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Shoot to Thrill, Play to Kill

By TK Burton | Film | October 22, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Film | October 22, 2009 |

The Tournament is one of those movies that you watch from start to finish, giggling and gasping while you throw back Scotch with beer chasers along the way (that part might just be me). After it’s done, you find yourself sitting in a darkened room as the garish credits roll, and all you’ll be able to think is, “Man that was fucking stupid.” Then, if you’re like me, you’ll likely start it over and re-watch the death scenes.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’ve never heard of director Scott Mann’s The Tournament, that’s because it went straight to DVD. If you’ve never heard of Scott Mann, that’s because his credits include Tug of War, a film featuring a no-name cast about resisting masturbation. No, seriously. The Tournament is one of those rare confluences — it features a pretty damn good cast, and an absolutely shitballs retarded story. Here’s what you’ve got: Every seven years, some rich asshole whimsically named Powers (Liam Cunningham) invites 30 of the world’s best assassins to a small town somewhere, where they are charged with killing each other off. The winner gets a pile of money. There are other rich assholes who bet on the event, and a pair of geeks who track everyone using satellite and hacked cameras. Each assassin has a tracking device forcibly implanted in their abdomen, and they’re all given little PDA-type dealies to track each other. The twist is that one of the assassins (Sebastien Foucan) removes his tracking device and it ends up in the belly of an itinerant, alcoholic priest named Joseph Macavoy (Robert Carlyle). Macavoy is helped by the sympathetic Lai Lai Zen (Kelly Hu), a Triad assassin who takes pity on him. Other assassins include the hillbilly amputation fetishist Slater (Ian Somerhalder), and the stoic, vengeful Joshua Harlow, the reigning champion who has re-entered the Tournament for personal reasons.

That’s it in broad strokes. What follows is a pretty damn remarkable collection of shootings, decapitations, mutilations, exploding cars, exploding trucks, exploding people, and all manner of ultra-violence and mayhem. And I’m not going to lie to you — it’s the fucking balls. The Tournament is the Final Destination of hitman films. It revels in its kills. It bathes in them. You will too — you’ll take all the brains and blood and gore that bursts and sprays all over the fucking place and rub it into your skin like lotion. You’ll want its scent to linger. Each scene tries to outdo the one before it. It’s unbelievably gory, and I seriously lost track of how many heads I watched explode in graphic detail. It was spectacular. The action is top-notch. The fight scenes are intense, tightly shot without being claustrophobic or over-edited, and clearly the players have some skill. Sebastien Foucan and Scott Adkins in particular are rather breathtaking to behold. Their fight scenes are hard, brutal, and technically, they’re both remarkable fighters, although Kelly Hu held her own as well. So yes, The Tournament is not for the faint of heart. It’s a goddamned bloodbath, but it’s so outlandish and cartoonish that you’ll find genuine enjoyment in it. It’s not clinically gory — you’re not going to see organs and stomach-tightening agony or torture — rather, it’s just gratuitous and actually pretty hysterical at times. The progression of violence is fantastic. It takes a whopping 10 minutes to set up the story, and then all holy hell breaks loose.

The problem, of course, is that there’s a story tucked in with all that bloodshed, and that story kind of sucks. It’s not difficult to buy into the fundamental premise, as far-fetched and ridiculous as it may be. Any action movie fan worth their salt has bought into concepts just as silly. The problem stems more in the fact that tied in with this idea of a group of hyper-violent sociopaths hunting each other down is an attempt at interweaving three separate stories of redemption — Macavoy’s alcoholism and lost faith, Zen’s past mistakes, and Harlow’s quest for revenge. Any one of them might have been sufficient, but attempting to intermingle the three simultaneously in the midst of the gruesome cranial-blasting and kung fu just needlessly crowds the picture. Worse still, those three tales of atonement and regret are handled with such unrelenting ham-fistedness that it’s frequently painful to behold. Carlyle, for the most part, makes it out unscathed, although his attempts at moralizing with Hu’s Zen are completely lacking in any sense of contemplative logic. Hu is great at playing a stoic hardass, but her reflective moments of regret are like watching a statue try to emote — it’s just beyond her reach. Worst of all is undoubtedly Rhames’s Harlow. He alternates between tenacious, merciless quiet man on a mission, and simpering, sobbing wimp. His character’s overwrought, sturm und drang-filled scenes are jarringly out of place, and seem to require a better actor — and a better movie, in order to create any sense of emotional resonance. Simply making him a vengeful vision of death would have sufficed. The act of infusing him with a cloying sentimentality, combined with his oh-so-pained remembrances, shot the character from caricature into straight-up unintentional parody.

None of this is helped by dialogue that’s near-embarrassing to witness — on several occasions, I was on the verge of grinding my teeth from the awkward sentimentalism that’s inexplicably tossed into the lovely bloodbaths that should really be the film’s focus. And the flashbacks — Oh, sweet mercy, the flashbacks. I’m rarely in favor of flashbacks as a narrative device, and here they’re about as poorly executed as you’re likely to see. Here’s a quick drinking game for you — every time there’s a flashback that cuts back to a present-day shot of a character either clenching their jaw and blinking, staring grimly into space, or tightening their grip on something and swallowing, take a drink. You will be annihilated before you know what happened.

Clumsy dialogue (oy, the dialogue … DVD players need a “mute dialogue” function for movies like this) and poorly executed character development aside, the film is a ferociously enjoyable diversion. Yes, the plot has some epically enormous plot holes (why does only one of these oh-so-great assassins think of removing the tracking device?), and the abrupt quiet moments can seem like eternities. Regardless, The Tournament still has enough large-scale destruction, bloody-knuckle, blood-spitting martial arts asskickery, and of course, plenty of explodey-head fantasticness to appease your cinematic bloodlust.

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TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.