Incoming (2018)

Misleading at best (no guns, and it’s set in space)

The “space / future prison” genre has a long and honourable history. Well, okay, neither of those things are true, but there are certainly plenty of them. From the classic “Escape From New York”, to 1990’s “Moon 44”, to “Alien 3”, both “Fortress” movies, 1997’s “Moonbase”,Assault On Dome 4”, then getting further down the quality scale to “Starfire Mutiny” and “Total Reality” (there are plenty of others), audiences have been delighted by the implausibility of sending your worst criminals into space when it would be a great deal cheaper and easier to put them in a vault at the bottom of the ocean, or something, for 40 years.

The latest addition is “Incoming”, which first piqued my interest due to its casting of Scott Adkins. Adkins is B-movie royalty – you might recognise him from small roles in “Doctor Strange” and the second “Expendables”, but although his filmography sounds like some cruel joke – things you’ve never heard of called “Wolf Warrior 2”, “American Assassin” and “Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear” – he’s one of the greatest modern on-screen martial artists and is a surprisingly strong actor.

“Incoming” is about terrorism, in a way, but a terrorism completely devoid of any motive, political or otherwise. The Wolfpack, a group mostly comprised of Eastern European men solely because it was filmed in Serbia and that’s what the producers had access to, blow up Big Ben in London, and the first scene is a man in an empty apartment, save for a laptop he’s watching the news on, get arrested.

Five years later! And we’re at the International Space Station, which has been repurposed as a prison for the six members of the Wolfpack they’ve been able to catch. Argun (Vahidin Prelic, doing surprisingly well for his second language) is being tortured by Kingsley (Lukas Loughran), and Kingsley is one of those monsters who seems to quite enjoy his work. The government-approved torture is being done to find out who the Alpha of the Wolfpack is, although it being five years might indicate to some that the torture isn’t working. Whatever!

Into this happy scene comes a pair of CIA agents – one, a doctor, coming to check them out, Stone (Michelle Lehane); the other, an accountant, just one who happens to be ripped and mean-as-hell-looking, Reiser (Adkins). There’s a pilot who flirts with Stone a little, Bridges (Aaron McClusker) and the other five terrorists, of course.

I’ll give the movie credit for being against torture, by no means a given in the world of 2018. We get the line “the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply in space”, which was good enough to put in the trailer, and we get a decent argument against it from Stone, too. But then, she’s tricked by Argun and inadvertently lets the terrorists out, and it’s torture-crazed terrorists versus a woefully underprepared foursome for the last two-thirds.

The “incoming” of the title refers to the terrorists’ plan to point the International Space Station at Moscow and use it as a giant bomb, but it just acts as the race-against-time thing the good guys have to stop and doesn’t particularly factor into things. Well, I say good guys, as there’s definitely some layers to the non-terrorists on board.

There are some nice touches, such as when the terrorists find the room they’ve been tortured in for the last five years and, even though they’re in control, seem unsure about entering; Adkins gives a decent performance too. The sets use their cheapness to their advantage, as it sort of looks like what the ISS would look like if it was largely ignored for five years. Okay, there’s a bit where they carry in the supplies for the prisoners, huge boxes labelled “Beans” with a picture of beans on it, and it’s very obviously an empty box, but no-one’s perfect.

ASIDE: I do like how they get round not being able to afford the zero-gravity effect, by saying “by the way, we’re using this super-good new gravity technology on everything these days”. Good save, movie!

I’d suggest the main problem with “Incoming” is the lack of a reason for why anyone does anything. The terrorists want to blow up Moscow…why, exactly? Why have they done any of this? And when the twist, such as it is, happens, unless you’re paying absolute and complete attention to the dialogue, the reason for their behavior would be a complete mystery to you.

Hiring Scott Adkins for your movie but only giving him two short fight scenes is like hiring Fred Astaire and only bothering to have him do a vague bit of soft-shoe in the background. But, of course, he makes the most of it, and the fights, as well as being brutal, actually tell a story and help advance the movie.

It’s a tense thriller with not an ounce of fat on its bones – while it may be curiously scripted at times, I’d suggest the action of it means it’s worth your while.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Hard Target 2 (2016)

A mere 23 years later, with none of the original cast or crew returning, Universal decided to give us a sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme gem “Hard Target”, one of the dozens and dozens of cinematic riffs on 1926 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”. I suppose the name recognition of the original being directed by John Woo was just enough to get them to not just make an entirely new film. Or someone offered them a job lot of doves and they had that thing where a lightbulb appears above their heads?

Anyway, replacing JCVD is the guy who he must have been grooming as his replacement, as they appeared in a heck of a lot of movies together, Scott Adkins. Adkins is superb, although he doesn’t have that unusual charisma, he’s JCVD’s equal as a screen fighter and clearly superior as an actor. We’ve covered him in “Eliminators”, the last “Universal Soldier” instalment, and “Ninja”, and will review more of his movies soon. Well, when we’ve completed all the other half-done review series, probably.

Adkins is MMA star Wes “The Jailor” Baylor (I was irritated a little straight off the bat, as it’s “jailer”, but I guess it’s to match his surname, even though it’s stupid), and as we first meet him he’s about to have a fight with Jonny Sutherland, who he appears to be hated enemies with. Later on, we learn that the two of them are best friends who are only fighting because the money is so good, but there’s no love lost between the two in the ring, as Jonny fights dirty and Wes really seems to dislike his wife. I kept expecting some sort of explanation as to why the two of them had fallen out, but no. Maybe left on the cutting room floor? (It is quite long, unacceptably so for an action B-movie like this).

Okay, at this point, halfway through the fight, if you’ve watched any movies before, you’ll be able to tell exactly where the plot is going. Wes will kill his friend and leave the world of MMA behind, and then a few months later, living in some dingy hovel somewhere, he’ll be offered the chance to be the prey in a human-hunting expedition led by some rich assholes. That all this happens and I’m relating this to you after watching it might make you think I’m making it up, but it’s not exactly my finest moment of future-prediction. He actually doesn’t leave fighting behind, just moving to Thailand and kicking ass in a variety of colourful yet low-rent locales; before he fights at a wealthy person’s party on a rooftop terrace and is noticed by Aldrich (Robert Knepper).

Ah, Robert Knepper. For when you want an even sleazier version of Lance Henriksen, he’s your man. He’s an extremely busy actor, and as well as the stuff that pays the rent (big TV roles, character work in A-list movies) he also loves doing cheesy stuff like this, chewing scenery in a variety of villainous roles. Thank you, Robert, for elevating a bad guy like Aldrich. His business model is bribing a general in the Myanmar army to let him use a patch of the jungle there as his hunting ground, and apparently tricking the occasional Western idiot into thinking he’s going there for a million dollar payday in a real fight.

Wes is thus tricked, and is forced to run with a colourful group of hunters in hot pursuit. As well as Aldrich and his sidekick Madden (the great Temuera Morrison), there’s Sofia, the daughter of a super-rich oil tycoon (Rhona Mitra, who was once within a hair’s breadth of proper movie fame but is now stuck in stuff like this), Esparto the bullfighter, a redneck father and son, and a video-game designer.

From then on, until the last five minutes, it becomes a people-walking-through-the-jungle movie, which we here at the ISCFC have reviewed many of. So many. Wes escapes, occasionally kills someone (although he seems legitimately upset at having to do it) and his pursuers get angrier and angrier. He meets a beautiful local in the wilderness, who’s trying to save her village, so gets involved in her story, which gives us the opportunity to have one of those scenes where the beautiful local woman tends to the hero’s wounds. No romance in this one, though.

Because it’s a sequel to a John Woo film, they make an effort to make it look like one. There’s doves all over the shop, and the slow-mo arrow thing he used in the original makes a reappearance. The gun that the villain uses at the end is the same as the gun Lance Henriksen used; and the boat chase that Woo planned but never used (because JCVD wanted a horseback chase) is used here too. So, while director Roel Reine (the WWE wrestling-movie house guy) is no Woo, he at least uses the building blocks reasonably well.

There’s some odd little bits of humour here and there, like Wes being about to hit an elephant which has smacked him one, getting told off by his new lady friend, and saying “he threw the first punch!” Aldrich has some cracking one-liners too – nothing too much, but like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

You know how these things are going to go. There is nothing new under the sun, and that’s doubly true for Most Dangerous Game-inspired B-movies. But the stars are fun, the action is decent, and although it mostly ditches the wealthy-hunting-the-poor text of part 1 (the two rednecks don’t seem particularly rich, just assholes) and therefore doesn’t quite have the engine to power the action, it’s still perfectly fine.

There’s something I want to get into, though, and that’s the scene that plays along with the credits, after the ending has the bad guys all dead and the good guys happy. There’s no drama left, no possibility of a twist or anything, so watching Wes go about a day of travelling through Thailand is quite curious. He gets on a bus, eats a little, walks around, enters a house…and that’s it! It feels like a filler scene that was cut, with good reason, but someone somewhere insisted it was included. It’s one of the most curious choices in modern cinema (I say this without fear of hyperbole) and leaves you sort of puzzled and annoyed when you just want to be satisfied with a good slab of action cinema.

Rating: thumbs up

Eliminators (2016)

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This ticks so many ISCFC boxes, it’s not even funny.

 

 

First things first, if you’ve found this site, chances are you’ve seen a dozen films with a roughly similar plot so I’ll recap the main beats, because you might be one of those weirdoes who wants originality from his B-movies. A father is bringing up his daughter on his own, but an accident brings him back into the orbit of a crime boss, and the US Government organisation that the father used to work for. The crime boss sends an assassin after the father, and he’s got to fight that guy as well as rescue his daughter.

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This rather casual dismissal of “Eliminators” is not to criticise it, at all. Simple plots are regularly used because they work, and it’s like writing a romance novel, or making a painting in the style of an old master. It’s not so much the building blocks you use, but how you use them that’s important, and such is definitely the case here. You want your fights, preferably in an unusual location (and there are some doozies), you want your stern humourless “I just want my daughter back” guy with a good past, you want the character archetypes…no love interest in this one, though there’s a woman who you think would be a good fit, but it’s like the movie just ran out of time and decided to not bother.

 

Adkins is Thomas, a guy who seems to just be going through the motions, after losing his wife. He’s a security guard in a largely empty underground car park, and seems to have nothing much in his life apart from that and his daughter. The first five minutes are quite bleak, in a way, showing a day in the life that could be any of a thousand days in the life. But this dull equilibrium is shattered when three balaclava’ed guys break into his house, beat the crap out of him and demand to know where the cocaine is. Now, it turns out that they’ve got the wrong house (it’s X Street, whereas he’s on X Avenue), but he’s seen the main villain’s face so they have to kill him. Not this random homeowner! In a blur of speed, he’s disarmed one guy and killed all three, but due to the police having a bit of a brain-fart, he’s arrested and charged with murder.

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It’s from this monstrously enormous coincidence that our tale is spun. His face gets on the news, and it turns out he’s…sadly, not a former Special Forces guy, which was my first guess, but a federal agent who spent a staggering 5 years undercover in Mr Cooper’s criminal organisation, to the extent of falling in love with and marrying Cooper’s daughter, plus having a kid together (the wife died in a car-bomb meant for him), before being put in super-secret witness protection overseas. Cooper is told about Thomas still being alive and sends Europe’s no.1 assassin (“Bishop”, played by Barrett) to go and sort him out. Thomas calls his old friends in the US, and they dispatch their top guy Ray (Daniel Caltagirone) to go to London and help resolve the situation. The daughter is taken to a secret location by Social Services, Thomas escapes custody, Bishop pursues him through London, and Cooper finally decides to come over and meet his old friends…

 

Like I said, super-familiar, but more like a favourite meal you’re enjoying for the hundredth time than something stodgy and disappointing. And I really need to stop with the analogies for this now! Let’s talk fighting. One of the things I admired most about old Mark Dacascos movie “Drive” was the inventive nature of the fight scenes – one in an small-ish hotel room was a particular highlight. It’s as if the people behind “Eliminators” are trying to one-up Dacascos and co. The Emirates Air Line, a cable-car which crosses the River Thames in London, is the site for one particularly amazing fight, as two toughs try and beat the crap out of Thomas in an incredibly enclosed space, while a nervous businessman looks on (tell you what, if I can find a screenshot, I’ll put it below, as Scared Businessman is one of my favourite extras in movie history). When you’ve got a fighter as skilled as Scott Adkins, it increases your options because you don’t need stunt doubles and can film wherever you like.

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The fights between Adkins and Barrett are incredible because both guys can really go at it. Barrett (real name, Stu Bennett) is a former bare-knuckle boxing star with a face that tells of at least a few good shots landed, but that experience and years of wrestling have turned him into a very accomplished screen fighter. There’s MMA and pro wrestling moves mixed in with the standard punches and kicks and it flows really well. Okay, both guys take superhuman levels of punishment and stay standing, but that’s par for the course with revenge cinema. Adkins is really, really good, and absolutely deserves to be headlining bigger movies than this (but then, the bigger the movie, the more likely they’d have focus groups and testing and would stop doing the things that make his movies so awesome).

 

Which brings us to the acting. Adkins is fine in what must have been a pretty undemanding role, acting-wise; and Barrett is a completely convincing psychopathic assassin (even if some of the lines he’s given are poorly-written, he gives them his all). Caltagirone looks like a young LaPaglia brother, but sadly didn’t work for me – I wasn’t sure if he was wooden because he was about to betray Thomas, or wooden because he couldn’t act. Whether it’s just one or both is a conundrum I’ll leave you to discover by watching. Kudos to the great James Cosmo (Highlander, Braveheart) as Cooper, doing a passable American accent and giving a character he could do in his sleep a decent bit of life.

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Perhaps the most curious thing about “Eliminators” is how clean London looks. The cable-car is clearly very high end, so I can buy that looking nice, but there are no grimy surfaces at all – they really filmed in London too, so I can only imagine a legion of P.A.s whose job was to scrub everywhere before filming started. It’s amazing when a city you’ve seen on screen a million times manages to look new and interesting, and this was closer to “Drive” (the Ryan Gosling one) than “Drive” (the Mark Dacascos one). Kudos to director James Nunn (who was 1st AD on “Cockneys vs. Zombies”, a great movie) and cinematographer Luke Bryant. And everyone else. I’m not a good enough reviewer to know who really did the clever work on this movie, I just know it looks great.

 

But I’ll give you a bit of comedic mockery to close up with, or you’ll think I’ve gone soft. Near the beginning, Thomas’ daughter is taken to a social services office. My ex worked in social services, and I know very well how continually underfunded they are, crowded offices, stressed staff, and so on. This social services office is clearly a high-end investment bank that let them film for the day, as it’s beautiful and glass and all the offices are enormous (in central London! The rent must be astronomical!) and spotlessly clean and all the corridors are empty. And their computer system is amazing, and the computers themselves are brand new! I’ll take someone getting shot and recovering inside an hour, but this?

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I think this is probably the best movie yet produced by WWE Studios (a close run thing with “The Marine”, which had a much higher budget than this), and if you’re at all a fan of action cinema, it’s pretty much essential viewing.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Ninja (2009)

Before we get started, you might like to read this article. While some of it, from the excellent Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, is slightly OTT clickbait-style journalism (of course, I would never CHRISTINA HENDRICKS NUDE PICS do that) there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about the modern world of direct-to-video action films.

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Sofia in Bulgaria is the central city to this new world, and it’s one where people like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme continue to make the same sort of films they used to back in the 80s and early 90s, and where action films are treated as serious business, not as a faintly embarrassing joke of the recent past, “Expendables” style. It even has its big names – directors like Isaac Florentine, and stars like Scott Adkins, who went from martial artist to bit part player in British soaps to “bad guy 3” in some fairly big films (he was in The Expendables 2, as JCVD’s sidekick) to starring in his own films. We reviewed his surprisingly good Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning some time ago.

Adkins and Florentine have worked together on six films now, “Ninja” being the fourth. It must make certain things easier, knowing your leading man’s strengths and weaknesses, and it shows here. Adkins is Casey Bowman, an orphan who was raised in a dojo in Japan. He becomes one of the best martial artists there, even if according to my wife it looks like he spent a bit too much time on his muscles, with his main rival for the soon-to-retire Sensei’s position is Masazuka. The two of them are strong, but in different areas, and in classic kung-fu film style, the ultimate victor will be the one who learns most from the other.

There’s a huge MacGuffin in this film, the Yoroi Bitsu, a big case containing all the best martial arts kit. Or something. It’s really not important. Masazuka is thrown out of the dojo for losing his temper, goes away and trains as a ninja, becoming a hired assassin for a group of shadowy businessmen at Temple Industries. They hire him to steal the Yoroi Bitsu, but the sensei sends it with Casey and his daughter Namiko to New York to hide, and that’s where the majority of the film takes place. Temple’s thugs, known as “The Ring”, pursue Casey, and after Masazuka kills the sensei he joins in too.

First and foremost, this film is exciting. If you’re a fan of action movies at all, you’ll remember that moment, whether it was “Commando”, “Kickboxer”, “Cobra” or “Die Hard”, where some sequence had you completely fixated, where the artistry of the fighting and the staging of it had you cheering at the end (even if you were only cheering in your head). “Ninja” has tons of those moments, including the increasingly-famous subway fight scene and a few other set pieces that are just brilliant. Considering the extremely low budget (the New York city street is very obviously a set, and the subway trains are old Russian ones), the quality of the fight scenes is even more impressive.

A lot is made in reviews of action cinema about a sense of place, knowing where people are in relation to each other and how that affects the way the scene unfolds. It’s one of those things you don’t really notice until it’s done well, as Florentine has undoubtedly done here – there’s no shaky cam, no people suddenly beaming across large rooms to get involved in fights they were nowhere near. With a lead guy like Adkins, who can do pretty much everything asked of him in terms of stunts and fighting, it makes it a lot easier too. Heck, he can even act! He’s unlikely to win any Oscars, but so what? He does what is needed.

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The plot is pretty paper-thin though, if we’re being honest. From the reason Adkins was left in a Japanese dojo, to the evil plan of the Temple Corporation, to the rather crowbarred-in nature of some of the fight scenes; it exists mostly to hang the action on. The romantic subplot, while necessary to give Casey something to worry about in the amazing final fight, is a bit underdeveloped, and Masazuka’s expression is pure evil from the start, leaving his betrayal as less than a surprise. But if you watch a film called “Ninja”, starring a guy like Scott Adkins, and are worried about the romance element, then I suggest you’re doing it wrong. There’s an argument to be made that low-budget martial arts films are more highlight reel than actual movie; I choose to look at it a different way. Hollywood action movies are about marvelling at the amount of money spent on a scene, or getting a headache at the shaky-cam usage – the action has become secondary. A simple plot isn’t necessarily a bad plot.

“Ninja” is great, dramatic, exciting in a way few films are these days, and if you’ve got love for old-school action films at all, you’ll enjoy this one.