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By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week Press Play contributor Simon Abrams features a quartet of mini-reviews spotlighting new releases on home video. They are: the Vietnamese martial arts film Clash, Criterion’s Cul-De-Sac, Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum, and Priest, starring Paul Bettany.

Clash: It’s unfortunate that I only caught up with Clash now that it’s on DVD instead of earlier this year when it made the rounds on the festival circuit. Just a few months ago, people were unsure of whether or not Thai martial arts superstar Tony Jaa would, let alone could, make his comeback after filming, choreographing and starring in Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3. Those two releases started life as a single massive production that wound up being re-shot in parts and broken into two films. That massive project caused the lithe performer to have a widely publicized emotional breakdown. Jaa retired to a monastery last year, but now he’s back and apparently working on his next big project. So what to do with Clash, a sub-standard vehicle for Johnny Tri Nguyen and Thanh Van Ngo, two rising martial arts stars from Vietnam that, for a time, looked like they could step in for Jaa during his absence?

The short answer is, well, not a heckuva lot. Nguyen and Ngo are rather good but they’ve both done better. Clash is a barely passable homage to John Woo’s early gangsters-and-gunplay films, one that retains neither the kinetic choreography nor the sincere, macho emphasis on honor and brotherhood of Woo’s pictures. To top it off, as talented as they are, neither of Clash’s lead performers have the charisma that Jaa effortlessly exuded. Nguyen, who outshone Ngo in The Rebel, can’t keep up with her here, where she plays his love interest. Still, even Ngo performs like a very talented stunt worker and not a real action star. She’s good, but she’s not Tony Jaa good. Thankfully, it’s now only a matter of time until Jaa makes his triumphal return to the big screen. In the meantime, rewatch The Protector and/or Ong Bak 2. I give it a “C-.”

Cul-De-Sac: The Criterion Collection graces us this week with an impeccably restored transfer of Roman Polanski’s characteristically absurd and bleak character study. Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac co-star as a couple whose 10-month-old marriage is rapidly dissolving. Two gangsters, one representing the couple’s moribund intellectual connection and the other (Lionel Stander) representing their bullying and strained emotional relationship, hold the couple hostage while they wait for their mysterious boss to come pick them up. Pleasance’s emasculated husband thinks that he has to defeat Stander’s character to win back his wife’s affection, but he doesn’t realize that in doing so, he’ll ultimately destroy their relationship. (Spoiler) Once Pleasance does kill Stander, there’s nothing holding the couple together. A very tense and satisfying paranoiac thriller, one that expands the unfairness of Polanski’s cruel worldview to accommodate a couple instead of just a neophyte individual. Must-see viewing before the upcoming Carnage. I give it an “A-.”

The Pit and the Pendulum: Director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli re-teamed for a couple of projects after they initially worked together on Re-Animator. One of their lesser-known collaborations is this 1991 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous short story. Paoli throws in elements of other Poe tales, like The Cask of Amontillado and The Black Cat, to amp up the kinkiness in Gordon’s story of a corrupt Spanish inquisitor (Lance Henriksen, of course) that arrests and tortures an innocent woman (Rona de Ricci) that he has the hots for. Though The Pit and the Pendulum features a fun cameo from Oliver Reed, the film reaches toxic levels of camp that just aren’t as entertaining or gut-churning as superior Gordon/Paoli projects like From Beyond. For Gordon completists only. I give it a “C.”

Priest: While Legion suggested that director Scott Stewart was a promising young talent, Priest, his sleepy follow-up, proves that he has not reached full artistic maturity. Based very loosely on the manga of the same name, Priest is a glitzy but largely mediocre hybrid of brooding Anthony Mann westerns like The Naked Spur and tacky sci-fi actioners like, uh, Judge Dredd. Needless to say, the cluelessness of the latter influence stymies any of the potential pathos of the former. Paul Bettany, Stewart’s muse, stars as a vampire-slaying clergyman that becomes excommunicated after he disobeys an order from Christopher Plummer’s selfish monsignor. In defiance of the Church (not to be confused with God’s will), Bettany hunts down the vampires that have abducted his daughter.

As in Legion, Stewart combines campy violence with flat but sincere piousness throughout Priest. But while it looks comparatively better thanks to its bigger budget, it’s not as palpably weird as Legion. Priest is too streamlined to be convincing. All of the wet and wooly peripheral details that made Legion such fun pulp are missing. For example, instead of Legion’s demonic grannies and ice cream men of doom, Priest offers crucifix-shaped ninja throwing stars and a ridiculous explanation for why a new breed of sightless vampires are soulless (because the eyes are the windows to the soul, nyuk nyuk).

Additionally, Stewart is still a lousy actor’s director and all of his cast’s performances, save for Brad Dourif’s cameo, suffer greatly for it. I’m hoping the still-wet-behind-the-ears director gets another chance to go forth and be freaky with a very big budget. But since Priest rightfully bombed at the box office, I tend to doubt that’s going to happen. This one also rates a “C.”

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

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