The Curse of Buckout Road opens with a seminar discussion about why, as a society, we create and then destroy myths. One student, Cleo, (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) proffers the idea that humanity is proving its progress as a species by dismantling legends that it had previously used to rationalise unexplainable phenomena. Unfortunately, the following 90 minutes show that artistically, as a species creating horror films, we haven’t advanced much past doors mysteriously creaking open and mirror reflection jump scares to try and create a terrifying atmosphere.
Aaron (Evan Ross) returns from the Military Police Corps to stay with his grandfather, priest-turned-psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Powell (Danny Glover) just as an investigation begins into the apparent suicide of Cleo’s teacher Stephanie on the titular Buckout Road in Westchester, New York. The road itself is alleged to really be one of the most haunted streets in the United States, and the film uses the urban legends of various dubious websites to create a mishmash of supernatural adversaries.
Resentful of his distant and withdrawn grandparent, Aaron is ready to walk out on a nice dinner at the first hint of any tension between them, even though Lawrence has Danny Glover’s calming husky voice and has looked after him ever since his parents died in a car crash. When another tragic accident occurs, Aaron has to work together with Cleo and a pair of brothers called Derek and Erik to investigate whether the folklore concerning Buckout Road connects the mysterious events with the bizarre sleepwalking dreams they have collectively started having.
Although the ‘curse’ involves albino cannibals, a domestically abusive pilgrim and a trio of witches burnt at the stake, the narrative starts to lose its momentum early in the second act, as the repetitive nature of the dreams and the drip-feeding of information starts to feel like the stretching out of a fairly thin plot rather than the intricate building of creeping suspense. Aaron is regrettably not an interesting enough character to hang the waning story of the entire film on. Besides his penchant for walking out on meals, his inner turmoil over his parents’ death is not especially engaging and even when he is revealed as a potential teenage arsonist and lucid dreamer, Evan Ross doesn’t have much to do beyond furrow his brow and ask classic confused protagonist questions like “What’s happening?”
This is Canadian actor Matthew Currie Holmes’s directorial début and has evidently had difficulty obtaining distribution since its completion in 2017. Lindsay Ljungkull’s choppy editing is unfortunately more suited to the Discovery Channel programmes like Finding Bigfoot and Expedition Unknown that they have previously worked on rather than a feature-length horror film such as this. The stylistic decision to place a scratchy analogue-style filter on one section of the dream sequences is also a little bewildering, and this Grindhouse effect only adds to the disjointed nature of the film. Fragments of dreams and memories flash by, but with little effect other than to be mildly confusing. Sadly, the only curse this film might sustain is that of the actors who only got to direct one film. With Marlon Brando and Charles Laughton in that group, it’s almost a badge of honour.
In The Most Dangerous Game (Pichel/Schoedsack, 1932), Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) arranges for a ship to be wrecked on his isolated private island so that he can hunt and kill the passengers that survive. Since then, there have been several adaptations of the same O. Henry short story, also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”. While writers Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson and Kai Miller might not credit the story itself for their new Cambodian action film The Prey, it is definitely of the same species, although the extent to which it has evolved in the 88 years since is debatable.
Gu Shangwei plays Xin, a Chinese detective working undercover in Cambodia who is arrested and taken to a jungle prison. Unfortunately for him, ultra-rich thrill-seekers pay to hunt down and kill the inmates of their choice. After being chosen as a wild-card by the prison’s warden, he is forced into a fight for survival against three heavily-armed Nimrods with varying degrees of sanity.
Director and co-writer Jimmy Henderson has been working in Cambodia since 2011 and from the success of his Netflix-distributed martial arts thriller Jailbreak (2017), he has managed to develop The Prey, touted as the first $1 million Cambodian action film. His direction here is solid if a little utilitarian, but the key difference in the two films is the move by Jean-Paul Ly from star of Jailbreak to being the action director and fight choreographer on this new release. While Ly clearly has the talent to make his own stunt work look extremely impressive, the choreography in The Prey is respectable but not breathtaking.
The main issue is that the film is neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t outrageous and over-the-top enough to be an all-out action film or realistic enough to be dramatically credible. It doesn’t have enough political nous to be a statement on modern Cambodia either, in fact we learn almost nothing about the country except as a vague Southeast Asian setting that could conceivably (to a Western audience) have a jail where this could happen.
Most of the characters are severely underwritten, and although it does stop them from being completely predictable clichés, it doesn’t make them particularly interesting to an audience. You would expect nameless victims to have non-existent back-stories, but not even the main protagonists are developed beyond the bare minimum needed to keep the narrative moving. Mony (Rous Mony), a prisoner who Xin ends up as quarry with is at first presented as a weaselly chancer, using his knowledge of Cambodian and Cantonese to enhance his status at the prison. Shortly after, a brawl breaks out and he climbs a tree to avoid the violence and confrontation. The traits of coward and weasel might not seem too difficult to assimilate, but nothing is built from either incident. Although slightly whinge-y while being pursued by armed hunters, when the time comes to resist them, he does so without too much difficulty or momentous triumph of personality.
Vithaya Pansringarm as the Warden is the nearest the film comes to creating an effective action-move stereotype. Recognisable from his role as the corrupt policeman Lieutenant Chang in Only God Forgives, (Refn 2013), he also played a warm-up prison warden role in the unwanted Statham sequel Mechanic: Resurrection (2016). Disappointingly he doesn’t have enough to do here, and although he seems to be enjoying his heinous behaviour, he doesn’t reach such peak loathsomeness that only his death could quench an audience’s bloodlust for revenge against him. Even a Reservoir Dogs-esque scene of torture in which he jauntily shimmies around to music while telling Xin how much he loves breaking men until they become like animals isn’t enough to make him reprehensible enough to truly hate him.
The ridiculous Ozploitation knock-off Turkey Shoot (Trenchard-Smith, 1982) is closer to The Prey plot-wise than The Most Dangerous Game, setting the same narrative in a remote fortress with a group of deviants that have been cast out of a future dystopian society. Although undoubtedly bad, where it succeeds is in making the story even more ridiculous with its gratuitous gore and bizarre cast. By attempting to ground The Prey in something closer to a plausible reality, Henderson and his co-writers have downplayed the story’s strengths and created something that although enjoyable on a fundamental level doesn’t really warrant extensive analysis. With the lack of Cambodian films reaching a wider audience, this is a missed opportunity to present a view of a country that most Western audiences know very little about, all packaged in an exciting 90-minute action film. As it is, it’s just a fairly entertaining lower-budget Hollywood film in an vague Southeast Asian location.
The name ‘Isabelle’ means ‘Devoted to God’, or ‘God is my oath’ in Spanish, which may be the ironic reason why the makers of this film chose it for the godless Isabelle, a wheelchair-bound woman with spina bifida who terrorises her new neighbours after they have a miscarriage. More cynically, though, it could have been chosen for its semantic similarity to Annabelle, the name of the creepy doll in a popular series of films that were a spin-off from The Conjuring (Wan, 2013). Whether hoping for subconscious name association or not, Isabelle is a ‘real’ person in this film, and her character should therefore be treated with the requisite respect. Isabelle is not an evil spirit trapped in a doll that can be used uncritically as a malevolent presence, she needs to have subtleties and a fully-realised character.
Even as they are moving in, Matt (Adam Brody) and Larissa Kane (Amanda Crew), notice someone staring at them from a window next-door. They wave, make an off-hand comment about the neighbours not being too friendly, and then laugh it off. However, Larissa begins to suspect that the neighbours might be a little more sinister when she startles Isabelle’s mother Ann (Sheila McCarthy) when she is staring into space at her mailbox. Larissa starts bleeding profusely and Ann is bizarrely slow to react. When she gets back from the hospital after her son is stillborn, Larissa is plagued by Isabelle’s unrelenting gaze and things swiftly degenerate from there.
Additional details are added. In two separate internet research scenes, both Larissa and Matt find the same news website that details how Isabelle’s father tortured her because of her condition and tried to offer her up to Satan. After Larissa falls from a second-floor window, Matt jumps to the conclusion that she might be possessed, apropos of almost nothing, and despite the Kanes having no obvious religious fervour he goes off to get Father Lopez, the chaplain from the hospital Larissa was taken to.
Many of the film’s issues stem from the characters being severely underwritten. A God-fearing neighbour who vows to pray for Larissa after finding out that she has had a miscarriage turns out to be nothing more interesting than a kindly well-wisher. Larissa’s sister comes to visit to try and comfort her, although why she didn’t come immediately after finding out about the death of her nephew is never addressed or acknowledged. Matt’s cop father Clifford also pops round for some hand-wringing, and conveniently stands in when the police are called so that no other law enforcement characters are needed. Writer Donald Martin has a wild selection of TV movie credits to his name, from The Craigslist Killer (2011) to Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery (2015), and Isabelle has the same perfunctory plot development and limp characterisation as a Hallmark Channel early afternoon thriller.
These paper-thin cyphers could be overlooked if Larissa and Matt were a solid, believable couple. Their relationship is the crux of the film’s tension and the way they deal with the loss of their son would be enough to sustain an entire narrative. Unfortunately, they are just as indistinguishable as the secondary characters. Larissa is a piano teacher who plays the piano just once, and Matt is a lawyer who is seen shuffling paper at his office a couple of times. Other than that, they have no interests and no friends. The only thing we learn about Matt over 80 minutes is that he really likes chocolate cake with cream icing. All they do is talk about their relationship and whether Larissa is really being haunted by the girl next-door or if she is just having serious grief issues.
Sadly, Isabelle is stylistically flat too. It feels like it was hacked down to get it to 80 minutes, as the scenes in the first act all run into one another, speeding by in quick succession to get to the supernatural elements that are the film’s primary hook. The restrictive location of the Kanes’ new home could be used effectively, but it never looks like it has recently been moved into and seeing Larissa lying in bed with a full face of make-up becomes repetitious quite quickly. Director Robert Heydon is a veteran Canadian film-maker but horror is clearly not his forte or his passion. The jump scares are unoriginal and uninspired. Malevolent spirits glimpsed in the reflections of mirrors and towering at the end of beds have been seen uncountable times in far more interesting circumstances. Easily the worst decision, however, was to give Isabelle glowing red CGI eyes. They look comically cheap and seem to have been used only to signify a plot point towards the end of the film.
Essentially, Isabelle is presented as a disabled person whose only dream is to be inside Larissa’s able body and take over her life. Aside from its weakness as a plot generally, because the film is so thoughtlessly written, this idea comes across as offensive and merely a device to sustain the threat of possession throughout. If the concept was engaged with and analysed, it could be provocative and challenging, questioning generalisations of disabled people and the tragedy of wanting something which you can never have. Using a person with spina bifida, even one with a Satanist father as an unambiguously insidious being isn’t really acceptable and Isabelle needs a properly developed back story to be a character or even remotely frightening. It doesn’t work as a portrayal of grief, either, and even setting aside all of the underlying and worrying implications of the plot, as a horror film, it doesn’t scare, surprise or entertain.
There aren’t nearly enough films about fishermen. There appears to be just one very recent 2019 short film from the Dominican Republic about fisherwomen on IMDb, so technically they are almost invisible to film-makers, but fishermen are generally under-represented at the cinema, too. In spite of the fact that there is so much cinematic potential in commercial fishing – the inherent dangerousness and the crew dynamics of a testosterone-fuelled boat, the difficulty of keeping afloat both literally and financially, the potential triumph over adversity or the tragedy of the mariner’s fate – directors and producers just don’t seem to have any interest in telling stories about longliners or lobster-potting.
The Perfect Storm (Petersen, 2000) capitalises on many of the lures above but its anchovy-thin plot and overbearing sentimentalism ultimately drowns out any enjoyment. Luchino Visconti’s 1948 neorealist masterpiece La Terra Trema is undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed of all fishing-based films, but after 70 years, there has to be room in the canon for a more contemporary depiction of the fishermans’ plight.
Mark Jenkin’s new film Bait is therefore a welcome addition to the small haul of films about fisherman, and although it doesn’t use almost any of the hypothetical spectacle or patent drama suggested above, it is one of the most original and interesting British films of the last 20 years. Shot on location in Charlestown and Penzance in Cornwall using a 16mm wind-up Bolex camera on black-and-white Kodak film, it centres on a boat-less fisherman called Martin and his fractious relationships with both his brother Steven and the Leigh family, who are staying in the village over the summer. Steven is now using their father’s trawler to take out day-tripping tourists, while the Leighs are living in his parents’ old home, making it “modern” and putting in a port-hole feature, much to Martin’s amusement.
Cornish comedian and actor Edward Rowe as Martin brilliantly embodies the absurdity of having a semi-antiquated profession and a sizable degree of bitterness while remaining likeable through his commitment to his family’s heritage and his sense of humour. He is frequently watched and given advice by his dead father, who adds to the already unsettling atmosphere created by the film’s bold visual style. As the Bolex camera has such a tight field of vision, the claustrophobia of the emotionally closed off Martin is apparent everywhere he goes, from his local pub to the (presumably) wide-open beach.
All the dialogue was added in post-production and it creates a further unnerving disconnection between the images and the audio. The flat, uninflected tone of some of the actors creates an effect somewhere between early Kaurismäki and the public service announcements Harry Enfield spoofed in the ‘90s. Jenkins processed all the film by hand, which adds to the films highly personal tone but never makes it feel provincial or limited.
The festering antagonism between local fishermen and the invading second-home tourists is is portrayed in a balanced and thoughtful way. Assuming that Mark Jenkin’s loyalty lies with the plight of Martin’s dying way of life, he doesn’t caricature the rubberneckers by making them total idiots or ignorant prigs. Instead, he unflinchingly shows their sense of entitlement and self-righteousness while partially vindicating them by showing their lack of awareness, and that fundamentally, they are just people too, kind and considerate in many ways. It’s refreshing to see a film that highlights underlying social issues without the relentless bludgeoning of more recent Loach offerings while still remaining funny and highly entertaining.
While it is too niche a subject matter and too bizarre in its methods and style to have extensive box-office draw, Bait will likely be a critics’ favourite, and justifiably so. It is uncomfortable at times, but its idiosyncrasies are what separate it out from the period dramas and dull literary adaptations that have been the mainsail of the British film industry during the 21st century. Hopefully Mark Jenkin will turn his attention to other Cornish subjects and create more beautiful, individual and exceptional films like Bait.
The concept of the talkative hitman certainly wasn’t invented by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, but he definitely popularised a certain type of affable murderer in mainstream American cinema. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield talk nonchalantly about fast food in France and foot massages like they are off to pick up flat-pack furniture from IKEA, even when they are actually revealed to be on their way to threaten (and potentially kill) people. Their almost banal conversations are what makes their characters so fascinating. The dialogue between them is narratively inconsequential and yet utterly compelling.
25 years later and we have Tarantino partly to blame for Martin Owen’s Killers Anonymous. In this British action film, an underground support group for murderers attracts the most garrulous group of killers ever assembled. Unfortunately, rather than revelling in the mundanity of everyday life, they are all obsessed with murder and never stop going on about it. When they aren’t dragging out stories about their first kills, they are indulging in cod philosophy about why they like murdering so much, or threatening to murder each other. The rest of the dialogue is taken up with needlessly complicated exposition that tries to create an Agatha Christie-esque mystery out of a room of painfully obvious (and usual) suspects.
For a film centred on a gathering of homicide addicts, their justifications for killing are disappointingly uninspired, too. Sexual abuse, morbid fascination and gangster peer pressure are pretexts for a few, but the script (co-written by Martin Owen with Seth Johnson and Elizabeth Morris) never shocks or surprises in its choices, even though the safety blanket of its satirical tone and its ridiculous narrative set-up would grant the film creative licence to be as outrageous as it dared to be.
In a sub-Pulp Fiction early scene, The Man (Gary Oldman) gets mad as a lorry with Jade (Jessica Alba) for her insipid and long-winded excuse as to why she was unable to finish off a US Senator she was contracted to kill. In what are essentially cameo appearances, the lack of interest and artistic value is evident in the simultaneous overacting and indifference of both actors. Jessica Alba, last seen on the big screen playing herself in the disastrously received Entourage spin-off film and pole-dancing for what felt like two hours in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, clearly knows this isn’t a job to kill for as a bandanna-wearing lesbian hitwoman and looks desperate to be killed off as soon as possible. After a fantastic 35-year career, Oldman now seems unable to speak in any believable accent and spends the rest of the film in a deckchair on top of a building watching action that is taking place almost exclusively indoors through binoculars.
The rest of the ensemble cast do the best they can with their paper-thin characters to varying degrees of success. Rhyon Nicole Brown is sufficiently moody and mysterious as Alice, and solid character actor Tim McInnerny is dependably creepy as a deadly doctor in the Harold Shipman mould, but Elliot James Langridge and Michael Socha suffer with the cardboard cutout characters they have to play and are unable to provide any depth to Ben and Leandro. Amusingly, Tommy Flanagan’s Markus occasionally sounds like ex-junkie Jacqueline McCafferty from The Limmy Show. If he had started talking about how he’d turned his life around after spending three years on heroin, it would have at least provoked an unintentional laugh, but unfortunately his character is relentlessly angry and humourless.
Sadly, the film’s mediocrity extinguishes any potential joy that could come from it being disastrously offensive or inept. The climatic action sequence, through a combination of hackneyed deaths and awful CGI blood is devoid of any excitement, and the final scene’s attempt at implying that history is set to repeat itself is as tired as Oldman’s agent must feel. Fundamentally, the central conceit at the heart of Killers Anonymous just doesn’t work, aiming for comic-book irreverence, it just ends up seeming confused and ultimately a little pointless.
Digital Download Release Date: 26th August Theatrical Release Date: 28th August Director: Martin Owen Cast: Gary Oldman, Jessica Alba, Suki Waterhouse, Tommy Flanagan, Tim McInnerny, Rhyon Nicole Brown, Michael Socha, MyAnna Buring, Elliot James Langridge & Sadie Frost Distributor: Bird Box Distribution (Theatrical) & The Movie Partnership (Digital Release) Digital Platforms: iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon Video, Google Play, Xbox Video Store, The Playstation Store, Rakuten TV, BT TV, Vubiquity & Talk Talk Rating: TBC Runtime: 95 mins
Ironically, for an actor most famous for playing a replicant, Rutger Hauer was actually a very unique and versatile performer. Although his role as the relentless Roy Batty in Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) was career-defining, his range was much wider than most European-born actors with long-lasting Hollywood status. With his death last month following a short illness, here’s a look at two of his lesser-known films, in roles where his wild-eyed charisma was allowed to run loose, whether it fitted with the intended atmosphere or not.
Released in 1997, two years after Die Hard With A Vengeance (McTiernan), Blast is set during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and is very much in the same one-man-against-the-terrorists Die Hard mould of storytelling. The opening titles allege that this is a hypothetical reconstruction of a real FBI-foiled terrorist plot planned for the Summer Games. Into this reputedly true story are thrown several clearly unreal characters that veer from the sublimely boring to the simply ridiculous.
Linden Ashby is gloriously wooden and breathtakingly dull as Jack Bryant, a former taekwondo Olympic bronze medallist, reduced to lowly janitor status by his injuries and the precipitant alcoholism that takes hold when he can’t kick people anymore. Andrew Divoff plays the distinctly Hans Gruber-esque Russian terrorist Omodo, who takes the female US Olympic swimming team hostage to distract from his real plan to blow up the President. Bill Clinton is never referred to by name, presumably because the factual content of this “true story” is dubious at best, and there might be some ethical concerns about pretending that the actual President would have been in any real danger in 1996.
And then there’s Rutger Hauer. He plays a wheelchair-bound Interpol agent who appears to be dressed as a Native American, although this is never discussed on-screen, leaving the viewer to wonder why he has two red fabric-bound plaits on either side of his head and talks in a weird, American-tinged accent. Despite the fact that his rivalry with Omodo (who caused his debilitating injuries) is swept over very briefly in the narrative, and how he spends the majority of his minimal screen time cooped up in a tiny office barking instructions to the FBI that are largely ignored, he somehow manages to make the film mostly about him. Even with his half-written back story and those pigtails, Hauer is able to make Leo slightly more believable than the paper-thin main characters, and his final confrontation with Omodo manages to have some pathos to it, in spite of its absurdity.
In its detail-driven approach to storytelling, Blast could be 10 years ahead of its time, but unfortunately its commitment to authenticity makes it quite tedious, rather than creating interest in the minutiae of the terrorists’ strategic approach. The poster claims that “Terror Has No Limits”, but the film itself suggests that terror has very clear restrictions and could be pretty easily prevented by a lone caretaker fresh from the 12-step programme. It seems pretty pointless that the FBI bothered to stop the plot at all.
Surprisingly for Albert Pyun, a well-worn genre director famous for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg and a couple of Kickboxer sequels (including an upcoming and entirely unnecessary Algerian entry to the series), the action isn’t particularly dynamic or well-orchestrated either. Bryant is never afflicted by either his injuries or his love of the bottle, and knocks off most of the gang with a few perfunctory strikes and boots. Despite its explosive title, only one of the terrorists’ bombs actually goes off, and when you pick through the debris of this film, you’re left with the poorly-paced story of a charisma-less everyman getting his life back on track by high-kicking some Russians.
Split Second (Maylam, 1992) on the other hand, is a wildly different experience and Hauer is given even more freedom to be as preposterous and extravagant as possible in every aspect of his performance. In this steampunk-ish sci-fi, he plays Harley Stone, a homicide detective who is such a maverick he calls a dog a “dickhead” twice and doesn’t seem to do any paperwork at all. Set in a flooded London devastated by climate change in not-too-distant future of 2008, he’s on the hunt for the serial killer who killed his partner, and is forced to partner up with the fresh-faced detective Dick Durbin, straight out of Oxford with a measured, scientific approach to crime-fighting. Unbelievably, they have ideological differences, until Durbin eventually realises that the all-guns-blazing approach is obviously better and the only way to solve the murders.
They spend the majority of the film running through puddles and driving to crime scenes where they’ve just missing their quarry, potentially by a split second, although the film’s title is never really explained. Hauer strides down long corridors in his proto-Neo leather coat and post-John Lennon round sunglasses, shouting at people and shooting things with a comically large hand cannon. It’s a manic, overblown performance that, unlike in Blast, completely fits with the film’s world and aesthetics.
The supporting cast feature as bizarre a group of people as you would expect to find in an ecologically devastated future London. Kim Cattrall turns up, looking very confused, as Michelle McLaine, the dead partner’s wife who Stone had an affair with and then abandoned. Alun Armstrong plays, amusingly, almost exactly the same character as he does in the new Matt Berry sitcom Year Of The Rabbit, a highly-strung police commissioner at the end of his tether with all Stone’s maverick behaviour. Pete Postlethwaite endows Stone’s fellow officer Paulsen with far more character than he was written with, while Michael J. Pollard and Ian Dury (of Blockheads’ fame) appear as a dirty ratcatcher and his filthy assistant. Even amid this group of character actors, Hauer outshines them all.
In both Blast and Split Second, Hauer took the raw materials he was given, whether it was a shoddy script or ludicrous characterisation, and turned them into, if not gold, then at least something far more structurally sound than it would have been in a lesser actor’s hands. With a selection of posthumous releases scheduled over the next few months, including a role as The Ghost of Christmas Future in an upcoming TV version of A Christmas Carol with Guy Pearce as Scrooge, we’ll have a few more additions to Hauer’s filmography. And we’ll always have the “tears in the rain” monologue, of course. He rewrote most of that himself the night before, so who knows what he’ll do with Dickens.
After Liam Neeson gets his daughter back when she’s taken in Taken (Morel, 2008), and Nicolas Cage gets his daughter home after she’s stolen in Stolen (West, 2012), you might wonder why mothers don’t do anything to save their children. Women just seem to leave it all up to their jaded male counterparts to threaten and beat up anyone who stands between them and their kidnapped progeny. The middle-aged dads get to re-establish their fading virility while reconnecting with their family, who they’ve always neglected, usually through working or drinking too much, or sometimes both. It’s a lazy narrative for an easily digestible action movie, where there are clearly marked lines and the violence is justifiable to even the most faint-hearted of audiences. Anyone who might be on the fence, or even actively against eye-gouging, neck breaking or genital mutilation, can usually be convinced of its reasonable inclusion as soon as anyone under the age of 18 is in any physical danger. And especially if the victim is a defenceless girl.
On the back of all these redemption-through-getting-back-kidnapped-children films comes Furie, a 2019 Vietnamese production for Netflix directed by Le-Van Kiet. The only major difference here is that the parent involved is a mother on a mission, rather than the archetypal man. Veronica Ngo, riding the wave of tokenistic attempts to appeal to Chinese and Korean markets in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017) and the universally slated Bright (Ayer, 2017) stars as Hai Phuong, a former gangster-turned-debt collector whose daughter is abducted by organ-harvesting criminals. She has to kick, punch and chase a boat on a motorbike to get her back in the tight requirements of a standard Hollywood action movie, with little time for any deviation.
Superficially, this is a positive twist on an age-old tale. Fictional parents have been proving the unstoppable lengths they will go to for their children since Ancient Greece, but with 2,000 years to work on the theme, it would be exciting to see something with a little more depth and moral ambiguity. The ‘Furie’ of the film’s title presumably refers to the ‘infernal goddesses’ of Greek myth, and Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone would definitely see a potential candidate for a fourth sister in Hai Phuong. The Furies punished crimes of men by relentlessly hounding their victims until they were killed in absolute agony. Hai Phuong shows her credentials here, initially in the violents ways in which she approaches debt collecting and in unleashing her fury with a ‘y’ once her daughter is taken/stolen. Unfortunately, although Veronica Ngo’s martial-arts skills are up to scratch, she isn’t truly able to evoke the true parental devastation of potentially losing her child through her negligence.
Looking for moral perplexity and exceptional acting in a Vietnamese action film created for the most popular video-streaming service in the world might appear to be a fool’s errand, but it would be nice to see some deviation from the standard American cinematic model we’re all accustomed to and emotionally numb from. The Vietnamese film industry has struggled ever since moving to a market economy in 1986, and its relationship with American culture is a double-edged sword from the Resistance War Against America. Early on, the view of the country portrayed here is indistinguishable from the American-focussed Vietnam war films of the late 1970s and ‘80s. We see bustling rural life, market stalls and fishing, like we’re hanging out of a Iroquois helicopter in 1959, amazed at the quaintness of their simple ways. It isn’t until Hai Phuong chases the kidnappers to Ho Chi Minh City that we get to see a more urban side to the country, and even then nothing really challenges the Western preconceptions of Vietnam.
Judging it purely on its action sequences, the fighting scenes are well choreographed, and technically, it’s on a par with most big-budget Hollywood action films, if not quite achieving the virtuosity of The Raid (Evans, 2011), the benchmark now for any film where people end up punching each other. It seems a missed opportunity to have not challenged the standard model of this type of story, either with a more overt feminist subtext, or a more nuanced ethical examination of how far is too far when it comes to protecting your children. But judging a donkey for not being a horse is unfair, and on its own terms, this is an entertaining thriller that touches on a topical subject and is a solid showcase for a burgeoning film industry. With any amount of success on Netflix, hopefully they will fund more Vietnamese films so that they can start to rival other Southeast Asian countries’ productions.