"Is it my accent or something?"
--Kelly Hu as Lai Lai Zhen, The Tournament
I’m a sucker for an assassin movie due to my formative teenage years being spent watching John Woo’s Hong Kong classics (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled are his three best). The problem these days is making your average assassin movie interesting enough to pick up off the movie shelf, simply because there are so damn many of them. I had the pleasure of taking in an assassin film that turned the whole genre into a giant kill-or-be-killed tournament, with plenty of action and thrills to spare. I’m talking about the Scott Mann film The Tournament.
The story of this film is that every seven years, an unsuspecting town is selected as the battleground for the top thirty assassins in the world. The challenge is to be the last one standing, winning the large cash prize and the prestige of being the world’s top killer. The entire contest is viewed through closed-circuit television by a group of mysterious, rich men, who bet on the contestants like a sporting event. This whole sha-bang is organized by Powers, played to the hilt by Liam Cunningham, a man whose face I’d never seen before but whose voice I’d definitely heard on commercials and from videogame and animation voice-overs.
When the film opens, Joshua Harlowe (Ving Rhames) is participating in the last contest, seven years ago. He’s out of bullets in his gun, has no other weapons to speak of, and is up against a machine-gun-toting maniac who isn’t taking kindly to Harlowe’s announcement that he’s retiring from the business. In a bit of trickery, Harlowe pulls off the victory, killing this maniac with some kind of pressurized air gun, blasting his head to pieces. I should note that this movie is not for the squeamish--there are plenty of body parts and organs flying around and detonating spectacularly. This may sound like a bad thing, but it really doesn’t detract from the viewing--it adds a dimension of grim reality to the competition that’s about to take place.
Flash-forward seven years, and it’s time for a new tournament. Enter Lai Lai Zhen (Kelly Hu in a smoking hot role), a Chinese assassin who arrives at her hotel, wakes up the next morning a little groggy from being implanted with a tracking device, and gets a major wake-up call when one of these hitmen attacks her, pretending to be room service. After some high karate on Lai Lai’s part, she gets her first kill, and she moves up the leader board.
To my surprise, the film proceeds to develop a side story about Father Macavoy (Robert Carlyle), an alcoholic Catholic priest whose faith is a mite weak. When he enters a diner and has breakfast, one of these ‘contestants’ (the incredible Sebastian Foucan, the inventor of Parcour) enters as well, cuts out his tracking device, and drops it in Father Macavoy’s coffee. Now, everyone thinks Father Macavoy is that contestant, and this unsuspecting priest has entered the tournament.
Lai Lai Zhen tracks Macavoy down, thinking he’s the Parcour guy, and gets assaulted by a Russian Special Forces maniac who was pulling off incredible martial arts moves without wires. The only other person I know who has done moves like this without the aid of any apparatus is Matt Mullins (Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight), so this was a welcome surprise. Lai Lai almost loses this battle, if not for some quick thinking on her part, as she pulls one of the pins on a grenade on the Russian guy’s combat vest (while giving him the finger, no less).
After determining that Father Macavoy is not a willing participant, Lai Lai calls Powers on the emergency line, informing him of this situation. He sees this as a great betting opportunity for his assembly of mysterious, rich pals and tells her that he’d better start killing, or else he’ll end up dead too...and puts the priest up on the leader board, with the odds of five hundred to one.
Shortly thereafter, Harlowe appears on the grid--seems someone came after him in his Miami home and killed his wife. He’s come back to the tournament for revenge, because he has information that his wife’s killer is one of the contestants. So what does he do? He kills the film’s writer, Nick Rowntree, who cameos for about five or six lines as one of these assassins. Well, they’re always saying that directors want to kill the writers, so why not do it through the magic of film?
As Harlowe keeps gathering information through each person he kills, Lai Lai and Father Macavoy are in survival mode--she’s trying to keep him alive while avoiding his constant question of “Why are you here?” When they finally acquire a car, Lai Lai drives as far as she can out of the city, so the tracker won’t be as effective. Meanwhile, Harlowe has acquired a tanker truck and is following Lai Lai’s tracker. Everything is set for the final showdown, and what a showdown it is.
It’s pretty clear at this point that I can’t say enough about this movie, because it reminds me of classic 1980’s action films, but done one notch better. Kelly Hu, as previously mentioned, is absolutely gorgeous (as always) and is smoking hot whether she’s beating the crap out of someone with martial arts or blasting someone with a gun in each hand (which was probably paying homage to John Woo in some way). Robert Carlyle is perfectly cast as Father Macavoy, a man who has lost his church, his congregation, and his will to live, and finds it all again through the help of Lai Lai.
The only part I didn’t really understand was Ving Rhames as Harlowe. Rhames plays this part like he’s a guest star in a TV movie, and his part is written in that fashion, even though he should have been the main character. He seemed distant and out-of-place throughout the entire film, and his talents seem wasted on such a small part as this.
Despite this semi-major flaw in the film, everyone else is also perfectly cast--the hitmen look and sound like hitmen, the bystanders look and sound like bystanders, and the hilarious tech guys who run the closed-circuit cameras sound like total neurotic geeks who should spend more time outside.
The action in this movie is incredible--lots of gunfights, lots of chases, lots of martial arts--and none of it seems forced or just for the sake of having it. Once you have established the parameters of the world this movie operates in (sort-of a “Pay-Per-View” tournament/sporting event thing), everything else falls into place, and that was a very nice thing to see.
Style-wise, the movie is shot in very drab surroundings with very dark, drab colors, adding to the dark, internal struggles of the three main characters...and let’s just face it, folks--assassins killing each other in a competition every seven years for a cash prize is a pretty dark thing.
The Tournament is a film that delivers on all fronts--action, plot, and characters. It lays down some commentary about how the world sensationalizes sporting events, and that maybe something like this assassin tourney is where we’re heading. Luckily, it doesn’t get too bogged down in that and never forgets what it is--a damn good action movie. If you’re looking for a great action-thriller to add to your collection, then look no further than The Tournament.