Friday , November 24 2017

Bruce Willis’ ‘First Kill’ brings tough-love message – ‘Monsters’ savagely funny social horror movie

Just how many people has “First Kill” star Bruce Willis killed over the course of his career? According to a site called MovieBodyCounts.com (whose statistics look to be about as accurate as a sawed-off shotgun blast), Willis has offed 116 adversaries to date. A more accurate tally is best left to someone with an appetite for action and plenty of free time on their hands — which just so happens to be the kind of person most likely to appreciate another generic collaboration between Willis and director Steven C. Miller (their third, following “Extraction” and “Marauders”).

With little to distinguish this VOD-bound Lionsgate Premiere release from so many straight-to-video thrillers, “First Kill” offers the ever-so-slight novelty of casting Willis as the bad guy. He plays a corrupt rural police chief named Howell, who’s courteous to the locals in small-town Graville, Ohio, but not above murdering them if they get between him and the loot from a recent bank robbery. Howell’s crime might have gone undetected were it not for the arrival of Will (Hayden Christensen), a big-city investment banker who happens to be hunting with his 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton) when he stumbles upon their scheme.

Danny’s been having trouble with a bully at school, and “First Kill” is the roundabout story of how the kid finds the confidence to defend himself in that uniquely American, NRA-approved way: by learning how to handle a firearm. Dad goes out of his way to explain that Danny should never point the gun at another person, but he doesn’t set much of an example. From the moment father and son stumble across what appears to be an execution in the woods, it’s shoot or be shot. And while “First Kill” ain’t Willis’ first kill by any stretch, it could well provide the kid’s.

A blue-state version of the same movie might have followed Danny back to school, where he takes the family rifle and opens fire on his aggressors, but as far as “First Kill” is concerned, the best way to prevent gun violence is with more guns. It’s easy to understand why Miller would have wanted Willis for the role (although he barely exploits the star’s wry, seen-it-all quality), but Christensen comes as more of a surprise, since he reads as a white-collar dandy — someone who hardly seems tough enough to have grown up around guns, and not at all the type who’d pull the trigger if his son was put in danger.

Frankly, if forced to bet between John McClane and Anakin Skywalker, I’d take the “Die Hard” tough guy every time, but that’s just the underdog factor Miller is going for, staging a reasonably entertaining series of off-road chases and backwoods shootouts en route to that final confrontation. The movie’s tough-love message: If Danny can manage to get through the experience alive, it’ll take a lot more than a bully to intimidate him next time.

All the monsters are in plain sight in “Mon Mon Mon Monsters,” a savagely funny social horror movie about high school teens who capture a flesh-eating ghoul and torture it for their own amusement — and then some. The highly imaginative brainchild of popular Taiwanese author and filmmaker Giddens Ko, “Monsters” paints a disturbing picture of contemporary youth culture while delivering gruesome sights that’ll have horror hounds howling in approval. Though slim in analyzing of what has driven these kids to such extremes, Ko’s vividly decorated and atmospherically filmed exercise in nihilistic horror is a mighty fine ride for those who like this sort of thing. Opening in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore on July 28, the film already has several international fest dates planned, which bodes well for commercial prospects outside the region.

Admirers of Ko’s 2011 debut, a delightful romantic comedy called “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” may see “Monsters” as a radically different departure. And yet, considering Ko’s prolific output as a writer of frequently strange stories, not to mention his no-holds-barred screenplay (based on his novel) for last year’s supremely kinky social horror “The Tenants Downstairs,” it shouldn’t be such a surprise to find him delving into the dark terrain here.

Rather than withholding its title monsters, the movie offers a quick and graphic look at the beasties straight away, as two female “things” tear apart and eat a vagrant in subterranean Taipei City. And yet, as light approaches, they scuttle into cardboard boxes for safety, revealing these creatures to be vulnerable as well as vicious.

Whereas the monsters have someplace to hide, no such safe haven exists for Lin Shu-wei (Deng Yu-kai), a senior high school student whom we meet mid-humiliation session: Teacher Ms Li (Carolyn Chen) accuses Lin of stealing school funds, while students yell insults and pelt him with various objects. Outside the classroom, Lin is bullied relentlessly by everyone, especially Ren-hao (Kent Tsai), a borderline psychopath and his worst tormentor. Lin nevertheless submits to him and becomes the resident whipping boy in Ren-hao’s gang. (RTRS)

While serving a community service order in a run-down apartment block, the gang encounters the creatures, eventually capturing one and chaining it up in a deserted building. Visibly affected by Ren-hao’s appalling torture of his young captive (Lin Pei-hsin), Lin attempts to make friends with her, even promising to enable her escape. The big question here is whether Lin is sincere or simply enjoying being the victimizer for a change. While the issue of Lin’s allegiance supplies compelling emotional stakes, Ko’s screenplay cleverly pulls viewers in one direction and then the other before the high-impact moment of truth arrives.

In the meantime, Ren-hao and his unnamed girlfriend (Liang Ru-xuan, excellent as a fun-lovin’ gal with an extremely cold heart) extract blood and teeth from the creature and use them to gruesome effect on enemies. In a scene that sadly doesn’t seem over-the-top, students are more concerned with taking pictures and saying “wow” when the unfortunate Ms Li goes up in a ball of flames.

It’s only a matter of time before the second, older creature (Eugenie Liu) comes to find her sister and take revenge on the captors. The results are impressive, with a bloodbath on the school bus being the standout set-piece.

A fine young cast delivers rock-solid performances, with special kudos due to Lin as the young creature. Working without dialogue via just her eyes and face, the actress succeeds in evoking great sympathy for the trapped being, even though she’s a deadly ghoul. Oyster Liao’s production design and Chou Yi-hsien’s atmospheric photography give the film a grimy, sullied look that’s perfectly in tune with Lin’s view of the world. For the record, the Mandarin title translates as “Report to the teacher! Strange strange monster.” (RTRS)

By Peter Debruge

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