There is a bizarre moment in 'Kill 'Em All' where the movie experiences something akin to self-awareness. In this moment, a frightened and agitated assassin, played by Johnny Messner ('Tears of the Sun'), comes to the conclusion that the ridiculously video game-like situation he and two other survivors are in sounds like something he might want to play – in a more relaxing atmosphere, of course. "That sounds like a really, really good video game," Messner states – though, to be fair, the video game situation in question is more along the lines of the early-'90s arcade title 'Smash TV' than anything else (or, perhaps the semi-controversial Rockstar offering, 'Manhunt'), so Messner's taste in gaming may be a bit dubious.
The title most will associate this lackluster and unimaginative martial arts flick with is not a video game at all, but rather the much more propulsive and entertaining beat-'em-up romp, 'The Raid: Redemption.' However, where 'The Raid' had exciting choreography and cinematography, a light, but compelling-enough plot, and characters the audience actually cared about, 'Kill 'Em All' successfully avoids all of these fun, exciting and overall positive additions in favor of a hackneyed story that's like a mash-up of 'Cube' meets 'Saw' with a dash of 'Mortal Kombat' thrown in for that this-is-what-used-to-pass-for-cool-when-I-was-twelve feeling.
Directed by Raimund Huber of the similarly atrocious 'Bangkok Adrenaline,' 'Kill 'Em All' concerns a seemingly random assortment of international assassins who have been kidnapped by some secret organization, and made to fight to the death in something called the "Killing Chamber" – which resembles a high-end Eastern Bloc rec room. It is the kind of silly little film that creates its own peculiar universe that's probably not unlike the imaginings of a pre-adolescent boy who would like to believe everyone (especially line chefs in a Chinese restaurant) is imbued with incredible martial arts capabilities. This is also a world where ultra-thin, mid-to-late-'80s-style suspenders go great with a handlebar mustache and white T-shirt – especially when worn by an Australian assassin with a big mouth. And that's what passes for characterization here.
In an attempt to fill the flick's ranks with colorful characters, writer Ken Miller has bestowed upon the world the likes of Black Scorpion, Carpenter (Joe Lewis – in what may have been his final role), the Kid (Tim Man), and in a disturbing, and somewhat classless depiction of mental illness, there's Mickey (Rashid Phoenix), the ever-smiling, child-like assassin who doesn't know right from wrong. To its credit, the film takes the time to introduce everyone, but it's like choosing which character you want to play as after firing up 'Street Fighter' or 'Mortal Kombat,' or whatever. The difference being, here, each character exists only because their bio says they do, they are merely the words used to describe them, there's nothing fleshed out, or remotely character-like about them; they may as well be the faceless ninjas Gordon Liu sends into the "Killing Chamber" after the assassins fail to play by his rules.
That's right: "legendary kung fu master" Gordon Liu – probably known to most Americans as Pai Mei in Quentin Tarrantino's 'Kill Bill' – makes an appearance here as Snakehead, the Machiavellian ringleader behind the abductions and, presumably, the name that appears on the lease for the "Killing Chamber." Everybody's got to make a living, but between this and 'Blood Money,' Gordon's depressingly close to losing that "legendary" status so many people like to use before his name. Here, Liu sits alone in a chair and cackles maniacally into a microphone like Inspector Gadget's arch-nemesis, Dr. Claw – giving the combatants their instructions on who to fight and when. It's all very over-the-top and, after a while, incredibly irritating, but Liu appears to be the one character with the ability to remain consistent throughout the film.
Johnny Messner plays Gabriel, a suicidal assassin with a penchant for bombs and prank phone calls who, at one point becomes the only character seemingly without a death wish. Either his placing a gun to his head was just a relaxation technique after a hard day of killing people in poorly realized CGI explosions, or Gabriel's sudden lust for life is what passes for character development in 'Kill 'Em All.' Unfortunately, all evidence suggests the latter to be true.
One might think that despite a rickety storyline, impossibly one-dimensional characters and atrocious dialogue even 'The Expendables 2' would turn its nose up at, 'Kill 'Em All' might still have enough wow-factor in its depiction of martial arts to make it worthwhile. Well, as it turns out…nope, it sure doesn't. Instead, most fights come off looking amateurishly slow and unconvincing. Sure, Tim Man (the Kid) displays some incredible acrobatics and ability to kick off one assailant into two, sometimes three more before hitting the ground, but no one else in the cast manages to come close to Man's performance level. And since Man isn't offered a chance to stretch his legs until the latter part of the story, the first two-thirds of the film – which take place almost entirely in the "Killing Chamber" – is a perfunctory exercise in mind-numbing dullness.
Not that things get much better as events progress; more characters die off, while the strong survive to engage in obligatory boss battles that attempt to shine the light on gender equality in martial arts flicks. Again, the film's one high-note is Gordon Liu, who participates in a mildly entertaining boss battle that's reminiscent of the two-on-one showstopper in 'The Raid.' Sadly, this exchange only manages to remind viewers of how lackluster 'Kill 'Em All' is, rather than offer up something compelling or challenging to the new benchmark of excellence.
In its defense, 'Kill 'Em All' never had much going for it in terms of talent in front of, or behind the lens, so judging it based on what it could have been seems like a moot point. Raimund Huber hasn't shown much in the way of filmmaking prowess or aesthetic value in any of his other features, and it's unlikely that he ever will. So, it's not so much that this could have been an enjoyable flick with someone else at the helm; it's more a question of what would the outcome have been if all the time, energy and money had been directed at making the world a better place? The answer: No one would have had to endure the agony of watching this film in the first place.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Kill 'Em All' comes as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc packaged in the standard case. The insert here makes sure to play up the ninja factor, leaving the consumer with little to wonder about the nature of this film. In addition to playing up Gordon Liu's appearance, there is the tacky, and confusing tag-line beneath the title that reads: "I'm Going to Hell When I Die." The disc itself contains a handful of trailers for other releases from Well Go Entertainment.
Unsurprisingly, despite being shot in HD, and featuring a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer, 'Kill 'Em All' still manages to look mediocre. There are some instances where fine detail is unexpectedly sharp (like when beads of sweat collect on the actors' faces) but for the most part, the image quality here is unremarkable. The picture is flat, dull and oftentimes colorless – which may have been the intention, given the drab confines of the "Killing Chamber," but it does little to explain the way skin tones, clothing and interior lighting come across looking unnatural and blotchy.
Though the image is free of most artifacts and other distracting elements that can mar quality, the transfer comes up short by offering a picture that is inexplicably grainy at times. While this may have been a stylistic choice, certain evidence suggests that such a move would not be likely. At any rate, the result is a mottled background with inconsistent coloring, low detail most of the time and a tendency toward banding in many instances. Shadow delineation is also poor here, but mostly it is the way darker images appear murky and tend to swallow up the actors' faces and movements, as well as any traces of fine detail.
Contrast levels are also low in many instances, which helps to maintain the murkiness of the picture. As mentioned above, there are times when the image appears to have been handled properly, and while the general composition leaves much to be desired, the quality of the image manages to look better than average. While that would normally be something worth praising in this section, with 'Kill 'Em All,' it manages to further prove how uneven the whole presentation is.
Punches, explosions and gunfire are all presented in a rather weak, anemic fashion that's about par for the course on this already stunningly feeble effort. Despite the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, 'Kill 'Em All' lacks the kind of high octane audio presentation one would expect from a beat 'em up picture like this.There's nothing necessarily wrong with the mix; dialogue is generally distinct and easy to understand, and there is no question of whether or not a punch or kick landed; it's just that none of them land with any sort of bravado. The sound is as perfunctory as the rest of the film: A punch is thrown; a punch lands and makes the kind of punch-like sound a child would produce when mimicking action movies or cartoons. Otherwise, sound effects are easy to hear, and generally placed correctly in terms of imaging and directionality, but there's simply no life coming from the speakers. LFE effects are present, but even then they tend to be as lackluster as everything else.
On the plus side, however, surround channels are given a decent workout in many instances, and the mix works to create the feeling the room is filling up with Snakehead's "freaks." The effect is a brief 360 degree barrage of footsteps, growls and the clanging of various weapons, as Tim Man is forced to deal with kicking the same extra over and over again. Like the picture quality, this is a single standout moment that demonstrates just how uneven this Blu-ray is.
There is a noticeable dearth of special features on 'Kill 'Em All.' Chances are, no one is looking to delve into the deeper meaning of why Black Scorpion is so cranky all the time, or to better understand the inner workings and feasibility of the "Killing Chamber." But most likely, the disc lacks special features because getting those concerned to acknowledge their participation in the film would exclusively involve a series of images featuring heads being hung in shame.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see roughly $3 million dollars get flushed down the toilet, then 'Kill 'Em All' will hold some appeal for you. While films like this can often times offer some compelling action, or fight choreography as a reason to watch, none of those elements are present here. Poorly envisioned and even more unsuccessfully executed, this uninspired, low budget martial arts romp is devoid of nearly everything a film should have, and yet somehow, it still feels like an exercise in excess. Huber has doubled down on the insipid exploits in order to compensate for his movie's deficiency in story and characterization, and the end result has proven such a move to be a gamble not worth taking. In the end, the disc's paltry offering of mediocre picture and sound quality and the complete lack of special features means skipping this entry is a definite no brainer.