Sunday, August 9, 2020

Three middling-cheap DVDs

One day last week, I was hoping to find some cheapo ($3.78 to $5) movies that would interest me in the DVD bins at Walmart. However, all of the "newish" titles that I did find intriguing were on a rack of films priced in the $10 to $13 range. I actually told the store employee who was stocking the rack nearby that I thought they were movies that should have been in the bargain bin – titles I had never heard of, probably made for TV or direct to video, with this one exception at the top. Because they were twice as expensive as what I wanted to pay for them, I only bought half of the ones that kind of interested me. And so, here they are.

Enter the Fat Dragon, whose title (of course) is a riff on the Bruce Willis classic Enter the Dragon, features Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen as a sad-sack cop who can only seem to catch bad guys at the cost of demolishing an entire neighborhood and bringing embarrassment to the department. In the opening sequence, for example, he stops at a bank while wearing his wedding tuxedo en route to a pre-wedding photo shoot with his fiancee, only to get caught up in an armed robbery caper. His plan is to snatch a toy truck out of a nearby child's fist, use it to disable one of the robbers and take control of the situation. The reality is, the kid refuses to let go of the toy, the child and its mother raise a ruckus drawing attention to the cop (improbably named Fallon), and all hell breaks loose. As a direct result of this stumble, the bank gets blown up and Fallon finds himself fighting a martial arts melee in the back of the getaway vehicle, which was hijacked from another cop. The entire, ridiculous fight plays out right in front of the lenses of TV journalists – in fact, their cameras become weapons at some point – and it all ends with the van plunging through the front entrance of the police precinct and stopping inches short of crushing the police chief.

As a reward for catching the robbers, the cop whose van was hijacked – and who was of pretty much zero use in the fight – gets a big promotion, while Fallon, naturally, is busted down to evidence room clerk. Everybody takes it out of him for being too heroic, working overtime (and forcing other officers to do likewise) trying to "stop the world turning," like Superman. Even his fiancee (a struggling actress named Chloe) dumps him, in what must be one of the most exquisite man-vs.-woman argument scenes in film history, illustrating the vast difference between their thought processes. Baffled, depressed, Fallon spends the next six months eating vending-machine junk and putting on 105 pounds. Then, to put him on the way to redeeming himself, his friend – the one who got promoted over him – sends him to Tokyo with a Japanese pornographer who is being extradited back to his homeland. To cut this synopsis short, I'll just say he quickly loses control of what is supposed to be an easy assignment. The prisoner gets away, then turns up dead. The Tokyo police prove to be totally corrupt, the language barrier difficult to cope with, the Hong Kong expat neighborhood he's staying in cowed by organized crime, and Chloe, still beautiful, somehow mixed up in it. Even though she still professes not to want to be with a guy who thinks he's got to stop the world, she definitely needs saving before it's all over.

So, it's a martial arts comedy full of laughs and brilliant fight scenes, often both combined. It features a variety of zany characters, makes full use of a set designed to allow movement in all three dimensions, pulls off hysterical and sometimes breathtaking stunts, and explores some juicy emotional and moral-ethical issues. Also, the fact that the dialogue switches between Cantonese, Japanese and Engrish (not to mention a Japanese boss villain, with pop-star good looks, who speaks English with a flawless American accent) isn't a big deal, because having to read the subtitles gives you an excuse to rewind and watch the fast-paced action again, and appreciate the hilarious dialogue as well.

Yen, as Fallon, has a highly mobile face, and I think he could be a really good actor and comedian. The fat suit makes the whole movie a running joke about a fitness freak, Bruce Lee wannabe who lets himself go for a while, before he is forced to prove that he's still got it. And to be fair, the joke kind of works. The drawback of putting Yen under prosthetics to appear 105 pounds heavier than he really is, is simply that it covers up that expressive face. He still manages to say a lot with his eyes, but I missed some of the communicative power of his real-life mug (glimpsed only during the opening sequence) throughout the remainder of the movie.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Of course, the opening chase/fight sequence, in which Yen and the bank robbers cut a swath of destruction across Hong Kong. (2) The street fight where Fallon and friends have to keep a piece of incriminating evidence out of the bad guys' hands. (3) The scene in which the boss bad guy extorts a signature out of his "grandfather" (?), then kills him. The guy's whoop of exhilaration is, at the same time, thrilling and disturbing. He's obviously a psychopath, and when Chloe has the bad luck to walk on this moment of sick triumph, she is suddenly in the kind of danger that brings out the would-be superhero in her ex-fiance.

So, it's a pretty entertaining movie, and shows all the signs of being a generously budgeted theatrical feature – with just a couple of exceptions. One thing that "un-made" it for me is the scene where a dog attacks Fallon's friend Thor in a suspect's apartment. The dog is so obviously fake that even very clever editing doesn't save the scene from looking like a cheap shortcut.

Speaking of cheap shortcuts, A Killer Next Door – based on the real-life hunt for murderer and fugitive John List, which came to a head when the case was featured on the TV program America's Most Wanted – has the distinct look of a made-for-TV movie or maybe even a student film. In spite of the middling to poor acting (except for a couple of cast members), Welsh-born producer-writer-director-editor Andrew Jones' wholly uninspired camerawork and the strange fact that the movie had to change the name of the TV program and its host, it's actually a pretty effective little thriller with a couple scenes of absolutely stifling suspense.

The movie focuses on a girl, kept at home by a broken leg, who does the whole James-Stewart-in-Rear Window thing (with binoculars) and recognizes the up-tight, churchgoing guy next door as a killer who has eluded capture for 18 years after murdering his mother, wife and three children. Unfortunately, the hero girl is played by an actress who brought nothing interesting to the role. I do, however, want to give a couple cast members credit for actually putting some good work into this picture. Playing the girl's father is one Patrick O'Donnell, who emoted almost to the point of overacting, but whose full commitment to the part elevates the picture as a whole and is actually quite touching. Then there's the girl's boyfriend, played by Derek Nelson, who has a candid and expressive face and a good-natured energy that lightens the atmosphere nicely. The killer, played by William Meredith, is definitely spooky in an understated way, although the director might have gotten that performance simply by asking his actor to do less; and his cowed but unsuspecting new wife (who, in real life, survived to get a divorce when the law caught up) gets a sympathetic treatment from Tessa Wood. Other than that, the cast generally fails to draw my attention away from the cheap and repetitive background imagery.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Where the boyfriend, Danny, breaks into the killer's house after List and his wife leave for church. Naturally, he then has to hide under a desk when List makes a surprise entrance. I actually had to watch this scene on fast-forward because the suspense was killing me. Later (let's call it an extension of this scene) List surprises Danny in his car and puts the frighteners on him – providing an opportunity for Nelson to do some of the best acting in the movie, as he lets out the breath he's been holding the whole time List was in his car. (2) The host of the TV show (described in the script as John Wesley although we all know he's really John Walsh) tells the detective about his experience losing a son and how that led him to devote his life to catching fugitives. (3) List browbeats his wife for wearing a too-form-fitting dress; I thought she was done for right then and there. Bonus moment: The dad's reaction when he sees the age-progressed bust of List on the TV show ("Holy ****!")

While this movie had some successful moments in it, I don't think it succeeds overall. It could have made more of a virtue of being an independent film by doing something daring or original with the material, but it didn't. In fact, it seemed somehow to have had a certain amount of vitality bled out of it, in spite of the sensational underlying material. I definitely felt that I got a bad deal, paying non-bargain-basement prices for a bargain-basement movie.

Survive the Night is a film headlined by Chad Michael Murray and Bruce Willis that somehow I'd never heard of before it appeared on the Walmart DVD rack. They play a disgraced doctor and his retired sheriff dad whose family is threatened when two brothers, fleeing from a convenience store robbery turned shootout, invade their home in the middle of the night and demand medical treatment for a serious gunshot wound. Funnily enough, several of the cast members are known for roles in 2018's Gotti – including Lydia Hull as Murray's wife, Tyler Jon Olson as the wounded brother, and Shea Buckner as the one who does all the killing and just won't stop, in spite of his brother's efforts to restrain him.

It's obvious from the get-go that everyone on at least one side of this duel between families is going to die. The lengths Murray, Willis and Hull go to in hope that they will "survive the night" are the makings of an explosive, yet at the same time somewhat claustrophobic, thriller. Surviving this together also seems to be the key to solving all their family issues. Funny how that works out.

Full marks go to Olson and Buckner for delivering emotionally powerful performances, almost making their characters sympathetic in spite of their (especially "Jamie's") criminal insanity. In fact, the two top-billed stars only manage to keep up by seeing their characters convincingly, and painfully, injured – Willis by being stabbed, Murray by being shot. Murray's character actually earns a lot of respect from his dad in one scene where he performs surgery on himself. That had to hurt.

So, I'm pretty satisfied with this movie. It ticks off all the usual, expected boxes and added a few I didn't expect to find on the checklist – like that moment of classical catharsis, before Murray shoots Buckner dead, when your heart goes out to the guy. It's kind of, secretly, a Greek tragedy. What do you think of that?

I've already given up two of the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Murray sewing up his own bullet wound and (2) Buckner's death scene (sorry, spoilers). For (3) I think it would have to be the one where Rachel, the wife of Willis' character, is cuddling him in bed and jokes to the effect, "You'd be lost without me," after which very promptly she becomes the next fatality in the fugitives' rolling rampage. With so much of the movie taking place in and around one house, and all of it within about 24 hours – not quite observing the Aristotelian unities – along with the effective use of a pretty small cast – there is something of the stage about this film, but it doesn't feel stagy. It feels like a movie that might have knocked audiences' socks off, if it hadn't been released during COVID-19.

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