If I had to pick one person who is the most prominent figure in anime film today is would almost certainly be Hayao Miyazaki. Dude has been in and out of retirement and hasn’t made a film in almost a decade, but he’s not dead yet and as long as he’s alive he’ll probably be the preeminent master of the form. If I were asked to name the second most important person in anime film today there might be a bit more competition for that slot but (given that Satoshi Kon and Isao Takahata have passed away) it would probably be Makoto Shinkai, who doesn’t have a particularly long filmography but whose last couple of movies have been such runaway hits that he’s impossible to ignore. Now if I were asked to name the third most important voice in anime film today it would be our subject of the day Mamoru Hosoda. Hosoda has never quite had a huge crossover hit to break him into the consciousness of people like me who tend only to dabble in anime without becoming a real otaku, but he’s had five straight movies that have been considered successes amongst those who’ve been paying attention, culminating in an Oscar nomination for his last film: Mirai.
Hosoda was rather famously inspired to become an animator by Miyazaki’s work but couldn’t land a job at Ghibli and instead worked his way up at Toei Animation making rather commercial films like Digimon: The Movie. He then got a second chance to work at Ghibli as he was hired to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but he had to drop out of that over “creative differences” and it would eventually be directed by Miyazaki himself. Hosoda landed on his feet though as he was hired by Madhouse Animation, a company which is less of a boutique production company like Ghibli and more of a large studio that puts out a lot of anime for the more conventional fans of the form. It was Satoshi Kon’s home for most of his career and it was where Hosoda found his voice. In 2006 he put out the film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which I rather casually watched years ago not knowing it came from a pretty big name in anime and I haven’t yet seen any of his other films, so I decided the time was right to quickly catch up on the four films he’s made since then in a little crash course.
Summer Wars (2009)
Mamoru Hosoda’s first film after the release of The Girl Who Fell Through Time was called Summer Wars, which was also a sort light science fiction work. The film is set in a sort of near future which is more or less just like the contemporary world except that everything is connected by a sort of super-internet called OZ which does all the typical online networking but also has a sort of Virtual Reality component where character avatars interact. This network ends up going haywire right as out protagonist Kenji Koiso, a seventeen year old awkward high school student, is escorting a friend named Natsuki to her grandmother’s 90th birthday where she plans to blindside him by introducing him as her fiancé to her grandmother in some elaborate scheme to comfort her in her old age. Little does Kenji know that a math problem he solved in an email chain letter the night before had inadvertently released a hostile A.I. into OZ and this is shutting down the system and causing all sorts of chaos in the real world as everything in this world seems to be connected to that system.
As a science fiction concept “OZ” kind of resembles other visualized computer motifs like we would see in movies like Tron, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Ready Player One. However, it’s a little less clear what purpose “OZ” serves in this society. It isn’t accessed through some sort of neuro-interface or goggles, it just plays on regular computer screens and can apparently also be accessed through other devices like the Nintendo DS, and it isn’t clear what purpose the whole visual interface with avatars actually provides to the users. It’s probably best just to think of it as being the regular internet, but in one contained system, and to view the VR elements as simply a device to allow the battles with the A.I. to be these animated visual extravaganzas rather than sequences of people blandly typing code on a computer screen. Despite that bit of confusion I do think there are some pretty prescient ideas here. Facebook was barely a thing when this was first being made and yet it managed to predict a world where everyone was being connected in a central online social gathering place, and its more outlandish theme of a rogue A.I. being accidentally unleashed by the U.S. Military eerily predicted the Stuxnet incident in which a virus used to launch a cyberattack on Iran but then ended up spreading far beyond that.
This is not, however, really meant to be a heady work of science fiction and is in many ways more of a comedy about this dude who has to awkwardly interact with this girl’s eccentric family while all this stressful stuff is going on. Hosoda populates this country home with a bunch of colorful characters like uncles obsessed with the family’s ancient history and moody thirteen year old hackers and you do enjoy watching these people get plunged in the middle of an incident that’s bigger than themselves. Most of the film’s animation is pretty typical anime stuff and the movie isn’t above using some of the form’s more outlandish conventions like characters nose bleeding with embarrassment or taking on exaggerated facial expressions when angered. The exception to this are the scenes in the OZ VR, which are a hybrid between anime and CGI and make extensive use of negative space as they have all white backgrounds. It’s a fun movie, but not a weightless one and when that A.I. starts causing some serious chaos towards the end you are legitimately on the edge of your seat hoping the characters manage to overcome it and the film finds some really clever ways to let a lot of the various family members take part in that finale.
***1/2 out of Five
Wolf Children (2012)
After having made two straight successful films for Madhouse Pictures, Mamoru Hosoda sought to make his own animation studio: Studio Chizu. His first film for his new studio (which he made in collaboration with Madhouse) was a strange but enticing little movie called Wolf Children, which manages to take a rather outlandish concept and make it feel oddly touching. The film is a sort of modern fable about a young woman who meets a guy at college who turns out to be a straight-up werewolf, but like, a nice werewolf. Unlike your traditional werewolf this guy is free to transform or not transform at will, doesn’t have any desire to eat people in either form, and inherited his condition at birth rather than having been bitten or anything like that. Anyway, the two fall in love and start boning and the next thing you know they have two children who are also werewolves… then the father dies and the woman is left to raise this two wolf children despite having limited knowledge of what doing that entails and she ventures out to live in the country in order to give them some privacy and also give them some access to the wild.
So, that’s pretty weird, and there are definitely some cringey ways all that could go. The semi-bestiality inherent in this story is kind of a lot to ask an audience to just roll with, but the film mostly handles that pretty tastefully. The couple’s love making is mostly offscreen and PG rated, and the film also avoids going too far down the Twilight road of making this into a paranormal romance as that element is mostly confined to the first fifteen minutes of the movie and is largely a means to an end. The real focus here is on this woman’s experience as a single mother of these strange kids and as weird as the concept is Hosoda does a good job of easing the audience into it and making things feel natural on screen. The children themselves rather fluidly transform into their wolf forms in a way that feels true to child-like impulses and the animation manages to make these wolf forms cute while still animal-like rather than cartoonish. More importantly the film does a great job of establishing the mother as well as the kids as real characters with distinct personalities that evolve naturally over the course of several years. That might sound like a fairly basic thing to be praising and yet it’s something you don’t expect from every anime or from every film in general all too often.
It’s easy to look at Wolf Children and try to see it as an allegory for… something, though I’m not sure exactly what. One could perhaps see it as analogous to the push and pull of mixed race/ethnicity/nationality children “caught between worlds” but that doesn’t connect entirely as the “we must hide from the world” element of the story doesn’t exactly fit with that, nor do the mother’s struggles to get basic information about how to raise these wolf children. Instead I think this works better as a statement about parenting in general in the way it just sort of turns the dial up on the typical frustrations encountered in raising children like chasing after them as they run wild and then finding ways to accommodate said children as they grow in different directions. I haven’t had the easiest time finding biographical information about Hosoda but it does not appear to have had a single mother himself and was an only child (and presumably not a werewolf) but he grew up in a town not unlike the one in the film and there does still appear to be something fairly personal about the film to him and you can tell that he put a lot of work into making this scenario really make sense despite the supernatural trappings that could be initially offputting.
**** out of Five
The Boy and the Beast (2015)
Two films into my exploration of Mamoru Hosoda’s films and it’s become abundantly clear that family (in its many forms) is a predominant theme within his work. Summer Wars was extremely interested in the dynamic within the wacky extended family at its center and Wolf Children was all about this unconventional single parent/mixed species family trying to “make it.” If Wolf Children was Hosoda’s ode to motherhood, his next film The Boy and the Beast is his exploration of the dynamic between fathers and sons. The film concerns a kid who becomes an orphan early on and his general anger at this situation leads him to stumble into a secret world that exists parallel to our own that is populated by these half-human half-animal beings. This “beast kingdom” is in flux as the area monarch will soon be ascending to the status of a god, which means that in the next few years he will be selecting a successor who will either be the popular goat person Iōzen or the gruff and impulsive bear person Kumatetsu. Shortly after the boy arrives Kumatetsu rather impulsively decides to take him in as his apprentice, which much of his animal compatriots find rather scandalous because it’s believed that darkness exists at the center of humans which can consume them. Despite this leap of faith the relationship between the boy and the beast is rocky, but one both of them will come to eventually appreciate.
There’s kind of a lot going on in the world of this film, probably too much. Where Wolf Children only had one supernatural conceit you had to buy into, this movie needs you to rather quickly get on board with the idea of the “Beast World,” the whole wacky succession battle, and also the dark soul at the center of humans as well as some rather odd interpersonal dynamics between various characters. I’m still not entirely clear on why exactly Kumatetsu decided to bring this human boy in as his apprentice (despite the protests of everyone around him) only to then almost immediately teat him with such indifference. I get that that’s sort of meant as a metaphor for fathers bringing children into the world only to then act coldly towards them and butt heads as they reach adolescence, but it just seems odd when it happens this quickly. It’s also not very clear to me how this whole “darkness in humans” thing is supposed to work. It seemed like a logical turn of phrase early in the film when it seemed like it was just supposed to be a metaphor (albeit an oddly judgmental one given that the animals seem to act and speak just like humans with all the same flaws and foibles), but then it has two human characters literally display dark souls within them and gain telepathic powers that continue to work outside of the Beast Kingdom. Could any person potentially gain these powers? Or is proximity to the Beast World what causes it? I don’t get it.
I also don’t get what the hell is going on with the film’s eventual villain, an adopted son of Iōzen who you can tell on first sight is very obviously a human child who is just wearing some sort of animal looking stocking cap rather than an actual animal person, and yet everyone (including our human protagonist) is somehow fooled by this completely half assed disguise and are shocked when he proves to be a human. But in many ways the messiness of the movie is a byproduct of Hosoda’s clear passion for the story he’s telling and a lot of it hangs together better than it probably should. The film’s human protagonist isn’t wildly complex but he is compelling and his arc goes in some directions you don’t entirely expect. The fantasy details are all over the place but at its heart there are some pretty real emotional material about familial conflict both between the boy and his surrogate father and about his reaction to his kind of messed up human life. It certainly doesn’t ring as true as Hosoda’s other movies but you can clearly see what he’s going for and respect the aspects that work.
*** out of Five
I’ve said a lot of positive things about the animation branch of the Academy Awards over the years; for whatever faults they have they are consistently more adventurous and willing to think outside the box than most other branches of that organization. However, for all their willingness to reward unheralded arthouse movies distributed by Gkids, one thing that branch is consistently terrible at is rewarding Japanese animation from companies other than Ghibli. Satoshi Kon never competed in the category despite being a clear master of the form and Makoto Shinkai never broke in despite having made international blockbusters. To date only one non-Ghibli anime film has ever been nominated in that category and that was just two years ago when Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film Mirai competed in the 2018 Academy Awards, eventually losing to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Why was it that film and not any number of other worthy non-Ghibli anime films, including some of Hosoda’s, that broke through? Well, the fact that it was being distributed stateside by Gkids instead of Funimation probably had something to do with it. But on top of that the film is notably a bit less “adult” and also a bit less “teen angsty” than a lot of mainstream anime and that makes it a bit more in line with what that branch tends to be interested in.
The film is in many ways an extension of Hosoda’s interest in family. Having already made a movie about motherhood and fatherhood he’s now making a movie that’s largely about siblinghood. That was of course a sub-theme of Wolf Children but the point of view is a bit more direct. The film is actually told from the perspective of a very young child of about four years old named Kun and contains flights of fancy that could be interpreted as this kid’s imagination or could be genuinely supernatural or could be a mix of both. “Mirai” means “future” but in this case it’s also a proper noun, it’s the name of a newborn baby sister who is brought home for the first time, much to despair of Kun, who is not like the amount of attention this kid is taking away from him. Kun is actually quite the brat in the way that most kids that age are and the movie does not shy away from this or try to sanitize some of his more psychotically immature thoughts and actions. Much of the film is told from his perspective but not exclusively and it does get out of his head long enough from time to time to give the viewer some idea of what his parents and their middle class life is like and put a lot of what’s going on in perspective. At times this kid and his behavior are like something straight out of a condom commercial and the film doesn’t get too caught up in sentimentalizing all of this although I do think it’s ultimately coming from a place of viewing the raising of children and their coming of age in a positive light.
Kun’s fantasy sequences revolve around certain motifs, like when he imagines his dog personified as a sort of renaissance lord or when visions of his great grandfather shows up to encourage him in learning to ride his bike. Then there’s the vision that’s probably most central to the film, namely when Kun’s younger sister seemingly arrives before him as a teenager from the future (giving the title a double meaning) and another scene where and older version of Kun himself appears to arrive before him to offer guidance. These don’t exactly seem like the kind of things a child would exactly imagine for himself (the appearance by a great grandfather he never met in particular) so there is some suggestion that some of this might be some actual time travel shenanigans, but a lot of it most certainly isn’t and seems more like an abstract psychological vision. So that’s all a bit muddy, maybe it’s meant as a sort of lateralization of Shinto ancestor veneration? I’m not sure, ultimately this is a movie where I’m a bit more intrigued with what it’s trying to do than what it maybe actually does and what its arc is.
***1/2 out of Five
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Mamoru Hosoda but I’m mostly impressed with what I got. Hosoda is definitely an auteur and his favorite themes and sensibilities are pretty plain to see when you watch his movies in succession (family, both conventional and unconventional, and the relationship between man and nature). I will say that I probably liked the first two movies I looked at (Summer Wars and Wolf Children) more than I liked the second two (The Boy and the Beast and Mirai) but all four were solid movies. The guy is very clearly a force to be reckoned with in anime and I regret having overlooked his work as long as I did.
Warning: Review contains what could be considered spoilers.
I’ve gotten something like five months into the COVID-19 pandemic without cheating too much on my convictions of only giving full reviews to movies made for theaters but I’ve been slowly chipping away at that standard and don’t know what to think about that. I first made an exception for Bacurau because it did play in NY/LA and had a planned expansion and ultimately played on a service which gave money to theaters. Then I made an exception for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Blood, which never officially played in a theater anywhere but I suspect it would have if the world wasn’t mired in shit and, frankly, it’s a Spike Lee movie and I wasn’t missing out on a major release from that guy. The latest movie I’m twisting my rules for is the Andy Samberg starring comedy Palm Springs, a movie that isn’t from a major auteur like Spike Lee and which isn’t being released in a way that’s meant to benefit any theaters. So what’s my excuse this time? Well, there was intended to be a theatrical release from the movie. When it was picked up at Sundance for a record setting $17.5 million and sixty nine cents (nice) it was meant to be a joint release by Neon (who would handle the theatrical end) and Hulu (who would hold streaming rights afterwards) and that is exactly the kind of release schedule I would like to encourage in the industry, but of course that theatrical release was derailed by COVID (though I have been told it did play in some drive-ins, not near me though) and for my purposes it was released straight to Hulu, which is where I saw it.
Palm Springs is a movie that almost impossible to describe efficiently without invoking the movie Groundhog Day as it is another movie that uses that film’s high concept. It’s about someone named Nyles (Andy Samberg) who is living the same day over and over again, but the twist is that the film starts long after he’s already been living this day over and over again: he wakes up with his not terribly bright girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) in the Palm Springs home they are staying in for purposes of attending a fairly mundane wedding that evening where Misty will be the Bridesmaid. We don’t immediately know about the time-loop thing until late in the evening when Nyles starts hitting on the bride’s sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) only to suddenly and inexplicably be attacked by a nutty guy named Roy (J. K. Simmons) and tries to escape by crawling into a glowing cave nearby and warns Sarah not to follow him but she does anyway and suddenly wakes up the previous morning and is now living in the same single day time loop that Nyles has been stuck in and comes to learn that that Roy guy has also been stuck in it. From there we go into an exploration of a life without consequences and what it would be like to share that kind of life with other people.
I was pretty skeptical going into Palm Springs in large part because this whole “time loop” concept has kind of been done to death, especially as of late, and I’d generally like Hollywood to give it a rest. It’s been applied to action movies (Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow), horror movies (Happy Death Day), video games (Outer Wilds), tons of one off TV episodes and the idea of applying it to a comedy seems particularly blasphemous considering that the movie that kicked this whole trend off was itself a comedy: Groundhog’s Day. However, I do think the film was ultimately able to overcome my doubts, in part because having more than one person in on the time loop does shake things up a little and in part because Andy Samberg just generally has a different, younger, and more R-rated sense of humor than Bill Murray does. Samberg is an actor who has always intrigued me going back to his early days on “Saturday Night Live.” He had kind of a fratty aura, but always seemed to manage to stay on the right side of cringey, even when he was charting such perilous waters as his highly Caucasian comedy rapping with The Lonely Island. He’s also managed to age up his comedic persona pretty well on his sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The one thing he hasn’t really managed is a successful movie career. He made two movies with his Lonely Island compatriots (Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) which have cult followings but which bombed at the box office. Those movies were both broad comedies in which he were maybe leaning to hard into that fratty side of his persona. Making a semi-indie comedy like this was probably a smart move for him as his usual persona fits well into the slightly immature character without going too far with it.
There are definitely some nits for me to pick about some of the time loop logic here including a couple things that could definitely be called plot holes… like why Nyles felt the need to crawl into the cave at the beginning and in doing so leading Sarah into his hell. However the film’s fun with its high concept that ultimately proves to be its biggest asset. I wouldn’t say its comedic elements alone really made the movie, in fact I didn’t laugh out loud at it all that often though that’s almost something that’s inherent in watching something like this at home rather than with a raucous crowd at a movie theater. Instead I mostly found myself fascinated with watching this dude go through his predicament in a sort of state of detached acceptance until he doesn’t. That combined with his dynamic with Cristin Milioti make the movie work and keeps you interested for the whole movie. I do wonder how I would have responded to this in a more normal film year but in this year where we have to fight for whatever scraps come to streaming I found this to be a real breath of fresh air that I’ve enjoyed a more than I have a new movie in months.
**** out of Five
This is the second part of a two-part piece, part one is available here
Unleashed (AKA Danny the Dog) is probably the English language Jet Li movie with the most critical credibility, and it’s also seemingly the English language film that Li is most proud of. In a 2008 interview he told Time Magazine that his personal philosopy was encompassed by three of his films: the first two were the Chinese language films Hero (“the suffering of one person can never be as significant as the suffering of a nation”) and Fearless (“the biggest enemy of a person is himself”) and the third was Unleashed and its apparent message that “violence is never a solution.” This was another film from the Luc Besson/EuropaCorp and would be a key early work for the Besson acolyte Louis Leterrier, who had worked second unit with Jason Statham on The Transporter and would go on to helm that film’s sequel as well as early MCU film The Incredible Hulk and other “not great” Hollywood productions like the Clash of the Titans remake and Now You See Me. Unleashed is certainly the most creative film on that director’s resume to date and it’s probably the closest out of any of his English language films that Jet Li came to really stretching his acting chops and doing something that would be considered unique of the usual action movie tropes.
The film has Li playing a mentally stunted man who has been raised from infancy to act as a cage fighter for a rather vile cockney gangster played by Bob Hoskins. He’s essentially been raised to have the intellect of a small child and obey his “master” who literally leashes him and keeps him in the basement. It’s not entirely clear if Li is supposed to actually have a mental handicap or if the implication is that his mental state is simply a byproduct of his having been raised in isolation by a sociopath from birth. Either way it’s a part that requires a bit more of Li than a lot of his other roles where sunglasses did a lot of the acting for him. As the film goes on it becomes clear that despite being used as a trained killer Danny is actually a sensitive soul who starts to question his way of being after a guy played by Morgan Freeman introduces him to piano music. The whole setup is a bit suspect; For one, I don’t think that’s actually how the human mind works, but secondly I doubt that this Hoskins character brought in a Kung Fu teacher to teach all these techniques to “Danny the Dog.” I have a hunch that this part was originally written with someone more along the lines of a large person who fights with brute force in mind rather than a smaller person who relies on advanced fighting techniques, but don’t think too hard about it.
So the film is really all kinds of nutty, but it has a certain conviction in its craziness. That they got Bob Hoskins (an actor who had a truly odd career) to be the villain here was an inspired “outside the box” choice and I think Leterrier intentionally tried to give the film a bit of a Guy Richie vibe in parts in order to match the “geezer” vibe that he gives off, although I’m not entirely sure the film is even set in London. There’s kind of a weird mix of tones that the movie is going for and it’s kind of messy but mostly remains compelling. There isn’t as much action here as there is in your average martial arts movie, and while the action that is here isn’t mind blowing it is mostly solid and works for the film. So the whole movie is kind of a tough one to call in terms of how good it actually is. It certainly feels more like a “real” movie than a lot of the rest of the schlock Hollywood threw Jet Li into during this era but that also kind of makes you want to hold it to a slightly higher standard, and in many ways it feels more “weird” (at least when compared to most commercial films) than “good,” and in a lot of ways it feels like a bit of a mess but an oddly sincere one. It seems to be trying to deliver a very strongly humanist message about breaking free from a dehumanizing system but delivers it in an incredibly blunt and silly way. Not a great movie certainly, but an interesting one in its own “nice try” kind of way.
*** out of Five
War was a movie that was advertised as an event: the movie that would bring together two of Hollywood’s biggest action star, Jet Li and Jason Statham, and have them go up against each other in a big battle royale. That the two had already co-starred to some extent in The One didn’t really stop them from taking this approach but it still sounded promising, but that whole framing is a bit misleading because Jet Li and Jason Statham have a lot less screen time together in this thing than you’d think from the poster. In fact the film’s screenplay, originally title’s “Rogue” (which is the Jet Li character’s codename), was not really meant to be a two hander so much as a pretty standard action movie about an FBI agent trying to get to the bottom of a series of murders by an assassin who seems to be sparking a gang war between Chinese Triads and Japanese Yakuza. In that sense this feels more like a fairly flavorless Jason Statham movie which Jet Li happens to be the villain (of sorts) in rather than the “The Transporter vs. Kiss of the Dragon” that we were sold.
The film was directed by Philip G. Atwell, a music video director who helmed a lot of the videos for Shady/Aftermath during the early 2000s including the videos to a lot of Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent’s most popular videos but aside from a Dr. Dre concert film this appears to be the only feature length film he ever made and he doesn’t seem to have had a single credit since 2007 and from my cursory online research I’m not sure what he’s done since. That’s odd because while War certainly doesn’t feel like it should have been a career killer, but it is pretty lackluster and generic. In fact it’s kind of the movie that I expected Cradle 2 the Grave to be: a humorless slog that’s trying too hard to be cool with “the kids,” and it sort of hits this uncanny valley where’s it’s too competent to be weird but not competent enough to be impressive. I really don’t have a whole lot to say about it, it doesn’t even have nearly as much actual martial arts in it as you would think given that it’s supposed to be a “war” between a martial arts expert and a guy who has done a reasonable job of pretending to be a martial arts expert in various films. It’s pretty forgettable.
** out of Five
The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
On August 27th 2004 Zhang Yimou’s film Hero got an American release after having sat on the shelf for two years while the Weinstein Company came up with ways to promote it and became a surprise hit despite being in Mandarin. This probably shouldn’t have been a huge shock given that the public was primed for such a wuxia film by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon four years earlier and it featured the major action star Jet Li, but still, it was almost unheard of for a foreign language film to debut at number one at the box office its opening weekend like that film did and in many ways that became a bit of a turning point for Li’s career as it was maybe a signal that he could still attain worldwide success without having to make second rate English language movies in Hollywood. In the short term, however, the main manifestation of that movie’s success was to tell Hollywood that there was an enduring interest in wuxia films and they had to kind of look for ways to exploit that. That is, I think it’s safe to guess, how we ended up with an oddity like The Forbidden Kingdom made as a Chinese and American co-production. This movie featured a pairing of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, which is a team-up that should have been a major event and yet it wasn’t because the team-up happened in this weird and misbegotten project that tried to impress two different audiences and ended up pleasing neither.
If you look at the poster for The Forbidden Kingdom you’ll see Jackie Chan’s name in the top corner of the poster going left to right and you’ll see Jet Li’s name sharing the “J” and then going vertically from up to down, implying that these two are such big stars that they need to actively share top billing. That’s understandable, but the bitch of it is that in this movie neither of these major superstars is actually the protagonist, that honor goes to this lame-ass white kid named Michael Angarano. The film is meant to be a sort of Last Action Hero thing where a young kung fu movie fan finds himself dropped in the middle of a wuxia story through a sort of vague magic and he somehow ends up as a sort of “chosen one” who has to wield a magic staff that was once owned by The Monkey King. Yes, that Monkey King. If you’re not familiar the Monkey King is a character from “Journey to the West,” an ancient Chinese text that most educated Chinese people are intimately familiar with to the point where it’s seen almost as a Chinese cultural equivalent of something like “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” If you follow Chinese cinema you know that there are a million adaptations of this thing and that almost all of them seem almost incomprehensively bizarre to outsiders, in no small part because of The Monkey King who is in fact a literal monkey/human thing. Why they would include this guy in a movie meant to bridge the cultural divide between East and West is a little hard to fathom as basically any American viewer is going to be weirded out by the sight of Jet Li wearing this crazy makeup and acting silly.
Fortunately Li is only playing a Monkey King variant for a short amount of the movie and does show up later looking more like himself as a reclusive monk, but he’s still playing a supporting role to this white kid. Jackie Chan is also playing a supporting role and probably has a bit more screentime as a drunken drifter who our Caucasian hero first encounters and seems kind of cool but the whole thing still ultimately goes nowhere. To the movie’s credit, its fight choreography is mostly decent but it’s kind of wasted on this movie that is inconsistent in its rules and style. It’s too odd for American audiences, too much a movie about a white kid for Chinese audiences, and just generally too insubstantial for most martial arts fans. It’s a movie that I think has been pretty firmly forgotten, but oddly enough it wasn’t a complete flop when it came out. It made about $50 million dollars domestically and a little over a hundred million worldwide, which is more than movies like War or Unleashed made but I have no idea who was going to see it because this really did not seem to register than much of an impact on pop culture, and it’s crazy that something that should be as exciting as a Jet Li and Jackie Chan collaboration ended up being such a minor blip.
*1/2 out of Five
The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Jet Li started his Hollywood career by playing a villain in a belated last installment of a popular franchise and he sort of ended it the same way. That first movie I’m talking about was of course Lethal Weapon 4 in which he was mostly wasted and that second film is The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor, in which he is completely wasted. But let’s start by taking a step back and reflect on this mummy franchise. I distinctly remember going to see the first The Mummy when it came out back in ’99. I was about eleven at the time and I fucking loved it, thought it was just about the best time I ever had at a theater. Granted I felt that way about half the movies I saw back then but this one had to have been doing something right. It was also one of the first DVDs I ever owned and I ended up watching it several times. Does it actually hold up? Not sure, but I have my doubts and I kind of want to avoid re-watching it and ruining it for myself. Two years later that movie’s sequel The Mummy Returns came out and I was pumped for it. Went to see it on opening day and man was that a letdown. That sequel was misfire that put way more emphasis on the first film’s interest in spectacle and questionable CGI than it did on the swashbuckling charm that actually made the first movie so refreshing and it really had nowhere interesting to go with its characters and story. In retrospect I think my distaste for that sequel represented a bit a maturation in the way I responded to cinema; I was thinking about movies more critically and wasn’t just lapping up whatever Hollywood was hyping up… at least to some degree.
As for this ill-fated third sequel… I never even considered seeing it in theaters and if not for this Jet Li retrospective I probably never would have thought to even give it a look. That’s how much this franchise had fallen in my eyes, though given that I actually paid to see The Scorpion King spin-off in 2002 and the Van Helsing movie in 2004 that probably has less to do with how bad The Mummy Returns was and more to do with the fact that they just waited until long after I’d stopped caring to make the damn thing. This third Mummy movie cam a solid seven years after the previous movie and that is kind of the worst span you could have waited: not long enough to build nostalgia and anticipation but too long to have the previous movies fresh in anybody’s head. On top of that, by the time this third movie came out I was a completely different person. I was in middle school when The Mummy Returns came out but I was two years into college when The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor came out, and it wasn’t just me, my whole generation had moved on: no one was asking for this. However, the failures of this movie cannot just be explained by its tardiness. The very next year The Fast and The Furious franchise managed to come roaring back after nearly as long of a wait since an installment with the original cast. I certainly didn’t see that coming but for whatever reason people were far more willing to welcome that series back with open arms than this one and that might have a lot to do with the fact that the movie never really gave them a reason to.
We have to start with the fact that making a Chinese themed Mummy movie seems like kind of an odd move in general. I can see where the instinct to shake things up came from and the opportunity to suck up to an emerging film market also probably made a lot of sense to the suits in charge, but mummies as monsters are inherently tied to Egypt and repurposing The Terracotta Army as the new mummy horde seems like a stretch and a half. Additionally they really have nowhere to go with the human characters here. Brendan Fraser and John Hannah are the only returning cast members (they straight up re-cast Rachel Weisz’ character with Maria Bello), and Fraser’s character is at this point fully domesticized and has nowhere new to go with his arc. As for Jet Li’s character… totally unoriginal evil conqueror dude. They basically make the same mistake with him that they made with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in The Mummy Returns: establish him as a bad conqueror in the prologue, keep him off screen for 80% of the rest of the movie, then bring him back at the final hour but as a CGI monster. They were self-aware enough to have some of regular old Jet Li in some of the film’s third act rather than have him be a CGI dragon for the whole thing, but he isn’t very talkative and the kung fu choreography in his few fight sequences is nothing special.
It should be noted that this sequel was directed by the hack-tastic Rob Cohen, director of the first The Fast and the Furious as well as some even lower brow nonsense of the era like xXx, Stealth, and Alex Cross, rather than the original Mummy helmer Stephen Sommers. Make no mistake, Sommers is also a studio stooge who has not made a single good movie outside of the first The Mummy, but he at least has sensibilities that seem to match the material better than Cohen. At his best Sommers (who hasn’t made a movie since 2013 and who I think has basically retired from filmmaking) always struck me as a sort of overgrown twelve year old who’s kind of like a (really really) poor man’s Spielberg. Cohen by contrast is like a cigar comping executive who thinks he knows what teenage boys like (cars, boobs, nu-metal) and cynically puts together movies that deliver these things in simple PG-13 packages. Here Cohen (who has since had some really unsavory #MeToo accusations leveled at him) is self-aware enough to avoid some of has baser inclinations with this movie, but you can tell his heart isn’t in it and that he’s just trying to photocopy the style of those earlier movies in the most soulless way possible. The rub is that the final movie doesn’t feel completely incompetent, just lifeless. It’s a cash grab no one asked for and which no one had their heart in. It even sets up a planned sequel (which was meant to be Aztec themed and feature Antonio Banderas, likely in a prolog and as a CGI thunderbird at the end) but that never got made even though the film actually quietly made $300 million in the international market (because China pandering works sometimes) and Universal instead decided to pivot to their moribund Dark Universe idea.
** out of Five
And that is where my journey into the Hollywood career of Jet Li will end because in many ways that is the end of his Hollywood career. I don’t think this was because American audiences were any less interested in him than they used to be (though I think some of the excitement that had been there in the early days had waned) but more because it became increasingly clear that Hollywood needed him more than he needed Hollywood. China was becoming a bigger and bigger film market and if he can make blockbusters in his home country he has little reason not to do that rather than make weird shit with rappers like Cradle to the Grave or compromised crap like The Forbidden Kingdom in Hollywood. He does at least keep his toe dipped in the Hollywood waters just to remind Westerners he’s out there and keep his options open in case he gets sick of making government mandated statements critical of the Hong Kong protests. He was there in The Expendables and its sequels, which were advertised as a nostalgic reunion of 80s action stars but were in many ways actually an intergeneration meeting of old action stars (like Stallone and Schwarzenegger) with the refugees of the 00’s action boom like Jason Statham and Jet Li. Li also apparently plays the Emperor of China in the new Mulan remake that may or may not be coming out this year depending on if we get this fucking Coronavirus under control, so there’s that, but for most of the 2010s he’s been primarily working in The Middle Kingdom. But even there he hasn’t been working at nearly the pace he used to. There have been some reports that he’s been fighting health issues but he claims he’s over that and has just been distracted by family concerns and charity work. Either way he’s been a bit on the ropes as of late, but I hope he can make a comeback. He wasn’t the best martial artist, or the most amusing performer, or the best actor, but dammit, he was my generations kung fu guy and we love him just the same for who he was and what he did.
Post Bruce Lee, every generation has their Kung Fu guy. The late 70s and early 80s had Gordon Liu, the late 80s and early 90s had Jackie Chan, the late 2000s had Tony Jaa, and these days we have Donnie Yen and Iko Uwais but the martial arts star of my generation was the one, the only, Jet Li. Li, who was born Li Lianjie in 1963, rose out of poverty when at a young age people noticed his martial arts aptitude and placed him on the Chinese National Wushu Team. He then starred in a string of Chinese and Hong Kong films during the 80s and early 90s before coming to Hollywood in the late 90s right after the success of Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour” films showed the studios that there was clear profit to be made from importing Asian action stars to act in American films. The films that followed were… products of their time. The 2000s were an incredibly stupid era of American action movies, the titans of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era were still around but were clearly in decline but the CGI driven Disney tentpoles hadn’t really arrived yet and there was sort of a power vacuum that needed to be filled and Hollywood was trying to develop a new generation of action stars like Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, and were trying to make them look really cool to these young millennials that were just aging into consumer age. As evidenced by the profitability of the later Fast and Furious sequels this investment would eventually pay off but at the time it seemed pretty lame compared to what had come before and some of these movies’ attempts at connecting with the youths of America seemed pretty clueless.
That’s the environment that Li arrived to and needed to find a way to fit into and damned if he didn’t try. These movies were never what you’d call ubiquitous. None of the movies that Li had first billing on made more than $100 million dollars domestically and I’m not even entirely sure he would have been a “household name” at least outside of the younger generation, but there was a solid decade there where he was part of the landscape of American cinema and I kind of missed it. When Li was first becoming a Hollywood star I was a bit too young to see his mostly R-rated movies and by the time I was old enough for his stuff I was also old enough to know that his Chinese stuff was better so I mostly stuck to that. I did see his PG-13 rated 2001 effort The One, which I liked enough at the time but assume doesn’t hold up and I’ve also seen a handful of his Chinese movies like Fists of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China, and of course Hero but as far has his English stuff my exposure has been limited. So, for my next crash course I’m going to take a look at eight English language movies that Li made between 1998 and 2008 with a goal of examining how the Hollywood of the early 2000s would try to present this Asian superstar to young millennial audiences. It’s an examination that may teach me something about how Hollywood tries to mold itself to talent… or at least give me some dumb early 2000s action movie tropes to laugh at.
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
It probably shouldn’t be understated how instrumental the financial success of the movie Rush Hour was in Hollywood’s interest in bringing Jet Li to the American screen. That movie succeeded in helping Chan to break into Hollywood filmmaking not by Americanizing his usual style of Kung Fu cinema but by taking a familiar Hollywood action genre (the buddy cop film) and then adding Jackie Chan to the equation. But even before that success the newest Lethal Weapon film was already scheming to add a kung fu guy to their series.
I actually distinctly remember when Lethal Weapon was in theaters for whatever reason. I saw the trailer or something and it intrigued me even though I was ten and didn’t know a damn thing about the series. It wasn’t until much later that I finally started exploring the Lethal Weapon series but I never got around to watching the fourth entry, probably because I found the third movie rather underwhelming. I don’t think I was alone in feeling that way about the third film, it was a critical failure and I think most of the creative team was happy to leave things as a trilogy as they ended up waiting six long years to make the fourth film, which might not sound like an outrageous wait but it only took them two years to make the second film and three years to make the third. And quite a lot happened in the six years between 1992 and 1998. The Lethal Weapon movies had a bit more “attitude” than a lot of the action movies of the 80s but they ultimately were a product of that decade and by 1998 action movies were finally starting to move on. Stallone’s career had fallen apart, Schwarzenegger’s decline wasn’t far off, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal both put out the first of many direct-to-video movies they’d go on to make. But Mel Gibson, who was only ever a part time action star, was still very much in the prime of his career and the Lethal Weapon franchise still had some juice in it and despite the long wait overall, Lethal Weapon 4 was actually by all accounts a rush job. Warner Brothers had done really poorly in 1997 and they needed a safe hit for the next summer so they had Richard Donner work overtime to deliver it.
The final movie does not have a great reputation but after finally seeing it I don’t think its half bad. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover still have that signature chemistry and some of the action sequences are pretty strong. I found the opening scene with the flamethrower guy amusing, the car chase where they drive through the building is reasonably impressive, and the film’s finale mostly works as well. What works a bit less is the supporting cast, which had gotten rather bloated by the fourth film. Joe Pesci probably shouldn’t be in this movie, his character had a purpose when he was introduced in the second film and he probably should just been written out of the series after that and he’s completely superfluous here. Rene Russo also basically has nothing to do other than be pregnant with the Mel Gibson character’s baby and some of the Danny Glover character’s family travails also probably could have been kept to a minimum. Then of course we have Jet Li as the villain, which is sort of the main thing I came to the movie for here and he’s really not utilized very well. His character seldom speaks and just kind of spends the whole movie looking menacing in one of those black kung fu outfits. What’s worse, the film doesn’t really showcase a ton of martial arts from him as he kind of doesn’t have anyone to fight except for a forty two year old Mel Gibson, who he eventually has to lose to. He’s generally miscast in the movie. Li was always more serious than Jackie Chan but I wouldn’t really call him a “menacing” presence and I’m not sure playing a villain suits him. He’s certainly better than… whoever the hell was the villain in Lethal Weapon 3 (who was literally forgettable) but compared to Gary Busey in the first film and the African diplomats in Lethal Weapon 2 he’s not great.
Despite all that the movie does work more than it doesn’t and this was kind of a reminder for me how much this franchise worked in the first place and this wasn’t nearly the decline I expected from it. In fact I’m kind of surprised they never managed to make a fifth movie sometime in the early 2000s and feel like we missed out on something because they didn’t.
*** out of Five
Romeo Must Die (2000)
One of the things that distinguishes 2000s action from 80s action (the 90s can be roughly split between these two eras of action) is that 2000s action was very interested in tapping into the youth demographic, specifically by embracing “urban” culture and you can see that in the first film Jet Li was chosen to star in: Romeo Must Die. There is of course a long history of interaction between the world of kung fu movies and African American cinemagoers going from Black Belt Jones to that song “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Wu Tang Clan and Jackie Chan’s first major Hollywood success did come from teaming up with Chris Tucker, but Jet Li was (to my knowledge) the first major Asian martial arts star to really try to come into the American market through the black youth market first. The potentially interesting thing about Romeo Must Die is that it’s a movie about racial conflict in America that is almost devoid of white people; as the title implies, it invokes the Romeo and Juliet story by setting up a conflict between African American and Chinese gangs in Oakland and having the son of the Chinese gang leader and the daughter of the African American gang leader fall for each other… but that’s less central to the movie than the title implies. Jet Li’s character is a bit detached from all of this as he’s only recently arrived from Hong Kong and his love interest, played by the late R&B singer Aaliyah, is depicted as a pampered daughter who has been sheltered from the “family business,” so neither are all that conflicted about crossing the lines of this war and on top of that they don’t really have a terribly passionate romance.
So, the Shakespearian parallels here aren’t terribly strong, but I do think this role plays to Jet Li’s strengths more than his villain turn in Lethal Weapon 4 and he does have a clear charm to him here even if he’s still not entirely skilled in the English language and isn’t exactly giving an Oscar caliber performance, but he’s not as central to the movie as he maybe should be. There’s actually a lot of screen time devoted to the supporting characters here, particularly the leaders of the African American gang, and if I were to pinpoint a fatal flaw with the movie it’s probably that. There isn’t as much DMX in the film as I had been led to believe there would be, instead we spend a lot of time with Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington and various other henchmen and they really aren’t as interesting as the screenplay seems to think they are. Humanizing your villains can be an interesting move under certain circumstances, but this half-baked screenplay is not smart enough to pull that trick off and it most just distracts from the protagonists and makes you less inclined to root for their rebellion against the closed minded fathers.
Of course, the even bigger thing that this focus on side characters distracts from is of course the action, which is certainly in the movie but it’s not as extensive as you might think. I think I’ve read that at the time it was assumed that American audiences wouldn’t have the attention span for extended martial arts scenes and you can see that philosophy at work here as the fight scenes are often frustratingly short. They’re also a bit over-edited and the stunts aren’t really captured in the wide shot as much as they should be. I’m generally a bit more understanding of this kind of action direction than some people, but straight-up kung fu movies especially need a bit more space to breathe. The one idea that the film does bring to this table are shots where it occasionally uses CGI to show sort of x-ray images of bones breaking during the fight scenes, which is kind of a precursor to a similar effect in the recent Mortal Kombat games, and there are one or two slightly interesting shots sprinkled throughout but there’s little here that would impress anyone who was well versed in real Hong Kong action cinema. But holding the movie to that standard probably isn’t fair, this was never meant to impress the hardcore audience for this kind of movie, it was meant to introduce it and by extension Jet Li to fourteen year olds and while it could have certainly done a better job even by that standard it’s a hard movie to be too mad at.
** out of Five
Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
I’ve described this series as an exploration into Jet Li’s American films but the truth is that at least two of the movies I’ll be looking at are technically French despite being English language action movies. These movies were both produced and written by Luc Besson, a director in his own right but also a major mogul who produces all sorts of English language films in France that most audiences would not give a second thought to the national origins of and would not distinguish as separate from anything made in Hollywood. Around this time his company would also be elevating the career of Jason Statham via The Transporter and its sequels and he would later be the one behind the Taken series and for whatever reason in the early 2000s he also wanted to be in the Jet Li business. For Jet Li the ability to work with Besson was an opportunity to keep his profile up in the western world while making some movies that were a bit more “hardcore” than what he made when he was in Hollywood. In fact Kiss of the Dragon was in many ways a movie that Jet Le specifically made to bolster his cred with martial arts fans in between a pair of DMX collaborations and in pre-release publicity he was actively touting that the fight scenes (mostly) weren’t driven by CGI or wirework.
The film’s story is a very familiar “wrong man on the run” narrative in which a Chinese intelligence agent arrives in Paris to take part in a joint task force to arrest a Chinese mafia boss only to be framed for the murder of this boss by an insanely evil corrupt police detective played by Tchéky Karyo and he must fight his way through Paris to clear his name. Beyond that there isn’t really much of a high concept or hook here to really make it stand out in people’s minds. So in that sense the movie makes a bit of a tradeoff: it isn’t a movie that’s trying too hard to be hip with “the kids” like Romeo Must Die but in trading in the cringe factor it maybe goes too far in the other direction into being downright flavorless. What it does have going for it is that it’s generally more violent than martial arts movies tended to be in this era. It wasn’t exactly The Raid, but it did have some nicely bloody moments and I certainly enjoyed the final fate of the Tchéky Karyo character. There are also a couple pretty good fights to be found in it like a scene late in the film where Li takes on a room full of gi-wearing French police in training carrying nightsticks. All told I probably would say its an improvement over the likes of Romeo Must Die or The One, but it’s not a dramatic improvement.
**1/2 out of Five
Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)
The Polish emigre Andrzej Bartkowiak was never a particularly beloved cinematographer, but during the 80s and 90s he put together a very respectable career. He helmed the Oscar winning Terms of Endearment and worked with Sidney Lumet a number of times on movies like The Verdict and Prince of the City and in the 90s he did work on some larger scale action movies like Speed and Dantes Peak. Finally in the early 2000s he was finally given the opportunity to direct and Hollywood decided that what the natural trajectory for this fifty year old Polish man was… to make three straight movie movies featuring DMX. You read that right. This is what made action movies in the early 2000s so… odd. They were trying really hard to tap into hip hop culture but they kept hiring these hacky old white guys like Bartkowiak and Rob Cohen to direct them. Barthowiak’s directorial debut was Romeo Must Die, which I’ve covered earlier. He seems to have been hired for that because he’d worked with Jet Li before as the cinematographer on Lethal Weapon 4. That movie had DMX in a small role and he would work again with the rapper on the film Exit Wounds with the at the time not quite washed up Steven Seagal, which also featured Tom Arnold and Romeo Must Die alum Anthony Anderson as a comedy relief. His third movie (and the last of his DMX trilogy) was Cradle 2 the Grave, a movie that’s titled like it’s the sequel to something, which it isn’t but given the cast it kind of simultaneously acted as a spiritual follow-up to both Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds by featuring DMX, Jet Li, Tom Arnold, and Anthony Anderson all in a sort of reunion feature.
DMX has a much bigger role here than he did in Romeo Must Die, to the point where he could definitely be considered a co-star to Jet Li and may even straight up be the film’s lead. Now, the idea of DMX being a movie star is probably kind of crazy to anyone who’s familiar with his music and public persona. He earned himself a reputation for being a rather unhinged personality with a very distinct vocal cadence and sure enough he is not a very good actor in the sense that I can’t really picture him playing anyone who isn’t a variation on himself, but he does have a certain coolness and screen presence if you’re willing to take him on his own terms. I also didn’t hate Tom Arnold or Anthony Anderson as comic relief even though both have their clunky moments here and there. As for the main attraction, I’d say Jet Li is in pretty good form here insomuch as he seems a bit more comfortable in his own skin than he did on a few of his earlier American films. He looks pretty cool in sunglasses and his English is getting better, though I must say that he does at times feel almost secondary in his own film here as evidenced by the fact that I find myself talking about a lot of people that aren’t him in this Jet Li retrospective review.
So, my expectations going into this thing were really low. I expected it to be the biggest piece of trash I encountered while looking through these Jet Li movies, and while in many ways it was that I will say I enjoyed it more than I expected even if it was in a slightly campy “so dumb it’s good kind” of way. You can tell that Bartkowiak has grown more confident in directing martial arts sequences since making Romeo Must Die and while there’s nothing here that will be remembered amongst the best in martial arts cinema the fights here do seem to be closer to what I’d consider competent. There’s also a memorably stupid chase scene in the film where DMX drives an ATV through the city and across rooftops while being chased by dudes on BMX motorcycles. That sequence doesn’t have the budget of late period Fast and the Furious movies, but I think they are sort of similar in spirit. The film also seems to presage those later Fast and Furious movies in that it starts out as a heist movie about multi-racial jewel thieves but ends up having them fight against a cabal or terrorists and rogue dictators who are trying to use diamonds as part of a weapon of mass destruction… which is a pretty bizarre and stupid plot twist. Really, the script here is quite messy and just straight up bad and on that level I can’t really defend it or the movie and for as polite as I’m being to this thing I don’t want to mislead anyone into watching this expecting it to be anything other than a dumb product of its time. But taken in the right spirit the movie can be enjoyable.
Unfortunately for Andrzej Bartkowiak this would sort of be the last hurrah for the “team” he assembled for his first three movies. After this he would try his hand at another disreputable early 2000s genre, video game adaptations, with another emerging star of the era (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) via the 2005 adaptation of Doom which no one liked. He then made the embarrassingly dreadful Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and has been pretty much washed up since then. He did a little bit of cinematography work in the 2010s and made some kind of weird Russian/Hollywood co-production that went direct-to-video called Maximum Impact and otherwise didn’t do much in the last decade. But to those who care Bartkowiak did matter, he’ll always be remembered as the man who introduced Jet Li to the English speaking world.
*** out of Five
To Be Continued in Part 2