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By Joe Bendel. Though he died early in the third century, Cao Cao continues to be a potent figure in Chinese culture. To bolster his legitimacy, Mao invited open comparisons between himself and the legendary general. In 2009, Cao Cao’s tomb was supposedly discovered, but many archaeologists have questioned its authenticity. Viewers get a glimpse inside Cao Cao’s tomb-in-progress as part of Linshan Zhao’s late Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic, The Assassins, which releases today on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA.

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You didn’t unify a large swath of China while protecting arguably the worst (and last) emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty without making enemies. Cao Cao has plenty, some of whom are abducting orphans, training them to become assassins. Their only target will be the Chancellor himself. Young lovers Ling Ju and Mu Shun will have the best opportunity to complete the mission. She will serve as a consort in Cao Cao’s Black Sparrow Tower, while he will be placed as a eunuch in the Imperial court. Unfortunately, the shadowy cabal is willing to do what it takes to protect Mu Shun’s cover.

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Ling Ju loves a eunuch, but she also begins to admire the crafty old general she is supposed to kill. The common people’s esteem for Cao Cao and the stability he preserves is eye-opening for her. She can also appreciate his knack for thwarting assassination attempts. He seems to make all the right enemies, including the ungrateful slime-bucket of an emperor. Yet, killing him might be the only way to free herself and Mu Shun. Adding urgency, a prophecy about the four stars coming into alignment would seem to foretell the fall of the Han Dynasty and Cao Cao’s rise as their successor.

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Liu Yifei in "The Assassins."

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Frankly, Cao Cao is the best role Chow Yun-fat has had in years. At his best, he nicely conveys the regrets and isolation of the warlord at the end of his career, while projecting an appropriate sense of badness, like a revisionist Eastwood wuxia figure. He can be a bit stiff during the quiet scenes, though. In contrast, Zhang Fengyi is far more enjoyably villainous as Cao Cao in John Woo’s Red Cliff (which Chow reportedly bailed out of at the last minute). Yet Jiang Wen’s world-weary but still Machiavellian Cao Cao in Alan Mak & Felix Chong’s The Lost Bladesman remains the richest screen interpretation of the role in recent years.

While there are a few adequately staged large scale action sequences, Assassins really is more of a romantic tragedy. Zhao exercises surprising tear-jerking restraint, but Ling Ju and Mu Shun’s stolen moments together have real bite nonetheless. (Crystal) Liu Yifei plays the former with a porcelain-like fragility, while Hiroshi Tamaki broods effectively as the emasculated Mu Shun.

Thanks to accomplished contributors like art director Yohei Taneda and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao (whose credits include Kill Bill and House of Flying Daggers, respectively), Assassins is quite an impressive looking period production. Although action fans might get frustrated with Assassins’ stately moodiness, there is something about Ling Ju and Mu Shun’s star-crossed love that resonates deeply. Recommended for fans of historical melodrama more than swordplay, The Assassin is now available on home viewing formats from Well Go USA.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on January 8th, 2012 at 11:14am.

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By Joe Bendel. Speak & Spells must have trouble with the word subtle, because the Oodie Brothers are clearly not familiar with it. It doesn’t seem to mean much to director-co-writer Barry Battles either, but he certainly knows his Skynyrd and how to stage an over-the-top shootout. Viewers are in store for plenty of redneck exploitation action when Battles’ The Baytown Outlaws (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

The Oodies are good at killing. Of course, it helps not having to worry about getting collared. They are the secret weapon of Sherriff Henry Millard, who turns the boys loose on every other deadbeat criminal in his county, thereby keeping the crime rate impressively low. As the film opens, they have made a minor mistake, wiping out the wrong house full of thugs. It is nothing Millard cannot cover-up, but there is a witness. Duly impressed, Celeste Martin and her Daisy Dukes hire the Oodie Brothers to whack her gangster ex-husband Carlos Lyman and safely return her godson, Rob. Complications and bodies ensue.

It turns out Rob is basically a human bearer bond. Presumably developmentally disabled and confined to a wheelchair, Rob will soon inherit a sizable trust fund, which will be controlled by his guardian. He is more than the Oodies bargained for. Nonetheless, they quickly warm to the lad in scenes that play like the Sons of Anarchy version of Savannah Smiles. Have no fear, sentimentality is not Baytown’s priority. Frankly, one gets the feeling the set erupted in laughter as soon as Battles yelled cut on the film’s big emotional scenes.

Baytown really bares its soul when five suggestively clad biker assassin babes tangle with the Oodies. Ranging somewhere between a Southern-fried indie and an outright midnight movie, Battles goes for defiantly violent laughs and gets almost as many as Django Unchained in about half the time.

This is no classic, but everyone is game, particularly Billy Bob Thornton, obviously enjoying every word of Lyman’s shamelessly politically incorrect dialogue. Although he never speaks a syllable (relying instead on said Speak & Spell), Daniel Cudmore (Colossus in the X-Men franchise) has a real physical presence as Lincoln Oodie. Clayne Crawford and Travis Fimmel also exhibit admirable energy as Brick and McQueen Oodie, respectively (but sometimes it is rather hard to tell them apart). Eva Longoria does not have much to do beyond wear her short shorts and shoot a few guns, but her performance as Martin still represents some of her best screen work, maybe ever.

Eschewing the faux vintage grindhouse look done to death in films like Hobo with a Shotgun, Battles keeps the meathead fodder snappy. The occasional animated snippets lend Baytown additional character. An entertaining guilty pleasure, The Baytown Outlaws is recommended for those who can appreciate its slightly sleazy charms when it opens this Friday (1/11) in New York at the Cinema Village.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on January 8th, 2012 at 11:13am.

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