8/25/2021

Film Movement Movie Review: Final Set (2021)


Opens Virtually & in NYC on 8/27


“If you'd won quicker, you'd suffer less.”
 
Watching her son, thirty-something professional tennis player Thomas Edison (Alex Lutz) apply an ice pack to his knee during dinner, Judith (Kristin Scott Thomas) can't help but ask, “why lose the first set?”
 
Having helped propel Thomas to early greatness as a young prodigy, Judith struggles to remove her coaching hat to support her son the way that a typical mother would. Coming from a place of not only criticism but also love – because to care for Thomas and the knee he'd had operated on multiple times in the past is to question why he still feels the need to try to compete against the top players of the world at his age – to say that their relationship is complicated would be an understatement. But understating it is precisely what makes their dynamic and everything else in French writer-director Quentin Reynaud's “Final Set” so real and compelling.
 
Minimal and precise, the dialogue between not only Thomas and Judith but also Thomas and his loving, supportive, but equally conflicted wife Eve (Ana Girardot) is spare throughout the work which boasts a quasi-documentary feel. Yet, delivered by this exceptional group of actors who can say so much with a look or tone, we feel the weight of one’s meaning even though the English subtitled lines are spoken in French. In fact, generating a great deal of conflict and depth from these micro-moments, it's a film where those inquisitive looks over dinner or cautious actions – even the way one character packs or carries a tennis bag – speak louder than words.


From the Australian Open in January to the ATP finals for the highest-ranked male players in November, tennis, more than most sports, is essentially played for eleven months out of the year. Unfortunately, with a ranking of 245, which is a far cry from the great hope he was supposed to be twenty years earlier when he choked during a grand slam, Thomas' respectable but still low stats keep him out of most major tournaments, which cater only to the top players in the sport. 

And while he would prefer to enter every competition he can, his wife – a former player herself who now handles the behind-the-scenes business decisions – has to gently remind her husband that when you subtract the travel, food, and lodging costs, far too often, the actual winnings from some of these events don't justify the expense. Supplementing the income he barely receives from matches he's allowed to enter by working as a children's coach at his mother's tennis club, while everyone around him is waiting for him to hang up his racket or join the over thirty-five tour, Thomas decides to make one last stand at Roland Garros.
 
Otherwise known as the French Open, at Roland Garros, tennis is played on courts of famous red clay where the surface of the terrain not only sticks to a player's shoes, socks, legs, clothes, and arms if they take a nasty fall, but as legends like Andre Agassi and Roger Federer are first to admit, it's also sheer hell on the knees. And if it's hard on those joints at any age, you know it's destined to be agony for Thomas whose prominent knee surgery scars, arthritis, ligament lesions, and osteoarthritis are shown and discussed within the first five minutes of Reynaud's movie.


Nonetheless, knowing he doesn't have a lot of time left but not quite ready to follow in his wife's footsteps and train for another career because – despite being a husband and father – a life outside of tennis isn't something he's ever considered, Thomas decides to make a run at the Open by playing several brutal rounds as a qualifier. Facing other players not lucky enough to get in via wild card or ranked highly enough, even though his wife Eve tells him to “have fun” before he leaves for a match, we know that for the serious Thomas, fun doesn't really enter the equation. No, in this quixotic, underdog run, it's just about determination, desperation, and the work.

Drawing a parallel throughout to a cocky, young, but exceptionally gifted seventeen-year-old phenom on the rise (played by real pro player J├╝rgen Briand), who even Eve admits reminds her of her husband, obviously, you know that eventually, the two men will have to square off at some point to achieve the dramatic potential of Thomas “playing himself” in “Final Set.” Still, it's in the authenticity of the film's battle to that battle – and particularly the amount of regret, guilt, excitement, frustration, and pain of both the past and present that flood our main ensemble from start to finish – that makes this film feel like something beyond just your typical inspirational sports drama.
 
Furthermore, the time that Reynaud takes off the court and how much trust he puts into this excellent trio of actors (with once again, Scott Thomas doing some of her best work both later in life and in French) makes his bold decision to spend the film's final twenty-five minutes on the court so incredibly effective. Set during a showdown between the two pros at different points in their life, Reynaud goes right for the greatest hits of dramatic tennis. 


Zeroing in on a five-set grand slam match between a David and a Goliath, which features a never-ending deuce, racket smashes, cramps, long rallies, and more, the film achieves something so thrillingly intense that for a long time, I actually forgot for a while that I was watching a movie instead of championship play. More than that, as someone whose TV is often left on The Tennis Channel, it was only after the movie ended when I was reading the film's production notes that I realized that the final match went on for nearly the length of a traditional “act” of a Syd Field screenplay.
 
Yet, similar to the way that I love a good football movie even if it isn't a sport I actually watch, this isn't to say that one needs to be an avid tennis fan or even know much about the sport to enjoy “Final Set.” Filmed at Roland Garros and using that tried and true blueprint of “Rocky,” which similarly spends a good chunk of the film's last half right in that boxing ring as we watch events unfold in what I'd call “hyper-real time,” Reynaud's film is wildly ambitious in its scope. Refreshingly, though, it's as invested in the human story as it is in its tennis, which comes through in the film's fully earned last shot. A superbly executed ensemble effort that plays out against a backdrop that's the stuff of modern myth-making, as we watch Alex Lutz's Thomas fight against time and his own body's wear-and-tear, we're right there with him, eager to battle it out to the very end.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

8/19/2021

Movie Review: Raging Fire (2021)


Now Available


One of my all-time favorite movie reactions is from Denzel Washington who was interviewed on a red carpet after he saw Brian De Palma's “Mission Impossible” in 1996. Recounting the film's many cloak-and-dagger reveals where people switch sides often while in pursuit of the all-important NOC List, Washington leveled with the reporter, joking, “I said to my wife, 'am I stupid or was that hard to understand?'” 

I bring this up because just this week, I had a similar reaction to "Raging Fire," the final film of the late great director Benny Chan. After it began, for at least a good twenty minutes, I was in a constant state of confusion. It's not a great feeling. Nobody wants to admit that they have no idea if they're watching a flashback, a jump forward, or if a character who seems like a villain actually is, and in this case, I think my uncertainty was exacerbated by the fact that at least in the screener of the film I was playing, the subtitles were far too small and flew by at the speed of a John Woo bullet ballet. Unsure if this reaction was my issue alone, before I could even pause "Fire" to ask an avid foreign film buff I was watching with if they understood what was going on, they turned to me and said they were finding it almost impossible to keep up.

Until it eventually all came together in a long-overdue burst of exposition, I simply fell back on my love of Hong Kong action movies, which frequently revolve around the duality of a cop and a robber, and how the two characters really are two sides of the exact same coin, “Infernal Affairs,” “City on Fire,” or “Hard Boiled” style. And luckily, that really helped me out in "Raging Fire," which star Donnie Yen readily admits does go right for that old beloved trope of cops and robbers that film fans have cherished since the days of the western in the west and/or samurai tales in the east. 


In Chan's movie, Yen stars as an obsessive, dedicated police officer who finds himself pursuing his one-time protege on the force, now turned villain played by Nicholas Tse. Feeling like he was hung out to dry just for - in his eyes - following orders, after spending time in prison, Tse reemerges hell-bent on revenge. I'm giving you the succinct version of the set-up here because, as merely a fan of all involved, I went in completely blind and had trouble sorting it out. 

Yet while the film's first act is missing a much-needed sense of flow, which is a recurring problem in Hong Kong movies that often begin with a concept, which only gradually evolves into a script involving these favorite character archetypes, thankfully Benny Chan knows how to direct action. And with his final work, “Raging Fire,” he is there to distract us from the small subtitles and confounding goings-on. 

Only in a Chan film will you have the determined officer played by Donnie Yen tell his squad to go home after a twenty-hour workday and after they leave, he decides to go to an inner-city lair where he fights roughly twenty-five guys at once. It's an insanely wise decision for "Fire," because, I mean, Yen is “Ip Man” after all! Ultra stylish in that glossy Hong Kong way where even the ultraviolence is beautiful, in “Raging Fire,” our two incredibly photogenic leads duke it out in the rain (among other places) and Edmond Fung's cinematography is so vivid and urgent, you can't help but want to reach your hand out to see if you can feel a raindrop hit your skin as well.
 
Drawn to the movie because, as Tse said, he knew it would be a rare chance to do real old-school, contemporary Hong Kong action that nobody seems to be making anymore due to the danger and expense, “Fire” is filled with rapid shoot-outs, explosions galore, and hand-to-hand combat, including a final fight sequence so intricate that it took nearly two weeks to film. Featuring incredible wirework and death-defying stunts that glide by like Gene Kelly tap-dancing in an MGM musical, in one of the film's most memorable moments, we see a motorcycle vs. car duel play out in traffic with blows landed and thrown through an open window and sunroof that must be seen to be believed.


Proof that sometimes plot (or coherence) is overrated, although, even when you figure it all out, the film's storyline is forgettably threadbare, for action lovers, “Raging Fire,” is a full “turn your brain off and just enjoy the ride” throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema in the late '80s and '90s when films like Benny Chan's “A Moment of Romance” reigned supreme. 

While not as masterful as the Hong Kong classic "Romance," it's still a spectacle of human achievement executed by a film crew who will literally risk being executed to dazzle you. Made with true affection by Yen, Tse, and company for the late director they loved so much, even if the first half-hour of rapid-fire subtitles and scene jumps in “Raging Fire” made me feel – in Washington's words – “stupid,” the entertainment value of Chan's film isn't hard to understand.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.