Even though it’s only in its second year as a film festival, Asheville’s ActionFest has begun to pull a considerable amount of weight as one of the premiere genre festivals in the world. Festival director Colin Geddes is a fifteen year veteran of festival programming, and has built his reputation on the strength of his Midnight Madness series at TIFF, and along with the fest’s ties to genre powerhouse Magnolia/Magnet Releasing, they were able to put together a program chock full of winning pieces. This past weekend was a lot of fun, and had a LOT of really fun action films and thrillers that offered a wide variety of pleasures for any fan.
The opening night selection, Ironclad was a fun way to kick things off, and featured plenty of gory medieval action. Paul Giamatti stars as King John, who reneges on the Magna Carta and attempts to take back his country against the defenses of a ragtag group of knights and vagabonds holding Rochester Castle in the middle ages. While it doesn’t hold up to the highest levels of quality as far as its story is concerned, it more than makes up for it with brutal, well-staged action sequences and a clawing-his-way-over-the-top performance by Giamatti, who reaches that level usually reserved for a really good Nicolas Cage performance.
Ironclad was also a great counterpoint to the closing night selection 13 Assassins, prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike’s (Audition, Ichi The Killer) profound and poetic take on the chanbara subgenre, itself a loose remake of a film by Eiichi Kudo in 1963. Tracking the exploits of a group of samurai as they attempt to kill Lord Naritsugu, a sadistic brother of the Shogun, the film is a masterpiece of the genre, and easily Miike’s most mature work to date, propelling him into the upper echelon of the world’s filmmakers after spending a highly lauded career making yakuza and horror films. The final battle in a fortified town of the samurai’s choosing is a virtuoso sequence of bloody violence and heart-pounding adrenaline, and takes up the bulk of the final half hour.
Another film of note, Mark Hartley’s must-see documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed!, details the Filipino-American production partnership for drive-in genre fair from the late 60s to the mid 80s. A lot of filmmakers got their starts working for New World Pictures, Roger Corman’s legendary outfit, and made films on the islands for very little money, often featuring women protagonists in an action context – something that was largely unheard of in major studio productions. The best part of this doc and Hartley’s previous film (Not Quite Hollywood), which detailed the Oz-sploitation flicks of the 70s was discovering things I really want to watch, like the unofficially linked “Blood Island” cycle of films, intermingled with a ton of things I’d already known about, namely the Pam Grier flicks Jack Hill was involved in creatively.
Tomorrow When The War Began, based on a wildly popular series of young adult novels in Australia, was an entertaining take on the Red Dawn concept of youth actively engaging in combat against an invading force. It’s pretty fun, and it plays around with traditional gender roles in that the females are the more proactive defenders of the group. There’s also a chase sequence at night involving a dump truck and a bunch of dune buggies that is really terrific, and it has some pretty solid performances from the group of teens. The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch, based on a comic series from France, is basically a James Bond flick by way of Batman, and it was a lot of fun to work through this thriller with its winning protagonist as he trotted around the globe. These films provided a bit of lighter fare among the darker elements of the fest presented in James Gunn’s really funny and really dark superhero film Super, starring Rainn Wilson, which is terrific, and Jason Eisener’s totally unrealistic and ultimately disappointing Hobo With a Shotgun, which is anchored by a terrific and wholly dedicated performance by Rutger Hauer but which features far too much over-the-top violence to stop it from constantly threatening to fall into boring grindhouse excess.
There were a few movies I admired things about but didn’t ultimately care much for, like the amazing fight choreography in the silly Thai throwaway Bangkok Knockout, from the producers behind such hits as Ong Bak and Chocolate. I also found Bellflower, an odd marriage of mumblecore conventions with psychosis and post-apocalyptic punk overtones, to be more interesting than good, mostly due to the lack of a coherent narrative. I wanted things to spiral out of control, but the movie really never goes there, and the one time it starts to, it quickly returns to a quiet reality and a metaphorical ending dwelling on The Road Warrior and the ruler of the wasteland, Lord Humongous, in particular. Still, it’s worth seeking out if your tired of your typical indie fare or are looking for that weird niche film that fits in at the far end of the muscle car movie spectrum.
A film I wasn’t expecting too much out of beforehand, in all honesty, but which has managed to stick with me based on the strength of its fight choreography and its well-shot action sequences, was the Trish Stratus vehicle Bail Enforcers. An indie action flick (a feat more impressive than one might imagine to pull off) from Canadian helmer Patrick McBrearty, the film skates by almost unnoticed because of how fun it is to watch. While it suffers the same distractions as most independent films, not just those of in the action genre, it features some strong performances, including a charismatic trio of leads in Stratus, Frank J. Zupancic and Boomer Phillips as the titular enforcers. In addition, Stratus has some terrific close-quarters combat in an ambulance with co-star/nemesis Andrea James Lui, and a great opening featuring flat-out wrestling, which honestly, more former WWE stars could use more of in their cinematic endeavors. The film also manages to have an immense sense of humor about its subject matter and its nature as a B-movie (not a bad thing) which really helps out a lot without falling into the painful overdoing of self-aware parody.
The biggest discovery of the festival, though, was the world premier of writer-director-editor Julian Gilbney’s terrific, nerve-racking thriller A Lonely Place to Die, starring Melissa George, which follows a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young girl buried in a box beneath the ground and are discovered by her captors while trying to reach safety. The film’s first set pieces, set entirely on the side of the cliffs in Scotland, feature some harrowing and impressive stunt work as the characters dangle thousands of feet off the ground blow clinging to nothing but exposed rock (there’s no CGI to help them out here.) After taking an entirely logical yet out of left field trip into the local town, it becomes yet another exercise in suspense and features some of the more beautiful bizarro imagery (one character in a pig mask walking through a fire-centric pagan parade in particular) I’ve seen. It won the Jury Award for Action Film of the Year, and it totally deserves it. It’s crazy this film doesn’t currently have distribution in the U.S. because it’s really good and really taut, with some tight editing. There’s not a single wasted frame in the whole thing.
Films aside, there were a couple of panels, too, with the one honoring Lifetime Achievement Award winner Buddy Joe Hooker providing a career retrospective on one of the true legends in the business. Buddy has spent over forty years in the industry, and has performed stunts in movies as varied as Harold and Maude, First Blood, The Wraith, and some of the absolute best car chase work ever in film with To Live and Die in L.A. and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The panel on Modern Fight Choreography was also packed with top-notch contributers: Larnell Stovall (fight choreographer for Bunraku, Never Back Down 2), Michael Jai White (star of Black Dynamite, Never Back Down 2), Richard Ryan (fight choreographer for Ironclad, Troy, The Dark Knight, Sherlock Holmes), and the utmost authority in the world on kung fu films, Ric Meyers. It was really fantastic, and was a fun look into the behind-the-scenes staging of small-scale to absolutely gigantic fight scenes.
ActionFest is fast becoming one of the most prominent genre festivals in the world. Hopefully for the next few years it will still be held in the lovely Carolina Theater in Asheville before needing to extend into other venues. I have no doubt they will continue to program top-notch films, and attract some terrific talent to work their panels. For all of these reasons, ActionFest is worth your time and money, and I can’t wait to get back next year.