WWW: Weekend Wrental Wreviews 60

Let's see what I saw this week for Weekend Wrental Wreviews in my 60th WWW:

1) Lone Wolf & Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx:
The journey continues in the second film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series. Ogami Itto's enemies are more determined than ever to put the ronin down, as evidenced in the film's first fight sequence. Itto nails one of his attackers dead center of his head with his sword, and the guy uses his own skull to make sure the sword stays put while a second attacker leaps over the first's shoulders. The blood, which looks like paint in many scenes, flows even more freely in the sequel, but underscores the whole notion of honor and the code of warriors. That first guy was as good as dead, but he tried to make his death mean something. Later, a shinobi warrior tests a clan of female assassins to see if they have what it takes to defeat the Lone Wolf. He looses fingers and keeps fighting. Then an arm. Then another arm. Then his legs. By the time he's just a torso, he's still trying to win the challenge and get past his foes. Soon, Ogami is beset by more attackers, and this time around his son Daigoro starts to take a more active role in his defense, occasionally activating some of the hidden spring-loaded blades in his baby cart. These distractions don't keep the ronin from his latest job, helping a village before they lose their wealth when one member goes rogue. He is being escorted by three deadly assassins, coming in by boat, known as “gods of death”. These are not the expendable men and women who have been attacking all along the road, but honorable warriors who recognize and respect their potential opponent. They kill, but only with provocation. There seems to be a theme of sympathetic villains, from the leader of the female clan who questions her actions when her employers threaten Daigoro, to three worthy foes you come to like, even though you know they're fated to battle Ogami. He himself shows compassion to at least one enemy, though in the guise of practicality. And still he roams, a man with dead eyes and a deadlier blade, juxtaposed with a precocious little boy, who is both his soul and his humanity. I can guess where the story is going, but if it ends up being nothing more than six movies about a masterless samurai walking with his son and cutting down his enemies with his sword, I'll be just as entertained.

2) Batman: Under the Red Hood:
In a remarkable feat of storytelling, this animated adaptation recounts the startling events of A Death in the Family before the opening credits roll. It manages to do justice to the first Batman graphic novel I ever owned, while making it accessible to newcomers. The subsequent tale which unfolds five years after those events comes from more recent comics, and it's hard for me to review without spoiling too many key plot details. From what I've read on message boards, the film's approach to the story makes a lot more sense within the Batman universe than in the source material, where these events resulted from a character from a parallel world punching reality. Comics, folks. Instead we focus on a gritty, street-level Batman voiced by Bruce Greenwood dealing with a very personal and emotional new foe in the Red Hood(Jensen Ackles). He is assisted by his original sidekick, now Nightwing, voiced with just the right amount of confidence and sarcasm by Neil Patrick Harris. The movie gets the dynamic between these two just right; they fight like clockwork, their years of training and partnership evidenced by how fluidly they work together. But Batman also pushes him away, focuses on being a loner. It's not explicitly stated, but since he already lost one sidekick, he's clearly protecting his first one. The animation is on par with the level of quality in recent DC animated features, and there's a nice balanced use of the rogues gallery beyond the enigmatic newcomer taking over the gangs and killing any bad guys that get in his way. No Batman film would be complete without a Joker, and John Dimaggio steps up to the plate and does an admirable job, getting a few laughs and, faithful to the character, laughing where a sane person would not. In the end, we get a nice personal tale about the heroes and villains under each of their respective masks, and the shades of gray for those characters who walk a fine line between good and evil. For fans worried that Jason Todd's history might be rushed, the movie works in plenty of milestone flashbacks, and chooses to end perfectly on one happy memory, powerfully tragic in hindsight. This DC animated film will certainly be remembered as one of the better ones, and the closest any modern film has come to the quality and tone of Batman: The Animated Series.

3) Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades:
By the third film in this series, I really had a strong sense of these characters, even as Ogami's abilities began to border on almost superhuman. Slaying an entire army? That's from John Rambo's repertoire. Concealing firearms in unexpected places? We saw it with guitar cases in Desperado. The thing is, this film came out in 1972, so you really start to see the Eastern influence on Western cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s examples I cited. The samurai genre was the equivalent of Westerns, with sword wielders walking the same dangerous path as gunslingers portrayed by the likes of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. It's not a pretty world Ogami Itto lives in, even if he wasn't a disgraced samurai being hunted by his former masters. These movies depict, often graphically, rapists, murderers, and thieves. It's a harsh place to raise an innocent like his son Daigoro, but perhaps that's what sets these movies apart. Some of the best scenes between the two principal actors don't even require words. Daigoro drops his rice while eating, considered wasteful in ancient Japanese culture. Ogami need only give the boy a stern look for him to pick up his food and eat it, and then he gives him an approving nod. I haven't mentioned these moments in my reviews of the previous movies, but they permeate all of them and they're nice bits of character, quiet interludes between fights. As with the second film, we also get some sympathetic foes. Along the way Ogami encounters a Watari-kashi, a hired sword, who himself was also once a noble samurai. He, like Ogami, still has his honor, though he believes it to be lost. Ogami proves that he can be a teacher to more than just his son. It's interesting that, while he constantly insists that he and the boy are living the lives of “demons”, he never stops imparting wisdom or earning respect from those he encounters. Would a demon spare an honorable opponent? Would a demon take a beating to save a prostitute? Daigoro continues to develop into more of an active player, often luring enemies into position to be vulnerable to his father. There are also some impressive camera techniques and effects for 1972, including one beheading which we see from the point of view of the victim, the camera spinning as “our” head rolls along the ground. Itto continues walking, continues his journey as a ronin, continues his work as an honorable assassin, and I'll continue watching this series.

More reviews to follow next week after I've spun a few more discs!



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