It doesn't take much to make a martial arts movie. First of all (as exhaustively documented by Badass Digest's FILM CRIT HULK), good action should tell a story, establish clear geography, tone, and suspense. In addition, my measure of the muster of a good action scene, particularly martial arts scenes, is that I like speed and intensity: I want to feel the hits, and I want them to fly so fast my head spins a little just trying to keep up. Kill 'Em All eventually turns into a decent (if entirely basic) martial arts picture, but it gets off on the wrong foot by betraying almost all of these points -- the first half of the film is a long, slow crawl toward interest and engagement in a bunch of characters we don't really know fighting for reasons the filmmakers insist on obscuring.
A group of highly-trained assassins wake up in a dingy basement, having all been drugged, kidnapped, and dumped in an unknown location. They are informed via wall intercom that they're in something called the "Killing Chamber," an infamous mano-a-mano endurance test for hitmen (and women), where the best of the best are forced to face off until only one is left standing. Numbers are hidden on many of the objects already in or piped into the room, determining which two trained killers will face off first. At first, the collective can't see a way out of their predicament, but Gabriel (Johnny Messner) is determined to leave, and it's not long before he and Som (Ammara Siripong) are working together to fight their captors, rather than each other.
The simplest example of Kill 'Em All's basic dramatic failure is right at the beginning: a man we don't know busts into a building for reasons unknown, and kills a bunch of people along the way. Seeing as the movie has not opted to inform the viewer of anything about who this is or why they're doing what they're doing, there's no suspense and no thrill to watching the character, later revealed to be "The Kid" (Tim Man), kicking and punching twenty anonymous guys. This is followed by another scene, introducing Gabriel on his own hit, but once again, we're never told why the guy has to die and no backstory on Gabriel (other than his profession) is provided in the scene, making for another meaningless sequence. Worst of all, director Raimund Huber doesn't quite infuse the fights with that crucial speed and intensity; each punch and kick in these early scenes is repetitive, without any blows warranting the wincing or sharp intake of breath that define a particularly painful stunt.
15 minutes into the film, the characters are captured and thrown in the dungeon, at which point the movie does slowly start to develop its characters, at least in terms of their approach to the "Killing Chamber" challenge. The more each one's strategy is filled in -- other "contestants" include Monk-like killer Black Scorpion (Ice Chongko), frighteningly childlike psycho Mickey (Rashid Phoenix), and Carpenter (played by the late American kickboxing champion Joe Lewis) -- the more interesting the movie becomes, because some friction slips into their interactions. Gabriel pleads with the others to form a truce so everyone can sleep, but there's always the lingering possibility that one of them won't honor the agreement. Performances are decent (Messner and Siripong are no master thespians, but they're as good as the material needs them to be, and Lewis adds a touch of class), and the action, although it still lacks oomph, at least becomes complicated enough to become more interesting.
As the movie ramps up, it becomes clear that Som is as close to a hero as the film is going to get, yet Huber and screenwriter Ken Miller opt to keep her true motives out of reach. It's the final nail in the coffin for the film's story, which flounders without any sense of drive or direction that would be provided by a clear motive. It's also worth noting that -- spoiler alert -- despite the claim that Kill Bill's Gordon Liu is "starring" in the movie, he doesn't show up aside from his voice and the back of his bald head until an hour and 13 minutes into the movie, thirteen minutes before the movie is about to end (no guesses on whether the movie uses more of those final minutes to finally fill in Som's motivation, or give the viewer a ferocious showdown). There are moments of action fun in Kill 'Em All, but some cool action beats do not a movie make.
Kill 'Em All arrives with goofy, cartoonish cover art that makes the movie look almost like a spoof or B-movie, playing up the title and the tagline. Inside the eco-friendly Vortex case (the kind that uses less plastic), there is an insert for other Well Go USA titles.
The Video and Audio
Well Go USA delivers Kill 'Em All on home video with a 1080p 1.78:1 AVC transfer that's...underwhelming. The hallmarks of HD are there -- detail, punchy color, grain -- but all of them fall noticecably short of what one would want out of an optimal Blu-Ray presentation. In dark scenes, instead of looking rich, the image is murky and bland. Textures and other details are stronger than a DVD, but they're not fully crisp or defined. Colors look good but never pop, and a faint trace of interlacing or motion blur that must be inherent to the original photography is noticeable in a scene or two. An underwhelming effort.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is similarly mediocre. This is one of those "direct-to-video" mixes, full of empty soundstage ambience, generic sound efects, and overly clean dialogue that sounds like it was polished in a recording studio, free of any variance or nuance. To that end, the audio materials are presented reasonably well -- surround activity, some setting-based effects like echo, and the occasional bassy note from the soundtrack, but one can only do so well with weak source material. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track and English subtitles are also provided.
None. Trailers for Tai Chi Zero, The Courier, Legendary Amazons play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Kill 'Em All is also included.
Kill 'Em All might make for a fun YouTube highlight reel, and maybe fans of the late Joe Lewis will enjoy renting it as a curiosity, but otherwise, this is thoroughly mediocre, DTV-grade material.
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