Monday, February 27, 2012

Heroic Bloodshed in the Future

The influence of cinema from countries like Japan and Hong Kong has been massive, and that might be understating things. Some of the best entertainment can be found from the Far East, and I should know having sampled so much of it. From anime epics to kung-fu thrillers to period swordplay adventures and everything one could imagine between, it was inevitable for others across the world to be inspired, and I don't just mean other filmmakers.

Gangster films are particularly unique in this part of the world, and for years that was never more true than in Hong Kong in the 1980's, where the swelling anxiety of inevitable takeover by China in 1997 could only increase with each passing year. (Thankfully, those anxieties didn't prove to be justified when the takeover happened.) Filmmaker John Woo, himself inspired by films from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Le Samourai", made the gangster film his own beginning with "A Better Tomorrow" (1986). Where Western gangster flms depicted how even the best of men swept up into orgainzed crime surrender themelves to amorality, Woo created something much different...the world of crime was a microcosm of the world itself, a bleak and deadly place where those in charge believe in nothing but their greed, and hope existed in those criminals who held fast to their honor and chivalry, like the medieval knights of old. In "A Better Tomorrow", Woo also made style as important as substance...graceful choreography of bloody gunplay met high fashion, embodied by Mark (Chow Yun-Fat), who launches into violence for his redemption in a world that has no more use for him. By the time the decade was at a close and he'd made "A Better Tomorrow 2", "The Killer" and "Bullet in the Head", filmmakers like Ringo Lam were following his example ("City on Fire" and "Full Contact" his most notable movies), and Woo's films were almost a genre all their own: 'heroic bloodshed'.

In the world of video games, the "Max Payne" series from Rockstar came as close to the feel of Woo's heroic bloodshed as one could want with acrobatic, ultraviolent gunfights and Lam's convention of 'bullet's eye view' action. The games' lead character, Max, seemed to be the last stalwart of honor and good in a dark world that was all but coming to an end. The "Mass Effect" series has also taken some conventions from heroic bloodshed too, and this will only surprise those who haven't played the games, especially "Mass Effect 2".

Commander Shepard's character, at his/her Paragon best, represents the purest aspects of honor and brotherhood in spite of a system where the leaders of the civilized galaxy will only do what's politically expedient. It's a galaxy where corruption has taken root easily, where a world of great wealth and security like Illium can be considered just as dangerous as the lawless Omega. It's a galaxy where those who believe in the side of right can easily be frustrated into working beyond the law, like Garrus Vakarian...and where those who are assassins live by a code of honor purer than those who employ them.

One such assassin is Thane Krios.

Thane is a Drell born on the Hanar homeworld, where he was taught to be a killer during his was also because of his time on Hanar he contracted the disease Kepral's Syndrome. He knows he might be on borrowed time, and so in recent years began to take a path to redeem himself by taking contracts to assassinate only those who define their lives by evil and greed. It's his wish to make the galaxy a little brighter before his time comes...that need can only compound when Thane discovers that his only son, Kolyat, has begun to follow his father's footsteps as a killer.

The parallels between Thane and the assassin Ah Jong, played by Chow Yun-Fat (again!) in Woo's heroic bloodshed classic "The Killer" (1989), are too close to be coincidental. Both characters are professionals who for the longest time executed their targets with efficiency, yet both are surprisingly spiritual. Thane believes in many gods, where Ah Jong often seeks sanctuary or solace in a Christian church. Both seek redemption, one for the sake of his son, the other to restore the sight of a singer he accidentally blinded. Finally, Thane finds help and friendship (and maybe romance?) from Shepard, who works on the right side of the law, as Ah Jong earns a powerful friendship with Li (Danny Lee), the cop who swore to bring him to justice. As a bonus, there's a brief moment in "Mass Effect 2" that anyone who has seen "The Replacement Killers", where Yun-Fat played another honorable killer, will appreciate.

It's a simple, romantic wish for a hero to make the world a better place, and heroes can come from the most unexpected places. John Woo's heroic bloodshed films showed us that with a style and power that can make anyone a believer. The battle to make things better will undoubtedly continue for Shepard, Thane and their friends in "Mass Effect 3"...and because of Bioware and their desire to give the player the power of choice, whether things end on a bright note or not depends on us. Maybe we ought to remember that it's up to us to make the real world a brighter place, too.

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