The Tournament Review
For all of the classics I love (Seven Samurai, Apocalypse Now) and the tremendous Theatrical releases I have seen recently (from Shutter Island to Inception), I have a soft spot for STV movies as well. Far beyond guilty pleasure, they usually have low-budgets, cheap locations, poor effects and lacklustre performances from a no-name cast. But my interest started when all those 80s action heroes retired to Straight to DVD hell – Van Damme, Seagal, if I wanted to still get my fix, I was going to have to lower my expectations quite a bit. Occasionally, in the mire of shoddy filmwork, you get a few gems, whether they come in the form of sequels that didn’t make it to the Big Screen – it is the recession, after all – like The Descent Part 2; or the excellent Universal Soldier: Regeneration – one of several movies that showed Van Damme still has it (for proof that he can act, check out JCVD, you’ll be pleasantly surprised). Seagal has churned out about 20 STV movies, with only a handful that are even watchable. But occasionally you come across a movie that, despite being – on the face of it – quite a clichéd, waste of time production, still has some redeeming qualities. Whether (as is the case with Seagal) there’s lots of unintentional humour. In the movie Out of Reach, about 30% of Seagal’s lines were dubbed but, most hilariously, they were voiced by the same actor who plays the lead villain in the piece – leading to many laughs throughout, especially when the villain starts up his very own narration!
The Tournament sounded like a really bad film. But I was certain that I had watched some of the worst movies out there (anything with Jennifer Aniston in it), so I wasn’t afraid of how bad things could get. My biggest reservation was the lack of ‘star’ power. Sure, I know these movies aren’t usually peppered with big names, but for any relatively decent STV movie you generally need either an ageing action star (like Snipes, Van Damme or Seagal), or the return of a star from a previous instalment, who has since disappeared off the scene (several of The Descent’s original crew returned for its competent STV sequel, including the leading lady ). But The Tournament starred Ving Rhames, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Hu – Rhames and Carlyle really shouldn’t have even been here (having proved themselves in numerous quality movies, including Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, respectively), and Kelly Hu, despite appearances in X2 and The Scorpion King, had never become famous enough in the first place to be called a fallen star. What hope did it have?
Every few years a tournament is held where over 30 of the world’s greatest assassins compete for a cash prize of £10 Million. Dropped into some quiet town in the middle of nowhere, the small population unaware of what is going on, all they have to do is kill each other until there is only one left standing. What happens if they don’t comply? Well, 24 hours after the start, explosive devices planted within them will detonate if there is more than one person left. The competition is run for billionaires around the world, who watch on hijacked CCTV surveillance the plight of the chosen gladiators, and bet on who they think will win. Who’s in this year’s line-up? Joshua Harlow, the reigning champion from the last tournament, who has a personal grudge this time around as he is actually looking for the assassin who killed his wife and unborn child; Lai Lai Zhen, a Chinese assassin who finds herself drugged, and wakes up in the tournament; Anton Bogart, a free-running expert; and Miles Slade, a total psycho, who is happy just to kill anybody (or anything) he sees, with glee. Thrown into the equation is alcoholic bum Joseph Macavoy, an ex-priest who is drawn into the conflict and finds his life on the line too. Who will survive?
The Tournament is actually quite good fun. It is played straight throughout, but whenever things get a little too silly, or too clichéd, something insane happens which will – at the very least – pull you back in to the picture. Heads are blown off (several), people explode or get hit by buses, and the movie cleverly uses a Battle Royale-lite style which you can feel throughout. Battle Royale may have been a far superior movie, and The Tournament may borrow (i.e. steal) numerous elements from it (the explosive devices to put a time-limit on the game; the fact that they force some of them into it; the fact that some of them take more pleasure than others etc.) but this actually works, leaving the film a fun actioner with enough of an – albeit silly – plot to it to keep you engaged.
Character-wise I still maintain that the film could have done with a slightly more famous cast – even if they were past their prime – but Ving Rhames and Robert Carlyle do a decent enough job in the flick nevertheless. You may be asking yourself why on earth they are doing it, or laughing at how this was just a pay-cheque, but they certainly both make the film a more interesting affair. Rhames plays the tournament’s reigning champion, Joshua Harlow (no relation), who goes for the blunt approach for walking around guns blazing. I have to say that there is initially little evidence on how on earth he managed to win the last tournament, but I guess viewers are expected to just believe it based on the fact that this is the same actor who played Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction.
Kelly Hu doesn’t really do herself any favours in this movie – she has never really shown off either her acting or action abilities in her few previous theatrical supporting roles, and is both wooden as hell here, and not particularly engaging on the sexy femme fatale action front. Again, how she got this far I have no idea. There are a couple of other, even less famous actors who pop up, but Sebastien Foucan has at least got the excuse of being one of the inventors of Parcour – free-running. Oh, and he was the terrorist during the early scene in the recent Casino Royale reboot – the one who jumped off buildings and ran along industrial cranes. He performs most of the film’s more spectacular sequences. An honourable mention should be given to Lost alumni Ian Somerhalder, who plays the assassin you are supposed to least like – he shoots a dog, so therefore he must be bad. It’s that kind of movie.
Mostly shot in Middlesborough, here in the UK, the film has a fair amount of style to it, and easily enough visceral action and entertaining kills to keep you enjoyed through its runtime. Hell, it’s the kind of thing you could watch with a few mates over a few beers and even have your own personal bets about who might win (like The Apprentice, except for guys). The damn thing was in production hell for over two years, with the budget running out twice, but you certainly can’t tell from the end product that it was made for only $4 Million!! Independently-made Brit actioners are rarely (if ever) this entertaining, and whilst the movie does not really stand up to many of its Hollywood equivalents (Battle Royale, The Running Man, Shoot ‘Em Up or Smokin’ Aces), it easily bests a few that have much bigger budgets (like the truly abysmal Gamer). In terms of comparisons to other DTV ilk, it is marginally better than the Smokin’ Aces DTV sequel, Assassin’s Ball, adopting the same over-the-top kills, and MTV style editing to keep your eyes glued to the screen for the succinct runtime. Personally, I think it’s not quite as good as Universal Soldier: Regeneration, and certainly has far less re-watch value, but for a lazy Friday night in with the boys, you could do a lot worse than renting this actioner. Check your brain and your expectations at the door, and sit back for an unexpectedly, almost inexplicably, fun ride.