Monday, August 8, 2011

DVD Review: 'Clash' (AKA 'Bay Rong')

We’ve been writing about Vietnamese actioner “Clash” (AKA “Bay Rong”) on this site for some time. So long, in fact, that you might notice that the box for the region one DVD that just came out bears a quote from us on the bottom left-hand corner. While “Clash” isn’t blazing any new trails or breaking any new ground, it is pretty much right up our alley. And by that I mean it is a badass crime film full of all out ass-kicking and large-scale gun battles. If that doesn’t sound like a damn fine way to spend a couple of hours, you and I certainly have different tastes, my friend.

“Clash” begins in that storied crime film tradition, with Trinh (Veronica Ngo, “The Rebel”) putting together a crew of assorted outlaw types in order to pull off a job, a robbery of some sort. There are a few obvious nods to “Reservoir Dogs”, including a scene where one of the crew, flummoxed by the fact that his nick name on this heist is Cow while the other guys get names like Snake and Hawk, argues about the ridiculousness of his temporary designation. It is a group of tough guys being tough, none of them wanting to back down and give even an inch. Their target is a group of French mobsters who posses a stolen laptop with the codes to a key Vietnamese satellite, and Trinh’s boss wants it.

Trinh’s motivation is to get her daughter back. Her boss has the child, but will only hand her over if Trinh completes this one last job. Quan (Johnny Tri Nguyen, “The Rebel”) is a mysterious addition to the team. He obviously has crazy fighting skills, which he demonstrates early and often, but he also has intelligence and strategic planning capabilities that elevate him above the common thugs that make up the rest of the crew. What drives him remains a closely guarded secret, but his story unfolds as the movie progresses. “Clash” is sexy and stylish, and it doesn’t waste much of your time getting down to business. There is seduction and betrayal, the jobs goes wrong, secrets are kept and shared and discovered.

You’ve seen all of this before, but “Clash” makes up for what it lacks in originality by being a dark, violent tale of crime, passion, revenge, and sacrifice. The pace starts fast and only lets up for a brief moment in the middle, just enough time for a romantic interlude between Trinh and Quan. Most of the movie is a twisted collection of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French criminals, with a healthy police presence thrown in just to make things that much more interesting. The story gets jumbled at times—too many twists and turns and tidbits thrown in—but you’re never too far removed far from an all out brawl or stylized gunfight.

The fight scenes and action sequences in “Clash” are totally badass. The hand-to-hand combat is intricately laid out and flawlessly staged. They actually choreographed, planned, and exhaustively rehearsed the fights in order to be able use longer takes instead of the frantic quick cuts that so many modern action films rely on. My favorite extra on the DVD is a breakdown of how they went about this, and features the actors talking about the staging and training. These interviews are intercut with footage from the performers putting in work at the gym. They even went so far as to film the martial arts segments in rehearsal with a camcorder, and cut it together for use as a road map when shooting on set. Comparing the film from the gym with the finished movie, the shots and movements are almost identical. Nguyen, who also co-wrote the script and produced “Clash” went to great lengths to make the fights modern, and employed a variety of styles. Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, and, of course, Vietnamese Vovinam, mix fluidly. “Clash” does a fantastic job integrating the diverse and dissimilar martial arts. The fighters go from elbows and flying knees to arm bars and chokes smoothly and without a hitch. From a technical standpoint that’s impressive.

To be sure, there are a lot of martial arts battles in “Clash”, but don’t worry, there is enough good old fashioned gun violence and a car chases to satiate those of you who prefer that sort of action. Nguyen and director/co-writer Le Thanh Son establish a nice balance between the two approaches, creating a natural synthesis between them.

You can see the definite Hong Kong influence on “Clash”, as well as the inspiration taken from American action and crime films—Nguyen has done a lot of work as an actor and stuntman in Hollywood. But there is a different feel to it. Nguyen is Vietnamese-American, and wanted to capture the nuances and layers of daily life in Vietnam, which is why he collaborated on the script. I’m not sure how successful he is in this pursuit. At times too much talking sidetracks the plot, and the romance and background stories verge on melodrama. Instead of providing down time to catch your breath between action pieces, unnecessary flashbacks weigh down the overall pace just when you want your adrenal glands to kick in.

While “Clash” isn’t going to win any awards for originality, and it is far from perfect, it is pretty awesome. Nguyen and Ngo both kick a lot of ass, and look damn good beating down swarms of villains. It has a dark tone and doesn’t shy away from violence, both attributes I appreciate in an action movie.

In addition to the feature about staging the fight scenes, the DVD comes with a ten-minute conversation with Nguyen and Ngo (who also served as a producer), five-minutes of the cast discussing their characters, and a music video that is essentially just clips from the film set to a Vietnamese hip-hop song. The “Clash” DVD is worth it for the movie, and while the extras aren’t bad, there is nothing that you absolutely have to see.

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