More Reviews

by Mark Leeper

Jackie Chan's First Strike (1996) -- The Relic (1996)

Jackie Chan's First Strike (1996)

Heavy on action, light on thought,
this is a film that easily matches the stunts of a
James Bond film but delivers little else. The plot
is mostly an excuse for action scenes and is a
contrivance to which the script gives only cursory
attention. Chan has the personality to make much
more engaging films. Still, only he can do stunts
like this without a stand-in.
Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4)

The Hong-Kong-based Jackie Chan has been making a rather free-form series of crime films which are best known as his Police Story films. Depending on how you count them, First Strike is either the fourth or fifth film in this series. It is probably the fourth, but another film, Project S, was released as if it were part of the Police Story series and called by alternate titles that include Police Story 4 and Supercop 2. That almost makes sense because Supercop was an alternate title of Police Story 3. In general, the more titles a film can be given the more people who will see it a second time not realizing they have seen it before. In any case, this time around Chan is departing from the police motif and making a sort of poor man's James Bond film. And he has the action scenes down pretty well. In fact, his film has better stunts than most Bond films. The only problem is that at a time when the James Bond plots are deteriorating, they are still better and much more complex than a Chan plot. Chan's film is little more than an excuse to string together a series of admittedly pretty exciting action scenes. One has the distinct feeling that the stunts are planned first, then a plot is written to connect the stunts. Not that Chan is not a wonder to watch. When Chan gets going he is a marvel of grace and at times his stunts are difficult to believe. But while this film tries to be like a Bond film-- not all that ambitious a goal, particularly of late-- First Strikeis less like a spy film than it is like a collection of circus acts.

It would almost be a mistake to say that FIRST STRIKE has a plot. Basically there is just enough so that Chan can get into a series of fights. Jackie (played by Jackie Chan for the first time under something approaching his own name) has performed well in a mission for the CIA and they have decided to ask him to go on another mission almost as a perk. Jackie is to fly from Hong Kong to Ukraine, just watching a beautiful woman whom the CIA is following. Once he gets to the far end he can have a short vacation at the expense of the CIA. But at the far end he finds there is more involved in the case than he expected when he sees what appears to be a kidnapping. Soon Chan is chasing through snow pursued by soldiers in white parkas and what looks like white hockey masks. Not long after he is fighting muscle-bound assassins proportioned like TV's The Tick. There are a few complications in the plot, a few silly comedy situations, and a few fights using props at hand. While the centerpiece of Rumble in the Bronx was a fight involving a grocery basket, this time he does considerably more with a folding ladder.

What Chan is making are not films in the traditional sense. Instead he is showing off for the camera, taking risks that probably no other actor making films today would dare. And Chan makes no secret of the fact that a lot of times things go awry as he is filming and he goes through a lot of physical pain to create the stunts he is showing us. More frequently than most other actors would tolerate, things go very wrong and he comes near to physical injury. When he jumps off a cliff and grabs for the skid of a helicopter I think we know that it is probably not a real cliff, but also that there is a real physical danger to Chan to even shoot the scene. We watch him with a fascination that is almost perverse as he takes one dangerous risk after another and that is the real soul of his films, knowing we are seeing real danger. And so nobody doubts that Chan is taking real risks, he includes his out-takes collection at the end to prove how close he really came near to serious injuries. In what plot there is, the characters other than Chan become props almost as much as the inanimate objects around which he flows. Nobody does much acting in one of his films and Chan does little but a little mugging for the camera. Chan is the only character who has a chance to be a character and he does not take that acting part of his work seriously.

First Strike-- there is no explanation of the title of the film, by the way-- is a lampoon of a Bond film and J. Peter Robinson plays along at times giving us imitation John Barry music, but something short of the real thing. Chan has some comic talent and appears to enjoy living dangerously. But most of what it would take to make this film really tick is still missing.

I rate First Strike a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

The Relic (1996)

Peter Hyams tries his hand at horror
and instead finally makes a fun science fiction
film. If you liked It! The Terror From Beyond Space
there is a darn good chance you will like its
1990s successor. A stone statue from the Amazon
basin is somehow connected to a series of
beheadings in a Chicago museum. Like the novel,
the film is a patchwork of pieces from better
horror stories, but it all makes for a decent B-picture.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)

The Relic is based on what is apparently a fairly popular horror novel by Douglas Preston (author of the non-fiction Dinosaurs in the Attic, about the American Museum of Natural History) and horror editor Lincoln Child. The trailers for the film preceded the release by several months. That is all really something of a pity. This would be a great little film to come upon by accident, sitting in some dusty corner of the video store. Maybe this should be the second film of a drive-in double-feature, playing with something like Mars Attacks! The key to enjoying The Relic is to see it on the cheap with very little expectation. Then you would not feel you have to analyze the ideas in any great detail. This film is for the 90s what a film like Tarantula was for the 50s, a bit of playful fun with some really dubious science. The Relic pastes together bits from a lot of horror and science fiction movies and gives some nice hokum explanations for how its particular monster came to be haunting a natural history museum in Chicago. If you look for it you will see the ghost ship from Dracula or a big chunk of plot borrowed from The Phantom of the Opera. Another piece of the idea comes from The Creeping Unknown. Still, by Star Trek standards the ideas in the film seem mostly reasonably plausible and nothing seems totally absurd. The film fails only in that it does not offer enough to satisfy the expectations for a major studio production.

A museum expedition to the Amazon Basin in Brazil has discovered some peculiar superstitions of the local Indians. They involve a statue and some other jungle artifacts that get crated up and sent to the Chicago Museum of Natural History by an explorer who later regrets sending them. At the museum the artifacts come to the attention of the research staff including a young evolutionary biologist Margo Green (played by Penelope Ann Miller) and her mentor and friend Dr. Frock (James Whitmore). But what really attracts attention is the set of beheadings that start occurring in different parts of the museum. Investigating them comes Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore). He is asked to keep a lid on the killings because the museum is about to open a major new exhibit on superstition that will be extremely lucrative for the museum. The museum director (Linda Hunt) is planning in just a day or two to inaugurate the exhibit with a celebration, a major social event for the city government of Chicago. D'Agosta does not want the opening ceremonies for the exhibit to occur in a museum with a killer still at large somewhere in the huge system of underground chambers beneath the museum, but the museum plans to go ahead. While D'Agosta tries to find the killer, Dr. Green struggles to understand exactly what the superhuman killer is.

Penelope Ann Miller is probably the least interesting of the top- billed four actors. Tom Sizemore as the superstitious police detective is a much more interesting actor. He overcomes the distraction of his constant one-day growth of beard to put some interesting accent on his character. He is probably remembered best for the sleazy sorts he played in Devil in a Blue Dress and Natural Born Killers. He plays his hero in much the same way and it is worth seeing the sleaziness translate into attitude. Linda Hunt and James Whitmore are both magnetic scene stealers, as is a somewhat mournful-looking dog. Director Peter Hyams's previous science fiction films have been Capricorn One, Outland, 2010, and Timecop. Of those, only 2010 warrants even the effort of a second viewing and it was pretty stodgy. Hyams had to step over into horror to make his first reasonably enjoyable science fiction film. Even in The Relic he lacks the style he really needs. Hyams floods the film with false-alarm jump scenes, many highly predictable, instead of creating the feeling of tension he really needs.

Perhaps the best thing to do with this film would be to forget you ever heard of it and then rent it in two years. Barring that, go into the theater with lots of popcorn and no expectations.

Then you might agree this film deserves a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

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