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‘Alien’ May Be the Ultimate Haunted House Movie

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Save for the possibility that some poltergeist has taken possession of a horribly terrifying clown doll and is camped out beneath my bed while waiting for me to lean over for a peek, the idea that some unseen, phantasmic force could do me bodily harm generally doesn’t move me to fears. Because of this, a whole subgenre of horror holds little appeal, too full of magical encounters and dubious decisions to fully exploit its common themes of invasion, violation, and dread of the unknown. Take away the ethereal specter and replace it with a flesh-and-acid-for-blood monster with two mouths, however, and you get one of the best haunted house movies ever made: 1979’s Alien.

Sure, many liken Ridley Scott’s film to more of a sci-fi slasher flick, with its single-minded killer and death toll, but the lack of depicted violence places less emphasis on the slaughter (save for one nightmare-inducing scene, actual loss of life takes place off-screen), and the sterile, amoral nature of the characters doesn’t fit with the type of “punishment” the subgenre is known for. Instead, despite the body count, Alien plays more like an exorcism story, with a demon born from man’s folly that must be expunged before it eats the souls of everyone on board. That the xenomorph is not a proper apparition not only doesn’t destroy the metaphor, but instead benefits the suspension of disbelief greatly, and (other-worldliness notwithstanding) its tangibility makes the mortal consequences of crossing its path all the more real.

alien-xenomorph

Alien‘s lack of ghosts also allows it to focus on what physical elements make the haunted house scenario such a scary one in the first place. First and foremost is the house itself, which has always worked best when it serves as the main characters’ home. Though the classic device of a group challenged to spend a night or two debunking frightful legend can still manage the occasional creep-out, real fear in the genre comes from invasion of places we feel most safe. While a commercial spaceship, the Nostromo is nevertheless home to a small crew that has been out to sea for a very long time. They eat there, sleep there, live there. It has protected them, sheltered them well from the cold vacuum of infinite space, become as depended upon and familiar as their own bodies.

The arrival of the titular guest is like an infection, betraying the trust of those familiar hallways and life-giving air ducts. What once could be navigated without a care instead now demands unrelenting awareness and caution, as the potential of attack and death lurks around every corner. No time to rest, always on the lookout, hunted on their own turf by a force that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Instead of this elusive being originating from some mystical plane that audiences can’t relate to, Alien gives them a simple predator, instinctively understood in mankind’s collective subconscious as shudderingly lethal, and sets it loose upon the unsuspecting prey. Now, upon invasion, both ship and one’s own skin have the potential to be horrifying traps from which they cannot escape.

alien-xenomorph2

This intrusion into personal space perfectly captures the violation at the heart of the best haunted house movies. Sanctuaries are often taken for granted in life, whether they be built of wood or flesh; pull the rug out from underneath that security and there is instant unease and possibly panic. Alien harnesses this instinct in dual ways, attacking audience comfort with both the dependability of home and their own selves.

When even the internal functioning of one’s body can’t be trusted, then utter vulnerability is all that’s left. The most terrifying aspect of possession is the loss of control, the idea that one’s destiny is no longer their own to determine, but some foreign entity’s. How ghosts do this is vague and unexplainable, but Alien handles this very supernatural concept in a non-literal and insidiously physical way, portraying a ravenous parasite that decides when the duties of its host will ultimately come to an end. Once the seed has been planted inside its victim, fate has been sealed. The realization after Kane’s interrupted dinner that this ticking time bomb is a death sentence only makes the situation more anxious, evoking a sense of squeamish helplessness both outside and in.

alien-kane

Haunted house movies often strive for this effect, but reason stands in the way. Traditionally these stories tend to invent excuses as to why the people would remain in this hell through the duration. Aware of the great big world outside that any rational person would immediately bolt to when things go south, writers often resort to contrived behavior (insane curiosity, mind-blowing nonchalance, bizarre revenge, etc.) or magical limitations to keep everyone indoors. The ghost made the door into a wall. How? No one knows; it’s a ghost. Buying into a setup requires a modicum of believability in the characters’ motivations behind their actions that many haunted house movies often can’t muster, but Alien handles the situation organically through its setting. With an outside environment more hostile than the one within, the choice to stay in Alien is clear, but more importantly, logical. If no one can hear you scream, what hope is there of rescue? The crew is truly alone, and that is truly frightening.

Director Ridley Scott composes the film handsomely, with vast shots of the speck the Nostromo is against the backdrop of the cosmos, and clean, claustrophobic interiors that add to the overall feeling of unease. The ship is a labyrinth to rival any spooky mansion, full of emptiness and echoes. There are seven characters aboard the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”): Captain Dallas, Warrant Officer Ripley, Executive Officer Kane, Navigator Lambert, Science Officer Ash, and two Engineers, Brett and Parker. This is all we get; we’re stuck with them just as they are with each other. This is one of my favorite storytelling setups: the small group isolated and forced to work together to survive, and Alien is one of the most satisfying.

alien-ship

By the time the alien erupts (literally) onto the scene we have gotten a good sense of who these people are, and how incapable they are of dealing with such a situation. And it is grim. Always a step behind, they struggle to maintain their souls against a wraith-like force they cannot comprehend, tormented by an alien intruder that has turned their own world against them, haunted by a phallic-headed monster with two mouths that is very, very real.

The haunted house movie is a cinematic horror staple, yet I’ve never seen it done better than a movie with no house and no ghosts. With a terrific setup, a spooky atmosphere and an H.R. Geiger-designed creature that will make your flesh crawl, those looking for some terror in their movie nights should consider the scariest film in the franchise, Alien.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    October 24, 2016 at 12:47 am

    I just watched Even Horizon again and it made me think of this article. That would be the utimate haunted house movie.

    • Patrick Murphy

      October 25, 2016 at 12:16 am

      Man, I didn’t care for that movie at all. Space demons! That’s what I like about ‘Alien’- it keeps the terror physical. I do know a lot of people who like that film though. I just can’t handle anything by W.S.

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Friday Film Noir

‘The Chase’ is a Unique Film Noir that Few Have Seen

The Chase 1946

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The Chase 1946 Film Noir Review

Friday Film Noir

Hunted … haunted … hounded …

*A fair warning to readers: those sensitive to spoilers had best watch the film under review before reading the article. To properly dive into its themes and story, major plot points will be revealed.

Surprises in movies are a great gift the storytellers can offer viewers to wake them from the state of comfort, or boredom depending on whom one asks, which sets in when plot points are too familiar and the dramatic beats too predictable. For some, it can be a chore to get through just as it may offer the right type of simple escapism for others. Sometimes, however, the ingredients need to be shaken and stirred. In an amusing case of coincidence, this week’s column entry, the 1946 film The Chase, arrives only weeks after Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final theatrical feature, Side Effects, opened in theatres. The latter begins with a story which, while perfectly adequate and engaging, morphs into a different beast altogether at a one critical moment. Unsuspecting viewers who take a chance with this Arthur Ripley directed noir are in for a surprise of equal magnitude.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) is a WWII veteran roaming the streets of downtown Miami. He has served his country well during the war, yet his financial situation is rough, to say the least. Upon observing through a restaurant window a cook prepares wonderfully looking beat patties he takes notice of the wallet at his feet. Picking it up and snooping inside he discovers a hefty amount of cold hard cash. He opts to pay himself a swell breakfast before returning the object to its rightful owner, the name of address of which is on a small card in one of the pockets. It turns out the individual concerned, one Eddie Roman (Steve Cochrane), is a filthy rich gangster living in a grand palace none too far away. Always accompanied by his right-hand man Gino, Peter Lorre), Eddie is impressed by Chuck’s honesty for having delivered his lost wallet personally and gives him a job as a chauffeur. Just as things are settling in nicely for Chuck, his employer’s depressed and suicidal wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan) offers him the chance to run away to Cuba. From there on things get quite complicated, although not always for the reasons some viewers might suspect.

Movies cut from the same cloth as The Chase are always fun to decipher and analyze, even those which fail to pay full dividends on its twists and turns, as is also the case with the film currently under review. It seems as though many films, especially in modern cinema, try far too desperately to shock and awe audiences with sudden twists which ultimately carry little weight in the grander scheme of the plot. They are, to put it bluntly, twists for the sake of twists and nothing more. Then there are films such as Side Effects and The Chase, which totally pull the rug from under the audience’s feat by venturing into territory completely unforeseen. A viewer believes for perfectly understandable reasons they are watching a film that falls under category ‘A’, only for its true nature to be unexpectedly revealed. Of course, in order to properly pull off this sort of a stunt, the movie naturally has to sustain enough dramatic heft. The twist on its own is insufficient. The Chase nearly succeeds in this respect, falling just short of concluding its story with the perfect climax. Nevertheless, the effort is well worth discovering this small yet creative film.

**From this point onward, the review shall delve into spoilers.**

Things start off well enough, with a story about a down on his luck yet all-around decent man falling prey to the desperate need to make any money he can and therefore accepting a job from a very nasty person. Robert Cummings is not an actor who ever went down in movie history as one of the greats, yet his performances are always very engaging. Here, as Chuck, his naturally affable manners come through vividly. His honesty is commendable, yet it brings him to a gangster’s doorstep. It is very easy to cheer Chuck on in his attempt to escort Lorna to safety in Cuba, and considering his experience as a war veteran, it is not difficult to accept his character as a brave individual. Bravery and honesty are admirable qualities, yet they can still get one in trouble, and as Chuck himself explains upon meeting Eddie for the first time, he is just ‘a sucker.’ In this case, he is a sucker for money and for love. Michèle Morgan is very believable as the desperate and depressed Lorna. Eddie has kept her on the tightest leash imaginable for three years, suffocating her as a person. Her desire to escape narrowly outweighs the fear of the risks she incurs by fleeing her nefarious husband. Morgan is also very sensual in her more tender scenes with her male costar, which helps the viewer fall for their relationship. Their high caliber performances prove crucial considering that the script is somewhat inadequate in elaborating on what the time frame is for the chain of events that take them to Cuba and have them fall in love. Strictly in terms of running length, only about 20 minutes have passed since their first scene together and when they admit their passions for one another. Steve Cochrane plays Eddie Roman as a mighty cool cat with a very mean streak. In fact, one could argue he underplays the role even. No temper tantrums or eruptions of rage, just quiet, calculated moves to always gain the upper hand or teach someone some manners. Peter Lorre is similar in how his character nearly seems aloof most of the time to what is going on, yet is also capable of communicating quiet malice.

It is once Chuck and Lorna make it to Havana that the picture makes some dramatic moves, practically turning The Chase into a Twilight Zone episode. Just as he and Lorna are dancing romantically at a nightclub, one of Eddie’s Cuban henchmen somehow murders her with a knife to the back. The leading lady drops dead halfway into the story. The local police only see Chuck as the most likely suspect, which has the movie turn into, for a while at least, a drama about a man wrongfully accused of murder fleeing the authorities. There is some very good tension in this portion, much of it deriving from the fact that there is evidently a ploy against the protagonist, with none other than Eddie pulling the strings all the way from Florida. No matter his pleas, false evidence piles up to make him appear all the guiltier.

As amusing as this portion of the story is, it does not last for the remainder of the running time, for once Chuck, after slipping through the police’s fingers, appears to have stumbled on evidence to prove his innocence…he wakes him in the room where he has been staying since working for Eddie. It was all an intensely vivid dream. It turns out Chuck needs medication to suppress severe anxiety and stress due to wartime trauma. The tiniest of hints was indeed dropped very early in the film, although kudos to anyone who correctly guesses the ebb and flow of this film even with that knowledge in mind. Ultimately, the film ends up being not only a love story between a pampered but oppressed woman and a good man but one that relates to the condition of all too many returning war veterans who must wrestle against the intangible demons of warfare, plagued by psychological and emotional turmoil inconceivable to anybody who has not had the misfortune of engaging in what soldiers have. Noir itself, in more ways than one, often tackles the issues of American society in the waning years of the Second World War and the decade that followed. The cynicism, bitterness, sadness, and frustration that actually existed in society overshadowed many people’s views of what fabled America was like. The real, darker world settled in and noir presented as an exaggerated (and in some respects not so exaggerated) cinematic translation of the resulting anxieties. The Chase is a more literal version in that its protagonist is actually suffering from postwar trauma, all the while offering an unreliable dreamlike evolution of its story. Sadly, the climax is disappointing if only because Chuck suddenly becomes a far more passive character, a strange decision considering how active he was leading up until then.

Faulty climax notwithstanding, The Chase is a very adventurous effort from director Arthur Ripley. It is next to impossible to guess what comes next. The thrill of the unexpected is almost enough to carry the film all the way through on its own, but that would be taking credit away from the fine cast and the effective tension the director builds throughout. Even compared to some of the wilder noir entries, The Chase is definitely a unique specimen.

Edgar Chaput

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Netflix’s ‘Enola Holmes’ is Neither Afoot of Her Older Brother or Her Own Genre

It is neither brilliant nor absolutely rotten, but it is rubbish, to say the least. Enola’s first outing is not afoot of her older brother’s lineup of thrilling interpretations or the film’s broad genre in any way…

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Netflix Enola Holmes

Netflix’s Enola Holmes Review

Despite what you may have already heard, the game is not quite afoot with this one. Netflix’s Enola Holmes is the streaming giant’s latest mystery film based on Nancy Springer’s series of young adult fiction novels starring the younger sister of London’s finest consulting detective Sherlock Holmes- more specifically The Case of the Missing Marquess, the first book in the author’s franchise. For those expecting a mind-bending mystery comparable to BBC’s excellent Sherlock or the exciting Robert Downey Jr. films, you best grab a cabbie and leave before touching this one. Enola Holmes will without a doubt be a fun family film for kids captivated by its promising cast of actors, but any true crime solver will be scurrying from the scene faster than you can say “The Hounds of Baskerville” by the time the second act even hits.

Enola Holmes seems to initially build towards the story of the title character finding her missing mother after she seemingly disappears one morning, but in reality, this story quickly takes a hard turn after its introduction. It manages to become a tale of conquering a characteristic the title character’s name spells backward (alone) all while untangling another family conspiracy that is beyond anticlimactic. There is certainly a mystery to be solved within this flick, but not one you are expecting to find on the surface as Enola Holmes has no idea where exactly its focus should lie. It is constantly jumping between ideas and never manages to find a footing until the third act is in session. Millie Bobby Brown is arguably the main reason Netflix audiences will be flooding to see Enola Holmes and they certainly will not be disappointed by the young Stranger Things actor’s witty performance. However, it might as well be the only aspect worth sitting through in this disrespectful misfortune of an adaptation.

While the actor is certainly flaunting her accent and enjoying her eighteenth-century mishaps, it is just a shame Brown did not get a stronger script to work with. Enola is spunky and clever, but acts like a Deadpool or more so Harley Quinn as she constantly communicates with the audience through wall-breaks- a creative choice that is never properly utilized and results in the movie having to close on an odd note that does not properly bookend the character’s story. The character has no compelling flaws or established reasons as to why her quest is supposed to come off as a challenge for her. Outside of Enola and the young Marquess heir she encounters, the only other interesting talent holding up this story that is worthy of a mention is of course Sherlock Holmes, but he rarely ever appears in the movie or has any importance.

Henry Cavil plays a great Sherlock Holmes except he never receives any moments to truly shine by showing off his masterclass detective skills everyone is constantly on about during the whole film’s two-hour runtime. In fact, by the end of the movie, the character somewhat falls off the high horse as what honestly seems like a simple case flies overtime for him- somehow young Enola can outsmart a veteran Sherlock Holmes? While I am glad they kept Sherlock out of the spotlight as the focus should be on his younger sister, it is hard not to acknowledge the genius consulting detective audiences are accustomed to is just not as quick or clever as he should be. As for the other mainstay characters, Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) plays a key role yet there is nothing striking to say about Sherlock’s brother who only appears to really throw a wrench into Enola’s plans and generally is portrayed as an idiot rather than the arrogant mastermind that he is supposed to be.

It may seem packed with problems so far- especially when it comes to keeping up with or respecting the source material, but the largest issue Enola Holmes helms is the way in which its mystery unfolds and how it unsuccessfully incorporates its forced theme. In comparison to previous on-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes- or even the Enola Holmes novels for that matter if you are the type of reader so keen on not comparing the two characters- the mystery being explored lacks much depth or development from beginning to end. Sure it builds upon the character of Enola in tons of great ways as it shows off her personality and skills adopted from her childhood, but it never truly does what a good mystery story is out to accomplish. Here we have two different stories intertwining, the search for Enola’s mother and the whereabouts of her male friend.

Both are without a doubt compelling ideas except for the fact that the latter abruptly becomes the focus at around the halfway point for what is seemingly going to be a few minutes but ends up being the entire film. On top of this, we have a consistent theme being thrown around that “girls can do anything” which is completely fine, except for the fact that its female lead is, as previously stated, practically flawless and is often played out as superior to everyone else by one-upping her older brothers or being better than the pretty boy who has little character development. The movie takes place during the perfect time period to use feminism as a theme and while it does mention the world’s current politics multiple times it never actually draws a focus towards those enticing problems. The film leaps over so many possible compelling character points and plotlines as it treads around a mystery that is not all that much of an enigma.

Without taking into account the other various pieces of Sherlock Holmes media available- including BBC’s terrific modern take on the franchise which is streaming on the same platform, Enola Holmes is a substandard film that younger audiences will likely more so enjoy than the older folks accustomed to London’s greatest detective. For those completely unaware of the lore behind Sherlock Holmes and are here for the recognizable actors being marketed at the forefront, the cast will without a doubt help end your viewing party on a less than sour note as Brown provides one of her best performances yet in a somewhat fun though messy detective flick. It is neither brilliant nor absolutely rotten, but it is rubbish, to say the least. Enola’s first outing is not afoot of her older brother’s lineup of thrilling interpretations or the film’s broad genre in any way.

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Shaw Bros. Spotlight

‘The Boxer from Shantung’ Does Not Aim High Enough

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The Boxer from Shantung

Anyone who has seen just a few Shaw martial arts films has noticed a trend: all of the stories transpire centuries ago, during the era of the many Chinese dynasties. The beautiful costumes, the intricate set designs, the legendary figures upon which writers and directors can find inspiration, the admiration of tactical warfare during the times, all of these and much more are reasons why the studio chose to set its stories in the distant past. As with all rules, there are exceptions. Just as not every single Shaw film is martial arts-based, not everyone is a period piece either. This week, the column takes a look at yet another Chang Cheh picture, The Boxer From Shantung, although this one is set in the 20th century in the city of Shanghai.

Ma Yung Chen (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Hsiao Chiang Pei (Cheng Kang-Yeh) are two friends working blue-collar shifts making water pipes for the city of Shanghai. The pay is as small as their landlord’s attitude is deplorable. While Chiang Pei is a rather fun-loving character, honest, friendly, uninterested in creating mischief, Yung Chen is cut from an altogether different cloth. His desire to leave their lifestyle far behind is far more ferocious. Determined to make a name for himself and his friends, along with earning tons of cash, Yung Chen’s rambunctious attitude almost gets him in deep trouble when stumbling upon the evil doings of a local mob, ‘The Four Champions’, whose leader, Boss Yang (Chiang Nan), does not take kindly to intruders. Lucky for Yung Chen, he knows a near-impenetrable style of boxing studied back home in Shantung. The volatile and cocky young man beats the living daylights out en entire hoard of Yang’ men. On that same day, he earns the favourable opinion of another, more benevolent boss, Tan Si (Chang Cheh regular David Chiang). With plenty of friends to help him out and a powerful, newly found ally in Boss Tan Si, Ying Chen makes his way up in the world as an enforcer, a protector, and finally a boss.

The Boxer from Shantung

The Boxer from Shantung may appear as a unique experience for its setting but said uniqueness is mostly a deception. Yes, a tale of gangsters in a much more modern setting does make for a fresh change of pace. The greater truth of the matter is that the screenwriter and directors (two principle directors for a single film being a first so far as this column is concerned) emulate the exact type of story familiar to fans of gangster flicks. Boxer is, at its core, a ‘rise and fall’ story, with the central character, the charismatic Yung Chen, works his way through the concrete jungle of gang warfare amongst heated rivals in order to make a living for himself, as well as gain increasing wealth and influence over local businesses and prominent individuals. Hence, the general story arc reserves few surprises for the audience, following the genre’s blueprints to near perfection, which is a bit of a shame given that one hopes that with an entirely new setting would liberate the filmmakers from the some of the tropes. Instead, they opt to follow the predictable plot points beat for beat, with only precious little signs of deviation, one example being the development of the love angle. There are not too many false notes per se, but the lack of chances taken is unfortunate.

The Boxer from Shantung somehow goes for something new, yet lacks originality…

It is a little strange to be watching a Chang Cheh (partially) directed film which features David Chiang playing only a supporting role. Chiang is a loveable type of actor, who can win an audience thanks to his easy charm and wit, and therefore the actor taking center stage has some rather big shoes to fill. In the case of Boxer, that actor is Chen Kuan-Tai, who fills is a perfect fit for said shoes, bringing his own brand of energy to the fold. It is always reassuring to see young, up and coming actors bring the best they have to offer right off the bat. Chen Kuan-Tai is definitely the sort of performer who adds barrels of life to a scene. It helps that the character he plays is cocky, street smart, ambitious, and remarkably gifted in the martial arts of his home province. It may be guessed that since the script treks a familiar path, the film could be used as a vehicle of sorts for young Chen Kuan-Tai. It does not necessarily make the film better, but the film’s star is now someone readers may want to peel their eyes for from now on. A little bit of credit should be shared with his co-star, Cheng Kang-Yeh. While he does play the supporting role, serving mostly as comic relief more than anything else, the performance is a fun one, if a little bit on the cheesy side.

The Boxer from Shantung

The necessity for not one but two directors is one to cause perplexity. As has already been written in this review, the story is easy to follow due to its familiarity, therefore causing one to wonder how exactly Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh Lieh collaborated on the project. There are few tonal inconsistencies and it is fair to wonder if their dual participation has anything to do with it. Some scenes are filled to the brim with energy and spunk, whereas others fall incredibly flat, lacking any momentum whatsoever. Oddly enough, the scene introducing David Chiang’s mob boss character is one such scene, in which he playfully taunts Ma Yung Chen, who at that point is just a nobody in the underworld, wandering the streets looking for a job opportunity. The scene is abnormally long, with each subsequent character reaction delayed for some unexplained reason, not to mention that there is no music, thus making it seem all the more hollow. This happens on a few occasions throughout the film and every time it plays out very strangely.

The action, when it erupts, is not of the most imaginative variety (nor is star Chen Kuan-Tai the most impressive fighter, moving a little bit slowly all things considered, even though he does give it is all), but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in scale. Almost every single action scene involves the protagonist, sided with perhaps a couple of allies, fending off armies of Boss Yang’s men, many of whom enjoy attacking with little hatchets. These brawls en up being rather fun romps, wit plenty of bodies running, flipping, and falling all over the place. The best is saved for last, as Chen Kuan-Tai finds himself all alone against Yang, his strongest enforcers, and tons of other hoodlums inside a tea shop, fighting on both the second and first floors. To top it off, he receives a hatchet to the stomach, but of course, refuses to back down and takes out as many villains as he can anyhow.

There are a few significant opportunities that are lost in Boxer. Providing the film which a context so vastly different from the majority of other Shaw productions, in addition to favouring a lesser-known actor in the lead role with the more accomplished ones serving the secondary participation brought with it plenty of potential. Admittedly, upon learning that Chang Cheh had in fact directed a more contemporary action film, this martial arts fan’s curiosity was very much aroused. Ultimately, it gets the job done, which still means something at the very least. It is a competently made production. The problem is that it does not aim high enough.

-Edgar Chaput

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