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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Tournament (2009)

Director: Scott Mann
Stars: Robert Carlyle, Kelly Hu, Ian Somerhalder, Liam Cunningham and Ving Rhames

I discovered The Tournament while reading up on parkour after watching Luc Besson's District B13 and its sequel. It's a British film that seemed to have been done very American style like a video game. I recognised a number of the actors and, to be honest, I recognised the story too given that it's far from original, but it was always going to be worth picking up on Netflix. I wasn't expecting it to be intelligent, but was it going to be fun? That was the question I was looking to have answered, though of course with Kelly Hu in the cast it has to be at least a little fun. 'Every seven years in an ordinary town an extraordinary event takes place,' we're told. 'You won't know it, you won't see it, but it happens.' What is it? Well, it's the tournament, of course. Didn't you pay attention to the stupidly generic title? The tournament is the old last man standing concept, which has been done to death, no pun intended, but it adds a few new quirks beyond the usual.

One is that it takes place in public, the deaths explained away as acts of terrorism, car crashes or natural disasters. The other is that it takes place in the least romantic cities in the world, like Middlesbrough, a deliberate comment on the proliferation of CCTV cameras in the UK. OK, that's not a heck of a lot of social commentary but it is a little at least and that's more than usual for a film like this. It doesn't hold much pretense to value though, because it knows that at heart it's all about a bunch of people killing a bunch of other people in incredibly violent ways. This game only has one rule, kill or die, and if you're the last man (or woman) standing then you collect a neat ten million bucks. We come in at the of the last tournament, seven years earlier, in Shirao, Brazil, where the gore is plentiful and the dialogue is awful. 'Are you out of bullets?' some moron asks Joshua Harlow. 'Well, have some of mine!' he cries, letting rip with his machine gun.

Harlow is the good guy, in as much as any professional killer is the good guy. He has a code of honour at least, lighting a cigarette for the last opponent left alive before shooting him in the head. Then again we know he's going to win in Brazil because he's played by Ving Rhames and you don't kill Ving Rhames in the first five minutes of your movie, not if you want him to be the big draw in the Middlesbrough tournament, as both an actor and a character. He returns not for the prize but for revenge, given that his wife was murdered four months earlier by one of this year's players. Of course they don't tell us which one to begin with, but we don't really care that much. What matters is that he has a death wish and that's about the only way in which Joshua's insanely cool slow motion entrances could remotely make sense. It's a really slight excuse and it isn't anywhere near enough and that makes Joshua one of the least of the characters.

We spend more time watching Lai Lai Zhen, an assassin for the triads played by Kelly Hu, from the time she arrives in Middlesbrough to the end of the tournament. She's sent to the Ivy House Hotel, where she finds a briefcase, containing a gun and a small cup of liquid with a note reading 9pm. That's when she takes it and shortly afterwards is when the organisers of the tournament implant a tracking device. The contestants each get an electronic gizmo to track their prey, you see, so ensuring plenty of action, and the tracker doubles as a explosive in case the time limit runs out. If 24 hours expires with more than one contestant left alive, all the trackers explode. There are thirty contestants and they're as varied as their reasons for turning up. Powers, the man running the show, introduces us and the assembled high stakes gamblers to a few of the choice favourites before they start slaughtering each other wholesale.
Anton Bogart is a French parkour expert, appropriately portrayed by Sébastien Foucan, who co-founded the Yamakasi group with David Belle from District B13 and others. Scott Adkins plays a former member of the Russian special forces called Yuri Petrov. Ian Somerhalder is the wildest of the bunch, a Texan who is completely off his rocker, thus providing plenty of entertainment for those watching. How crazy? The first time we meet him he shoots a dog in the head and yawns. He cuts off the trigger fingers of his victims with a cigar cutter for his trophy cabinet. He's a loon. The most unexpected contestant is one who never signed up for the tournament to begin with, a profane and alcoholic priest called Father MacAvoy. Played by Robert Carlyle as a pitiful wreck of a man who has lost his faith, he joins by accident when he swallows Bogart's tracker with a cup of coffee, after the Frenchman extracted it and dumped it into a café percolator.

It's a decent setup as setups go, varied and busy, though notably less fascinating than Battle Royale, the freaky Japanese film that ran through a very similar plot in 2000 with a class of high school students as the contestants. Like Battle Royale, the large number of players means that there's plenty of opportunity for gruesome death and the filmmakers don't skimp, even though the budget was as tight as £3.6m or just over $5.5m. First blood goes to Lai Lai Zhen in a brutal one on one with Steve Tomko, but we soon escalate. Father MacAvoy is oblivious to the first few attempts on his life but, after begging for hope at his altar from the Blessed Virgin Mary, while surreptitiously dipping into a bottle of spirits, he can't ignore the explosive battle between Zhen and Petrov that wipes out most of his church. He was pitiful when we met him, puking onto a bartender's feet, and he remains pitiful throughout. Zhen should have killed him to shut him up.

There's much attention spent on the choreography, not just the fight moves but the logistics in which they take place. This is a dumb action movie, make no mistake, but a lot of thought was put into how each of the action scenes is set up and how they unfold. It's never boring and it's not always predictable. There are points where it gets a little out there, like the concept that the lunatic Texan would stop off at a strip club during the tournament, that eight other killers would soon follow and turn it into a bloodbath, and that the cops steadfastly fail to investigate. I was much more impressed with Foucan's parkour moves, not just his rooftop antics but a great chase scene in which he free runs after Zhen and MacAvoy, who are reversing down an alley in a police car. The grand finalé is a peach too, a high speed motorway duel between a chemical tanker and the 192 bus to Easingwold. I loved the speed camera taking a snap of a car speeding in midair.

What I didn't love were the missed opportunities. There's no attempt to provide background to any of the characters, which ought to have been fascinating. The only real motivation ties to the reasons Joshua Harlow is even there and it's a pretty basic motivation that Ving Rhames takes to truly scary degrees of overacting. The few hints at Zhen's background are mangled attempts at introducing morality. For a tournament that unfolds in public, there's surprisingly little attempt to engage the actual people of the town. Sure, they're not supposed to know it's going on but most of it just isn't avoidable. Beyond Father MacAvoy, the best use of a civilian is the service station attendant who looks a little like William Petersen and his reactions are funny mostly because they're almost non-reactions. There are passengers on the bus when it sets off on its high speed chase but none of them are used, even as props. It's a fun ride but not an essential one.

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