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Between “Gunpowder Milkshake,” “Baby Assassins,” and “Kill Boksoon,” the hit woman subgenre is bubbling with new subversive takes on the masculine hired gun motif. The Korean director Lee Chung-hyun’s “Ballerina” picks up those reins for a film about Okju (Jun Jong-seo), a retired bodyguard seeking to avenge the brutal murder of her dancer friend Minhee (Park Yu-rim) at the hands of a ruthless underworld predator (Kim Ji-hun).
While the film finds thematic strength in Okju fighting a toxic patriarchy, it’s also a visual feast. Okju’s confrontation with convenience store thieves, in which she uses a can as a deadly weapon, is a whirling, cleanly composed sequence. The vibrant pink, purple and gold lighting — stylish touches that outline the close friendship shared by Okju and Minhee — often gives way to gritty and grimy shocks of violence. Those moments, which rely on Jun’s balletic movements, add a fierceness to this story.
‘The Black Book’
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A “John Wick” sensibility crosses borders in this Nigerian film from the director Editi Effiong. Richard Mofe-Damijo stars as the retired assassin Paul Edima. Trouble ensues when men who work for the brutal General Isa (Alex Usifo Omiagbo) murder a young man with the intent of framing him for their political crimes. Unbeknown to them, he is Paul’s son. Though they later try their best to quell Paul’s anger through bribes, he ultimately teams with the investigative journalist Vic Kalu (Ade Laoye) to expose the corruption within the country.
“The Black Book” cleverly deploys Wickian gunplay using an older protagonist. Paul has clearly lost a step; and yet, he doesn’t lack determination. When the army arrives to exterminate him, what follows is Paul quietly moving from victim to victim in the dark night like a ghost, slashing with quiet command. But this film ends with an all-woman army of mercenaries joining the act, preventing it from being a mere copy of a trope, and instead turning it into a unique Nigerian take.
‘The Flying Swordsman’
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The Chinese director Qiao Lei’s period revenge tale concerns a treasure map that disappeared and has now re-emerged. The villainous Bao Shu (Chun Yu Shan Shan) wants it, and leads his army of mystical killers to venture into the forest of Feihu Mountain where a legendary warrior called the Hidden Fox lurks.
That fabled killer is a MacGuffin for Gui Yu (Zhao Huawei), one of Shu’s adept swordsmen who has a secret goal in mind. The film’s smooth production design, its stunning use of texture — extreme close-ups on snow give these fights a poetic punch — and the nuanced performance by Zhao keeps you engaged in a slippery yet assured pursuit for payback.
Stream it on Netflix.
The Malaysian director Syamsul Yusof’s “Mat Kilau” is a martial arts film placed in an anticolonial story. To harness the country’s gold, the British government, led by the racist Captain Syers (Geoff Andre Feyaerts), is destroying villages, killing dissenters and subjugating a slave work force. The film’s opening sequence witnesses one such massacre, a slow-motion vision of widespread death. The country’s Indigenous leadership empowers the unassuming warrior Mat Kilau (Adi Putra) to defeat the British army.
The film’s realistic explosions are a seamless mix of visual and practical effects. And the choreography of immense battles gives the movie scale. Florid camera movements, such as a spinning bird’s-eye view shot of a showdown between Kilau and a mercenary adds flair too. But it’s the film’s exploration of how smaller forces can combat a formidable power that elevates Yusof’s film from a culturally specific political critique to a broad rallying cry for the dispossessed.
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Out of the fog of the 1990s, when geopolitical disaster films once reigned supreme, lands “Plane.” In Jean-François Richet’s robust survivalist film, Brodie Torrence (Gerard Butler) is a captain trying to fly home to meet his daughter on New Year’s Day. But when a vicious storm forces him into an emergency landing onto a lawless Southeast Asian island, he teams with Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter) — a prisoner in transport — to protect the remaining small band of passengers against a warlord (Evan Dane Taylor).
Butler’s recent run of action star roles (“Copshop” and “Greenland”) serve him well here. He has the kind of rugged everyman physique where you easily believe him as a mundane guy with deadly secret skills. He and Colter, another action veteran, make a compelling double team in the film’s many jungle shootouts, moving with precision. The aerial scenes are also a well-paced wonder, aligning impending doom with physics-defying maneuvers for pure popcorn entertainment.