Venice 2010 Review: John Woo's REIGN OF ASSASSINS

Last night, Obsessed with Film was at the Sala Grande in Venice to watch action film legend, John Woo, collect his lifetime achievement statuette - an honorary Golden Lion. On hand to present a visibly nervous Woo with this award was this year's head of the jury, and an enthusiastic champion of Asian cinema, Quentin Tarantino, as well as Woo's friend and fellow director, Tsu Hark (Seven Swords). After a montage of his films, which included moments from The Killer, Hard Boiled, Mission Impossible 2 Face/Off, Paycheck and Red Cliff (among others), the man himself gave a brief and humble speech. In it he expressed his gratitude, not only for the award, but for the fact that he made been allowed to make films, with some of his idols becoming his friends (he cited Scorsese, Stone and Bertolucci as examples of this). After paying tribute to his wife, mother and children, Woo left the stage on the same terms that he stepped onto it: to a long standing ovation. Among those celebrating his career were mogul Harvey Weinstein, Scott Pilgrim actor Michael Cera and the cast Reign of Assassins (which included Michelle Yeoh). It was Reign of Assassins that was then premiered, a new martial arts epic co-directed by Woo and Chao-Bin Su, in what the veteran had earlier described as marking a new phase in his career. He said that now he was keen to make many more films in the booming Chinese film industry. An industry so booming that all three of the out of competition entrants I have seen here so far were made there - and bear in mind that, whilst the Chinese have many more films yet to come in this year's festival (including one from Hark), there is only one British-made feature film at the festival (Robinson in Ruins by Patrick Keiller). And so, Reign of Assassins began with an animated intro setting up the back story - reminiscent of something you'd see if you left a video game running on the menu screen. It was pretty ropey looking. But the film itself was colourful and action-packed, owing much to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the now ubiquitous use of wire fu, as our heroes jump across rooftops and flying through the air when hit. There were pure Woo moments too, with bending swords and precision needles filling in for bullets this time around (and of course, the occasional white bird). I have to admit, for the first hour I was pretty bored by Assassins. The action felt too balletic (especially compared to the more visceral and tangible thrills of the festival's opening day Donnie Yen picture), the characters too exaggerated. But then I realised that it was fantasy - almost like the traditional Chinese version of Dungeons and Dragons: there is a magical wizard; the antagonist is known as "the wheel king"; and there are characters with names like Wisdom and Drizzle. Once I got into the fact that this was something very stylistically different to the likes of Hero, or Woo's own Red Cliff, I began to enjoy it far more. If Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist suffered from having its best action in the first ten minutes, then Reign of Assassins has the opposite problem. It gets better as it progresses and the plot twists and turns in the final third are satisfying, if never really exciting. Not vintage Woo, by even his recent standards, but a solid, diverting and imaginative movie that continues the Chinese push for worldwide box office domination. OVSYANKI (Silent Souls)SOMEWHERE; Every bit as poignant as LOST IN TRANSLATION, if not quite as fresh.BLACK SWAN; A rare and beautiful thing €“ a perfect movieLA PECORA NERA (The Black Sheep)MIRAL; So contrived, so false, so cravenly seeking out approval that it lacks impactHAPPY FEW; the best, and funniest film about sex since HUMPDAYNORWEGIAN WOOD; A handsomely made failureLEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHENSHOWTIME; Quirky Chinese comedy that€™s STEP UP/STREETDANCE with Time Travel!BLACK SWAN best film of the year €“ left me devastated, excited, tense and emotionally drained
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.