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Thursday, September 8, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: HARD TARGET 2 (2016) and THE DUEL (2016)


HARD TARGET 2
(US - 2016)


On the heels of the 27-years-later KINDERGARTEN COP 2, Universal's "1440" DTV department delivers another belated, in-name-only "sequel" with HARD TARGET 2. There's no direct connection to the 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme hit that marked the American debut of legendary director John Woo, other than than the MOST DANGEROUS GAME concept and some occasional appearances by doves to pay appropriate homage to Woo. HARD TARGET 2 is more or less a remake of HARD TARGET that could've just as easily been titled AVENGING FORCE 2 or SURVIVING THE GAME 2 were it not for the doves and the hero working "hard targets" into a sentence. DTV sequel specialist Roel Reine (DEATH RACE 2 & 3, 12 ROUNDS 2, THE SCORPION KING 3, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2) is always good at making these low-budget affairs look as big-screen as possible and HARD TARGET 2 is no exception, with some outstanding cinematography (handled by Reine himself) and location work in Thailand. After losing his cool and accidentally killing his best friend in the ring, MMA superstar Wes "The Jailor" (sic) Baylor is a disgraced pariah, fleeing the States and doing what ostracized anti-heroes do in DTV action movies--becoming a top fighter in the illegal underground fight circuit of Bangkok. Down on his luck and content to crawl inside the bottle, Baylor is offered a shot at redemption by expat American fight promoter Jonah Aldrich (Robert Knepper), who's got $1 million on the table if Baylor agrees to fight at a major event in Myanmar. Once there, the ruse is up: Aldrich runs an exclusive club where the world's wealthiest assholes hunt humans for sport, and Baylor is their latest target. Obviously, he's never seen HARD TARGET, AVENGING FORCE, or SURVIVING THE GAME.




Given nothing but a two-minute head start and a pouch of valuable rubies that's his if he makes it to the Thai border, Baylor flees into the dense jungle surrounding Aldrich's camp, followed closely by the hunters, among them Aldrich's right-hand-man Madden (Temuera Morrison), and humorless, bloodthirsty oil heiress Sofia (Rhona Mitra, who seems to be using this as an audition reel should she ever be up for a 007 femme fatale gig).. Baylor gets some help from local village girl Tha (Ann Truong), whose brother was also pursued in an Aldrich hunt. The rest is yet another MOST DANGEROUS GAME knockoff, tailored to Adkins' martial-arts skills for the cult audience the prolific actor has acquired in his many films with DTV action auteur Isaac Florentine and others. There's some terrific stunt work and action scenes throughout, though as good as the film looks, Reine isn't quite a match for the style of John Woo in his prime. Still, as far as derivative DTV knockoffs go, HARD TARGET 2 gets the job done, with a gritty performance by Adkins, whose acting skills are improving, and an entertainingly over-the-top one by a game Knepper, who knows exactly what kind of movie this is and is having a blast with it. HARD TARGET 2 suffers a bit from the same kind of jank-ass Bulgarian CGI that's an albatross for the entire DTV industry--watch out for the blood in that throat slitting that looks like wax slowly leaking out of a lava lamp--but thankfully, it's used sparingly. We're not dealing with high art here, but HARD TARGET 2 is solid, moves fast, and is further evidence that Adkins is one of the best-kept secrets in action movies today. By that same token, like his contemporary Florentine, Reine is more than ready for bigger assignments in the big leagues. (R, 103 mins)



THE DUEL
(US/Canada- 2016)



Dumped straight-to-VOD by Lionsgate, THE DUEL is a gritty and occasionally unsettling western that tries to juggle too many ideas to be a complete success, though it's never not intriguing. In 1888, Texas Ranger David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) is sent by the Governor (William Sadler) to investigate the discovery of scalped corpses found floating into a stream outside the desolate town of Mount Hermon, near the Texas-Mexico border. Traveling with his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) under the guise of settlers looking for a new place to call home, David is quickly welcomed to Mount Hermon by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), the town's dapper, charismatic leader, who almost immediately makes him the new sheriff. David isn't fooled by Brant's hospitable exterior: 22 years earlier, Brant killed David's father in a "Helena duel"--a knife-to-the-death duel that originated in the border town of Helena--which makes his assignment personal. It's not long before David gets a bad vibe from the Mount Hermon locals, including local prostitute Naomi (Felicity Price), who straight-up warns him that nothing is as it seems and she's tried to escape but can't. Brant is a religious fanatic and a virulent racist, fire-and-brimstoning the word of God with his flock holding snakes and speaking in tongues, while at the same time organizing MOST DANGEROUS GAME-type hunts where captured Mexicans are set loose to be pursued and picked off by wealthy visitors. Brant also casts some sort of spell on Marisol that makes her sick and brainwashes her against her husband, for whom she was already harboring a certain degree of resentment for being betrothed to him by her father.




Writer Matt Ross (TRIPLE 9) and director Kieran Darcy-Smith set up THE DUEL as a fairly standard-issue revenge western, with an added second villain in the form of Brant's sniveling, bullying son Isaac (Emory Cohen), who's such a snotty little shit that you know it's only a matter of time before David shuts him up. The added element of Brant's Jim Jones/Col. Kurtz-style psychological grip on the town and its residents is interesting, but the film never decides what Brant is, even briefly flirting with supernatrual elements before quickly abandoning them. Harrelson does what he can in the role, but even he seems unsure about exactly how he's supposed to be playing it. More impressive is the career-best work from Harrelson's HUNGER GAMES co-star Hemsworth, who really seems to be relishing the chance to play a western badass in the way David is handed a sheriff's badge and, instead of being the puppet his presumed master expected, immediately decides he isn't taking shit from anyone and refuses to tap-dance around Brant when it comes to enforcing the law.  Ross and Darcy-Smith obviously wanted to make something more than a rote vengeance saga, but the disparate parts don't always add up. Still, THE DUEL gets enough right that it's worth seeing. It just could've had a more steady consistency to it. (R, 110 mins)



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