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Chasing a one-armed bandit, and a box 

The flying guillotine looks like an umbrella that extends into a red fondue pot on a chain. Its master is a blind octogenarian named Fung Sheng Wu Chi, and he has eyebrows twice that of even Andy Rooney. Fung's enemy is a one-armed bandit who killed his two brightest protégés in 1971's One Armed Boxer. Will there be a revenge mission in 1975's Master of the Flying Guillotine (aka One Armed Boxer II or One Armed Boxer versus the Flying Guillotine)? You bet. Will there be a score from Krautrock gods Neu!? You know it. Will there be a ridiculously entertaining orgy of punching and kicking and wonderfully bad dubbing? Lord, yes.

            Guillotine (screening Friday, August 8, at the Dryden Theatre), which was re-released in 2002 with 12 additional minutes of delicious chop-socky action, doesn't waste much time on a story. It takes place in 1730 China, where the Ching Dynasty has just displaced the still bitter and vengeful Huns from the Ming Dynasty. That and Fung avenging the death of his disciples is merely an excuse to showcase as much bedlam in 90 minutes as it possibly can.

            Most of Guillotine centers around a big Mortal Kombat-type tournament run by One Armed Boxer's brother's martial arts school. This allows for a vast array of different wacky characters, who are usually named after their particular moves and/or fighting style (except Wins Without Knives, who ironically uses knives to win). And, yes, MoFG and OAB (writer-director Jimmy Wang Yu) eventually meet up, after the former dispatches a hysterical number of guys missing arms, fighting not unlike how I imagine a blind man and a one-armed man would in a real-life brawl.

            The best part of Guillotine, other than the over-the-top fighting, sound effects, and good-guy switcheroo, is that its editing and photography don't mask the serious talent of any of its stars, unlike so many current pictures made by modern actors ( Jet Li ). Hopefully, Quentin Tarantino's upcoming two-part Kill Bill will offer more of the same, as he is a huge fan of Guillotine.

            Wang Yu is probably (and quite indirectly) known in this country for providing the background for Steve Oedenkerk's woefully misunderstood Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. In that film, Oedenkerk made like Woody Allen in What's Up, Tiger Lily? by dubbing and digitally inserting himself into Wang Yu's Tiger and Crane Fist from 1977.

They're a strange animal, these Lara Croft movies. The first one --- certainly no prize pig, nor anything I could recommend to anyone but my horniest friends --- was lambasted by critics, who for some reason simply couldn't wrap their minds around a story that featured a bunch of over-the-top action sequences in a variety of exotic locales. These are the same critics, mind you, who gush every time James Bond does the same thing, with considerably less style and originality.

            I'm not sure whether they're all against the notion of a female Indiana Jones knockoff, or instantly turned off by the idea of a film based on a videogame, but Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was no worse than the last three Bond films (does anyone remember Denise Richards playing a nuclear scientist?). You'd think these critics, who are mostly men, would be happier watching Angelina Jolie --- an Oscar winner, by the way --- on account of her being way more interesting, way easier on the eyes, and a way better actor than Pierce Brosnan.

            Maybe they're hung up on the peripheral nonsense, which would certainly be understandable. Stories of airbrushed nipples, lesbian affairs, feuds with Daddy, DIY stunts, and the removal of both a tattoo (by powerful lasers) and 140 pounds of dead weight (by powerful lawyers) were plentiful in the weeks leading up to the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, a title which Roger Ebert points out is still 10 letters shorter than Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Life is slightly more solid than its predecessor, even though its third act degenerates into The Lord of the Rings as seen by M.C. Escher.

            My biggest fear was that Life was going to be one big Jeep commercial, but that particular product didn't show up until said ill-fated last act (sadly, the same could be said of the mesmerizing actor Djimon Hounsou). The story involves Lady Lara (Jolie) hunting down Pandora's Box, which, of course, is also being pursued by a diabolical scientist named Dr. Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds). Lara wants to protect the box, which contains the clap or something, while Reiss would rather throw it open just because he's into chaos and stuff.

            The race leads our characters through Greece, East Asia, and, eventually, Africa, thanks to a nifty hiding job by Alexander the Great (don't ask). Lara busts an old boyfriend (Gerard Butler) out of prison to help her, gaining both a romantic interest and an almost steamy sex scene cut short by a line that would make Punch Drunk Love's Barry Egan crack a smile ("You can break my wrist, but I'm still going to kiss you"). Granted, I'd watch Jolie read a phone book, or maybe even the script to Gigli, but she's a blast to watch here, what with the shark punching and horseback riding and slinky outfits and Paltrow-quality accent. There's a ton of stuff that makes absolutely no sense, and the bad guy could be a bit more colorful, but, again, please grade using the Bond curve.

            There are upgrades behind the scenes, too, with Jan de Bont replacing bland Michael Bay wannabe Simon West. de Bont is aided here by one of the industry's best editors in Michael Kahn (a three-time Oscar winner who works with Spielberg) and cinematographer David Tattersall, who has shot Bond (Die Another Day) plus some enjoyable films (The Green Mile).

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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