If you're in the mood for an exciting, bloody period action film: Centurion (2010, Neil Marshall)
The peplum genre, long thought dormant, appears to be going through a quasi-revival. The key, as evinced by 300, has been to take the stodgy costume dramas that comprise the '60s editions and pump them full of over-the-top violence — keep the beef, but serve it bloody as hell. In that regard, the high point of the recent spate of these is likely Neil Marshall's brawny blood-and-thunder thriller Centurion. Part period piece, part war movie, part splatter flick and part Naked Prey-style chase movie, Centurion stars the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender as a Roman soldier fighting in Scotland who ends up as the lone survivor when his garrison is massacred. After escaping, he hooks up with a legion led by Dominic West. This legion is promptly ambushed and slaughtered, leaving only a handful standing to try and fight their way to safety.
That's a lot of death just in the plot summary. This is the kind of film that announces its intentions and dominant tone in the first five minutes when a random soldier is speared in the crotch while urinating. Yet it never devolves into grueling monotonous bloodshed because Marshall, first and foremost, is a terrific craftsman. Where in The Descent Marshall used darkness to its full effect, here he builds a world of cold whites and slate grays, set alight by pale, ghostly sunlight. Scotland, for these soldiers, is less a land than an endless expanse of dead peaty purgatory, with eerie stillness ripped asunder whenever it comes time to fight. As such, the editing is key; the battle scenes are constructed kinetically, with each sequence building energy through its accumulation of shots and shot lasting as long as it takes a weapon to meet flesh — every cut is a connecting blow. The contrast between the ferocious action and the expansive, empty setting makes one thing clear: Centurion is a rip-snorting journey towards the inevitable.
If you're in the mood for ninjas flipping out and killing people: Revenge of the Ninja (1983, Sam Firstenberg)
"He's an American! How can he be a ninja?" Answer: White guys sure did a lot of ninjaing in the '80s. Sam Firstenberg's ass-kicking extravaganza may not be as ethnocentric as its predecessor Enter the Ninja, seeing as how it deigns to make the Japanese Sho Kosugi its lead character (Enter went with Italian-cinema tough guy Franco Nero). However, it still spends a lot of time following its lead villain Arthur Roberts, a rugged dude who looks like a cross between Peter Weller and Tom Jones, as he cuts a bloody swath through both the underworld who double-crossed him on a drug deal and any good guys (including expatriate Kosugi and his family) who dare try and stop his black-clad reign of terror. But weird racial politics aside, the main thing that Revenge of the Ninja needs to do is offer ninja-fightin' action and plenty of it. Hoo boy, does it succeed on those terms.
Seemingly every seven minutes, there's a scene where either Kosugi is roughing up random tough guys or Roberts is tossing a ninja star into a guy's face. The action in Revenge of the Ninja is ridiculous, relentless, violent and energetic. Firstenberg's coverage is occasionally awkward (a mid-film fight inside a van alternates between using its close-quarters setting effectively and being framed too tight for coherence), but the fights remain spirited and creatively brutal. There's also a scene where a blond Amazon gets her ass kicked by a 7-year-old. And one where the villain has to defeat a granny-fu slinging senior citizen. And one where Kosugi says, in all seriousness, "Only a ninja can stop a ninja!" Then there's the final mano-a-mano, where seemingly every single weapon a ninja has ever held gets dragged into play as Kosugi and Roberts hop around the roof of a building. Revenge of the Ninja is cheesy as all hell, and that's
the way I like it.
(If you happen to be in the New York City area, I'm hosting a double feature of the other two films in the Cannon Films ninja trilogy tomorrow night at 92YTribeca — Enter the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination.)
If you're in the mood for a skateboarding documentary but from a different angle: Dragonslayer (2011, Tristan Patterson)
Skateboarding and rebellion are closely linked in film. Whether in fictional features like Gleaming the Cube or documentaries like Dogtown and Z-Boys, they fill the same whadaya-got role as motorcycles did in the '60s & '70s. But how long can one rebel before it starts to become detrimental to oneself? Where's the line between a young kid trying to smash the system and a sleepy-eyed burnout who skates because he's got nothing else to do? Dragonslayer attempts to find this line as it follows the exploits of Josh "Skreech" Sandoval, a notable name in the California skate scene who drifts from place to place, competing in (but never winning) tournaments, hanging out with his teenage girlfriend and young son (from another woman), and generally avoiding the whole idea of figuring out what to do with his life.
The first thing director Tristan Patterson shows us is Sandoval cleaning out a pool for skating purposes. Tellingly, he falls twice. His skating style, powerful yet sloppy (one fan calls it "random chaos"), seems like an extension of how he lives his life and chooses his friends. For instance, Sandoval's girlfriend, like many young punks, is a self-proclaimed anarchist, which makes sense — anarchy is attractive to the young, broke and powerless, those who own nothing and have nothing to lose. But in practice, anarchy starts to look a lot like aimlessness, an excuse to lay about and get wasted. Patterson shows this without passing overt judgment, which lends Dragonslayer a potency and strange sadness a more conventional documentary would miss. The beautiful, elegant photography bolsters this tone as well; rather than the aggressive skate-video attitude the mileu would suggest, Patterson goes for hazy impressionism — fitting for a life out of focus.
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.