ActionFest Part One; 'Code Of Silence,' '14 Blades,' and a kimchi Western revisited
Plus a look at the struggles of a first-year film festival
My parents just retired to Asheville, North Carolina.
And when I say "just," I mean it's something they've been planning for about two years, but that they just finally put into effect about eight weeks ago. So I mean "just."
They're still living out of boxes in an apartment they're renting while they wait on their condo to be finished. It's funny... the place they're in now is the sort of place I lived in my first few years in LA, and seeing my parents living like that, even temporarily at the end of their work years, was sort of disorienting and hilarious. I love that they're starting their new lives, and they really seem to be enjoying the prospect of what's next. Hanging out with them has always been fun (duh... they're my parents), but recently, they've seemed to be at an endless low-key cocktail party. It's retirement the way I think you're supposed to do it, and it's great to see my dad relax after seeing how deeply dedicated he was to work my whole life.
He relaxed sometimes when I was growing up, of course. He had things he did when I was younger, ways to unwind. He liked to go to shooting ranges. He liked to hunt. He liked judo. He had solitary things he did to relax, and I always saw him in some way as the heroes from the books that were stacked around the house or the movies that he watched and took me to see. He's 6'4", cut from the same cloth as Sam Elliott, a Vietnam vet just like all the heroes in all the '80s action movies. Because of the way he looks, I was confused when I was five or six, and I distinctly remember thinking my dad left the house, went to the Brady house, pretended to be Mr. Brady all day, then came home to us. My dad was an engineer, so he often carried document tubes just like the ones Mr. Brady would carry on the show and have in his office. I was five, keep in mind.
He took me to my first revival screening as a kid when a local theater showed "Red River" on a giant screen. He took me to see my first Bond movie, "The Spy Who Loved Me," when I was seven. He took me to see R-rated action films fairly frequently, and well before 17, if they were movies he was genuinely interested in seeing. I could almost always talk him into it if I did my homework and made a persuasive case. At the same time, if it was something that just plain didn't appeal to him, there was no way to budge him at all.
My dad believed in John Wayne and Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen. He raised me on his generation's idea of cool, and his reading material involved a ton of pulp and action and mystery and espionage. He and my mom were voracious purchasers and resellers of paperback books, and there were almost always more books in the house than anyone could read at any given time. It's appropriate then that we spent the first afternoon of me in town in Asheville driving to a few used bookstores looking for Travis McGee novels, which are frustratingly hard to track down these days.
Much of what I think of action cinema started with my dad, although I certainly have my own appetites that I've developed over the years. After him sharing his films with me when I was younger, I've enjoyed switching roles and recommending films from around the world for him.
One of the benefits of my job is being able to introduce people to the filmmakers whose work impacted them most strongly and watching that happen. It's a pleasure. I wrote last year about him coming to Los Angeles to meet Clint Eastwood. This year, because I got the call to attend Actionfest and serve on the jury and moderate a panel there, I realized I could invite both my parents to join me at an all-action-movie event in their new hometown where they might end up meeting Chuck Norris.
The Carolina Cinemas stand on top of a hill in Asheville, a 14-plex with an aggressively art-directed lobby and upstairs lounge, and it made for a comfortable base of operations for anyone actually watching the movies. Waiting time between the films was relaxed, and at this point, there were no crowds so unruly that one had to fight or wait to get in to see something.
"Centurion" made for a good opening night film, and I've already reviewed it. The next day, I had some work to do in the morning, and then we had lunch at a local BBQ place called 12 Bones which was, I thought, decent but not outstanding. I'm a hard judge on BBQ places in general. I have very particular preferences, and I'm used to Memphis BBQ or Texas BBQ, but not North Carolina BBQ yet, and there are definite regional differences to each.
Still contemplating a half-rack of ribs, we made our way into the first screening of the day, a 35mm print of "Code Of Silence." At the time it came out, "Code Of Silence" was one of the first instances of good reviews in the film career of Chuck Norris. A big part of why that happened was director Andrew Davis, who later went on to make movies like "Above The Law," "Under Seige," and "The Fugitive." The movie is a no-nonsense Chicago film, a cop story with a ridiculously straight-forward storyline. Its virtues are all a matter of energy. There's an Italian crime movie efficiency to the way things play out. Norris plays a good cop in a dirty city divided by a gangland war. One guy robs another guy's drug deal, and family members die as a result, leading to more family members dying in an escalating cycle of blood-for-blood. Norris is the one guy who can do anything to stop the war, and he has to do it single-handedly because he goes public with some corruption concerns. It's familar stuff, and there's nothing innovative about the way it's told.
Davis made sturdy films at his best. Not great ones, but solid ones. Nothing fussy about them. It makes sense that it's a Chicago film, because there's something naturally blue-collar about the movie. What makes "Code Of Silence" genuinely stand the test of the time (this isn't a case of "it's so bad it's fun" in any way) as a great little cop moive is the texture of it all. You've got guys like John Mahoney and Dennis Farina playing supporting roles. You've got Henry Silva with his "creepy weirdo" turned up to high. You've got the Chuck Norris answer to ED-209, which looks like they picked it up at Radio Shack. You've got a great real stunt fight on top of the El Train. It's just plain fun, start to finish, and seeing it projected instead of on video was a rare treat. I think the scene where a couple of guys decide to rob a cop bar, totally unaware that it is in fact a cop bar, is probably based on something that actually happened... it's got that sort of feel to it... and it's a perfect example of why this is better than the average Norris film.
In general, Chuck Norris cast a long shadow over the weekend. He wasn't in town at the start of the festival. Everyone knew he'd be there on Sunday. And there were always Chuck movies playing on the bigscreen in the VIP lounge. His presence was felt. It was undeniable. Chuck was our Godot, and Friday and Saturday were all about waiting for him.
There were movies that I, as a jury member, needed to see, but there were also movies that I just plain wanted to see. For example, I was determined to take my parents to see "The Good, The Bad, and the Weird." My dad introduced me to Leone, without really doing it intentionally, just because so many of Leone's films were films that my dad would watch given the opportunity. When we started to get videotapes, those titles were titles my dad actively sought out. He had the same sort of taste in films as he did in books, and so we had a lot of westerns and action movies and mysteries and pulp.
I love this movie. I think it's a dizzy, looney, madcap cry of love for the American Western, the Hong Kong action movie, and the specific language that Leone used to paint in his amazing archetypes. I've written about this film before on this site when I picked it as my #2 film for 2008, and I first reviewed it back at Ain't It Cool. It's sort of amazing. The opening train sequence is a masterful bit of action cinema, but it just gets bigger from there, and bigger, and bigger, and there's a sequence towards the end out in the desert that is just outrageous. It's a wickedly constructed ride of a movie, and I wanted my parents to see it on the bigscreen and not on TV. I think it was sensory overload for both of them to an extent, but they claimed to enjoy it. I loved watching it this time as much as the first time. There are so many gags, so many moments, so many images to just relish in the film... it's a real career bump for Ji-Woon Kim, and one of the purest pieces of pop entertainment I've seen in a while.
The movie I had to see that first night was "14 Blades." The latest film from Daniel Lee, whose career kicked off internationally with the release of "Black Mask," this is a Donnie Yen vehicle that has major period epic intentions. I'm not a fan of many of Daniel Lee's films. I think he's an average director with little to say. But sort of like Andrew Davis really put it together right a few times in his career, Daniel Lee snapped into focus for most of "14 Blades," and even if it's got a rough start and a meandering finish, there's a lot of this film that is classic Golden Harvest fun.
And for those having trouble decoding that paragraph, Golden Harvest was sort of the Canon Films of Hong Kong, purveyors of disproportionately awesome cheese, and they had a certain style of historical storytelling and kung-fu storytelling that "14 Blades" pays tribute to while at least trying to also play as a more modern film for the international marketplace. To that end, there's a character here who basically walked off the set of "Pirates Of The Caribbean", and there's some spirited wire work to some of the fights. For the most part, though, "14 Blades" is a straight-ahead redemption tale about a man who was picked off the streets as an orphan, forced to fight for his survival, then raised to be a feared and deadly royal guard. He's given a box as Captain of the guard, and in that box, there are 14 specialized blades, each for a very specific and ritual purpose. When he is discredited and the guards are scattered, destroyed, he takes his box of blades and goes on the run for... something. I wasn't quite clear what. Or why he was disgraced. Or why Sammo Hung is in the beginning and ending of the movie and never even remotely comes close to a fight move. Or why we need so much history at the beginning of the film that seems to have no influence on what we see in the film.
No matter. "14 Blades" works as an unlikely love story, and Donnie Yen is a great movie star, able to say as much with a glower or a squint as with a monologue. Both of my parents had more fun with "14 Blades" than with "The Good The Bad The Weird," I think, and I can sort of understand why. Even though much of "14 Blades" makes no sense, it all moves with a purpose that is convincing. It's like Daniel Lee thought it all made sense, so there's an earnestness and a confidence about it, and that translates to how it plays for an audience. It's contagious fun.
One thing that was evident the first day of Action Fest is that the word had not really gotten out there. It's little wonder. This was a four-month-project, start to finish. There are festivals that have been working for years to try and build an audience. It's little surprise that on your first day of programming ever, things were slow. We picked up t-shirts for the fest, which just had the logo on the front and a quote on the back: "When I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you." -- Chuck Norris, "Code Of Silence. But for the most part, we were seeing the films with 15 or 20 other people. My parents asked me that night if that was normal, and I told them we'd have to see if things picked up during the weekend.
That was it for the first real day of the festival. The next day would be the one where I saw the most movies, where I moderated a panel with James Bond, Superman, and Spider-Man side-by-side, and where the big surprise of the fest took place.
And I'll have that story for you soon.
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