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In too deep: Zhang in House of Flying Daggers.

Killing Machines
By Laura Leon

House of Flying Daggers
Directed by Zhang Yimou

Like its predecessor, last sum-mer’s Hero, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers pulsates with color, uncanny sound engineering and, of course, the restrained passions of characters sworn to uphold warring notions of nobility and power. In this case, blind courtesan Mei (Ziyi Zhang) is investigated by government deputies Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), who suspect that she is one of the notorious rebel group, the Flying Daggers. On assignment, Jin pretends to ally himself to Mei, and, as the two escape hordes of militia and quite a few close calls, they find themselves increasingly attracted to one another. “Are you real?” Mei asks Jin on more than one occasion, and we, the audience, palpably feel the growing weight of Jin’s deception in his heart and mind.

But hold the press—just as in Hero, everything is not as it seems, and as the movie progresses we find that nearly every character is operating on dual, if not more, levels, and that deception is in fact the only constant. Ultimately, House of Flying Daggers is a love triangle, with Jin and Leo vying with each other for Mei’s affections, and her loyalties, with the fate of both the Tang Dynasty and the Flying Daggers in the balance. In typical Yimou fashion, just as the mother of all battles between these two forces is about to erupt, the lovers are themselves fighting it out in a glorious field that changes from glorious autumnal foliage to a blinding snowstorm in moments. (It’s almost funny that the weather in Yimou’s films changes on a dime, whereas his characters and even their horses often remain motionless for what seems like hours.)

This is a movie that is as much about motion as it is a lover’s triangle, as if Yimou is coopting that old adage about time and tides waiting for no man. In this case, passion doesn’t stand a chance in the shadow of revolution and political turmoil. When Jin and Mei finally stand still, free of surprise assassins and government agents bent on their destruction, the end is near. Still, House of Flying Daggers is strangely uncompelling, perhaps because it seems as the filmmaker is more interested in mastering the art of making combat scenes dazzling to watch as well as to hear. I mention this because on more than one occasion, the sound of elements of fighting is as exhilarating as, say, the sight of arrows reaching an impossible target. During an “echo game” set piece in a brothel called the Peony Pavilion, itself a remarkable vision of floral tones and mosaic tiles, the sounds of cranberry beans and heavy swaths of silk striking upright drums are in themselves independent characters.

Even more striking is a fight piece set within the confines of a forest of whispering bamboo. Admittedly, I thought a similar set piece in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was pushing the bounds even of my willing imagination, but here, Yimou places the focus on assassins who use the tall trees much like acrobats use the ropes and, even better, the concomitant sounds of the forest’s “whisper” with the piercing shaft of flying daggers aimed at said assassins. So what if those daggers do look a bit like cutlery being flung from the direction of an irate cook? Like Orson Welles before him, Zhang Yimou cares immensely about the overall sound of his movie; too bad he didn’t invest more in the human element.

Mourning Has Broken

Directed by Rob Bowman

Elektra, starring Jennifer Gar-ner as the superhero femme fatale, is a spin-off of the dismal Daredevil. Even though Ben Affleck does not appear, it’s unlikely that this drecky adaptation of the Frank Miller series is going to revive the franchise. And Elektra herself is so mechanical that she calls to mind an entirely different Miller creation: Robocop. When we first see her—dressed in a fire-engine-red two-piece that’s the film’s only bright spot—she’s dispatching an army of innocent security guards to get at some guy sitting in an armchair drinking brandy and calmly waiting for the inevitable. Photographed with fetishistic flourish, the man is impaled by Robobabe’s double-pronged daggers (which resemble nothing so much as a pair of really efficient turkey lifters). We never do find out why he’s killed, nor would we care, except that he’s the most interesting character in the movie, despite being onscreen for less than 10 minutes.

Noticeably padded fore and aft but completely stripped of the charming naiveté she showed in 13 Going on 30, Garner plays Elektra with all the warmth of an overworked tax collector. Although her role in Alias would seemingly make her a natural as a kick-ass chick assassin, she seems miscast, like a 13-year-old who wakes to find herself in an unpleasant costume fitting. Instead of personality, Elektra has ticks, and gets highly twitchy when she’s between assignments, a result of having witnessed her mother’s death while she was a child. This irrelevant incident, swathed in an offensive aesthetic sheen, is used to set up the film’s artificial heart, which centers on 13-year-old Abby (off-putting Kirsten Prout), who supposedly reminds Elektra of her younger self. According to the film’s perfunctory herstory, Elektra became a homicidal maniac for hire after being cast out of superhero training camp by Stick (Terence Stamp), her martial-arts mentor. Stick is blind but invincible, due to his ability to see the near future. This ability is showcased when he trounces a pool shark at a game of eight ball (the eternally elegant Stamp gives the role more dignity than it deserves).

Hired by a mysterious employer to execute Abby and her father, Mark (Goran Visnjic), who conveniently supplies her with a passing love interest, Elektra puts her earning potential in jeopardy by reneging on her contract. Elektra’s newfound maternal instinct is put to the test when she is set upon by a squadron of demon ninjas whose most lethal member shall be identified as the Dragon Breath Lady. Director Rob Bowman gave the entertainingly cheesy Reign of Fire some imaginative panache, and he does the same for Elektra’s stagy showdowns. But the real conflict here is between the gauzy art direction, which rips off mystical Chinese martial-arts flicks; and the script, a quickie exercise in pomo comic-book redemption. This crass combination is not helped by fight sequences that could’ve been choreographed by Kung-Fu Barbie.

—Ann Morrow

You Are What You Is

Racing Stripes
Directed by Frederik Du Chau

When watching Racing Stripes, you can’t help but note the similarities to other movies about the interactions of people and animals. Notably, there’s the National Velvet connection, although in this case, the horse-obsessed girl, Channing (Hayden Panettiere), is determined to ride a zebra, Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz), in the Kentucky Open. Then, of course, there’s the Babe relationship. As in Babe, the humans and animals are both “real,” and the animals are voiced by actors. As a parallel to Babe’s setting, Channing’s dad Nolan (Bruce Greenwood) runs a ramshackle farm populated by engaging livestock, such as Shetland pony Tucker (Dustin Hoffman); Alpine goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg); rooster Reggie (Jeff Foxworthy); lazy bloodhound Lightning (Snoop Dogg); and gangsta pelican Goose (Joe Pantoliano). As in the Aussie pig epic, said livestock provide Stripes with the kind of inspiration, compassion and help that he needs to get over his longing to be something he isn’t—a thoroughbred race horse—and just get on with the program.

To say that you’ve seen it all before is an understatement. You know that Stripes will overcome the odds and win the race, and that he’ll learn valuable life lessons on the way. Same can be said for both Channing and, particularly, Nolan, who has given up living and overprotected his daughter in the wake of his beloved wife’s death while racing. However, Racing Stripes somehow works despite its predictability. Part of this can be attributed to director Frederik Du Chau’s willingness to develop the story at a pace that can seem leisurely but which allows the rhythms of farm life and the longings of its inhabitants, both human and animal, to take center stage. And it’s refreshing that the script, written by David F. Schmidt from a story by Du Chau, Schmidt, Steven P. Wegner and Kirk DeMicco, is bereft of the usual smarminess and “attitude” so often parlayed in family films. Then again, there are a lot of scatological jokes, primarily from horseflies Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade), but what would you expect from characters who hang around horse poop all day?

The best moments in Racing Stripes come from veteran actors Greenwood, who plays his role with the same respect and heart as he does his more serious work like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, and Hoffman, whose Tucker can best be described as an aged Kramer (as in Kramer vs. Kramer) passing on bits of wisdom to a grandchild. It’s predictable, it’s sentimental, but then again, so are many of the best children’s stories.

—Laura Leon

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