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(Hong Kong/China 2004) 

(aka) Combat Final

Directed by Marco Mak Produced by Tsui Hark Action by Ma Zhong Xuan, Cheung Man, Kou Zhan Wen, Gao Mei Jian Starring: Sang Wei Lin, Zhao Zi Long, Teng Jun, Ni Jing Yang, Zhang Hong Jun, Li Tie, Lu Yi, Guo Hui, Qian Wei, Yang Yu Chao Reviewing: Eureka Video UK DVD Release Genres: Tournament / Martial Arts / Drama

Rating: 2 / 5

DVD Synopsis: Qiang learns that Lung has been training in Xanda under his father, Tieh (Zhang Hong Jun), a former Xanda fighter himself who has since retired from the sport and has become a coach. When Qiang helps Lung with his training, Qiang is able to use his kung fu training to good use. Along the way, he meets Ning (Ni Jing Yang), a young woman whose feelings for Qiang and his culture soon turn to love. Lung is ready to compete against Wei in the Xanda competition, in hopes that he will earn his fathers respect by winning the championship. However, Lung is viciously mauled by Wei and ends up in the hospital. Qiang offers to take on Wei, combining Xanda with his form of kung fu. After months of training, the time has come for Qiang to step up to the plate and take on Wei in the ultimate Xanda showdown.

Views: The wonderful Tsui Hark produces and co-writes this forgettable tournament film based in Mainland China, and tells the story of a fighting style that was pretty much the original form of MMA. When a young kung fu champion (Qiang) grows up, he makes the move to the city of Shenzhen in order to earn enough money to buy a car and travel. While eating dinner one evening, Qiang steps in to help a woman who is being harassed by a tournament champion (Wei) which results in a fight that leaves his close friend severely injured and in hospital. Loaned the money to pay for his bill by the woman he helped, Qiang sets about learning Xanda from a retired fighter and his friend Lung, in order to compete in an upcoming tournament so that he can win the cash prize and pay the woman (Ning) back. After his first fight leaves him KO-ed, Qiang goes back to training and soon combines his own skills of kung-fu with the style, working himself up to take on the mighty Wei in a brutal showdown. There's also the side story of a romance with wanna-be drummer Ning and another with a girl in a wheelchair from his old village, but that doesn't really go anywhere!

For a film I never really loved, I still can't figure out why I own 2 copies of it. The first is a Chinese DVD from an unknown distributor and the second is from popular UK label Eureka Video, who have been doing wonders of late with their Blu-ray releases of (much better) Hong Kong movies. As this is on DVD and never been revisited on blue, I can only imagine it was one of their earlier titles and perhaps those in charge weren't just as clued-in on Hong Kong titles as they are now. It also bizarrely comes with a bonus disc of the Bruce Lee docufilm – The Real Bruce Lee. Either way, it has been many years since I last watched Xanda and after this second viewing, I can now remember why. Even with Tsui Hark behind it as a producer and co-writer, and popular Hong Kong editor/director Marco Mak at the helm, Xanda falls flat for the most part and often comes across as an independent feature from a less experienced director. I shouldn't have to relay what Tsui Hark had already given us up to this point, and the same should be said for Marco Mak who started his editing career in the early 70s working on films such as Wits To Wits, Tiger & Crane Fists, The Tatoo Connection, Incredible Kung Fu Master, and others. The early 80s would see him take on the role of assistant director for a brief time, but Mak would continue to edit many classic titles like Iron Angels 2 & 3, Queens High, A Kid From Tibet, Full Alert, The Storm Riders, and many, many more including the most of Tsui Hark's directed or produced features from A Better Tomorrow 3 onwards. The turn-of-the-century would see Mak try his hand at directing starting with the likes of The Blood Rules, and Love Correction. The popular Cop On A Mission certainly left an impression, as did Colour Of The Truth which he made just before this, and while I like Wo Hu, Tracing Shadow, and Naked Soldier for their own reasons, I can't honestly say that Mak would be one of my go-to directors for the best of Hong Kong cinema...

It's not that Xanda is completely dreadful, but its far from the greatest film ever made. The script is quite bland as are its visuals, some of which were captured by the great Herman Yau who usually makes a great job of it. On top of that, the actors really aren't very appealing at all and as characters, don't stand out as people you want to get invested in. The lead actor, Sang Wei Lin, might have some decent moves throughout, but he isn't leading man material – regardless of whether this was his first role or not. He has, however, went on to appear in a number of productions over the years including Benny Chan's Shaolin alongside Jackie Chan and Andy Lau. Ni Jing Yany, who plays Ning, also makes her debut here as does Zhao Zi Long (Lung) and Teng Jun (Wei) in their one-and-only roles to date. In fact, this film proves to be the first (and sometimes only) role for the majority of the main cast. It was an interesting move for both Hark and Mak on using a completely fresh cast, but it only adds to my previous comment that Xanda often feels like an independent feature from a less experienced team. With no less than 4 choreographers listed for the films action scenes, including Ma Zhong Xuan who starred as Iron Arm in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Kou Zhan Wen who appeared in films like A Warriors Tragedy, Tai Chi 2, Fatal Move, and SPL 2: A Time Of Consequences – there really isn't much to write home about when it comes to the fights, with any decent choreographed works being invaded by fast edits, close-up's, and tight angles.


Overall: While it may have shades of Rocky throughout, Xanda is nowhere near as outstanding as that was and should have been much better given the talent behind the camera!

Eureka DVD Extras: Photo Gallery, Bonus Film – The Real Bruce Lee Documentary

Chinese DVD Extras: Trailers

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(Japan 2007) 

Original Title: XX (Ekusu Kurosu): Makyo Densetsu

Directed by Kenta Fukasaku Produced by Masatake Kondo Action by Yokoyama Makoto Starring: Nao Matsushita, Ami Suzuki, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Ayuko Iwane, Kyoji Kamui, Yoshiyuki Morishita Reviewing: 4Digital Media UK DVD Release Genres: Horror / Action / Gore

Rating: 3.5 / 5

DVD Synopsis: Recovering from a failed love affair Shiyori (Nao Matsushita) heads to the country, in the company of best friend and bad girl Aiko (J-Pop star Ami Suzuki). Having taken a long soak in the hot springs, they retire to their respective cabins. They soon discover that the tranquil village is the home of a cult with a fetish for cutting off female legs. Trying to escape they are split up and keep in touch via their mobile phones. Multiple points of view and time frames keeps the viewer on their toes trying to discern the grisly fate of these 'lost' girls.

Views: It's taken me some time to watch Kenta Fukasaku's wild horror-comedy XX, although not for any particular reason other than I have never gotten around to watching it. And I have to admit, regardless of the few flaws it may have running throughout it, I thoroughly enjoyed what he had delivered. The simple plot of X-Cross tells the story of close friends Shiyori and Aiko, who have travelled to the remote mountain village of Ashikari for a stay at their hot-springs resort to help the Shiyori get over the heartbreak of her latest relationship. But things are certainly not what they seem from the crazy locals to their dinner menu, and it doesn't take long for them both to learn about the real intentions of the villagers. After getting separated, each of the girls must run for their lives and fight against the blood thirsty village cult who are determined to take their legs, no matter what!

If you can imagine an outrageous Japanese take on The Wicker Man mixed with the dark humour of British television series The League Of Gentlemen, then you'll know just what you are going into when you sit down to watch X-Cross. Although it's first third offers a much more serious and atmospheric approach, the second starts to tweak things somewhat until its final third just goes all-out in a totally wild finale. Kenta had some big shoes to fill after taking over the reigns from his father – legendary filmmaker, Kinji Fukasaku – who had passed during production of Battle Royale 2. With all directorial duties now handed over to him, Kenta received some harsh criticism of his vision, although I personally think he did a fine job for his first feature as a director. Of course, he had already had some experience as the second unit director on the first film as well as having penned the scripts for both, but it was also unfair to compare his works to that of his father's, who had been working in the industry from the early 60s, and had almost 70 credits to his name before passing including titles such as Street Mobster, Battles Without Honour & Humanity, Graveyard Of Honour, Doberman Cop, Samurai Reincarnation, Legend Of The 8 Samurai, Triple Cross, and the box-office smash, Battle Royale. And while the super-fun Yo-Yo Girl Cop would be the only other Kenta Fukasaku movie I would have seen, the man has went on to direct a few more titles including thrillers like Kill and Black Rat, before delving into more drama-based films such as We Can't Change The World. But, We Wanna Build A School In Cambodia and Map Of Summer Vacation. Personally, I think he should have stuck with this kind of thing! While he isn't the steadiest of directors, it's clear that Kenta has some passion behind the lens when it comes to creating something a bit wild and I think that X-Cross is one of his most entertaining to date.

As mentioned, the opening sequences of X-Cross are filled with beautifully filmed atmospheric shots that reminded me very much of the classic slasher flicks from the late 70s/early 80s. These are interrupted here and there as Kenta adapts a more modern take on things, blending CGI works with his cell-phone subplot that all makes a little sense in the end. These particular scenes take the viewer on a journey through time as it throws us back to certain moments of the story – all told from different characters viewpoints and situations which works actually shakes things up and saves X-Cross from becoming just 'another' slasher film before its manic ending is revealed. The film is based on a novel by Joko Nobuyuki, with a screenplay by popular scribe Oishi Tetsuya – the same man behind Muscle Heat with Kane Kosugi, Death Note 1 & 2 (live action), the vangtastic Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island, Takashi Miike's Blade Of The Immortal, and a host of Japanese television shows. The film stars television actress Nao Matsushita as Shiyori, the hapless victim who spends the majority of her time on the run or on the phone, trying to figure out who she can trust as well as avoiding the town crazies. Her friend Aiko is played by Ami Suzuki, an J-Pop star and actress who steals the show when she lets loose on one of the film's main villains – an insanely jealous killer with some deadly blades in the form of large scissors. Another one of the village freaks is played by the great Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, a face that has gained a little more notoriety after he faced off against Donnie Yen in the awesome Ip Man, Jackie Chan in the fun Railroad Tigers, and The Wrath Of Vajra with Yu Xing, as well as Japanese productions such as Blues Harp, Space Travellers, Avenging Blade, and Space Battleship Yamato.

While X-Cross has suffered many mixed reviews over the years, with most attacking Kenta as a director, I personally really enjoyed the film and felt it was a nice break from the collection of gore-filled OTT and white-faced ghostly J-horror we were getting around that time. Yes it has plenty of horror elements, some great bloody moments, and some nice action sequences, but it never goes into Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police territory – merely just dipping its toe in that direction. The action was handled by the brilliant Yokoyama Makoto, long time action-choreographer (and director) of the Power Rangers television show who also worked on film such as the amazing Drive, the live-action version of Tokyo Ghoul, K-20, and Kenta Fukasaku's Yo-Yo Girl Cop – as well as directing the fun Shadow Fury and Wicked Game along with his long time partner-in-crime, Koichi Sakamoto of the highly regarded action team, Alpha Stunts. Ignore the negative reviews and give X-Cross a shot. It's harmless fun and offers horror fans and action fans alike, something to enjoy!

Overall: Broody, different, and entertaining, X-Cross has plenty of great horror and action to keep viewers glued!

DVD Extras: Making of Documentary, Deleted Scenes, Cast Interviews, Ashikari Village Feature, Trailer

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(USA 2004) 

(aka) Sci-Fighter

Directed by Art Camacho Produced by Don Wilson, Art Camacho Action by Art Camacho, Troy Aguayo Starring: Cynthia Rothrock, Don Wilson, Lorenzo Lamas, Aki Aleong, Chris Casamassa, Rebekah Chaney, Simon Kim, James Kim, Eric Lee, Bob Wall Reviewing: Amazon Prime UK Release Genres: Martial Arts / Sci-Fi / Drama

Rating: 2 / 5

Synopsis: A computer virus has invaded a virtual reality computer game leaving a rebellious teen trapped within. Now, the boys father must enter the tainted program and battle his way through a deadly maze of martial arts fighters to save his son.

Views: Don 'The Dragon' Wilson and Art Camacho team-up once again for more cheesy martial arts hi-jinks in X-Treme Fighter – more widely known by its original title of Sci-Fighter, the name of the game the movie is based around. I have to admit, when I first saw this film I thought it was from the mid-to-late 90s due to its basic production values and story, but it turns out that X-Treme Fighter was made almost a decade later. While on paper the movie may come across like an early version of Ready Player One, X-Treme Fighter is more like a re-tread of Jalal Merhi's 1997 film Expect To Die or Jingle Ma's Hot War from 1998 – only with more family friendly themes and tournament based fights (much like many of Don Wilson's movies would deliver). Another thing it has more of is comedy, whether it is intentional or not, X-Treme Fighter has some hilarious moments thanks to some really bad acting, silly side characters, and a god-awful script. This would be down to Thomas Callicoat with Sci-Fighter being his first major project as a writer, co-producer, and visual effects artist. While he does an okay job for his first feature film, which was clearly a little overly-ambitious, Callicoat went on to work in the VFX department on films such as Maleficent, Edge Of Tomorrow, and Into The Storm, as well as teaming up with Art Camacho and Don Wilson in 2006 to co-produce Soft Target (which was a little better than this).

I've never seen the appeal of Don Wilson as an action star, although his movies are somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me admittedly. His performances often flit between over-acting and poor delivery, and his fight moves lack any really power or skill compared to that of Hong Kong's real action-heroes and even his co-star, Cynthia Rothrock (who is pretty much wasted here). Don plays the son of a scientist and the father to a moody teen, as well as a martial arts teacher of course. He lost his wife in an attack many years ago and has the same attitude to his own father as his son has to him. His scientist father is played by Aki Aleong, a prolific actor with over 130 credits to his name having appeared in titles such as V the series, General Hospital, Deadly Target, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Martial Law, and Pound Of Flesh. Aki has created a VR machine called Sci-Fighter, that allows players to enter a world of martial arts tournaments built around the skills of real martial artists, and gives it as a birthday gift to his grandson Brad – who soon finds himself trapped in the virtual world. Of course, it's up to his father (Wilson) to follow him in there on a rescue mission which, in turn, helps to fix their broken relationship along the way. Brad is played by the super-cute Daneya Mayid, a highly skilled martial artist of Thai and Italian descent who was discovered by Wilson at a tournament. This would be his first role which is obvious, but he definitely steals the show when it comes to moves as he kicks and flips his way through the fight scenes, and leaves his more accomplished co-stars in the dust. The wonderful Miss Rothrock plays dual roles here with the first being a lab-assistant to Aki and potential love interest of Don's. Her second role is based in the game that sees her fly around in a flowing white cape, while helping Don find his son. As a huge Rothrock fan, I have to say that I wasn't overly excited for her in this – although truth be told, I could say that for most of the films she stars in alongside Wilson. The same could be said for Renegade star, Lorenzo Lamas – the soap star turned action hero, who really doesn't get to do much here either. No, this is (once again) all about Don 'The Dragon' Wilson!

The less said about the other co-stars and bit-players the better, made up by a collection of American martial artists including Eric Lee, twins Simon and James Kim, and Michael Matsuda. Bob Wall stars in an extremely brief cameo as himself, commentating on a match at one of Wilson's tournaments. It's a far cry from his on-screen roles in Enter The Dragon, Game Of Death, and Way Of The Dragon, but as a good friend of Don's, I'm sure it was just a fun favour for the film. Sci-Fighter was directed by highly regarded martial artist and action director, Art Camacho, a man who has had many credits on many titles in many positions and was the director of films such as Gary Daniels Recoil, Soft Target, 13 Dead Men, Half Past Dead 2, and Redemption also with Wilson and Rothrock, as well as many more. As I look through his filmography, I can honestly say that there isn't much on it that I would rush back to see with X-Treme Fighter confirming his lack of strength as a director (as well as a lack of creativeness regardless of the budget). While it isn't a complete write-off, X-Treme Fighter does pass the time for the wrong reasons and had me in stitches many times, from the fighters in an early blocking pose while awaiting a strike from their opponents, to the rare display of ninjas that make Godfrey Ho's colourful assassins look legit. It's totally ridiculous, but there's obviously an audience out there for it...

Overall: Dreadful for the most part, X-Treme Fighter is ridiculous in every sense but still makes for a fun watch!

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(USA 2017) 

Directed by D.J. Caruso Produced by Vin Diesel, Joe Roth Action by Tim Connolly, Daniel Hernandez Starring: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa, Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Colette, Ice Cube, Michael Bisping, Terry Chen Reviewing: Paramount UK DVD Release Genres: Action / Adventure

Rating: 3 / 5

DVD Synopsis: Vin Diesel returns in the most x-treme, x-plosive and x-hilarating xXx yet! When a group of lethal mercenaries steal a hi-tech weapon that poses a global threat, the world needs superspy Xander Cage (Diesel). Recruited back into action, Xander leads a team of death-defying adrenaline junkies on a mission to kick some ass, save the day, and look dope while doing it. Prepare for the high-octane thrill ride critics are calling 'one hell of a ride'.

Views: To be perfectly honest, I couldn't really care less for any xXx movie – let alone Vin Diesel as an actor. I just find him hard to take seriously (and listen to) and don't really see the appeal. Of course, xXx: Return Of Xander Cage isn't exactly a movie you'd expect to find on a site called Invincible Asia, but when you have someone like Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in such prominent roles, I think there's enough good reasons to make it worthy of a review. In fact, I think it's safe to say that the opening 10 or 15 minutes of this film is like something you would expect from Hong Kong cinema, with the hilarious cameo-death of the great Samuel L. Jackson to Donnie Yen's explosive and highly entertaining introduction, and Vin Diesel's shenanigans in high-jacking a radio tower so that the locals can watch football. It's nonsensical, it's crazy, it's fun and it's pretty much the main ingredients for xXx: Return Of Xander Cage – along with a terrible script, plenty of flat jokes, a collection of unlikeable characters, and a host of ridiculous situations that could really only appeal to a US audience. Diesel returns to the role after 15 years and, like many of his popular on-screen persona's, doesn't really have to do much acting in between his one-liners and cheesy smiles. The same can be said for the most of his co-stars such as Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, and the handsome Kris Wu who all think their boss is hilarious. These guys get to face-off against Donnie Yen and his team, who prove to be a much more interesting lot and a bit more professional than their counterparts!

Yen plays Xiang, the leader of a team of warriors out to recover a 'seemingly' unstoppable weapon known as Pandora's Box – a device that can bring satellites crashing to earth. Vin and his team have been hired by NSA boss Jane Marke (played with cheese by Toni Colette) to find the very same device, which leads to a race between the teams to see who can find it first. Yen is joined by the wonderful Tony Jaa who, as with most of his Hollywood outings, is reduced to nothing more than a throw-away character that gets to show off some flips and kicks – although what he does here is a far cry from his performances in the likes of the Ong Bak Trilogy, Warrior King, SPL 2, and Paradox (SPL 3). Of course, Jaa had starred alongside Diesel only a couple of years before in Fast & Furious 7 and probably gets to do as much in this role – unfortunately. Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone plays Serena Unger, Yen's sharpshooter equivalent to Ruby Roses' character over on Diesel's side and MMA fighter and English actor Michael Bisping also joins the team, and went on to star alongside Jaa once again in the awesome Triple Threat only a couple of years later which (much like his co-star) gave him the chance to play about quite a bit more. And I have to say that the character played by Kris Wu Yi Fan is pretty pointless to be honest. Often stepping in as a DJ or to shoot a gun here and there, the popstar/actor is just there to look pretty and keep the Chinese investors happy as his fans hand over their cash to see him on the big screen.

The movie is directed by D.J. Caruso, a television director and film producer who helmed episodes of shows like High Incident, Martial Law, Dark Angel, Smallville, and The Shield, before making his feature film directorial debut in 2007 with the well-received Disturbia starring Shia LaBeouf. Following that up with Eagle Eye (also with Shia), Caruso went on to direct the fun I Am Number Four before slipping back into TV movies for a few years. He hit back with The Disappointments Room, a thriller starring Kate Beckinsale – which was written and produced by Wentworth Miller, star of Prison Break and Legends Of Tomorrow, which was enough to nail him the job of directing xXx: Return Of Xander Cage – but the divisive reviews upon its release quickly put a stop to anything else that was to follow. Personally, I don't think it's the worst movie in the world and it definitely has a lot to offer as an action movie – but I can totally see where it all went wrong. That said, and with the ending that brings both teams together along with the return of Ice Cube's XXX character from the original sequels – it would be interesting to see where they'd go if more chapters were to follow...

As mentioned, the action is the big seller of xXx: Return Of Xander Cage and there sure is plenty to enjoy. While Vin Diesel's stunt double is definitely the star of the show, Donnie Yen steals the limelight a number of times and really should have gotten his own spin-off from this. There's a cool chase scene between Diesel and Yen as they race through on-coming traffic, jumping vehicles and landing hits on each other in a bid to reach Pandora's Box first, and we get to see him deliver a flurry of kicks and punches throughout from his aforementioned intro scene to the big finale in an aircraft carrier. While he says he kept his 'hands-off' when it came to the action and let the US team choreograph his fights, you can definitely see where Yen has made his mark and it doesn't disappoint. But we can't forget that the xXx movies were all about the extreme sports and this belated sequel offers plenty of that to enjoy, from jungle skiing to motorbikes on water-ski's, base jumping to skateboarding, with the film only slowing down to allow its main star to delver some terrible jokes and flirt with any female that appears on screen. While it seems that a group of horny teens on a diet of Red Bull attempted to deliver a James Bond movie, xXx: Return Of Xander Cage does offer enough to enjoy - as long as you don't take any of it seriously!

Overall: Stupid Hollywood fun for the most part, Donnie Yen makes xXx: Return Of Xander Cage worth the watch!

DVD Extras: Making of Documentary, Stunt Feature, Gag Reel

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