Badass du jour: Oliver Reed, in Sitting Target

My only regret is that I didn’t drink every pub dry and sleep with every woman on the planet.” -Oliver Reed
My friend Pita-San wanted to see this movie, Sitting Target, with Oliver Reed and Ian McShane, so I went on the hunt. Turns out it was rated X in Britain when it came out for brutality. They had me at “brutality.” Of course I expected it to be tame now, and in many ways it is- there’s nothing as racy as Lee Marvin throwing a naked man out a window as in the spectacular Point Blank, or as brutal as um, Lee Marvin smashing a pot of hot coffee in a woman’s face, as in The Big Heat (Marvin’s a bad-ass among bad-asses). But it remains a gritty and yes, brutal thriller about a crook who busts out of prison to get revenge on his woman when she shacks up with a well-off acquaintance, instead of waiting for him.
That crook is Harry Lomart, played by Oliver Reed, a bad-ass on and off the screen. Let us have a moment of loudness to remember his passing, at the age of 63, during the filming of Gladiator. He was at lunch, drinking 3 bottles of rum, a half dozen beers, and various shots of whiskey and cognac, and had a heart attack after besting five Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling. There are method actors, and there are forces of nature that you are lucky enough to capture on film. Ollie “Mr. England” Reed, so self-proclaimed because he was one of few celebrities to flee Britain’s high taxes in the ’70s, was certainly one of the latter.
Sitting Target begins with Harry getting the bad news from his girl, who’s on the other side of the prison glass, talking to him on the phone. When he learns that she’s been untrue and is leaving him, he bashes through the barrier with one punch and seizes her by the throat. The guards beat him down with their truncheons, and drag him back to his cell. But he’s already been planning a breakout with pal Birdy Williams, played by Ian McShane (you know, Al Swearengen from “Deadwood,” among many other roles). Harry does his time by sticking to a cruel training regimen, working out in his cell. In an age when even hunks had the uni-ab, he’s got the definition of a Greek statue and he’s cold and hard as marble.
He breaks out by hiding during the night roll call, hanging from the ceiling in a feat of physical strength, and swinging down to clobber the guards when they search the cell. They’re the same guys who beat him when he choked his wife, and he gets his revenge. To show how driven he is to pay back his wife’s betrayal, when they finally escape the prison after dealing with guard dogs, search lights, and climbing across guy wires in the dark, Harry has to climb barbed wire with his bare hands. The other guys used rags to protect themselves, but there’s no time. So he does it the hard way.

Tell me he doesn’t look like The Terminator?

Once they are out, they are hot and have to leave the country, but not before Harry finishes his business. They break an unspoken rule of “no guns” in the underworld, and pick up a broomhandle Mauser with a removable stock, that can be fired full auto. This leads to a brutal gunfight with motorcycle cops in the back alleys that is probably what gave the film its X certificate. A cycle bursts into flames, and Douglas Hickox’s direction makes it seem documentarian and all too real. As Harry hunts down his wife and realizes he’s made more enemies with his obsession, double crosses lead to more gunplay and an excellent car chase through a railyard with a Land Rover. It’s a forgotten and memorable piece of ’70s crime, and while it may not be a classic like Get Carter, it’s a fine thriller that stands on its own, and deserves a DVD release.

Artful upside down boobies.

Reed is more famous for starring in Oliver! as Bill Sikes, and the excellent Three Musketeers films of the ’70s, and of course as Proximus in Gladiator. He played many colorful roles in everything from Tommy and The Devils to Vulcan in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Every once in a while you find an actor who’s as colorful off screen as he is on screen, but Reed is one of the true originals. I look forward to watching more of his roles, but I know they can’t live up to the man.

One day I should like to live in Ireland. I love the Irish, the more I see of other races the more I believe the Irish are the only real people left, and apart from that they have space and clear air in which to wander and think and to feel free.

Kung Fu Panda

Wow, this was a lot better than I expected. It’s like a Sammo Hung kung fu movie with animals. If you don’t know who Sammo Hung is, he’s a chubby kung fu goofball who palled up with Jackie Chan several times and has many great Hong Kong fooey movies to his own credit. With subtle titles like Enter the Fat Dragon, you know what you’re getting into. Kung Fu Panda has some of the same spirit and manages to be more of a kung fu movie than just a kid movie, and that- along with an excellent voice cast- is what makes it worthwhile.
Jack Black plays Po, a panda who works at his father’s noodle shop. His father, Mr. Ping, is a rather goofy-looking duck voiced by the irreplaceable James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner) who even managed to make Balls of Fury tolerable. Ping’s “secret ingredient noodle soup” is thw town favorite, so Po is too busy slinging noodles to learn kung fu. When he hears that the Shaolin Temple will be choosing the Dragon Warrior- the only disciple worthy of viewing the secrets of the legendary Dragon Scroll- he must attend, but of course Pops wants him to go and sell noodles outside.
The Shaolin Temple is where Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a wizened red panda teaches his disciples, the Furious Five (not Grandmaster Flash’s band, either). They are Mantis, Tigress, Crane, Monkey, and Viper, after the 5 fighting styles of Shaolin. They are played by Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu respectively- and all relatively on the down-low, letting their characters speak for themselves, you could say (if anyone steals the show, it’s David Cross’s Crane). Shifu is concerned that his old enemy, Tai Lung- a warrior so fearsome that an entire prison manned with rhino guards was constructed to contain him- may be plotting to escape. He wishes to give one of his students the knowledge of the Dragon Scroll, to be ready for the inevitable battle.
Po lugs his noodle cart up the mountain’s endless stairs, and through his clumsy attempts at viewing the choosing of the Dragon Warrior, his fat black ‘n white butt ends up in the middle of the ceremony. And of course, the wise elder Oogway- an ancient turtle, who like all kung fu masters, looks frail and slow but has powers that Yoda would envy- chooses the lowly fat panda to be the Dragon Warrior. Can such a lazy, gluttonous kung fu fanboy be trained to fight at all? Can he convince Master Shifu to take him seriously?

From here on it reminded me a lot of Jackie Chan’s earlier kung fu comedies like Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and the original Drunken Master. There is plenty of character-based humor and wordplay to keep the adults laughing while the slapstick keeps the kiddies rolling. Po is hapless and helpless. Sure, he’s a kung fu fanboy but he is beaten by a training dummy. But he’s got what fighters call “heart,” because he never gives up. Even when he probably should. When Tai Lung escapes (of course), Shifu has no choice but to train him.
The story is nothing new- it’s like a hundred kung fu films where the unlikely, destined warrior must be trained to defeat the undefeatable, but in Kung Fu Panda the humor, stunningly gorgeous backgrounds and catchy character designs, and the characters themselves make it shine. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu is the one who must redeem himself, in a change of pace- Po will always be Po, and just needs to believe in himself, as disciples must. Po’s Daddy Duck Mr. Ping- who we at first expect to be a joke, or be the Angry Dad who wants to ruin his dreams- also gets a touching layer of depth that will make you stop wondering how he fathered a panda in the first place.
The animation is quite good, and while the battles are a little less exciting when you’ve seen Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which brings them to such a level of ridiculousness that even animation can’t top them, but the training sequences are both funny and exhilarating. There’s a fight over a dumpling that is so perfect that you’ll know they watched many, many classic old kung fu flicks and loved them before embarking on this project. And that’s what made the movie for me- sure, it’s not at the level of Pixar, but like Horton Hears a Who!, it strives for that level of excellence. Unlike Horton, it doesn’t quite reach it story-wise, but it’s still a blast and much better than I expected. Few, if any pop culture references, and the stars play characters, not themselves.

For example Ian McShane (Deadwood, Hot Rod) plays Tai Lung- a power-hungry warrior who’s not evil, or even misunderstood- but when we find out why he wants that Dragon Scroll so badly, he’s a character, not just a Bad Guy. But of course, whether you will like or hate this movie really depends on what you think of Jack Black- he’s more self-effacing here than in his usual persona, as in Tenacious D, but if you find him grating this movie is not for you. I found Po refreshing after Black’s habit of playing (with) himself, and his timing is perfect. Ebert complained that he isn’t charismatic enough, but that’s sort of the joke- I wouldn’t want to be around Jeff Lebowski all the time either.

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