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Monday, August 27, 2007


Before I talk about War, which is currently playing at the Essex Cinemas, I have to preface it by telling you something. I lived for years in San Francisco, the setting for War, and movies like this always leave me a bit confounded. In all my time in that Sodom by the Sea I never once was stalked by a serial killer (Sudden Impact; Listen; The Limbic Region; No One Sleeps; Twisted; San Franpsycho; Zodiac; etc.), kidnapped (Where are the Children?; The Taking of Patty Hearst; Metro), or been in the crossfire of a gangland shootout (Ticker). Well, actually, that last one isn’t quite true. I did wander into an undercover drug sting gone bad in the Tenderloin District one day at noon but I was so busy thinking about this past morning at the homeless shelter I ran (and so conditioned to the sound of guns in that neighborhood) that I didn’t even notice the bullets flying or the cops everywhere. It wasn’t until the owner of the adult novelty store near my office building saw me walking by, grabbed me, and pulled me to the dirty floor of his store that I realized something was amiss. I also realized that the front window display I passed by each day was not filled with floating clouds as I usually thought from the side glance I’d give it on my morning stroll to work, but from this angle, on the floor looking up, they were actually an array of inflatable “Love Ewes”, plastic blow-up adult toys, shaped like sheep, covered in fleece but with gaping pink orifices now gleaming in the early afternoon sun. Sadly though, stray bullets had now left at least four of the Love Ewes in their sputtering death throes as air leaked out of them in spits and farts.

Other than that one exception to the rule, though, I found San Francisco a genuinely dull place to live. Much to my chagrin drag queens in Mardi Gras feathers and sequins were not directing traffic and leather-men in assless chaps were not teaching first grade (well, at least not in their chaps and without trousers). The daily newspapers weren’t filled with gruesome details of serial butcherings where the killers at large left clever clues behind to taunt the police. Not once did I cross the lofty avenues of Pacific Heights or venture across broad California Street in the Financial District and need to leap out of the way of a wild police car chase (Bullitt; The Laughing Policeman; The Presidio), and I quite enjoyed spending a great deal of my time at the Kabuki 8 Theaters in Japantown before moving to Vermont and becoming addicted to my now favorite haunt, the Essex Cinemas.

The funny thing about spending so much time in Japantown (or Nihonmachi as the Japanese called it) was that for being in the midst of so much traffic and such a large city, there was an innate sense of peace and quiet there. There is even a ginormous monument to peace, where the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are remembered solemnly each year. I tell you all this because it seems like a very odd dichotomy then that a movie about Japanese Mafioso family heads at War would be set in beautiful San Francisco. Los Angeles I can understand. Everybody hates everybody else there, but this is the Babylon by the Bay, the home of “The Summer of Love,” Hare Krishna, EST, and all that funky stuff. Since when do Japanese hit men roam around San Francisco killing one another?

Well, they do in
War, and it is so much fun I can barely stand it. I love these testosterone-fueled movies full of men kicking, punching, shooting, sword fighting, and basically beating one another into bits until the last one standing wins. I wish we had presidential primaries for both parties this way.

In War, Jason Stratham (Crank), plays Jack Crawford, an FBI agent (coincidentally the same name as the FBI Agent who supervises Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Will Graham in Red Dragon) whose whole world turns upside down when he and his family come over to his partner’s house for an afternoon barbeque and find that the guy they planned to visit, along with his wife and daughter, have already been barbequed by some bad-ass assassin called Rogue, which Crawford identifies from a bullet casing he finds in the burned-out rubble of the house, Amazingly, he spots this in seconds while not one of the dozens of police or firefighters inspecting the crime scene have noticed this clue in the hour or more they’ve been in the room before Crawford arrived.

Now the film skips ahead three years and Crawford has another partner, Wick (Mathew St. Patrick; best known from tv’s “Six Feet Under”), but he is still nursing a grudge for the assassin who killed his buddy back when. Soon comes word that two rival Asian gangs, the Triads and the Yakuza, are engaging in a bloody sport of one-upmanship as they strive to make their presence known as the over-arching predator within the Asian community. Bodies are scattering all over San Francisco and Crawford can hardly wait to jump on the case.

Heading up the two “families” are Shamo (Ryo Ishibashi; The Grudge 2) who wields power from afar, as he continues to live in Japan and let his daughter Kira (Devon Aoki; DOA: Dead or Alive) show her prowess as a power broker. She is playing hardball against Chang (John Lone; Rush Hour 2), a Marin County-based gazillionaire who isn’t above hiring a certain Rogue assassin to do his bidding, and so the
War between the two dynasties takes off. Personally, I think Shamo is staying in Japan to avoid the inevitable jokes he would endure by Americans calling him “Shamu” in honor of everyone’s favorite killer whale, but I digress.

Surprisingly, this deadly battle is not about drugs or crime per se; the focus of their battle is over the ownership of two golden horses. Okay, now I may have been distracted by the yokel in the front
row who found it absolutely necessary to continually take out his cell phone and blind everyone within ten rows back with the florescence of its screen’s glow while he text messaged God-knows-who, but I missed the significance of why these horses are so important. Maybe Mr. Text-Me-Any-Time was sending that bit of information off to a friend while I was trying to adjust my eyes to the glare of his photo-flash style blinding, but, I’m sorry, I apparently can’t hear when I can’t see. Who knew? Anyway, these horses look like the tacky horse statue that stood under The Brady Bunch’s living room stairs, in every groovy episode, back in the 1970s. The only difference is that these two have been spray-painted gold, obviously.

It doesn’t really matter about the horses one way or the other. They are really only an excuse for the chop socky action to happen, and it does – Big time! – once the story gets set in place. So, you get the Triads vs. Yakuzas, but they are really just collateral damage on both sides in the chess game between Shamo and Chang, both of whom think they have Rogue under their thumbs, and both of whom are in no mood for Crawford’s interference in their private
War. Don’t they get the hint? Never trust someone called “Rogue.” It’s right there in the name.

What could have been an obvious second rate kung fu/kick boxing nothing of a movie really shows
some inventive and interesting writing as witnessed by the climatic moment when Jack and Rogue finally face one another towards the end of the flick. Secrets are revealed that have never even been hinted at but that the groundwork has been laid for throughout the rest of the film by a series of misdirected clues that are cleverly placed and make for a startling and shocking finale.

I will admit that I left the theater with an uncanny desire to kick something, kung fu style. Unfortunately, the guy with the cell phone had gotten out before I could make it down the stairs from the back row. Damn it! One day, Cell Phone Guy! One day! Hopefully you will have a glare-free experience and won’t need to declare your own private
War, but I do think you will enjoy this particular War if you give it a chance.

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