Kicking and Screaming


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The Relic

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Jackie Chan's First Strike

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JANUARY IS A historically pitiful month for new studio releases. Last year at this time, we were blessed with the likes of Eye for an Eye and Lawnmower Man 2--not the sort of movies deemed worthy of opening in December to qualify for the Oscar list. Still, their release in the post-holiday season makes sense from a demographic standpoint, as big-budget exploitation films like this year's Turbulence and The Relic--or a pre-fab, bought-and-dubbed property like Jackie Chan's First Strike--stand to do well with multiplex-goers for whom Evita and Larry Flynt seem a bit too high-brow. In fact, any film enthusiast could use a break from the deluge of Hollywood epics and art-house head-scratchers. And there's always the faint hope that a schlocky studio movie might provide a decent distraction or an element of camp, or maybe even a smidgen of subversion.

Then again, in the case of Turbulence, we're talking about a film for which the studio sent out preview tickets sealed in barf-bag envelopes--which might have been put to better use after the screening. A disaster movie in more ways than one, this ludicrously implausible thriller set aboard a lurching 747 throws together a "level six storm" (on a scale from one to six, natch), a psycho killer (Ray Liotta), two dead pilots, a freaked-out flight attendant (Lauren Holly), an ample dose of sexual sadism, and an in-flight screening of It's a Wonderful Life, which prompts said psycho to taunt the stewardess with his degenerate rendition of "Buffalo Gals." Was there a script? As Liotta shamelessly cashes in on his violent-creep persona, Turbulence becomes a standard-issue slasher movie in which the last female survivor is saddled with the extra burden of landing a plane. The film is laughably contrived and idiotic, but not enough to make it a guilty pleasure. Where are the Zucker Brothers when we need them?

Another slasher-disaster, The Relic is about a huge reptilian mutant with fangs, claws, boar-like tusks, and a slimy snake's tongue that licks the heroine's face near the end. It's an overall classier production than Turbulence. The vacuous Penelope Ann Miller stars as a Chicago natural history museum's evolutionary biologist--that is, "someone who tries to figure out where our tails went." Our brains, meanwhile, are another matter entirely, since the titular beast--which has been unwittingly imported to the museum from a tribe in Brazil (never trust those jungle heathens!)--likes to tear people's heads off and eat their pituitary glands in order to speed its evolution. For some reason, this relic has a particular appetite for service workers, like the black security guard who gets mauled in the men's room while smoking a doobie on his break. Is this a cautionary tale?

As in Jaws and most subsequent creature features, the film pretends to indict capitalist greed in a subplot about how the curators have commissioned a sensational show merely to drum up ticket sales. Shame on them. The Relic, on the other hand, is apparently a serious investigation of the looming threat to our position atop the food chain--albeit one that flaunts over a dozen grisly decapitations, the better to explore its heady theme. Director Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, Sudden Death) favors endangering his human characters in tunnels so dark that the relic could be a furry hand puppet for all we know. He saves the bulk of digital FX for the repugnant climax, which is still boring enough to induce sleep in all but the least evolved horror fans.

Jackie Chan's First Strike is pretty tedious also, despite offering more evidence of the martial artist's gymnastic brilliance, impeccable comic timing, and ballsy derring-do. There isn't much else to say about this fourth Police Story installment (and the third Chan import in less than a year) except that it's another cheeky, 007-style action package wrapped in the thinnest of plots, in which the star's Hong Kong cop character
globetrots to Australia and the Ukraine in pursuit of a hijacked nuclear warhead. Chan's props this time are wooden stilts, a folding ladder, and a snowboard; his friends are a koala bear and a trained seal (Michelle Khan and Maggie Cheung are regrettably MIA); and his enemies include a killer shark and the usual assortment of beefy henchmen.

The action scenes are indeed elaborate, but there's never anything at stake; compared to its hero, First Strike seems lazy and limp. Having proven his facility with this sort of cartoon entertainment countless times before, Chan deserves better than another movie that exploits his inexhaustible talent while giving back little in the way of story, characterization, or visual style. And another thing: If the Amerindie studios getting fat on these dubbed versions are so crazy about Jackie Chan pictures, why don't they make one?

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