Tagged: Donnie Yen

Box Office Democracy: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

I was extremely excited when I walked out of the original xXx back in the summer of 2002.  Finally, a spy film for my generation.  Something that could mix international espionage and the X-Games aesthetic that seemed poised to take over the world.  I’ve rewatched xXx recently and it does not hold up at all.  Also, I never participated in any extreme sports or watched very much of any X-Games so I have no idea why embracing this culture appealed to me at all.  In retrospect, the original xXx was an okay action movie with some fantastic costuming and an awful lot of dated references.  15 years later xXx: Return of Xander Cage is still trying to traffic in counter-culture hipness, but it doesn’t feel like anyone involved in the production has talked to a cool person or a youth in decades.  Return of Xander Cage is jam-packed with the kind of disingenuous focus-grouped edginess the characters would claim to hate.  Too bad they’re fictional and not writing this or any other better movies.

In Return of Xander Cage everyone who is part of the establishment is bad.  I’m not against this general ethos, the establishment is generally a terrible thing— but the medium has to inform the message.  This is a film made by a major studio, so when the burly special forces soldier who doesn’t care for Xander Cage and his alternative ways taunts him saying that he must love Red Bull and Mountain Dew, I can’t help but wonder if those companies paid for that placement.  I see the two leads of these extreme spy teams being played by two actors with a combined age of 102 and I can’t help but think of that 30 Rock meme with Steve Buscemi pretending to be a high school student.

Return of Xander Cage could be so much more cool if it wasn’t so intent on telling me that it was cool all the time.  (I don’t even want to get in to how 44 year-old Toni Collette is kind of made to look like an old crone next to her older male co-stars but it’s also bad, I just don’t want to be here all night.)

There’s also a sense that Return of Xander Cage is trying to capture some of the magic of Vin Diesel’s other, more successful franchise, The Fast and the Furious, but it’s not clear that anyone involved knows what made those work.  They copied the big multicultural cast, they copied the never-ending banter, they copied the ambitious action sequence, and they copied the requirement of having a few party scenes full of beautiful people dancing to music.  None of it works as well.  Most of the supporting characters feel like quick thumbnail sketches instead of people, and for a movie that literally circumnavigates the world it feels rather small.  There’s a secret sauce in the Fast and Furious movies and it might just be as simple as star power or sharper action choreography or even just familiarity with the universe, but those movies are just as far fetched and just as ridiculous and they work.

I’m usually not on a high horse about sequels or Hollywood running out of ideas, but this feels like a spot that should have gone to a new idea.  Return of Xander Cage feels weighed down with the baggage of the two previous movies and I can’t imagine that enough people where clamoring for more xXx to necessitate this (and the box office results seem to back me up on that).  There are a couple usable ideas here, and maybe on their own they could have blossomed in to something else but instead they’re just drowned out by the baggage of trying to live up to this X-Games early-2000s rebelliousness.  Return of Xander Cage is the cinematic equivalent of the guy in his early 20s hanging around the park with high school kids— it isn’t making him seem cool and everyone there just kind of wishes he was doing something else.

Joe Corallo: Rogue One – A Marketing Story

Before I jump into my main point about the latest live action Star Wars adventure known as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I’d like to make some things clear. First, I loved it. By noon this past Friday I had seen it twice. I enjoyed it more than The Force Awakens. I’d be more than happy to go out and spend the money to see it again.

Now that I made that very clear, I’d like to go into two of my observations. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider anything I’m about to state as a spoiler, that doesn’t mean you won’t. If you are very sensitive to anything even remotely resembling a spoiler, please watch Rogue One before you continue reading.

We’re all on the same page now? Great!

The first observation I’m going to make revolves around foreign markets. In particular, the Chinese movie going market. China has become the second largest market for movies in the world and Hollywood has been taking advantage of that. The Force Awakens failed to go over well in China, which made it impossible for the movie to beat out Avatar for the highest grossing film of all time.

In an effort to change that, Rogue One features Hong Kong action mega star Donnie Yen as well as another prominent Chinese actor, Wen Jiang. It’s a solid marketing move and could prove very lucrative for Disney if it gets China’s moviegoers to the theaters for it.

This is more or less a neutral move to pander to an audience. While this does mean precious character real estate isn’t going to other groups or to Asian American actors, it’s still diverse casting. It is also pandering and not really risktaking. While we can discuss this as being good representation, we have to acknowledge it’s also smart business.

Don’t think that considering financial gains to be made in other countries from Hollywood will always have a neutral impact like this. In some cases it’s a positive impact. Movies like Iron Man 3 likely avoided offensive stereotyping with the character of the Mandarin by not wanting to offend that audience. That’s great. Hollywood becoming more worldly for that reason is important and encouraging.

There are drawbacks, however. One of the biggest examples being Doctor Strange. In a politically motivated move, Disney avoided casting someone to portray the Tibetan character of the Ancient One and instead changed the origin of the character to be Celtic while keeping the Asian aesthetic. The thought being that the Chinese government would inhibit the movie’s release and cost the studio precious revenue. While that’s not what is happening with a movie like Rogue One, this mindset could potentially be damaging in other ways. Dehumanizing the people of Tibet or erasing them entirely for a generation will have consequences. As will promoting talent from other countries as Asian American actors and actresses are given more and more hurdles to overcome to make it in Hollywood.

My second observation has to do with the characters of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus who are played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang. I’ve seen many opinion pieces going around about how they’re clearly a gay couple with evidence from the movie. I’m going to make my thoughts on this very clear.

I’m not happy that Disney’s approach to Star Wars so far had involved queer baiting. If they weren’t aware they were doing that in The Force Awakens they certainly knew for Rogue One.

There is nothing about either sets of those characters that directly implies they’re in a relationship, or that they even want a relationship together. They like having each other around and aren’t shy about their admiration of each other in both movies, but men showing some affection towards each other does not mean they are in a sexual relationship and that kind of thinking can be dangerous and continue to inhibit straight people from feeling they can express themselves that way without implications as well as keeping queer people in the closet longer.

It’s 2016. If you want to have queer characters in your movie, you can.

You don’t need to code them. If you’re coding them, then you’re only speaking to a queer audience. This is an audience that doesn’t need coding anymore; we need real representation. Besides, coding characters so only a queer audience might read them as queer isn’t speaking to straight audiences who are the ones who really need to understand queer characters more and understand that we exist and we aren’t going anywhere.

A reason to code characters in 2016 would be so you can make more money at the box office by not potentially turning away moviegoers who might think twice about wanting to see a queer love story play out while also wanting to make nice with a queer audience. They might also want to make sure people in countries with governments that may be less friendly to the queer community will allow the movie to play unhindered. Not sure something like that would happen? Queer elements have been edited out of anime like Sailor Moon back in the 90s so it could play on TV here in the States.

I completely understand that not everything out there will have queer representation and I am okay with that. What I don’t want to keep seeing are queer baiting story elements like we’ve been seeing in Star Wars since Disney has taken the helm. Either have the representation or don’t. You don’t get to have it both ways and we can’t keep praising companies like Disney for representation that isn’t actually there.

Rogue One was a solid installment in the Star Wars universe and might be my favorite installment since the original trilogy concluded. I highly recommend it. That doesn’t mean we can’t keep hoping for something better even if it means rebelling against some of those in power. Rebellions are built on hope.