A PREVIEW OF THE MOST ULTIMATE LOOKING ACTION FLICKS AT THIS YEAR’S FANTASTIC FEST.
Here we are again at another Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. One of our favorite film festivals here at the Ultimate Action Movie Club, this genre-specific fest is one of the best kept secrets for true, blue ultimate action fans.
And while, it’s true, that Fantastic Fest might be better known for its horror and schlock features, it’s always been a great home for action flicks both new and old. And this year is no different.
There’s a lot that we’re looking forward to from internationally acclaimed action directors, to lost classics, to up-and-coming stars, so — if you happen to be at Fantastic Fest this year, or are simply looking to keep tabs from the fest — here are our top picks for the most ultimate action movies at Fantastic Fest 2023.
BABY ASSASSINS 2
101 minutes | Japan | 2023
On a whim in high school, our favorite pair of assassins joined a gym to get into shape. To no one’s surprise, the two haven’t gone back since, and now four years of overdue fees must be paid before they lose their membership in their assassin guild. While trying to send a last-minute payment, Chisato and Mahiro’s bank is taken hostage, and they miss the deadline. With all their money spent on elaborate sweets, the pair are forced to take part-time jobs while waiting to be reinstated as hired killers. Unfortunately for our free agents — but fortunately for us — two assassins have been tasked with killing them in the meantime.
Our beloved baby assassins make their ice-cream-covered return to Fantastic Fest. As with the first installment, the performances from Saori Izawa and Akari Takaishi literally take the cake, as they struggle with their day jobs while scheming to get good with the guild. Both actresses take the over-the-top humor and ridiculous fight choreography to even greater heights by channeling millennial existentialism into the everyday lives of these low-level assassins, but Izawa in particular gets to use her prodigious experience as a stuntwoman to show off her comedic timing combined with her expert martial arts.
There are more stunts, more kills, more bizarre assassin handbook rules, and a pair of cute boys who want them dead. Welcome back, Chisato and Mahiro. (AUSTIN KING)
ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE
94 minutes | USA | 2023
WHAAAAAA! WATAAAHHH! AAAAAYYYYYY!
You’d be hard pressed to find another actor who could be identified based on just a few yelps, but somehow, immediately, you know the man I’m referring to here.
Although Bruce Lee’s best-known films — THE BIG BOSS, FIST OF FURY, and THE WAY OF THE DRAGON — weren’t produced for audiences outside of Hong Kong, his cool blend of rakish charm and unparalleled martial arts skill caught the attention of the global market and quickly established him as an international star. When he died in 1973, it left an indelible mark on a genre that was just beginning to establish itself, and film studios around the world jumped into the fray to capitalize on Lee’s incomparable presence, giving birth to a kung fu subgenre — Bruceploitation.
From spitting-image clones like Dragon Lee in South Korea and Bruce Le in Myanmar to spiritual successors like Blaxploitation icon Jim Kelly and the pioneering “Lady Kung Fu” Angela Mao, the ripple effect of the Dragon’s death lasted over a decade, spawning countless careers and hundreds of movies.
ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE tracks down producers, scholars, aficionados, and some of the movement’s biggest stars, all skilled martial artists in their own right, as they reminisce over a bygone era of gonzo plotlines, shoestring budgets, and questionable taste. (LORI DONNELLY)
THE INVISIBLE FIGHT
115 minutes | Estonia, Latvia, Greece, Finland | 2023
Rafeal is the sole survivor of an attack on a Soviet outpost. Inspired by the three martial artists who easily dispatched the other guards on duty with him, Rafeal decides to learn kung fu. Unfortunately for him, “everything cool” is banned in the USSR, and he’ll have to seek martial arts teachers at one of the unlikeliest places: the local Eastern Orthodox monastery.
With a disapproving mother, a rival monk/kung fu student, and a possible girlfriend pulling him in separate directions, Rafael will have to resolve his calling to kung fu mastery at the monastery, suppressing his heavy metal, rebellious nature to subvert all authority, in order to unlock the greatest martial art of all.
THE INVISIBLE FIGHT features over-the-top costuming and production design, a quick wit, and monks fighting. Each action setpiece feels unique, using the Orthodox monastery setting to its full potential with fun takes on martial arts movie staples like doing chores as a beginner’s training tool or harnessing one’s inner self to unlock your full potential.
The movie’s best regional adaptation is probably its take on the stock character of the old, ailing master looking for a successor. Nafanail (Indrek Sammul) is the monastery’s greatest monk and martial artist, and he enjoys overseasoning his food, asking his students difficult questions about the origin of sin, and spending time with his monk boyfriend. In addition to being a key figure in the narrative and comedic setpieces, Nafanail is a teacher, a theologian, and politically outspoken. He also gets the best fight in the movie.
Director Rainer Sarnet harnesses the action movie history THE INVISIBLE FIGHT needs, in particular the Chinese wuxia roots, and uses this to tell a Northern European story. Explicitly referencing genre classics like ENTER THE DRAGON, the film does not rest on just being a comedy or an action fan’s game of “spot the reference,” but asks questions about faith, spiritual duty, and the modern state of Russia and Europe. And if that all sounds too serious, don’t worry. There are monks flying on wires through Orthodox cathedrals. (AUSTIN KING)
108 minutes | India | 2023
Army commando Amrit (played by Lakshya, an actor to keep an eye on) has just finished a mission off the grid, and he’s looking forward to spending his time off-duty with his girlfriend, Tullika. Unaware of their clandestine relationship, Tullika’s father has arranged a marriage to another man. She’s set to travel back to New Delhi by train with her family the next morning.
Strong headed Amrit is not going to just stand by, and he boards the train with his best bud, another commando named Viresh, in the hopes of getting her back and proposing to her. The plans are rapidly shattered by a group of 40 violent, blade-wielding thugs led by Fani (handsome Raghav Juyal), who have boarded the train to relieve the passengers of their precious belongings. Amrit and Viresh are men of action, and they’re not going to just sit and watch. Let the skull crushing begin.
For all our audience members who cheered for PROJECT WOLF HUNTING and squirmed in their seats during THE RAID, this new film, written and directed by Indian director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat, is for you. This is probably the first Indian film of its kind, and it’s BRUTAL! With all the action and close combat taking place in the confined spaces of a few train cars, Bhat makes sure that every piece of furniture and every prop at hand is used to crush some bones or puncture some organs… including a fire extinguisher.
KILL is fast-paced, and the action choreography (signed by Se-yeong Oh and Parvez Shaikh) is brutal. With some very dramatic key scenes serving as gear shifts, Bhat turns up the dial on savagery throughout the film, to the delight of the audience. (ANNICK MAHNERT)
MANCUNIAN MAN: THE LEGENDARY LIFE OF CLIFF TWEMLOW
124 minutes | UK | 2023
Cliff Twemlow gives a whole new meaning to the term Renaissance Man. Musician, author, bouncer, stuntman, and director, Twemlow is a legend in his hometown of Manchester. Now the rest of the world has a chance to catch up on one of the UK’s most prolific indie filmmakers, who spent the ‘80s and ‘90s creating outrageous low-budget flicks with a cast of friends and family.
This engrossing documentary chronicles the many exploits of Twemlow, celebrating his tenacity and legacy of independent filmmaking. He first came into the spotlight with his book TUXEDO WARRIOR, based on his time as a bouncer. When the book was adapted into a film, Twemlow was inspired to start shooting his own direct-to-VHS films. Through sheer willpower, Twemlow created a mini-film industry in Manchester that lasted nearly a decade, giving birth to B-movies like G.B.H. (GRIEVOUS BODILY HARM), which was banned as a “video nasty” at the time.
A larger-than-life figure, the doc is filled with amusing anecdotes and wild tales from Twemlow’s friends and co-creators. However, beneath all the hijinks, Twemlow’s real passion for cinema and creation, by any means necessary, shines through in this comprehensive tribute to his life and work. (LISA DREYER)
SRI ASIH: THE WARRIOR
133 minutes | Indonesia | 2022
Alana is a boxer with aspirations of competing against men and taking her rightful place as the champion of her local boxing circuit, despite not being taken seriously due to her gender. The tournament is a front for a local gang, and Alana’s on the verge of discovering that she’s the reincarnation of the ancient Goddess Asih. This revelation comes with super speed, inhuman strength, a magic scarf, and the attention of an evil deity seeking a human host.
Many American superhero movies of late have been, let’s say, inconsistent in quality. It’s easy to feel burned out on the genre. Luckily, SRI ASIH is here to prove that the Indonesian Bumilangit Cinematic Universe is just getting started. There’s a focus on martial arts fighting and sparingly used CGI. If you’re worried about not understanding this movie’s place in the overall narrative, have no fear. This is a mostly standalone story focused on Alana and her personal journey and is only the second outing in this budding cinematic universe.
Pevita Pearce plays Alana with a barely contained rage, intense physicality, and a chip on her shoulder against the rich and the patriarchy. SRI ASIH doesn’t shy away from adult themes around gendered violence and class while maintaining an eye on thrilling action set-pieces. Director Upi Avianto, styled as just Upi in the film’s credits, keeps the action grounded in Alana’s boxing background even when mystical elements are introduced, with incredible single-take battles against a hallway of nameless goons or one-on-one ring fights with dudebro assholes.
Coming up in Indonesia’s film industry directing comedies and crime dramas, Upi stakes her claim in the emerging superhero world as a director with intense, real-life fight choreography, physical stunts, and female empowerment. All of these elements build to one of the most impressive spectacles of the Fantastic Fest 2023 program — Alana facing off with ninjas and a shadow demon in an all-out factory brawl to prevent the resurrection of a fire goddess.
Strap on your bulletproof wristbands and get ready to box your way to SRI ASIH. (AUSTIN KING)
113 minutes | Philippines | 2023
Miguel is the sole survivor of a military operation gone horribly wrong, haunted by the brutal death of his best friend at the hands of a militant cult in the heart of the Philippine jungle. Still suffering from the effects of PTSD, Miguel procures a job as a night watchman in a Manila warehouse where (in)conveniently “everything is flammable and explosive” as he attempts to uneventfully re-enter civilian life.
Living in the city’s northern slums, Weng attempts to keep her good-for-nothing younger brother, Bogs, on the straight and narrow. When he runs afoul of the local kingpin, Weng reluctantly agrees to return to her illicit past as a drug runner for the notorious Valdez crew in exchange for his life.
Meanwhile, Romero, the head of a by any means necessary anti-narcotics unit, has been given orders by his colonel to wipe the Valdez crew out to keep the corrupt mayor’s ties to cartel money off the record. When Weng and Bogs narrowly escape the bloody scene and take shelter in Miguel’s warehouse, he escorts the interlopers from the premises, but not before the police intervene. Now Miguel and Weng must engage in the most brutal warfare in a no-holds-barred fight for their lives.
Boasting a massive body count that would make John Woo proud, TRIGGERED revels in decadent ‘80s- and ‘90s-style bloodshed. A must-see for action fans who prefer their movies with large doses of firepower. (LORI DONNELLY)
90 minutes | France | 2023
“Wake up, people! You’ve awoken the beast, and now we’re coming for you. It’s gonna be blood for blood.”
“That was savage, bro.”
So begins the clarion call from a group of Gen Z self-styled activists. Incensed by the environmental destruction wrought by a fictitious minimalist Swedish furniture store, the band of six sneaks into the big-box store after hours to wreak havoc of their own, gleefully destroying displays and smearing animal blood on bathroom fixtures for the benefit of the ‘gram.
As emboldened as they may be, their sense of outrage pales in comparison to the seething, decades-long resentment of the night watchman, Kevin. Already teetering on the edge of sanity and now piqued by his mistreatment at the hands of management and the disrespectful 20-somethings, he eagerly accepts their bloody invitation, putting his “primitive hunting” techniques to good use. As Kevin creatively picks off members of the collective one by one, those that remain stage a final stand in an attempt to make it out alive.
One of two films screened at Fantastic Fest this year by the Montreal trio known as RKSS (namely Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell, and François Simard), practitioners of ‘80s retro pop nostalgia (TURBO KID, SUMMER OF ‘84), WAKE UP channels the likes of classics like CHOPPING MALL for contemporary audiences, dripping with equal measures of cheeky cynicism and sincerity. (LORI DONNELLY)
Paired with Short: THE INFLUENCER
WHEN EVIL LURKS
99 minutes | Argentina, Uruguay | 2023
In a rural village, two brothers find a badly mutilated corpse next to a mysterious journal at the edge of their property. Determined to figure out the cause of death, the brothers uncover a local man harboring an evil spirit who has been waiting for a specialist to come and rid him of his demon. Unfortunately, help hasn’t arrived speedily enough, and the demon is ready to possess its next victim. Thus begins a race against time and evil as the brothers and eventually the entire village are drawn into the chaotic, heart-pounding mission to save their families and hometown from this nightmare.
Fantastic Fest regulars are no strangers to director Demián Rugna, who won Best Horror Picture for TERRIFIED in 2018 and was again awarded as part of the team of directors behind last year’s anthology SATANIC HISPANICS. Rugna is a master at creating scenes that will scare the crap out of you, and WHEN EVIL LURKS is no exception. This film is truly unrelenting, with a propulsive energy that carries you from one horrific scenario to the next. If you don’t audibly gasp (or scream out loud) at least once during this movie, I’m going to have to check your pulse to make sure you’re alive. (LISA DREYER)