11.18.2014

The Last Ninja (1983)

PLOT: A group of terrorists infiltrates an important business meeting with national defense implications, and threatens to kill the hostages unless their demands are met. The tactical force charged with rescuing the hostages passes the buck to a guy who may or may not be a ninja, but definitely is an art and antiques dealer who can sniff out a good deal on a 19th-century chaise lounge.

Director: William A. Graham
Writer: Ed Spielman
Cast: Michael Beck, Mako, Richard Lynch, Nancy Kwan, John McMartin


PLOT THICKENER
Among other important lessons during my upbringing, my father taught me how to throw a football, hook live bait on a fishing line, and draw both cat and dog cartoon faces with relative ease. These details may strike most readers as ordinary fixtures of an American male’s formative years, but they’re totally boring to anyone who grew up as an orphaned caucasian adopted by a middle-aged Asian martial arts master. Michael Beck’s character in 1983’s The Last Ninja looks at your idyllic childhood and does a sarcastic jerk-off motion before disappearing behind an exploding cloud of ninja smoke. After all, playing catch can’t hold a candle to throwing your first shuriken into a tree.

From where did this whiteboy karate fantasy originate? I would think that Kwai Chang Caine in the 1970s Kung Fu television series served as the first model for orphans learning fighting skills under the tutelage of their older Asian masters. (Other examples include the protagonists in Bloodsport and American Ninja, respectively). It may surprise no one to learn that Ed Spielman, creator of the original Kung Fu series, wrote the screenplay for The Last Ninja, an ABC TV pilot that never took hold as a regular series. Did Spielman go to the well of head-scratching cultural appropriation once too many times? Fuck yeah he did, but read on anyways.


Michael Beck (Swan of The Warriors fame) plays Ken Sakura, an art and antiques collector who makes his home in California. By all indications, he lives on a sprawling estate with his step-sister, Noriko (Kwan), but this detail puts no cramp in his debonair life of bachelorhood. When he’s not appraising vases or charming strangers at soirees, Ken is a heroic ninja who breaks up dope rings and captures serial killers and rapists. Only Noriko knows of his secretive triple life of art-collecting, man-whoring, and crime-fighting.

Mr. Cosmo (McMartin), the government agent who was legitimately born with that name, may have an inkling about Ken’s post-work activities. He pays Ken a visit one afternoon and details a series of correlations between Ken’s whereabouts and the captures of criminals on various dates by a mysterious ninja. Despite the implication, Ken laughs it off and chalks it all up to (a shitload of) simple coincidences. Not to be dissuaded, Cosmo intends to reveal Ken’s vigilante deeds to the newspapers unless said ninja hero infiltrates a Dallas skyscraper where a group of defense industry employees is being held hostage. The ninja, quite simply, is the only chance they have to save them.


Not that head kidnapper Dr. Gustav Norden (Lynch) is such a bad guy. He’s professorial (tan corduroy coat), direct (“the mobile laser system, that’s what we want”), and extremely sweaty. A disgruntled former colleague of his hostages, Norden simply wants the plans for some nondescript military technology to benefit himself and his kidnapping brethren instead of the annoying assholes with whom he used to work. Don’t we all want that at the end of the day?

For the remainder of the story, Ken’s past is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks. As a newborn, he was left on the doorstep of the Sakura family during a stormy night. After his biological sons are killed in the Korean War, Mataro Sakura (Mako) has no direct heirs for his ninjitsu wisdom, but tosses baby Ken into a pool as a test of his suitability for training. Ken survives! Mataro doesn’t get arrested for attempted infanticide! Mataro kicks adolescent Ken out of the house for a week to teach him humility. He gives him a kitten upon his return to teach him about balance. He performs sleight-of-hand tricks to teach him about misdirection. He shows him that the catch and release of a fly is more skillful and virtuous than catching and killing it. I’m sure there was an awkward talk about “the birds and bees” that involved a katana blade and a watermelon, but it probably ended up on the cutting room floor. THANKS REAGAN.


It should be noted that the showdown between Ken’s ninja persona and Norden’s gang arrives with about 20 minutes remaining in the 93-minute film. Most would agree that’s not a lot of time for insane ninja action. Ken has only two fight scenes that I can recall, and the most notable aspect of the action scenes is the raspy and oddly cosmic voice he uses when talking from under his mask. (Imagine Christian Bale’s Batman voice hooked up to a reverb pedal). Instead, the emphasis here is on the training and origins underpinning the central character -- keep in mind this was a pilot for a TV series -- and the central relationship between a father and son. There’s roughly a 60-40 split between flashbacks and “present day” footage, so viewers should be prepared for a lot of bouncing back and forth. And more clever disguises and silly voices than the transformation scene from Mrs. Doubtfire.


If you peruse the user reviews on the film’s IMDb page, you’ll notice that it’s almost universally praised. However, it’s striking that many of the users recall seeing the movie when it originally aired, and I can’t help but feel that nostalgia may have influenced their opinions. (No judgement: nostalgia was the primary motivation for this entire site)! Despite my dissatisfaction with the action elements, I found myself really engaged during Mako’s scenes and I enjoyed Richard Lynch’s scenery chewing, because the man chews the fuck out of scenery. That said, these are decidedly non-ninja reasons to enjoy this particular film, which makes it a bit of an outlier: the unspectacular character study dressed up in ninja’s clothing.

VERDICT
The Last Ninja offers none of the harebrained plot points we’re accustomed to seeing in most American ninja films. Instead, it features a compelling character study with a well-written father-and-son relationship at its core. The action, while infrequent, emphasizes realism and illusion over the more fantastical visual tropes that would come to epitomize the 1980s ninja film (lasers, decapitated limbs, unexplainable flying). While not without its issues, this is a decent standalone “origin” story that also portended an entertaining TV series. It’s a bit of a shame it didn’t get an actual run, but I feel the same way about Poochinski, so I may not be the best evaluator of failed TV pilots.

AVAILABILITY
As an early 80s TV film, it never had an official home video release on VHS or DVD. There may be gray market copies out there, but YouTube is your friend. Go forth and plunder.

3.5 / 7


11.16.2014

Ninja Death (1987)

PLOT:  By day, Tiger is a Martial Arts expert…by night he is the bouncer of a brothel. Tiger is trained under the watchful eye of “Master” and in this process of training it occurs that the Grand Master and his merry men, AKA Ninjas, are trying to take over Tiger’s turf in Japan.

Director: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Lo You, Fei Meng


PLOT THICKENER: 
When it comes to story, Ninja Death is pretty damn jagged, and while you can fault it for the shoddy editing, it unapologetically turns into a comedy. As the film opens, we are treated to a group of ninjas fighting but there is something significant about this; it's as if the film is being fast forward on VHS...I got a little nostalgic, I will not lie. While some of the story is already tongue-in-cheek, it just goes all out, and for entertainment purposes you just accept it and ride it out. While the entire cast clearly tries to play this film straight and serious, so much is wrong technically but that is what makes it so funny to watch. To be honest, there isn’t much to do with ninjas, and I was deep down hoping for hundreds of ninjas just showing off their skills and bad acting. And while you do get to see some ninjas, it’s very short lived, but what they do have to offer will leave you content, not full. As the film progresses, we are exposed to random flashbacks which turn into really elaborate and strange sex scenes. I really do feel that the director lost faith in this piece and thought “Hrmm you know this film isn’t going where I want it to so here have a really long and awkward sex scene.” I was literally sitting there laughing because after several minutes there is only so much un-erotic sex scenes I could take seriously. I think I stopped taking those scenes seriously after 10 seconds…maximum. 

The plot itself doesn’t make a lot of sense, for the best of times, but the way I interpreted it was that Tiger was training in the ways of the Martial Arts while trying to prove his manhood on a nightly basis to the prostitutes he had to protect at the brothel. And then all of a sudden there’s several Ninjas that just happen to pop up and really not do much. Which left me wanting more. I found that once the momentum was finally up and running, it would all of a sudden just cut to another scene which completely left of field and left you thinking "What the hell?” In some ways, it did feel like two films were cut together at the best of times. 


The martial arts choreography did start off strong, which initially got me pumped, and yeah I fist pumped, don’t judge me. But you can’t help but get excited that at 2 minutes and 6 seconds, a guy has his eyes gouged out; how’s that for an opening? I think with a lot of the B-grade Asian cinema, you really can’t fault it for its choreography because a lot of these guys all worked together on a number of films. You can definitely see how the director, Joseph Kuo was influenced by the Shaw Bros, as a lot of the sets looked as if they were cast offs from Five Deadly Venoms, and as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But unless you have seen a lot of the Shaw Bros films, it may pass you by and go unnoticed. There was also a mini montage in this film, and straight away I could feel that locked door in my brain -- which consists of all of the movie montages I have seen -- was being unlocked. And that triggered something inside me which made me connect to the film just a little bit, because I felt you could see the side of montages we know and love in American Martial Arts films. 

You want dubbing? Oh, you will get dubbing with this, and it is so hilariously put together. If you listen carefully to the dubbing you will realise the accents change from American to English. Who am I kidding, it’s not exactly subtle. But it’s this kind of silliness in production which spills over into the film and it just creates a hilarious over-layer that you cannot help but thrive over…okay maybe that was just me?

VERDICT
So let's rewind! There's long, awkward sex scenes, fast-forwarding ninjas, eyes gouged out in the first scene, odd but hearty training montages, solid choreography, terrible editing and several stories rolled into one? I can see the effort that was put in for selected parts of the films and I can take that for what it is, because I thoroughly enjoy how bizarre this film is. Isn't that everything you need to enjoy a craptacular night in with your pals? Add a Cherry Coke in there and BAM! you are in for a good night in. 

AVAILABILITY
Amazon...and any bargain bin selling VHS leftover from 1987. 

4.5 / 7


7.28.2014

Reviews on Parade (to Hiatusville) and the GGTMC

While it was announced solely in the Facebook group -- yet another reason why you should absolutely request to join! -- the blog is currently on hiatus so I can recharge. Life has increasingly gotten in the way, as it often does, and things other than underground fights to the death and punching watermelons require my attention. Hard to believe, I know! That doesn’t mean this space will disappear any time soon, nor does it mean I’ll stop watching these kinds of movies. However, it may mean that ongoing coverage takes on different and less frequent forms than rambling 1200-word critical essays and cartoonish screen-caps of mulleted dudes mean-mugging.

Case in point, here’s what is hopefully the first of several “highlight reel” videos from what I’ve unofficially dubbed the “Burnt Ends” series. This installment is for the 1991 Gary Daniels masterpiece, American Streetfighter, or as it’s known overseas, Samurai Sword Fight in a Funeral Parlor. Please feel free to leave comments on this (positive or negative, as always) here or on YouTube.



PLUS! On the most recent episode of the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast, I joined Large William and the Samurai to discuss the flaming skeletons and flying chickens of 1984’s Furious, and the proper tuck game and overt racism of 1992’s College Kickboxers. Click here to hear us discuss disproportionate stuntman screams, the futile nature of sex in hot tubs, and 1980s copyright law, among other topics.

To conclude, I just wanted to let the reader-only crowd know what was up. Reviews may be quiet for a little while as I get life sorted out, but they’re not gone. Please consider joining the Facebook group for more regular (and lively) activity and discussion. Be kind to animals and the elderly. Eat more bananas.

6.14.2014

Martial Law (1990)

PLOT: When he discovers that his younger brother has been stealing cars for a local crime kingpin, a cop is forced to choose between his family and his badge. Though it goes unmentioned, we can assume option C includes fleeing to Canada to enjoy a lifetime of free health care and maple syrup.

Director: Steve Cohen
Writer: Richard Brandes
Cast: Chad McQueen, Cynthia Rothrock, David Carradine, Andy McCutcheon, Philip Tan, Vincent Craig Dupree, Tony Longo, John Fujioka, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, James Lew, Jeff Pruitt


PLOT THICKENER
I appreciate it when filmmakers go the extra yard to subvert genre conventions. The “reluctant partners” trope rears its head in 1990’s Martial Law, but director Steve Cohen has an ace up his sleeve. Not only are the partners at the center of this story willing to pair up professionally as police officers, but they’re also romantically involved and -- OH BY THE WAY -- martial artists. This comes from the widely held belief that the couples that stay together, play together, but also work with each other, and frequently bang each other. My feeling is that given the evolving cultural climate, it’s only a matter of time before we see a new genre of “more-than-buddies” cop movies. I’m all for future iterations of Riggs and Murtaugh living freely and openly.


Sean Thompson (McQueen) is a good cop. He makes a convincing pizza delivery man during hostage situations. He shakes down Chinatown gangsters with ease, and he can back-fist and sidekick with the best of them. But beneath that skill and toughness, there lies a palpable sadness. In the wake of his parents’ premature deaths, he has struggled to maintain a relationship with his younger brother, Michael (McCutcheon). It may have something to do with his complete inability to communicate, about which his girlfriend and fellow officer, Billie Blake (Rothrock), frequently complains. In any case, the raging teen has begun to go astray.

Michael now works for a crime lord named Rhodes (Carradine) who deals in expensive stolen cars, among other lucrative business pursuits. Of course, no gang is complete without hired muscle. Martial arts expert Wu Han (Tan) and lumbering oaf, Booker (Longo) flank Rhodes as his trusted advisers, and throw their weight around with aplomb. Michael’s skills as a carjacker are just fine and dandy, but as Rhodes points out, his burgeoning martial arts expertise cemented his made man status. This film will make you long for the cinematic underworld where employability is not dictated by one’s penchant for loyalty, ability to multitask, or skills in resource coordination, but instead by one’s skills in the dojo.


As Rhodes and his goons continue their violent and illegal business practices, from which dead bodies are just one biproduct, the cops take notice. With Michael caught between two roles -- a carjacker trying to make a good impression on his new boss, and the estranged brother of an emotionally distant cop -- tragedy seems a likely outcome. Can the elder Thompson bring his brother back from the dark side? What will Rhodes do if he discovers that his golden boy has a cop for a brother? Is it humanly possible to stage a nunchucks fight in an office with a drop ceiling?


It was only while conducting background research in conjunction with this review that I discovered that not only was McQueen trained by Chuck Norris, but he was a member of Johnny’s Cobra Kai homeboys in the original Karate Kid. Most of ya’ll are going, “YEAH NO KIDDING K-BREZ,” which is the new nickname I gave to myself just now. I would say this qualifies as another example of why my “martial arts b-movie reviewer on the Internet” card should be revoked but it’s not my fault. The minimum qualifications are really archaic: all you need is a 486 computer and the ability to tell the difference between Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Don Cheadle or Owen Wilson. In any case, on both the acting and fighting fronts, McQueen is pretty good, and I’m surprised he didn’t end up doing more films like this (he was replaced in the sequel by Jeff Wincott).


This was a cliched story with a few decent performances from Carradine, McQueen, and Vincent Craig Dupree as a paranoid gang member, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the fight scenes. Rothrock expectedly brings the thunder, but as an added bonus she gets a short fight with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in a Stateside collision of 1980s Hong Kong action gweilo icons! Tan is a great athlete and an eminently watchable martial artist, and Carradine is, well… Carradine is a good actor. The stunt performers sell everything, the strike combinations are swift and logical, and there’s enough cardboard boxes to go around for all of us to pack up and move to Delaware. (Not necessarily recommended).

VERDICT
Solid execution is the cackling arch-nemesis of low expectations, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by the level of competency across the board. The performances were adequate for this type of film, the fights had good energy, and Cohen sidestepped a lot of the fatal flaws that often dog this subgenre. Sure, I could have used a bit more fighting with better sound effects. Maybe the secondary characters could have been more distinctive. More Rothrock would have been great (but when is that not the case?) Rather than downgrade Martial Law for quantities, however, I’ll give it credit for what’s on screen: a highly serviceable crime kickfighter.

AVAILABILITY
There are definitely all region PAL discs floating around, but your best bet might be a used VHS copy.

4 / 7

5.05.2014

Karate Cops (1988)

PLOT: Two Las Vegas cops -- one a straight-laced teetotaler, the other a rule-breaking redneck -- are assigned to solve a gang murder. Troy Donahue plays the mayor… Ronnie Lott makes a cameo... it was released in 1988. Um, I think that’s about it.

Director: George Chung
Writer: George Chung
Cast: George Chung, Chuck Jeffreys, Stan Wertlieb, Hidy Ochiai, Troy Donahue, Elizabeth Frieje







PLOT THICKENER
Take a good, long look at the VHS cover for Karate Cops, or as it was known in Spain, LAS VEGAS, 2 SUPERPOLICIAS (2 SUPERCOPS for you gringos). Not too long, though! The 1988 film’s original title of Hawkeye -- a titular nod to the character played by George Chung -- didn’t provide an adequate amount of deference to the character played by Chuck Jeffreys, so they went with something more encompassing and less likely to be confused for a member of Marvel’s Avengers. A lot of folks have noted that Chuck Jeffreys’s cadence and line delivery bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Eddie Murphy. No one would confuse the two in a visual comparison though. So who exactly did the Spanish distributors think they were fooling with this video cover? Perhaps the better question is: was the cover artist a racist prick who thought all black males in the 1980s all looked the same? Perhaps the best question is: was this movie any good and was there any nudity? In no particular order, maybe and perhaps.


George Chung plays Alex “Hawk” Hawkamoto, a renegade cop, former non-baseball Texas Ranger, and burgeoning black belt in Las Vegas. After a botched negotiation with a group of bank robbers in which Hawk punches a hostage in order to knock out the captor behind him and then leads a violent shoot-out, his superiors and the mayor (Donahue) are in an uproar. In order to put him back in line, they pair him with Charles Wilson (Jeffreys), who just happens to be the city’s most decorated cop. Eager to create a foundation for a lasting friendship, Hawk makes a horribly racist joke and the pair trades punches. INSTANT BUDS!

The reluctant partners have plenty in common: they have girlfriends, they’re cops, and they’re martial artists who enjoy jogging. The reluctant partners are so different: Wilson doesn’t drink, Hawk hates sushi, Wilson abstains from eating red meat. However, they’re united in the mission to solve the murder of a shady middle-man who fell into some bad company. Was he snuffed out by gang leader Sakura (Ochiai)? Was he set up by mob boss Tony (Wertlieb)? What happens to stolen drug money after the police take custody of it and take their requisite 20% skim?


This is probably the greatest film in the history of cinema that uses Comic Sans font during an opening credit sequence shot on VHS. The first 30 minutes of the film contains a botched drug deal, our hero taking a black belt test to honor his YMCA instructor, a bank heist by a femme fatale and incognito Ronnie Lott, expensive vase shooting, racist jokes that would make Don Rickles blush, and a random hostage punching (by the hero). Amazing stuff, but perhaps this pace was unsustainable. Maybe Chung ran out of ideas. Maybe my expectations for “lost” genre gems are unrealistic following the renaissance brought about by movies like Miami Connection. Whatever the reason, the film grinds to a halt as the reluctant partners then attempt to detangle the loose threads of a half-baked police procedural plot. I say “attempt” because I’m still not sure what happened or why characters were doing what they were doing. I do know, however, that the main characters didn’t do nearly enough of what they should have been doing: fighting.


Jeffreys and Chung get to show their action chops in a few isolated scenes, but they’re few and far between. A shoot-out on the Las Vegas strip feels like too little, too late. There’s not really any stand-out stunt work of which to speak, though some of the gun-play is marked by healthy squib usage. I came away feeling really underwhelmed by the action in this action movie, and part of the blame lies with Chung as a director, and Frank Harris as the director of photography. The over-emphasis on comedic and dramatic elements may have been the byproduct of Chung having too many production roles, a lack of willing stunt people, or even Chung using this film as a showcase for his acting skills instead of his action skills. However, what action is on the screen doesn’t flow that well and looks washed out, with poor composition from shot to shot. Some may recall that Harris collaborated with Leo Fong on at least two drab action films in the mid-1980s, and went on to squander a stacked cast for the post-apocalyptic Aftershock (1990). Lo and behold, Fong is an executive producer on this very feature! I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here other than Harris and Fong working together screams “bad juju!” like that creepy antique doll whose eyes follow you around the vintage store when you’re digging for Al Green vinyl.

There are very few actors featured on this site who are as decorated in the world of real-life as George Chung. He was a founding member of the vaunted West Coast Demo Team. He’s a five-time world karate champion. He earned a Super Bowl ring as a martial arts trainer for the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. Currently, he serves as Chief Content Officer for Crunchyroll and has served executive functions for several media companies. Any one of us would be lucky enough to have accomplished one of those things in our lifetimes, yet Chung has compiled all of those accolades and more. He has an easygoing charisma here and while he doesn’t carry the weight of the film, I can imagine he’d have an enjoyable wise-cracking presence in an ensemble cast. That said, he has his fair share of awkward emotional moments, so maybe we’ve discovered the one thing he isn’t good at. Take THAT, wildly successful George Chung!


VERDICT
It’s hard to do action and comedy really well. There are plenty of films and franchises that have made the combination seem easy as pie, but executing either genre element well individually is a feat in itself. The comedy in Karate Cops -- both intentional and unintentional varieties -- is given much more run than the action scenes, often to the detriment of the film. That Chung and Jeffreys were in their physical primes makes the low quotient of action scenes all the more puzzling. Add in a clunky plot and you have a recipe for meh, or maybe blah, depending on where you live. Karate Cops is a rare curiosity for those itching for deep cuts from this subgenre and these actors, but ultimately it can’t overcome its narrative shortcomings and low budget.

AVAILABILITY
To my knowledge, this only made it as far as VHS, and it's a pain in the ass to find. Happy hunting!

3 / 7

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