Death List

Dir: Ara Paiaya
Star: Ara Paiaya, John Cheung, Alex Clark, Vinnie Wilson

Coming in to this "cold", i.e. with no real background knowledge, it took a little while to get a handle on Death List. At first, it seemed like a no-budget martial-arts movie. Well, actually, it is a no-budget martial-arts movie. But, it turns out, it's intended to be tongue-in-cheek, with a dry, underplayed sense of humour that is quite appealing. At one point, our hero goes to a bar and asks for an ice-water. It turns up in a martini glass. He then starts bribing a guy for information, but ends up leaving with more money than he started with. It's loopy little touches like that, which make this an enjoyable way to pass 65 minutes. The story is scant at best: Night (Paiaya) is a hitman who gets double-crossed and left for dead. He survives, but had lost his memory, and is trained in kung-fu skills by a master (Cheung), Kill Bill 2-style, so he can fight, this time on the side of law. Inevitably, this eventually - after a series of bone-crunching encounters - leads Night back to the man who betrayed him.

Chris came in during the middle of the movie, just in time to see the fight scene at the car scrapyard. which is one of the movie's highlights. "Why is this guy not working in Hollywood?" she asked as it unfolded, and I do tend to agree. What I particularly liked was the editing - or, rather, the lack thereof. In an era where most cinematic fight scenes appear to have been edited by an ADHD four-year old with a weed-whacker, Paiaya is much more content to let things unfold at a pace that lets the viewer see and appreciate the participants skills, which are pretty good. Between those scenes, the cheerful (if occasionally cheesy) gore and supporting ninjas, you've got an entertaining piece of low-budget nonsense that largely eludes criticism, due to a clear sense it isn't to be taken too seriously.

So what doesn't work? Well, the scenes between the fights largely seem like an afterthought, and the film lurches from one scene to another with apparently little thought or explanation of what's going on, where or to whom. A fair bit of the dialogue is dubbed, and it seems from what I've read elsewhere that Ara did a lot of the voices himself, which occasionally is just a stretch too far, and there are a number of scenes involving some (admittedly cool) cars that don't go anywhere of importance. However, these aspect hardly detract much from the fun. I've a feeling that if we were to browse Paiaya's DVD collection, we'd find a lot of titles that also sit on our shelves, and there's an obvious passion gone into this, which makes us more than willing to overlook its flaws.

[June 2010]

Got a little list
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Maximum Impact

Dir: Ara Paiaya
Star: Ara Paiaya, Adam Davidson, Raquel Paiaya, Chris Robb

There's no doubt that this is a more ambitious project than Death List, but I am less certain that it quite matches its predecessors success. Paiaya seems to be aiming for the Bond/Bourne genre of films, which is a hell of a lot more difficult for a microbudget movie to try and pull off; the gap between the aim and the execution is occasionally wince-inducing. It also seems to be taking itself a great deal more seriously, and that seems a shame, as I missed the lighter moments. I was reminded of how Jackie Chan's early career was hampered because everyone wanted him to be the next Bruce Lee, and it wasn't until he got the freedom to be himself that Chan finally broke through. Aya's sense of humour is such a great part of his work, that it's a pity when it gets suppressed, as largely seems the case here. Alternatively, it may just be a case of needing more experience with this side of the genre.

The storyline centers on Agent X (Paiaya), an international secret-agent who is called in to rescue kidnapped scientist Katie Tang (Raquel Paiata) from the villanous Pirani (Davidson). She is the inventor of an encryption program which has been used by the government to hide the location of witnesses who could testify against Pirani, and he is intent on forcing her to reverse the encryption so that he can take them out. It's up to Agent X to get the girl, kill the baddies and, presumably, save the entire planet. The results are at their best when Aya is playing to his strengths, which is well put-together martial-arts action and stunts: our son came in towards the end (we watched it as a warm-up for the last-ever episode of 24) and, much like Chris in Death List, came out with unprompted compliments about the fight choreography. The scrapyard shows up again as a location, and there's also a nice cliff-top fight with a genuine sense of danger to it.

As noted, the results are less successful when the movie reaches beyond what it can credibly deliver. While it's nice that Paiaya got the use of a helicopter for one scene, it needs more than a few not-too convincing digital explosions and associated effects to incorporate the craft successfully into the movie, and he might have been better off not bothering. Part of low-budget film-making is recognizing your limitations, knowing your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and working accordingly. This feels like Paiaya bit off a bit more than he could chew with what needed to be put into the film: however, perhaps with a few more years experience (and some extra money!), he can revisit this and deliver a properly-convincing version of the large-scale production this demands.

[June 2010]

Max Headcase
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