Thursday, 24 February 2011

Review - 'Travellers' brings survivalist thrills on a shoestring

Four mates, all well-paid city boys, head out on their motorcycles for a few days away from it all in the great outdoors. The plan is to make a proper boy's-own adventure of it, with a bit of biking, hiking, climbing, rafting, orbing and the like. But one of their number likes to play things a wee bit too devil may care. Spotting an Irish travellers' caravan which appears abandoned, he decides to vandalise it. Naturally, it turns out the caravan is not abandoned after all, and its owners are far from happy. But as the lads run to the woods for cover, things quickly escalate, and it isn't long before there's blood on the ground. And so the scene is set for a bitter struggle to stay alive, in which prejudices are confronted, true natures revealed, and sanity tested.

Yes, we're very much in the realm of Deliverance and Southern Comfort here. Travellers is as much a two-fisted action film as it is a rumination on the nature of the violent impulse, the extent to which it is inherent in all men, and how it is handled by those used to a life of comfort. While at first the viewer might anticipate a fairly clear-cut, black and white, good guys versus bad guys film, this debut film from writer/director Kris McManus is happily a more sophisticated piece of storytelling, which (pun intended) doesn't pull too many punches.

There a few key factors working against it, no doubt. Most obvious of these is the budget. This is clearly a real shoestring affair; the DV cinematography and sound mix are not great, and there some continuity issues here and there (notably an early campfire scene in which the audio clearly doesn't match the action). Plus, as also tends to be the case in microbudget films, the performances and the dialogue often leave a bit to be desired as well, with many of the key players coming off quite stilted and awkward.* This is unfortunately most true of Shane Sweeney, essentially the lead as Chris, whose white collar existence hides a more colourful history. The character's progression from the lad with the mildest temprement to the toughest fighter among them strains credibility somewhat, and Sweeney struggles to sell it to us. (It doesn't help that he's called on to repeatedly use the term 'asshole.' Come on guys, this is a British production and British people say arsehole.)

Happily, this is not the case with Tom Geoffrey who portrays Alex, the one whose prank sets the ball rolling. A reject of the Territorial Army who fancies himself a modern warrior - yes, rather like Mike from Spaced, but played straight - he is perhaps the most complex character in the film, gradually slipping into a kind of madness. As the one with most vocal in his bigotry against travellers, much of the film's commentary on prejudice comes from his scenes. All this considered, if this performance didn't work then it's likely the film wouldn't work at all. But Geoffrey does a great job, and of all the actors in the film I should expect the brightest future will be for him; there are a great many more wild-eyed madmen roles with this guy's name on them.

The other real strength of this film is the action sequences. You'll notice that the words 'fearsome bare-knuckle boxing' are splashed across the cover, and not without justification; Travellers does indeed boast a few such fight sequences which are very well realised. But for the most part this is a chase film, with a fast pace that rarely lets up. It is the skill with which these scenes are staged that really pinpoints Kris McManus as a filmmaker to look out for. He crafts battles and chases which can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those of Hollywood action blockbusters, presumably having spent less than such megabudget productions would on catering.

Yes, the lack of funds may mean the film is a bit lacking aesthetically, and the social commentary isn't handled quite so well as the beat-'em-up action, but Travellers is still one of the most impressive low budget films I've seen in some time. Someone give Kris McManus £20 million now, and I have no doubt we'll have a British action film the whole world will get excited about.

Travellers is released to Region 2 DVD from High Fliers Films on 28th February 2011.

* I might add this also applies to the biggest name in the film, Charley Boorman; but I hasten to add that, although his name may be listed above the title, he only has a throwaway cameo appearance with very little impact on the narrative, so quite what drew him to the part I don't know. The presence of motorbikes in the synopsis, maybe?

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Mila Kunis will get you, my pretty! And your little dog too!

Okay... pardon my male chauvinism, but you paint this young lady green and there will be a whole new generation wanting to make like Captain Kirk. And if Vulture is on the money, that's just what will be happening, as Mila Kunis - fresh from making Natalie Portman bust in her mouth like gushers, motherfucker - is said to be the favourite for the Wicked Witch of the West in Sam Raimi's upcoming Oz: The Great and Powerful.

Raimi's Wizard of Oz prequel has been an interesting proposition from the start, even though casting news has been pretty much all we've got from it thus far, with the title role being passed around from Robert Downey Jr to Johnny Depp and finally (or so it seems) to James Franco. The above report suggests that the hiring of Kunis is what convinced Franco to officially sign on. This would seem to indicate the two will share screen time, which I guess is interesting as the characters have no scenes together in The Wizard of Oz. That said, I'm entirely unfamiliar with the books which inspired the movie, which I'm given to understand are pretty far removed from the glittery, all-singing all-dancing version we're all accustomed to.

It's interesting that this obviously big budget movie is willing to go for younger names with less proven box office pull. With Raimi behind the camera, it's fair to expect something visually spectacular with a good dose of off-the-wall humor; and if Franco can pull off a performance half as amusing as his uncredited cameo in The Green Hornet, this could rock big time.

And Kunis... like, I said, pardon my chauvinism, but she is just damn sexy, and she rocked the house in Black Swan. Like Franco, she's a long way off being the most obvious choice for the role. All this would seem to indicate a film that will take us all by surprise.

Incidentally, the Vulture piece is also well worth a look for its info on the long-gestating live action Akira; Kunis had apparently been up for the female lead in that, and her choice to go with Oz instead has left a question mark over the project. To which I must say - good. Any movie where they would consider casting the fortysomething Brad Pitt as the teenage Kaneda would suggest a desperate need for a reassessment of priorities.

So in the meantime, let's get back to picturing Kunis with green skin in this kind of get up...

Yep - sold.

See you in the cinema, 2013.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Marvel Musings #3 (miniature edition)

So it's official - Shane Black IS directing Iron Man 3.

This on top of Darren Aronofsky directing The Wolverine, a "standalone movie" modelled on the classic Japan-set Frank Miller run.

This on top of Marc Webb's webslinger reboot being officially entitled The Amazing Spider-Man. And taking it back to good ol' homemade mechanical webshooters.

This on top of Joss Whedon directing The Avengers.

This on top of a summer that will give us X-Men: First Class, Captain America, and Thor...

All that on top of Green Lantern, The Dark Knight Rises, The Man of Steel, and - yes - the return of small-screen Wonder Woman.

Anyone thinking superhero movies might be played out... stay the hell away from the cinemas. Leave the seats free for all us true believers.

Excelsior, motherfucker.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Review - 'Paul'

Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are your textbook nerds. They have bad haircuts, lack social graces, only wear T-shirts with film and comic book motifs on them, and presumably hum with BO. They'd be fishes out of water anywhere, but when we first meet them they're thousands of miles from their homeland of Britain, about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime across the UFO hotspots of the USA. But, of course, things don't quite go according to plan, as not long after passing Area 51 they find themselves crossing paths with a bona fide grey alien... albeit one who smokes, speaks English, and answers to the name of Paul. From there on, it certainly remains the roadtrip of a lifetime, but with a greater sense of life-and-death urgency.

The tricky thing about Paul is that it's one of those movies that's nigh-on impossible to assess on its own terms. The obvious questions that immediately present themselves: how do the big screen (and hitherto small screen) double act of Pegg and Frost get on without Edgar Wright behind the camera? How does the writing partnership of Pegg and Frost compare with that of Pegg and Wright? How does it all fare under the direction of the conspicously un-British Greg Mottola? Do we class the resulting movie as American, or British, or what?

And, of course, the biggest question of all: is Paul as good as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz? Or, for that matter, Scott Pilgrim Versus The World?

The short answer is... no. Paul is almost certainly the weakest film to date from either the Mottola camp or the Pegg/Frost camp, assuming we don't count Run Fatboy Run (which I don't as, while Pegg starred and co-wrote it, it was not his original creation; he merely revised an existing script). It doesn't have that same assured touch of Shaun and Fuzz, with nowhere near as many laugh-out-loud moments, nor does it have the same chemistry and underlying heart that made Mottola's Superbad and Adventureland so special. By comparison with all the aforementioned it feels a tad bit haphazard, not so carefully prepared and finetuned; not the dazzling display of comedic expertise we might have expected.

But here's the good news... this team playing at less than their best is still head and shoulders above most other filmmakers working in comedy right now. Paul may not be a masterpiece, but it's still a damn good bit of sci-fi flavoured fun.

Obviously it's not eons away from Pegg and Frost's earlier collaborations. One of the great virtues of their work is that they have never been content to roll out the exact same characterisations every time. Tim and Mike, Shaun and Ed, Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman: these are all very different double acts with distinct character traits. So it is with Graeme and Clive. For once Frost plays the somewhat more dominant role; it's usually him getting pissed off and shouting at Pegg, as opposed to the other way round as it has tended to be in the past. Pegg, meanwhile, plays surely his most timid character to date, as terrified by the local rednecks as he is by the opposite sex, notably in the shape of Kristin Wiig as the fundamentalist Christian they pick up along the way (whose faith takes the humour into somewhat more political hot topic territory than these guys have ventured before).

Perhaps the key difference between this and the other Pegg/Frost projects is that, ultimately, the film doesn't really revolve around them. They're just a couple of innocent bystanders who accidentally find themselves at the eye of the storm, with an alien in their rented RV. Yes, Paul is the title character for a reason. Not only is the story driven by him, but it's also when he comes into play that the film really comes to life.

As other reviews have noted, Paul starts off in a surprisingly understated fashion as we follow Clive and Graeme through San Diego Comicon and onto their road trip. It all feels a bit meandering and lifeless, until Paul shows up. His presence drives a wedge between the two lifelong friends. A carpe diem kinda guy, he nudges both of the repressed overgrown children toward uncharacteristic behaviour, which is where much of the comedy comes from. Subsequently, as the most confident member of the bunch he also winds up with most of the best lines. As I mentioned in my review of The Green Hornet, Seth Rogen seems to be something of a polarising figure in contemporary film comedy; a guy you either love or hate. (One can't help but wonder if they had this in mind when Paul digs through the fridge and says, "mmm, Marmite!") Even so, I suspect the absence of his actual physical presence may be of reassurance to those of the 'hate' camp. Rogen hasn't taken on so endearing a role since his breakthrough in Knocked Up, and his vocal work in conjunction with some really good CG adds up to a great character.

Indeed, when all is said and done Paul really isn't just a Pegg/Frost film at all; it's a real ensemble piece. There are almost as many scenes following the men in black on their trail, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. Bateman's smooth pro Agent Zoil (a name that pays off) leaves Hader and Lo Truglio's relative rookies Haggard and O'Reilly in the dark as to the specifics of the mission, and their gradual realisation as to just what is going on is, by the final act, perhaps even more vital to driving the narrative than anything Graeme and Clive get up to. Indeed, as the ensemble continues to swell right up to the final scenes (with one eleventh hour addition feeling particularly unnecessary - and no, I'm not referring to Sigourney Weaver), you almost forget the film is about them at all. By distancing us from the main protagonists this way, the movie does not allow anything like the same level of personal involvement commanded by Shaun, Fuzz and Superbad.
And in case you might question its relevance to KA-BOOMSKI! I have two things to say. One: it's got multiple car chases, shoot-outs and fight scenes, and at least a couple of big fuck-off explosions. Two: it's my bastard blog, I'll write up whatever I want.

No, it doesn't feel like an entry in the 'Blood & Ice Cream' trilogy, nor does it pack the same belly laugh and emotional sucker punch quota, but even so Paul is very entertaining, reasonably quotable (expect to hear a lot of "Three tits! Awesome!"), and sure to hold up well to repeat viewing.

Just a slice of fried silver, then.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Review - 'Clash' gives cops & robbers a Thai twist

UPDATE, 13 JULY 2011. It has been brought to my attention that this film is in fact a Vietnamese production, and as such I am in fact a tool. I wholeheartedly apologise for my mistake, and any offence it may have caused. Happily, it doesn't in any way change what an entertaining movie it is.

Five career criminals. All perfect strangers, or so it would appear. None of them use their own names, and are referred to only by the psuedonyms given to them by the one in charge. All are lower-level employees of a much bigger boss; the pieces on his chess board, as he likes to see it. They have a heist to pull off, and a specific set of rules to follow. There is a package they must obtain by any means necessary, and it is not their concern what the package is. However, things are not quite what they seem. Two among the group are not such strangers as they pretend; and one among them just might be an undercover cop...

Sounds rather like I just mashed up the plots of Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects and a bit of The Transporter, wouldn't you say? And those are by no means the only revered thrillers to which Clash gives a nod. We have a little Leon (The Professional), as the big bad's second in command warns a grunt of the perils of disturbing the boss while he's enjoying his music; we have a little The Killer, as the same big bad sports Chow Yun-Fat's trademark of a blood-splattered cream suit, in a waterside final showdown no less. Factor in that the time-honoured convention of the star-crossed lovers, and it's beyond question that Clash is a big old intertextual sponge; absorb a broad spectrum of cult crime films (of the past two decades in particular), squeeze it all out and serve it up Thai-style, and this movie would be the net result.

And is any of that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Because Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects never had anyone busting out jawdropping Muay Thai and Jujitsu moves, or blowing quite so much shit up in so extravagant a fashion.

After Force of Five (my review), this the second movie I've seen with Johnny Nguyen as the headline star. In fact, he's a great deal more besides, serving also as a writer, producer, and of course fight choreographer. Having done stuntwork on the Spider-Man movies and various other Hollywood blockbusters certainly can't have done anything to tarnish his name, and on this evidence he's got what it takes to become the next eastern action star to find cult status in the west. The fight scenes are impressive indeed, the prominence of elbow and knee moves marking them out as distinctly Thai, whilst the grappling, arm bars and choke holds are sure to tickle the fancy of anyone who enjoys MMA. The gun battles and vehicular stunts certainly aren't too shabby either.

However, while on paper this might read like The Johnny Nguyen Show, truth be told he isn't the real star or central character here. That goes to Veronica Ngo as the woman given command of the team, the one who allocates the code names (herself Phoenix, Nguyen Tiger), the one most directly manipulated by the big boss (codename Black Dragon). Hers is by far the most demanding role in the film, requiring her to show proficiency as a martial artist (tick); look great in street combat gear and fetching red ball gown (tick); project authority over her male subordinates (tick); yet also display deep vulnerability, for she has something very big and very personal at stake in the job (tick again). I haven't seen her earlier performance in The Rebel, a movie which I understand features much of the same cast and crew, but I can safely say I haven't been so impressed by a female action star in some time, possibly not since Michelle Yeoh. I do not say that lightly.

Newcomer Le Thanh Son turns in confident, energetic work in his debut as feature director; we can surely expect good things from this guy in the future. And as far as the script goes; sure, many of the homages are blatant (I haven't even mentioned the early scene that pretty well directly recreates Mr Pink's annoyance at not being allowed to pick his own colour), but it's not as though we're not expected to notice. Let's face it, western directors have been lifting motifs from eastern films for years without drawing much comment; it's nice to see the balance redressed now and then (as with last year's Connected.) And, of course, it's also fair to say that at least 95% of the time Hollywood can only dream of staging action scenes as electrifying as this.

Clash will be released on Region 2 DVD by Revolver Entertainment on 21st February 2011.

Friday, 11 February 2011

'Red Sonja' turns to Amber - and heads West...?

Yeesh... what am I thinking with that headline? Please excuse me.

So this is one of those good news, bad news things. Empire announced today that the ball looks set to roll again on the new Red Sonja movie. This is good news. They also say that the favourite for the role is Amber Heard. While she wouldn't be my first choice - we all know it should be Christina Hendricks, for crying out loud - this is still pretty good news. But then they mention that the director lined up is Simon West. No, no, no!

Now, I'll admit I haven't had a chance to see West's latest, his remake of The Mechanic with Jason Statham. I hear it's okay. I'll also admit I am a big fan of gloriously absurd Con Air, though I also hear that the shoot was troubled and West was not given much say in the final cut (I confess I have nothing to back this up; it'sjust what I heard). But here's the real deal clincher, West's last venture into female-centred fantasy adventure - Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. That film was easily one of the biggest let-downs of the 2000s. All the right ingredients were there: a great character in Lara Croft, and the ideal actress for the role in Angelina Jolie; a decent villian in Iain Glen, and a supporting turn from a pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig; and a plot that wasn't necessarily weaker than any given blockbuster. But the whole thing came down like a house of cards because there was absolutely no sense of atmosphere, no sense of structure, no sense of pace, and the blame for that has to land at the feet of the director.

Based on what I've seen of her work, I'm sure Amber Heard would make a fine Red Sonja. She exudes a sense of street-smart tough girl which the part obviously demands, in a medieval kinda way, of course; and, let's not beat around the bush, she'd look damn good in a chain mail bikini brandishing a broadsword. (Hmm, suddenly that sounds like a euphamism.) But, once again, West had the best possible actress for Lara Croft, and still managed to balls it up.

In truth, it's hard to feel too optimistic about this movie on the whole. After all, it's being produced by the same people who saw fit to hire Marcus Nispel, the tower of ineptitude behind the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes, to direct Conan The Barbarian. All things considered, it all kinda makes one sad that Robert Rodriguez is no longer involved. Whatever reservations one may have had about his plans - handing the role to Rose McGowan, and the director's chair to a guy who'd done a straight to video Highlander sequel - there's surely more cause for hope with someone as talented as Rodriguez pulling the strings.

And why do I care? Because scantily clad buxom redheads with big fuck-off swords float my boat, that's why. That's reason enough to take this seriously, isn't it...?

'X-Men: First Class' trailer

I'm excited.

Nothing further to add.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Iron Man's got nards...?

It's the news that is presently whipping up a storm in the underpants of every fanboy and fangirl worth their salt: The Hollywood Reporter has announced that Shane Black has been in talks with Marvel about the possibility of taking the reigns of the third Iron Man movie.

This would be beyond perfect.

If you haven't seen it - and far too many people haven't - check out Black's first directorial effort, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That movie saw Black cast two leading men that Hollywood wanted nothing to do with - Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer - and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that both actors not only still had it, but were quite possibly better than ever. Just over five years later, and sadly Kilmer still can't get arrested but Downey - well, we all know the score with him. Hard to believe that such a short time ago, the smart money was on him winding up in jail or dead, as opposed to becoming one of the biggest movie stars of our time.

Not only does it seem just that Black be given a shot at Iron Man 3, given that he pretty much rescued RDJ from career oblivion; it makes sense artistically too. This is the guy that wrote Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, on top of untold numbers of uncredited script doctorings; those alone demonstrate that the man knows spectacle. And as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang proves, he knows how to put great lines in RDJ's mouth, and make him look cool doing so. Which, let's face it, is what Iron Man is all about.

No, nothing's confirmed yet; but let's hope it is soon. And then we'll get back to hoping Thor, Captain America and The Avengers turn out good.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Superbowl Teaser Trailer Roundup...

I'm British. Naturally I don't give a flying toss about the Superbowl.

Except for the fact that it results in all this.

And most importantly, our very first look at...

I probably find myself saying this every year in the run-up to blockbuster season, but I am really excited about all these movies. These snippets do nothing to quell those high hopes.

Fingers crossed that the highs outweigh the lows in Summer 2011.

Review - 'Alien Vs Ninja.' You'll never guess what it's about.

Do you really need a synopsis? Really?

Yes, it's every bit as simple as it sounds. There's these ninjas, right. And then... get this... there's these aliens. And you'll never guess what, right... the ninjas and the aliens start fighting and shit!

I missed the opportunity to catch this at FrightFest 2010 (see my coverage at Brutal As Hell) because seeing the movie would have meant missing the last train home. Even so, there is no time slot more appropriate for Alien Vs Ninja than the midnight hour. This is filmmaking at its least meaningful and least intellectual, with no motivation other than to provide a short, sharp burst of knowingly absurd, low brow entertainment. And all in all, it does just what it sets out to do. It faces a few hurdles for sure, the biggest being the proliferation of films of this nature coming out of Japan in recent years. From Tokyo Gore Police to RoboGeisha to Big Tits Zombie, world cinema aisles in DVD stores far and wide have been inundated with low budget, DV-shot Japanese movies full of lethal cybernetic appendages, baby doll pin-up leading ladies, and gallons of gore. While amusing at first, the sheer number of these kind of movies has seen the joke get old very fast indeed.

In fairness though, Alien Vs Ninja does stand apart from the aforementioned films in some respects. First off, and this may not be a surprise given that it's only rated 15, it's not so gory a film as some of its forebears. No severed limbs are replaced by Videodrome-esque killer cyborg parts here. Nor is there quite the same emphasis on T&A, given that there's only one female in the ensemble cast. Instead, Alien Vs Ninja plays for the most part as a relatively down to earth beat-'em-up, which just so happens to feature rubbery blue lizard men who wouldn't look out of place in a 70s Doctor Who episode. And happily enough, the fight scenes are for the most part pretty damn good, which cannot be said of all films of this ilk.

As seems to be popular with Japanese fantasy movies, it's shot entirely in woodland areas (can't help wondering how many footpaths and picnic tables are just out of shot), following our black PVC clad heroes as they head out to investigate what appears to have been a meteor. Of course, you already know what they find. Following this annoyingly slow and verbose opening half hour, we have around forty five minutes of extra-terrestrial ass-kicking, wherein the impressive fight choreography and stuntwork mostly makes up for how feeble everything else is. Yes, it's virtually plotless, or at least what little plot there is presents nothing of interest. Who really cares when the emphasis is squarely on the action, where it belongs?

And going back to the subject of T&A - yes, there may be only one female in the cast, but by gum the filmmakers seem hellbent on getting their money's worth out of her. Lady ninja Mika Hiji may remain fully clothed throughout, but the camera is never far away from the shiny black rubber stretched tight across her buttocks (see the DVD cover above for further evidence) or the strategically placed armour plates on her torso. One particular fight has to be seen to be believed, often looking more she's dry-humping the alien rather than battling him to the death. Meanwhile, the long scaly tail that comes swooping toward her from between the alien's legs may look suspiciously like something else... but hey, by comparison with certain other Japanese exports, this is considerably milder than it might have been. Legend of the Overfiend it ain't.

As previously stated, the abundance of absurdist low budget sci-fi schlock horror fight flicks from Japan (not the most succinct summation, perhaps) has resulted in the subgenre growing stale rapidly, and Alien Vs Ninja is by no means free of the same problems that plague its peers. Happily, it has just enough stylistic flair and showcases enough genuinely impressive martial artistry to transcend its limitations. You can't say fairer than that.

Alien Vs Ninja is out now on Region 2 DVD from Revolver Entertainment.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Review - 'K20: Legend of the Black Mask' - pulp heroics go Japanese

The year: 1949. The location: Japan. The world: a somewhat different place from the one we know. In this reality, there was no Second World War, the skies are filled with Zeppelins and other such flying machines, new technologies are on the rise, and society is on the decline, the people of Japan strictly segregated according to class. It's a place where the rich can only get richer, and the poor don't have a hope in hell. Threatening to turn things upside down for all and sundry is a man known only as K20, or 'the fiend with twenty faces;' a master of disguise, misdirection, acrobatics and showmanship who utlilises these skills for grand theft. His latest target, it becomes known, is a new energy transmission device created by Nikola Tesla; a machine with the capacity to either fuel the world, or destroy it. Stumbling haplessly into the middle of all this is Hekichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a highly skilled but impoverished circus performer, who soon finds himself locked up under suspicion of being K20. As his chances of a fair trial are non-existent, Endo's only hope is to break free and clear his name on his own. But in his efforts to do so, Endo realises the best way he can defeat K20 is to fight fire with fire, learn the moves and the tricks of the master thief, and don the mask of K20 himself.

It's a premise with considerable potential; a Japanese take on the vintage masked pulp heroes of yore (The Shadow and the like) with more than a hint of V For Vendetta thrown in, acted out in a steampunk alternate history. When done right, this kind of revisionist adventure can be really quite special (say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics); but when done poorly, they can really stink to high heaven (say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie). While K20 doesn't quite sink to the lows of the latter, nor does it achieve the highs of the former. It should have been a really great piece of entertainment, but somehow it just doesn't quite gel.

For instance, the figure of K20 himself is a bit problematic. Ostensibly at the heart of all that's going on - and there's quite a lot going on - he doesn't actually come into the action very much. Whilst he may adopt the theatrical manner and mystique of a folk hero like Robin Hood, Zorro or even V, K20 does not appear to have any admirers. Given that his goals are selfish and his methods ruthless, he's considered purely a villian by rich and poor alike. As such, it's a little hard to swallow that the purehearted Endo would so happily adopt the persona of this hated figure, even if in so doing he gets to don a cool costume and go swinging around on retractable cables like some latter day Batman (which, after all, is just what the pulp heroes of old were).

However, the bulk of the film's excessive running time is taken up not by dazzling superheroics but by commentary on the gap between the rich and the poor, with Endo introducing sheltered upper class heiress Yoko (Takako Matsu) to the nature of poverty in scenes that echo The Adventures of Robin Hood. Outside of that there's a great deal of police procedural going on, as Yoko's policeman fiance (Toru Nakamura) heads up the K20 investigation (oddly assisted by someone who appears to be about 12 years old). It's all very well trod territory, and none of it utilises the alternate 1949 setting to its full potential, which is a real pity as that vintage sci-fi setting could and should have really made this film stand apart. The Fifth Element didn't offer much new and different in terms of character and narrative either, but it holds up today because of how beautifully its bizarre vision of the future was brought to life. Not so here.

It all comes to a climax with a twist that shouldn't surprise anyone, and leaves the viewer pining for other films in a similar vein which were realised so much better. A disappointing and ultimately forgettable effort.

K20: Legend of the Black Mask is out now on Region 2 DVD from Manga Entertainment.