Wednesday, 23 September 2009
LEFT FOR DEAD
Running Time: 105 mins
Distributor: York Entertainment (US)
Website: Left For Dead
Directed By Ross Boyask
Written By Adrian Foiadelli
Produced By Phil Hobden
Ask and ye shall receive! Having read of my difficulties in my review of 'Ten Dead Men' of getting the free download version of Left For Dead to play, the good people at Modern Life? have kindly provided me with a review copy.
In an ideal world, I would have watched Left For Dead (henceforth L4D) and Ten Dead Men (henceforth 10DM) in chronological order, and thus have been able to chart the progression and improvement between the two films. Sadly, it appears that the world we live in is far from ideal, so as per usual I've done things arse-about-facewards and watched them in reverse order.
The beauty of blogging is that I can go back and make retroactive amendments to my original 10DM review now that I have a slightly more informed perspective on it, so fortunately it doesn't make too much difference in the grander scheme of things, but I thought it fair to inform readers where I'm coming from in this respect.
Now, on with the review...
'Left For Dead' tells the tale of Williams (Glenn Salvage), a veritable killing machine in the employ of Hope City's criminal kingpin Kincaid (Adam Chapman). Williams has decided he wants to quit, but Kincaid decides to have his fellow assassins Dylan (Kevin Akehurst) and the trigger-happy psychotic Taylor (Adrian Foiadelli, more recently seen getting shanked with a screwdriver in 10DM's garage fight) retire him instead, and his retirement gift isn't going to be a gold carriage clock, but rather a lead enema.
Taylor...prone to going off on one.
As you might well imagine, Williams is none too taken with the idea of being shot full of holes, and thus makes good his escape from his would-be assassins (and former colleagues), but not before taking a round in the shoulder.
I really like this shot, good composition.
As if his day wasn't already going badly enough, he's then subsequently poisoned by his treacherous ex-lover Sonya (Vicki Vilas). As we will go on to see, there are no such things as 'old friends' in Hope City when you're on the wrong side of Kincaid.
We are then introduced to Kelso (Andy Prior), an up-and-coming kickboxer who somewhat unwisely chooses to rub Kincaid up the wrong way by refusing to take a dive in his fight. Kincaid sends Taylor and his thugs to break Kelso's fingers, thus effectively ending his career, and tells him to get out of town before he reaps some more lasting, or perhaps even permanent, consequences.
Again, there's an added significance to this scene because Taylor is an old friend of Kelso, and is thus the man selected to put Kincaid's offer on the table. When Kelso refuses and wins his fight, Taylor is again selected to be the messenger boy, but this time he has to redeem himself in the eyes of the enraged Kincaid, and in such a situation it soon becomes apparent that in Hope City old friendships count for nothing, or perhaps even less. It's a nice cameo of Kincaid's rule-by-fear approach in action...people fear Kincaid's thugs, and Kincaid's thugs fear him. Ergo, everybody fears Kincaid.
To add insult to literal injury, Kincaid's boys also brutally murder Kelso's promoter/mentor Roarke (PL Hobden, again getting reduced to a bloody pulp for art's sake) just for good measure, and with Taylor delivering the fatal coup de grace it effectively doubles Kelso's motivation to come after Kincaid's organisation and Taylor specifically.
Following a chance encounter whilst both seeking the highly dubious medical services of a no-questions-asked underworld surgeon, the two erstwhile heroes decide to team up and take down Kincaid and his criminal empire the only way they know how...with feet, fists, and any weapon that's handy. As you might readily expect, a wanton orgy of indiscriminate arse-kicking ensues.
Right off the bat, there's a nice contrast between the two main protagonists, and you can see it's intentionally done. Happily, it avoids the classic cliches of the buddy movie as Williams and Kelso never become 'buddies' or share some breakthrough 'moment'. They just have an uneasy alliance based on the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Aside from the differences in outward appearance (Williams: Long hair, beard, black suit; Kelso: Short hair, clean shaven, sportswear), there is also a difference in their respective moralities, with Kelso being reticent to kill or use drugs and Williams killing people as if it was second nature. This is nicely illustrated by a brief scene where Kelso takes him to task for killing Sonya, and Williams puts him straight about the gravity and reality of their situation. Besides, believe me when I say that the bitch had it coming anyway...
The first thing that strikes you about the content of the film itself is that whereas 10DM is largely an action movie with some martial arts elements, L4D is the other side of that proverbial coin. Yes, there is a fair bit of gunplay spread out over the course of the movie, but the onus is on martial arts of the leaping roundhouse kick variety rather than the sort of close-quarter brawls that viewers of 10DM or the Bourne Trilogy might be more familiar with. I know the latter is more 'realistic' in the minds of a lot of people, but it is nowhere near to being quite as cinematic.
Part of this prevalence of a more classic style of screen fighting is due to the internal reality of the film. It's a martial arts film that doesn't pretend to be anything else nor make an apology for being what it is.
For example, there's a scene where Taylor has his gun snatched from him after sneaking up on a kickboxing foe, who then proceeds to cockily toss it away and instead engage him in hand to hand combat. If this kind of thing has you jumping out of your seat, tearing your hair out and screaming at the TV to 'Just bloody shoot him!', then L4D probably isn't the film for you. Whilst we're on the subject, I'd also probably try to avoid watching any James Bond films as well, as they also have a habit of putting Bond and his comely companion in some sort of elaborate-yet-easily-escapable deathtrap peril (usually right after the villain has boasted to him about all the details of his nefarious masterplan) rather than just shooting him in the head and being done with it. Let's just say that people like Scott Evil would most certainly not approve.
The internal reality of the film is also graphically displayed when Williams takes on Kincaid. I'm not going to give away the ending, but you'll either love it or hate it, and it tends to suggest the influence of certain fighting video games, as do other aspects of the film which I will address in due course.
The other reason the fights are bigger in terms of scale is because there is room to have the fights with the big moves, rather than the somewhat more claustrophobic locations of 10DM. Indeed, even the outdoor fights in 10DM are relatively constrained and close-quarter in comparison.
Kelso takes out two at once
Unlike 10DM, which by and large has 'feature' one on one fights with identifiable characters as Ryan works his way through his list, L4D has a whole lot of nameless henchmen getting the stuffing beaten out of them. This allows for a lot of one-hit 'set pieces' which serve to both drive home the abilities of Williams and Kelso, and mark out those foes who don't go down in one to be more serious, credible threats with their own impressive arsenal of moves and manouvres.
The other key difference with L4D's fights is one of motion and, perhaps more importantly, progression.
Dylan prepares to take on Williams in their final battle...or is it?
For example, Williams assault on the dojo (recalling Bruce Lee's visit to the Karate school in Fist Of Fury) progresses from being a one-against-many brawl to a rooftop one-on-one with Dylan, and I for one certainly enjoy fight scenes which progress and evolve in terms of the challenges facing the hero (number of opponents increasing/decreasing, the gaining/losing of a weapon, a hostile/advantageous environment, etc.). One of the more familiar examples I could point to would be the House of Blue Leaves sequence from Kill Bill Vol. 1. The challenge faced by 'The Bride' is constantly changing (different types/levels of fighters, different weapons, different amounts of fighters), as is the environment (thanks to some clever lighting tricks and some fun on the balcony) and that's what keeps it fresh and interesting. Only the final battle of 10DM has this progressive quality, but due to the relatively brief and largely mismatched fights, it never gets to be fully developed as one might hope it would be.
Happily, one gets this same sense of progress in both spatial and storytelling terms in a number L4D's fight sequences, and I for one appreciate the variety. Whether it's the exterior to interior of the opening sequence, the dojo to rooftop fight, or the fight to reach Kincaid, the key sequences have this quality, and thus allow the action to advance the story rather than hold it up.
Indeed, in many respects, the final assault on Kincaid's HQ is like Bruce Lee's 'Game of Death' on amphetamines, especially after the swathes of low-level lackeys have all been disposed of.
Williams takes on Kincaid's henchman
Again, like with Williams and Kelso, each of the significant 'feature' foes is nicely differentiated from the other (and from the masses of faceless henchmen) by some means, be it personality, mode of dress, fighting style, choice of weapon or even race/gender. It's the same clever trick used so well in Predator, where each member of the unit has their own subtle little modification to their uniform (headwear, sleeve length, etc.), different weapons (grenade launcher, minigun, etc.) or character trait (constant shaving, tobacco chewing, joke telling, pendant rubbing). In short, it creates slightly more developed characters without the need to sacrifice running time to accomodate scenes of explicit characterisation or backstory. L4D wisely does this from the very beginning, as despite being universally clad in all black, the trio of Taylor, Dylan and Williams are easily distinguishable from one another by their weapons of choice, (namely guns, swords, and bare hands respectively) and their respective approaches and demeanors in combat.
These more distinguished feature villains are what the Playstation generation kids might refer to as 'End of Level Guardians' (namely Williams' former partners in crime Dylan and Taylor, Kincaid's tazer and balisong-wielding henchman, a not-quite-so-criminally-underused Cecily Fay, and of course the Big Boss himself).
Proof that you can't keep a good villain dow...Dylan vs. Williams Redux
To continue the videogame metaphor further, it might work best to try and imagine L4D as a sort of live-action version of something like Final Fight or Double Dragon and you'll be getting pretty close to the mark.
(Actually, on second thoughts, forget the part about imagining a live-action version of Double Dragon. They did that already, and it made me seriously reappraise the merits of Uwe Boll's videogame adaptions. We're taking worse than Super Mario Bros. bad here...but, on the plus side, it has inspired a generation of amateur filmmakers to make good on their boast that they 'could do a better Double Dragon movie than that piece of shit!', and judging by some of their efforts, they were right, too...so much so that I'm going to have to do a post on fan films sometime soon!).
You know, now that I think about it, the Final Fight comparison suddenly becomes a lot more plausible when the two martial arts heroes draft in the powerfully-built (and slightly older) brawler Loader (Adam Hawkins). He's like the Haggar to Williams and Kelso's Guy and Cody respectively. For example...
Haggar cleans house with a double clothesline...
...as does Loader.
Haggar puts a lifting chokehold on some chick...
...as does Loader again!
Having said that, nobody's daughter/fiance has been kidnapped, Loader is not the Mayor of Hope or Metro City, and the villain isn't a wheelchair-bound millionaire/crossbow enthusiast, so perhaps I'm reading a little bit too much into it. Then again, Kelso does have his hands all taped up, just like Cody...also, there's an occasional computer-generated map showing our heroes' progress (which FF also has), and there's a Metro City too? Hmmm...
I've seen various reviewers remark that it has a 'comic book' sensibility to it, but to my eye it is actually about the nearest thing in spirit to a 'video game movie'(and by video game, I'm talking specifically of the clasic 2-D side-scrolling beat 'em up model) that I have seen, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. It's not trying to be a videogame or pay lip service to the idea (Unlike such smug toss as the pov sequence in doom). I mean instead in terms of clear, linear progression...of fighting in order to advance the plotline and progress to a goal, opponent or new level, with Kincaid sitting at the very top of metaphorical tree, which in reality is actually the top floor of a rather forboding high rise building.
Of the fights themselves, there's something of a showreel element. If someone can do a backflip, then they're putting it in rather than constricting the performers to a set fighting style or set of moves. Kelso, for example, has a neat line in launching himself off of objects like cars, walls or benches into a leaping spinning roundhouse kick, to devastating effect.
Kelso gets some airtime via the hood of the car
It's used at least three times that I counted, but I have no problem with the repetition. I'd rather see people doing what they know they can do well instead of doing something half-baked and thoroughly unconvincing.
Kelso launches into another one of his trademark kicks.
The key element for me is that it looks good every time he does it, as does Salvage's trademark kicking combo. In short, there's plenty of highlight reel stuff mixed in with the more mundane moves, as well as various other set pieces (like the knock-the-guy-into-the-transformer-substation electrocution or Dylan using the long grass as camofluage) that obviously weren't improvised on the spot. My favourite would have to be an unsuspecting smoking hoodlum getting his neck broken by Williams. As his lifeless body slumps to the floor, we see his cigarette packet with the legend 'Smoking Kills' emblazoned upon it, and the Benson & Hedges logo has been craftily altered to read Boyask & Hobden. It's a very nice touch, and one that certainly caught my attention.
The desire on the part of the filmmakers to constantly punch well above their weight and transcend the limitations of their budget is apparent throughout. With a film like this, providing you have a handful of people of the requisite proficiency in martial arts, then you can put together a number of fights with only a small group of performers. Again, just like the relatively small-scale 'Game Of Death', you don't need a cast of thousands to successfully execute a progressive fighting/revenge movie, especially if you're working on a tight budget.
For starters, there's seemingly a small army of people involved in this movie as low-level hoodlums who get killed off by the bucketload. I'm sure there must be some 'recycling' somewhere (dressing the same actor differently and using them again), but if there is, it's not particularly obvious.
Another particularly eye-catching sequence involves a gang of motorcyclists being called in to hunt down the escaping Williams. When asked how many to send, an exasperated Dylan demands 'All of them!' We're teased at first by being shown three of them, which seems like an ample number to do the job, but looks a little low-rent if three constitutes 'all of them'. However, it is shortly revealed that there's actually enough bikers to hold a pretty substantial motocross rally. It's a cinematic sucker-punch wherein the filmmakers draw you in, lower your expectations, and then completely blow them away.
Just like the sizeable swathes of hoodlums, it's a bloody impressive sight which serves to further distance L4D from the sort of "3 men and a dog" aura of fiscally-enforced minimalism which tends to haunt some lower budget productions, British or otherwise. It's all very well and good to portray Kincaid as the iron-fisted ruler of an immense criminal empire, but nothing backs that idea up quite so well as actually physically displaying that he can bring a small army into play if he feels like it.
Obviously, it is not without a few faults. I'm not a fan of digital blood effects, nor the opening title sequence & episodic nature of the story with chapter titles a la Tarantino, but that's just me.
On the other hand, I think digital muzzle flashes are brilliant because you can stage full-on shootouts without all the unnecessary noise and disturbance, as they do in L4D's opening sequence. Having said that, there's a digital ricochet effect in the scene where Williams is escaping from Dylan and Taylor which is so weak I'm rather surprised they left it in.
Again, Director Ross Boyask isn't backward in coming forwards about the films that have influenced him and including a little nod here and there. I won't detail them all (spotting them for yourself is half the fun, after all), but the most obvious has to be Kincaid's introduction being given 'The Marsellus Wallace Treatment'*.
(*By 'The Marsellus Wallace Treatment', I don't mean forcibly sodomised in the basement of a pawn shop, but rather the fact that he is only shown from behind for the opening portion of the movie)
As per my review of 10DM, Boyask again excels at action sequences rather than people sitting around talking and so forth. The good news is that this is a very action-heavy film, ergo we get a lot of superlative fight sequences, which is what you want from a martial arts film.
As you might expect from a low budget production, the standard of acting varies a great deal. However, one compensation L4D can offer is that it's not too dialogue-heavy, plus if someone's acting really gets on your nerves, you know they're not going to be talking (or walking) anymore after Williams and Kelso get through with them.
Two things that really stuck out for me with regards to the acting were as follows.
I expected Glenn Salvage to be a lot, lot worse. I've not yet seen 'The Silencer' (check the trailer out HERE), but the very concept of it, with Salvage being rendered mute by a gunshot wound early in the film, seems to send out the message that 'this guy is great at martial arts but utter toss with dialogue'. Fortunately, it seems I have jumped to the wrong conclusion, as I've seen a lot worse.
Secondly, having watched the trailer of L4D, I had already seen bits of dialogue scenes which had me thinking 'That's a bit of a clunker' or 'They can't act for toffee'. Maybe you will have had the exact same thoughts. Bizarrely, when you watch those snippets in their proper context, most of them actually work quite nicely.
Having said that, I didn't come into this movie expecting Branagh-esque displays of outrageous thespianism, and nor should you.
Everyone has to start somewhere, though, and low budget films like L4D provide an important opportunity for people to get their foot in the proverbial door and cut their metaphorical teeth. The biggest example in L4D would have to be none other than Joey Ansah. One minute he's getting the crap beaten out of him by Glenn Salvage in the dojo fight, the next thing you know he's getting killed with a bathtowel by Matt Damon in 'The Bourne Ultimatum'. That's showbiz, baby!
When all is said and done, on just about any individual aspect you might care to pick, be it acting, effects, cinematography, etc., L4D is plainly inferior to 10DM (as you would naturally expect...progression not regression), yet perversely the sum is greater than the constituent parts, so much so that given the choice, I'd probably rather watch L4D over 10DM.
Perhaps it's because L4D is more obviously low budget when compared to the more illustrious 10DM (which benefits greatly from the flatters-to-deceive production value afforded to it by the various unique locations employed throughout) that I'm more than willing to cut this one some slack.
Despite being set in a desolate, crime-ridden hellhole, it's overall a much less bleak and nihilistic film than 10DM. There's a little more humour, for starters, mostly provided by Dylan who has all the best lines (although my favourite has to be Taylor's "I can't believe you made me take my fucking coat off!"), but also in scenes such as the one where Kelso demonstrates to Loader how he plans to fight with his badly damaged hands, or the the knowing look given before a nameless thug is electrocuted in the opening battle.
The relative simplicity of the storyline (Introduce Williams, Introduce Kelso, Team up and take down Kincaid) means that it flows a little more readily than the multiple characters and storylines of 10DM. Less apparently is more, after all.
The other key distinction is the fact that the plotline is entirely linear, save for some very brief flashbacks featuring Williams' now-deceased wife (cleverly done using leading man Salvage's real-life wedding video. Now that's what I call production value!), and a sequence wherein Taylor is shown to be a cold-blooded killer, but we knew that already. 10DM, on the other hand, is largely non-linear with many flashbacks. As such, there are no real distractions from the general thrust of the plot. The 'softest' part of L4D in terms of advancing the plot would most likely be the sequence detailing our heroes healing up and getting ready to take on Kincaid, and that's wisely condensed down into a brief montage. Other than that, the film literally flies by. 'Fast paced and hard hitting' sounds like a marketing cliche, but in L4D's case it's extremely appropriate.
So, if you have the opportunity, I'd advise you grab this one first. I just like it better. It's markedly less polished or professional than 10DM, but it's ultimately a lot more fun and easy-going. If you're looking for practical and realistic, look elsewheres. If you want a fighting-for-fighting's-sake low budget martial arts rampage, l4d delivers the goods in impressive style.
It's hardly appropriate for me to comment on value for money as I got it absolutely free. My version bears the logo of the widely-despised York Entertainment, so I assume it was the US version. How the current or subsequent UK versions may differ in terms of running times and extra features, I couldn't say, but it would really have to go some to top 10DM in terms of extra features. These BTS features do exist, as you can see on producer Phil Hobden's YouTube Channel, but whether they are or will be included on a DVD version remains to be seen (by me, at least).
I think the most telling comment I can make on value for money would be that I am now resolved to find a retail copy to replace my current screener version with. Yes, I'm the kind of completist anorak who likes cases, sleeve art and all that jazz rather than MP3s, blank disks or portable hard drives for my media. I'm so old school I still buy CDs. This movie is definitely one I want to see added to my collection in the proper manner. In short, a keeper with plenty of replay value.