Many times you’ll notice a specific thematic trend begin to emerge among the films selected by the fest’s demented programmers. For instance this year I must have counted at least six features that in some form revolved around obscene amounts of cocaine (lost, found, or snorted). This may be due in part to the bevy of stylized action films that try with mixed success to emulate Guy Ritchie, or as my favorite local film/beer/food snob Brian Kelley puts it, try to emulate Guy Ritchie emulating himself.
Ok I’ll admit it, Black Out and Pusher were actually pretty cool, but the real fun to be had this festival wasn’t to be found at the bottom of a brick, but in the crosshairs of two fantastically marvelous Sniper films, Cold Steel and Tower Block. These two films may differ in both personality and budget, but what they do share are some of the coolest sniper sequences since that eyeball shot in Saving Private Ryan. Since it would be frivolous to try and review these two films separately, I have instead decided to let them square off against each other in a battle for the title of Ultimate Fantastic Fest Sniper Film!
Let us begin!
Director David Wu has one of those names that may not initially ring any bells. A large portion of his career has been spent in the cutting room, editing the films of legends like John Woo and Tsui Hark (to name a couple). His knack for piecing together an action sequence in films like Hard Boiled have continually served to revolutionize the way these genres are cut today. This time though, Wu brings his special skill set to the role of Director as he undertakes an adaptation of the famous Chinese novel of the same name.
The film tells the story of Mu, a hardheaded rural youth whose impulsive nature lands him in a brawl with a few soldiers, and subsequently a life-changing choice; become a soldier, or die. Mu chooses the former, and his prodigal knack for wielding a rifle lands him a spot with the elite 204th unit, a group of special force snipers bent on fighting Japanese tyranny. When a mission to assassinate a group of opposing Japanese Generals goes horribly awry, Mu is put on a collision course with General Masaya, a sharpshooter whose rifle skills may very well surpass his own.
Pros: Director David Wu’s inexhaustible action film experience works only to make him shine as a Director. In one of the film’s Q&A sessions, he mentions that for him, the movie is already pre-cut in his mind, and this helps to filter out any extraneous frames. He loves to, as he puts it, “breathe” with the audience, an ideal that has only served to make his scenes all the more invigorating. With Cold Steel, he has put forth some of the coolest action sequences I’ve seen in recent years, including one specific stunt which both borrows from Bourne Ultimatum and then ultimately smashes it to pieces.
Cons: At times this film gets a little too over-sentimental. I get that it’s based on a source material that appeals just as much to it’s female audience as it’s male, but sometimes Wu haphazardly walks that line separating the sentimental from the comical, and when he does, it only works to snap me out of the story. You could also try and fault him for the inclusion of the extraneous heroic band of Communist rebels, who are always there to save the day at the last minute, but without them, the film itself wouldn’t have made it passed the censorship committee.
While The Raid may still be my favorite movie about people in skyrises being riddled with bullets, James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson have engineered a formidable second place contender with Tower Block.
When a 15 year old boy seeks refuge in the top floor of a seedy London tower block, he is met only by closed doors and clicking locks. The boy’s masked assailants are quick to close in, and the whole building stands idly while his life is brutally taken from him. When the police show up to pursue an investigation, they’re questions are met only with blank stares and silence as not one witness will provide details on the murder.
Flash forward 3 months. The building’s tenants are awoken from sleep as round after round of high powered bullets explode through their apartment windows with deadly accuracy. The surviving members of the onslaught gather together in the floor’s hallway in the hopes of escaping the carnage. What they don’t yet realize, is that they are now the targets in a real life version of Silent Scope, and our killer won’t stop until every single one of them is brutally eliminated.
Pros: One of the few failings of Cold Steel was that you didn’t really give a shit when some of the characters got taken out. This is not the case with Tower Block. The film’s witty dialogue and brilliant performances instantly work to polarize the audience as to which characters should live, and which should be blown to smithereens. Every character is instantly engaging and this only helps us work towards dismissing some of the logistical plot errors contained within the film’s plot. Nunn and Thompson may not have the decades of experience that Wu has, but even so they have pulled off a ridiculously fun and exciting action film with surgical precision. You may see a lot of the film’s kills coming from a mile away, but yet the film is still able to continuously build up a fair level of suspense that consistently keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Cons: Tower Block can at times be fairly demanding of its audience. The somewhat supernatural speed and accuracy of our sharpshooting antagonist is one thing, but the addition of the film’s set, an apartment high rise with rooms only on one side, continually work to counteract just how much disbelief its audiences are willing to suspend.
Then there is the character of Paul, a hardcore alcoholic that has a seemingly weird and completely unexplained fascination with Tower‘s leading lady Becky. He spends half the film following her around like a sex-starved Sméagol, to the point where we almost begin to expect that there is some impending plot twist surrounding his awkward behavior. Trust me, I won’t be spoiling anything at all when I tell you that this is not the case! It’s almost like they had another 20 minutes of film written for this guy, and then decided to randomly chalk him up as just an unnecessary side piece.
Deciding a winner between these two was no small task. Tower Block’s kills were far more memorable, yet Cold Steel‘s General Masaya is a no contest in the ‘which sniper is more badass’ debate. The two were so closely matched in my mind that it all came down to one decisive question. Which one of these films am I more likely to garner repeated views? For me, the answer was Tower Block. Tower’s plot may have more holes than its victims do, but this just barely depreciates its innately fun nature. It doesn’t demand much of your attention, and doesn’t try to pander to your emotions. It’s one hell of a raucously fun time and one that will likely play better when played amongst a group of friends (especially if you know a lot of subtitle nazis wouldn’t be caught dead watching a non-english language film).