In theaters: In the fourth and final chapter of John Wick (though the universe evidently wants to live on), Wick makes a final bid for his freedom, if only he can evade a blind assassin (Donnie Yen) and a Nobody with an attack dog (Shamier Anderson) to get to the highly punchable (but sadly not French no matter how much they say so) Bill Skarsgård. You basically spend the whole movie wanting Keanu to team up with Yen and Anderson because they are so cool. Donnie Yen in particular runs away with Chapter 4, his character a real highlight, effortlessly cool. But then, that's why you hire Donnie Yen. Otherwise, it's pretty much what you expect from a John Wick film. Well-produced mayhem inspired by Hong Kong cinema, relentless action, and intriguing world building. The bloom is off the rose at this point - I'll never be as entranced as I was by Chapter 2 - but it's solid, and unlike Chapter 3 which I felt was padding to keep the franchise going longer, this one matters.
At home: Raging Fire is Benny Chan's last film, and it's a pretty good one. Nicholas Tse is a cop whose team went to far and wound up in jail. Now they're out and looking for revenge against those who betrayed them, including a supercop who refuses to play politics played by the always dependable Donnie Yen. The action is brutal, Tse is clearly having a lot of fun playing a psychopath with nothing to lose, and Yen is, as always, the heart of the picture. Hiding things in flashbacks is initially a little confusing, but we're quickly caught up and racing along with the cop vs. cop story. Layered into what is essentially a standard action plot is the theme of destiny, Tse and Yen representing two paths taken from a crucial event, two men purportedly the same until that moment. The question is asked and I have to answer that no, these two men were NOT the same, and their end points are the product of something innate to each of them, but you may come to a different conclusion.
Donnie Yen is a supercop who stops taking care of himself after his life spirals down the drain in Enter the Fat Dragon, and right away, you're gonna say, oh no, not a fat suit movie! I don't blame you, though for a Hong Kong comedy with some rather broad jokes (as they tend to have), it's actually rather restrained. Yen cuts an unheroic figure, but still has his strength and agility and can take care of business as he tangle with yakuza is Tokyo, the very cool fights sometimes incorporating silly slapstick that's beyond what you'd expect from a Jackie Chan picture, but still quite legit (especially that Tokyo Tower fight). The weight problem isn't really even an impediment to the love story, though it's perhaps painted as a potential obstacle. Throw in Wong Jing as the sidekick and you have a relatively weight-positive movie. I certainly give it bonus points for its HK movie references, in particular mocking Yen classics Kill Zone and Flashpoint, just a little extra for HK cinema fans, but also works as the truth of how supercops would be treated if they were real. This is a lot of fun.
Criticizing Chinese education's reputation for driving kids too hard, Big Brother is obviously political and even didactic, but whether its lessons land for non-Chinese audiences is something musty. Its heart is in the right place, but whatever its qualities, it's incredibly sentimental and uses all the cliches in the book when it comes to teacher narratives in movies. And so Donnie Yen is the unorthodox teacher who sets out to "save" troublesome students from distractions and themselves. not so much with the teaching, but by acting as a kind of guardian angel who fusses with their home lives. It's rather cute and you can't resent it too much, nor its story of atonement. There are only a couple fights, as if to justify Yen's casting, but they're very good fights - the classroom sequence especially - it's just that it makes us wait a bit too long for them. Having said that, the length does allow you to know enough about each of the kids to feel invested in their scholastic success. But if you're going to quote Hamlet's "Brevity is the soul of wit"...
Donnie Yen is a cop undercover as a hoodlum, yearning to be a real cop if he can only fulfill One Last Mission(TM) in Special ID, an action spectacular that, on a plot level, isn't as good as Kill Zone or Flashpoint, but is definitely meant to follow in their footsteps in terms of the action itself. Taking a page from Supercop, Donnie is sent to Mainland China to help apprehend a former gang brother who's getting to big for his britches and has to team up with a cop over there (Jing Tian). Tian is actually really strong in the fighting and stunt category, but they unfortunately write her as either unreasonable or cheesy, and in fact, all her scenes with Donnie are suspect as a result. While the third act creates a lot of tension around the consequences of betrayal, you're really here for the action, and on the front, no complaints. The fights are fun, and there's a great chase/vehicular warfare sequence - most of it done for real - filled with cool and exciting gags.
John Wick 4 owes a lot to The Warriors, putting its characters into a similar gauntlet while they get to where they're going before sunrise, and mots ubiquitously, making use of a sexy-voiced DJ who helps coordinate the attacks by differentiated gangs while she plays boppin' tunes. It's a simple story, but so stylish and unique in its presentation (the night photography alone) that you can easily see how it became a cult film. Like John Wick, it also creates a universe a weird side-step into a parallel reality where normal people don't really exist, only criminals (and in this case, cops) do, at once futuristic (in the way that Mad Max or Escape from New York are) and old-fashioned (the slang especially seems to come from earlier than 1979, but somehow also later than the 1965 novel). The Warriors is no doubt influential in other ways, like in the way gangs are cast and look through the 1980s? If you have a choice, there's no need to watch the Director's Cut which only creates comic book "PhotoShop Posterization" transitions, but it's not the end of the world if that's all you've got.
Your mind starts playing tricks on you when you're prescribed strict bed rest for two months. Or perhaps the house in Bed Rest actually is haunted. Or Melissa Barrera is, by the spirit of her stillborn child while she carries a new baby to term (the most intriguing possibility). Or, in this day and age, it's just as likely she's being professionally gaslit. There are enough corner-of-your-eye chills in this one to recommend it, though the jump scare stings are a bit over-the-top for my tastes. The slow burn mystery's tone is violently shifted as the climax's mechanics take over and you feel like you're almost in a different movie (and the coda is easily jettisonable, feels like dumb studio tampering), but it's still pretty satisfying. Barrera remains imminently watchable and the movie trades on parental fears in an effective way, though the undercurrent is that of the pandemic - a protagonist stuck at home going slightly crazy.
In Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, an upper-middle class woman hits something with her car and drives off, a reaction brilliantly played by María Onetto who then spends the rest of the film in a kind of shell-shocked state, barely saying a word so that ambiguity reigns supreme. It was a dog, surely, but does she even remember the incident. Was it a child as the film and eventually Onetto's Vero asks? And if it was, will she get away with it - therefore pointing an accusing finger at privilege - or will guilt get the better of her? Martel keeps the audience in perpetual askance, following emotional red herrings that perhaps we ourselves imagined. The woman's point of view is very well represented by strange shots and odd sounds that evoke the accident, often cutting Vero's head off through directorial choices. I'm also intrigued by possible references to decapitated women in myth and history, whether Medusa or Marie-Antoinette. There's fertile ground for interpretation there as well. But whether there's cleverness there, this is all about the acting and the way the camera can create a headspace for the performance to sing.
Books: The 1980s volume of Designers & Dragons is where the book series really hits all the right nostalgia buttons for me. This is obviously when I started role-playing at the tender age of 14, but more importantly, the book covers the many companies that got their start in RPGs in that decade and that are most important to my collection - Steve Jackson Games, West End, R. Talsorian, Mayfair, Lion Rampant, FASA, Bard - and those I never really cared for, but that loomed large on the shelves of my favorite comics/game stores - I.C.E., Hero, Palladium... Unfortunately, there are a couple of BIG omissions for me, including BTRC (Corps, Fringeworthy, Macho Women with Guns) and Tri-Tac (Fringeworthy, Bureau 13), but on the upside, Applecline has given up the extremely annoying writer's tic that had him constantly tell is we would "soon see" whatever topic on the next page or in the next paragraph, making for a more pleasant reading experience.
RPGs: Still in the Nile Empire, I wanted this week's Torg Eternity session to really play with the Law of Drama, turning the game into a true-blue (or black and white) matinee serial. Adapting one of the adventures in Delphi Missions: Nile Empire, I started the action in medias res, with the characters already at the climax of an unseen adventure, fighting the evil Professor Neuron and, for half the team, falling out of an airship without a parachute (with some fun landings). The Law of Drama would have them all survive with at worst a scratch, but the real effect was to drain their Possibilities before the actual adventure began. Oh, and Neuron's madness ray also unleashed our monster hunter's were-bat form, which was a surprise to the other players! (Neuron wound up being a snack.) Then the boys go to the moving pictures and see their adventure play out on the screen. Not a reenactment either. It's really them, filmed without their knowledge or consent.
What follows is a spy mission to slip the director a bug in the now well-established Anubis Club, and again I pushed the Law of Drama - if something could go wrong, it did. What they got from listening in on Janus Champion was advance notice of his next "film", so they shows up at the studio forewarned, and managed to fight Shocktroopers, a robotic Egyptian god, and Champion himself on an Egyptian tomb set. They did well, but also set the studio on fire, and it's the flicker of those flames they discovered Neuron's influence extended beyond the grave, and that Champion was really a Pan-Pacifican agent whose brain programming went wrong in contact with the mind-controlling villain. His original plan, to film moments of heroism so they could be projected for audiences who would then be filled with hope and possibilities. And would they now accept the loss of their privacy and ability to go incognito in exchange for a "contract" that would allow Champion (now Qiang Shu) to continue his scheme? To my surprise, the players said yes. I have some slight rewriting to do ;-).
Best bits: Given what they find out about broadcasting Glory events at the end, I don't know if they'll remember that they came 1 point short of a Glory in the first scene and decided it wasn't appropriate to spend resources to get the roll over 60. Oops! After fighting with pilots for their parachutes while in free fall, or taking unpowered escape pods out of the crashing airship, all the landings were rather exciting, whether dropping in the middle of a gang war, just in time to toast newlyweds, or knocking thugs out and statues erected to villains down. Another romance card was played, so now TWO of the heroes have girlfriends in the Nile Empire. When the micro-transmitter got knocked onto the busy dance floor, it was this new couple that saved the day by clearing it for a ballroom number. And when the wrestler saw folding chairs on the climax's map, there was every chance he'd hit someone with one.