramax has dug up one of the 1990s' very best feudal China kung fu flicks and given it a big budget makeover.

"Iron Monkey" is a "Robin Hood"-like fable about a masked martial artist who wreaks havoc upon a corrupt, oppressive provincial government on behalf of the people. Directed by famed, gravity-shunning fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping ("Crouching Tiger" and "The Matrix" both boast his handiwork), it was first released in 1993.

This re-edited 2001 version features souped-up visual and sound effects (the punches still have that slapstick, kung fu flick ring to them, but it's a Dolby 5.1 slapstick ring), and a new score to bring the final product an up-to-date, rock'em-sock'em energy.

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Shanghai Knights Review


Good

Jackie Chan told me in an interview last year (which I failed to get written up -- sorry!) that the sequel to his kung-fu comedy-Western "Shanghai Noon" was "five times better than the first one." I didn't believe him. Jackie, I apologize.

Riding high on Chan's chemistry with Owen Wilson -- reigning king of the acerbic ad-lib -- "Shanghai Knights" is hilariously tongue-in-cheek and packed with comical homages to everything from the Keystone Kops and Harry Houdini to The Beatles and "Taxi Driver."

Although it might not quite measure up to Chan's claim of quintuple the quality, it is one of those rare multiplex delights: A sequel that bests its predecessor in nearly every way.

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