11.13.2017

Force of the Ninja (1988)

PLOT: When the daughter of a Japanese diplomat is kidnapped by a gang of American mercenaries in Arizona, there’s only one man up to the task of infiltrating their compound to rescue her. Unfortunately, he’s busy filming Black Eagle with Jean-Claude Van Damme, so another ninja will have to do.

Director: Emmett Alston
Writers: Douglas Ivan, Dan Ivan
Cast: Douglas Ivan, Patricia Ball, Robert Williams, John Hobson, Lee Thomas, Chester Salisbury, Brook Lynne, Osamu Ozawa


PLOT THICKENER

To begin, let’s get our facts straight about 1988’s Force of the Ninja. It was a low-budget movie that failed to gain American distribution in a saturated direct-to-video landscape in the 1980s. It stars a guy who did stunt work in American Ninja, and he appears in the drinking scene at the beginning of Enter the Ninja. It was directed by the guy who made Demonwarp, one of the craziest WTF low-budget movies I’ve ever seen. It was filmed in Tonto National Forest, a state park in Arizona. It was also filmed in Japan. It features Japanese dialogue without any English subtitles. These are the facts I know about Force of the Ninja, a movie that has some ninjas in it.

Kenji (Ivan) is a practicing ninja at an elite martial arts academy in Japan. As a Japanese-American living in the country as a security agent of the U.S. government, he is afforded the unique opportunity to straddle both cultures. While he’s dedicated to the ancient traditions of his Japanese roots, he also enjoys the bar brawls and lax weapon control laws of America. After Kazuko (Ball), the daughter of a high-ranking Japanese diplomat is kidnapped while hiking Stateside in Arizona, his master (Ozawa) decides that the time has come for Kenji’s training to end. Only a ninja of his caliber is capable of the dangerous search-and-rescue mission that lies ahead.


The kidnappers are a cruel group of mercenary scum, led by the opportunistic Karl Ryan (Williams). They kill Kazuko’s friends when they stumble upon the gang’s arms deal with some Mexican crime lords, and nearly kill her before one-eyed Wells (Salisbury) figures out the significance of her passport. As a relative to political royalty, she’ll fetch a handsome ransom from her parents back home. The gang keeps her hostage at their desert compound, and Karl sends Wells to Japan to meet with their associate, Pretty Boy Wilson (Hunt), to set up a deal.

Kenji arrives in Arizona and immediately pounds the pavement to find Kazuko, befriending a national park guide named Wendy (Lynne) who just so happens to be her college friend and feels terrible guilt for convincing her to come to the wilds of Arizona. She connects him to local sheriff Scott Parker (Thomas) and mere hours later that night, they cross paths with some of Karl’s thugs at the local watering hole during a bar brawl. As we all know, sloppy drunks are terrible at covering their tracks in anything except vomit and Funyuns, and Kenji is able to track them back to camp. Will he complete his mission or will the intense Arizona heat force him to the air conditioned lobby of the nearest Hampton Inn & Suites?


If you ever need evidence that the American film production dollar was better spent in the Philippines than domestically in the 1980s, you need only compare the production values between Alston’s third film, 1985’s Nine Deaths of the Ninja, and this one. The former film takes advantage of the lush natural beauty of Southeast Asia, and features a bigger cast with a more experienced crew. On the other hand, Force of the Ninja is a more minimalist effort with economical production choices as a consequence of a slim budget. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it gives you a sense of what Alston was up against in trying to translate this script for the screen.

Filmmaker Godfrey Ho was known for dressing his actors in every flavor of ninja garb under the sun, from banana yellow to Paisley Park purple to camouflage or simple white. Given his appreciation for the full spectrum of color possibilities and his extensive ninja filmography, it’s a little strange that this American indie film delivers the first Taupe Ninja in cinema history. It’s the only suitable costuming for doing ninja stuff in the arid desert landscape, but it can also be treated as a visual metaphor of how I felt about this film: it’s the cinematic equivalent of biting into a raw, unscrubbed potato.

It’s not offensively bad by any means, and I have genuine appreciation for Alston’s attempt at situating a ninja film in a totally incongruent setting, but it’s not an especially satisfying watch. One of the bigger problems is that while he’s a fine martial artist with a manly moustache, Douglas Ivan lacks the screen presence to carry the film. Say what you will about Sho Kosugi’s acting chops or his command of the English language, but between his martial arts skills, facial expressions, and physical intensity, he had charisma to burn. No one else in this particular cast -- a collection of first-timers and Alston associates -- is able to elevate the material. None of the villains are chewing scenery, and what could have been a decent buddy dynamic between Kenji and Parker is dull and unchanging.


The film earns some points back in the presentation of the action scenes. The climax is well-paced with short bursts of intense, hand-to-hand combat and Kenji stalking the mercenaries and killing them off from long distance, all while trying to blend into the surroundings. Our heroes’ final push towards the compound comprises a pretty sizeable chunk of the third act (15+ minutes) and this allows for the full gamut of ninja weaponry to get some play: shurikens, arrows, smoke bombs, and katanas are deployed to slice and stab enemies to pieces. Added to this mix is the odd choice to stage part of this climax on what looks like a dilapidated film set from a 1960s Western -- complete with saloon doors and breakaway roofing and pillars -- which was a unique and welcomed touch that was probably the result of some happy accident during location scounting. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the “in town” bar fight that gets initiated by Karl’s merry men and thoroughly squashed by Kenji and Parker. In what has to be a cinematic first, the violent offenders are forced to pay cash to the bar owner for property damages in a protracted on-screen shaming. There’s even a collection hat!

VERDICT

While Force of the Ninja is unlikely to blow your hair back or provide additional proof of Alston’s neglected cinematic genius (e.g., Demonwarp!), damn -- have you looked around the low-budget ninja movie landscape? This ain’t prime Sho-time, but it doesn’t have to be amazing either. It’s a suitable ninja film in a totally weird and unexpected location with fighting, gunfire, and ninja gadgets. Maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age, but this is fine.

AVAILABILITY

VHS, YouTube or grey market only.

3 / 7

10.20.2017

Raw Force (1982)

PLOT: A group of martial artists from a California karate club board a cruise ship destined for Warrior’s Island, a remote stomping ground for undead martial artists. Will they make it to their destination or be forced back to port on account of a norovirus outbreak?

Director: Edward D. Murphy
Writer: Edward D. Murphy
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, John Dresden, Jillian Kessner, Rey Malonzo, Ralph Lombardi, Mark Tanous, John Locke, Hope Holiday, Carl Anthony, Jennifer Holmes



PLOT THICKENER

The martial-arts-horror film is a difficult cinematic feat to pull off convincingly. The action needs to be done well enough to satisfy the chopsocky crowd, but the horror needs to have the right set-up and scares. That’s not always the most natural fit. Imagine, then, also trying to squeeze in the silly and salacious antics of a sex comedy, all set aboard a cruise ship. On paper, this shouldn’t work! On screen, it sometimes doesn’t! On a toasted bagel, it’s delicious! To hell with our pre-conceived notions, though, because filmmaker Edward D. Murphy had a vision for 1982’s Raw Force (a.k.a. Kung Fu Cannibals) that I can only assume was informed by the consumption of late-night spaghetti, Love Boat re-runs, and psychedelic drugs (in reverse order). Let’s dig in.


On an island somewhere in the South Pacific, the souls of disgraced martial artists throughout history -- some are samurai, others are Shaolin monks -- are doomed to an eternity of fantastic weather and drinks served out of a coconut. A group of evil monks living on the island (led by Filipino acting legend Vic Diaz) has determined through trial and error that by sacrificing females and eating their flesh, they can actually conjure up the island’s undead and deploy them to do their bidding. (Eating fish just made the undead twitch slightly and go back to sleep) . But while the island has plenty of undead martial artists and pure jade, it completely lacks women. An opportunistic German with a Hitlery moustache named Speer (Lombardi) employs a hippie named Cooper (Tanous) and his pals to kidnap sex workers on the mainland and fly them to the island in exchange for the monks’ precious jade. If you ever forget how the laws of supply and demand work, this is a good example to mention in your Economics class.

Outsiders have dubbed this spooky, isolated corner of the world, “Warrior’s Island,” and a niche tourism industry has sprung up around it. Ship owner Hazel Buck (Holiday) and her ship captain, Harry Dodds (Mitchell) operate a leisure cruise liner for which Warrior’s Island is a port of call on the voyage. The latest round of curious tourists includes a few handsome dudes from the Burbank karate club, Mike O’Malley (Binney), John Taylor (Dresden), and Gary Schwartz (Locke). Joining them aboard are the usual tourists, like married couple Ann and Lloyd Davis (played by Holmes and Anthony, respectively), and a couple of secretly great fighters -- Los Angeles SWAT team bad-ass, Cookie Winchell (Kesner), and a friendly guy named Chin (Malonzo).


Dodds steers the ship while squabbling with Hazel, the booze flows without pause, people pair off for random sexual escapades, husbands step out on their wives for unfaithful excursions, and everyone is having a grand old time. But when a couple of the passengers encounter Speer and Cooper on the mainland during one of the kidnapping operations, all hell breaks loose. The baddies follow them back to the ship with reinforcements and board the ship with bad intentions that have nothing to do with abuse of the buffet service. Will the cruise goers be able to fend off these party crashers? Will our heroic tourists make it to Warrior’s Island to take in the sights? Better yet, will the boat run out of ice or rum?


If you like your cinema weird and wild with a musty grindhouse stank, this is the flick of your dreams. Despite trying to stamp this flick with so many hallmarks of the exploitation cinema of the day, and doing none of it especially well, Murphy still manages to wrangle all the elements together for an enjoyable movie. It’s flawed but fun! Raw Force fell right in the middle of Cameron Mitchell’s prime check-cashing run (some will say it lasted a couple decades) but he’s motivated to steal scenes and has good chemistry with Hope Holiday, his then-girlfriend. The ship’s cast of characters are a good mix, but I can’t lie: I couldn’t tell the Burbank karate bros from each other at all, making the presence of Kesner and Malonzo -- and their high usage rates in the fight scenes -- all the more essential. The villains are mostly good. The monks are creepy, cackling, and lecherous. Speer is a terrific shit-bag villain. The weak link in the coalition, believe it or not, might actually be the army of undead martial artists. They have a decent look (dirty with the blue hue of the Dawn of the Dead zombies) but they turn out to be rather terrible and unthreatening fighters.


Before “fight choreographer” became a standard crew credit in action films, there was the catch-all “stunt coordinator” position, occupied here by Mike Stone. (Most will remember him as “Tojo Ken” in American Ninja 2; he did fight choreography for four of the films in that franchise). Outside of Rey Malonzo, I’m not sure how many members of the Raw Force cast were serious martial artists before they got to this film set, but the fight scenes are enjoyable for what they are -- energetic without being especially technical. Case in point is the cramped cabin fight between a thug wearing a helmet with a swastika while throwing around gasoline -- let's call him Gas Nazi -- and an unusually vociferous guy who will just not stay down no matter how beaten up he gets. His persistence becomes almost comical as he screams and kicks his way through the bathroom door behind which Gas Nazi is hiding out, and stuffs his head into a toilet. Did I mention there’s a nude woman strapped to the bed the entire time this fight takes place? Again, this is a strange movie.

VERDICT

I’ve made no secret about my admiration for the kitchen-sink film, that rare work of cinema that throws everything at the problem of filling a solid 80-90 minutes of screen time -- planning, money, and logic be damned. I'll even admit I have a tendency to overrate them, but I love what I love. Raw Force is yet another example of that wacky witch’s brew previously seen in films like Devil’s Express, Furious, and Demon Master, and it has just enough spooky stuff for you chopsocky heads looking to get that seasonal fix. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

Raw Force is streaming on Amazon Prime with a Shudder subscription, but do yourself a favor and pick up the Bluray from Vinegar Syndrome.

4 / 7

10.05.2017

Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)

PLOT: A young man possessed by weaponized alien armor known as the Guyver travels to a mysterious archaeological dig site that may hold the key to explaining its origins. It may also hold around 800 million barrels of salted caramel, a candy lover’s dream.

Director: Steve Wang
Writers: Steve Wang, Nathan Long, Yoshiki Takaya
Cast: David Hayter, Kathy Christopherson, Christopher Michael, Bruno Patrick





PLOT THICKENER

You know that old saying about how “clothes make the person?” Somewhat true! Certain articles of clothing can make you feel cool and confident. Yet other outfits will make you feel like a bargain-bin Mayor McCheese on a casual Friday. Somewhere between these two ends of the fashion spectrum is the sort of clothing that can make you feel like you can jump really high, perform lethal martial arts moves, and shoot lasers out of your chest. But what if this clothing -- hell, let’s call it armor -- couldn’t be removed at all? What if it was actually part of your body and you were merely hosting it? This is the premise of Bio-Booster Armor Guyver, a Japanese manga series from the 1980s and 90s that was adapted for the American film screen twice by filmmaker Steve Wang: first in 1991 under the title, The Guyver, and again just three years later as Guyver: Dark Hero.


Sean Barker (Hayter) keeps waking up violently in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. Night terrors? Consuming sugar too close to bedtime? Yeah, close. Some time has passed since the Guyver, an alien bio-armor, took over his body. It has a mind of its own and activates at random, turning Sean into a lethal fighting machine. Sure -- it was useful when he was battling the Cronos Corporation, a nefarious group trying to locate the Guyver for its own evil means, but now it’s just cramping his style. On the one hand, it lets him fight large criminal enterprises with relative ease, but on the other hand, he can’t go to the grocery store to shop for soup ingredients without worrying about the Guyver taking control of his faculties and blasting the produce section to a pulpy mess.

While watching a local news story about some mysterious killings near a covert dig site, Sean notices footage of cave paintings that correlate to the notebook sketches he’s been compulsively doodling in his waking hours. He takes a taxi to a general store -- like most of us did before Google Maps -- seeking help to identify a non-specific location he’s curious to visit. Once there, he meets Cori Edwards (Christopherson) a researcher buying a case of cheap beer for her archaeological dig team. Initially reluctant because of potential stranger danger, she finally agrees to take him there based on the intrigue of his notebook sketches. She fibs to the dig organizers on his behalf and Sean is suddenly lending a hand in their efforts.


In time, he begins to discover the objectives for the dig, the shadowy sources of its financing, and the various intentions of some of the so-called “researchers” on the project. The mysterious killings, previously attributed to wildlife or even a werewolf, may be the work of Zoanoids, the monstrous shape-shifting battle forms that comprise the Cronos Corporation. Will Sean find the source behind the Guyver? Can he defeat Cronos and the Zoanoids and rid himself of the Guyver once and for all? And will the persistent lower back pain he experiences after consecutive hours of shoveling respond better to a heated pad or deep tissue massage? Maybe a little of both?

The last few Octobers, I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on movies that feature some sort of monsters, spooky elements, and schlocky gore. Prior to watching it, I had no idea that Guyver: Dark Hero would satisfy all these criteria. While I’ve never seen the first one -- by all indications, this is the stronger of the two efforts -- the sequel stands on its own as an enjoyable romp that requires little pretext or understanding of the source material. At its core, this is a film about a man who is unable to control his body and the misdeeds that result from its strange powers. Anyone who has eaten at Chipotle can probably relate.

The creature design of the various Zoanoids might seem familiar to those viewers who have watched any number of Kamen Rider or Power Rangers episodes, but what threw me for a loop was the amount of blood and gore during the fight scenes. It was a minor but effective touch that upped the shlock factor and raised the stakes within the story (who wants to see a vanquished enemy dissolve out of a composite shot?!) The spectacle of violence may even make you disregard the fact that the action scenes are unevenly distributed and the fight choreography is a bit inconsistent.


The fight scenes are quite good for the most part, even with the obvious performative restrictions of bulky costuming. Fight choreographer Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunt Team certainly deserve credit for that. There’s some goofy stuff -- surprise wrestling moves, a plodding splash-fight in the water, and Guyver killing an enemy with his random laser titties -- but all of it is forgivable in the context of this cinematic universe. What can’t be ignored is staging your climactic fight in a cave with a bunch of stalagmites and stalactites and not incorporating them into the choreography at all. Friggin’ Cliffhanger got it -- why didn’t this film?

Even with all the fun stuff Wang puts in the mix, the film’s excessive run-time -- over two hours -- was nearly a deal-breaker. It drags quite badly in spots and the narrative gets bogged down by attempts to translate what I assume were frequent panels of Sean’s internal monologue strewn throughout the series. It’s chatty to a fault and the script tries to juggle too many secondary plot points and character motivations.  Fans of the original manga series or the initial anime adaptations might appreciate it, but I think viewers approaching the film without that context may risk becoming disengaged. There’s a better film somewhere in here if the filmmakers had left around 20 minutes of narrative fat on the cutting room floor.

VERDICT

If, like me, your introduction to the pairing of Sakamoto and Wang was the non-Gosling Drive (1997) your expectations might have been set artificially high, but the cool stunt shit is here along with plenty of wacky visual touches. The acting performances are serviceable but you’re watching this movie for dudes fighting in elaborate creature suits. They’re aren’t many American tokusatsu (“monster”) films out there, even fewer good ones, and Guyver: Dark Hero might be the best.

AVAILABILITY





3.5 / 7



8.29.2017

Macho Man (1985)

PLOT: A boxer and a karate champion join forces to destroy a gang of heroin dealers in Nuremberg. Fortunately for the local tourism board, they fight only in bars and streets and away from the Schöner Brunnen and the Frauenkirche.

Director: Alexander Titus Benda
Writer: Alexander Titus Benda
Cast: Rene Weller, Peter Althof, Bea Fiedler, Jacqueline Elber, Michael Messing






PLOT THICKENER

At least a decade before organized mixed martial arts provided a platform to answer questions such as “who would win in a fight between a kickboxer and a really overweight sumo wrestler?” a somewhat obscure 1985 film from West Germany sought to provide clarity to a similar proposition, with a slight sartorial spin. (“Who would win in a fight: a guy with moustache in a fur-collar leather jacket, or a tall dude with a mullet in leather pants and a white scarf?”) Macho Man puts real-life boxer, Rene Weller, and karate expert, Peter Althof, in a tiny wardrobe closet and shakes it vigorously to see if they’ll fight. They do, but not in the way you’d expect and not necessarily against each other! This is one of Germany’s only contributions to the golden age of action b-movies; we’re in "tiefschnitt" territory, you might say. Or is it schwacher hintern territory? I always mix those up.


I’ll begin by answering two questions right off the bat that I know most of you are asking. No -- this movie has nothing to do with legendary pro wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage or the Village People song of the same name. And no -- this boxing actor is of no relation to the dude who played RoboCop. Sorry to be so negative, but facts are facts (unless they’re alternative facts)!

The streets of Nuremberg, Germany are being flooded with heroin by a dangerous drug gang headed up by a dude who looks like a sleazy, coked out version of John Ritter. One of his main dealers, Tony, is after a young woman named Sandra (Fiedler) because she had the audacity to help one of her best friends (e.g., Tony’s customer) to get clean and sober. One night, as Tony and his thugs assault Sandra and try to forcibly inject her with heroin on a poorly lit street, a local boxer named Dany Wagner (Weller) just happens to be driving home from practice and sees the fracas. He pummels the thugs and makes the save, but he also makes a mortal enemy in Tony and the other dealers. During the drive to her home, Dany invites Sandra on a date.


Shortly thereafter, Dany goes to a local bank and his path crosses with Andreas (Althof), a local karate school instructor making a routine deposit of dojo funds. The two fighters jointly thwart an attempted bank robbery by two goons (the getaway driver is beaten and captured by Andreas’s karate comrade, Markus, played by Michael Messing). And wouldn’t you know it: Sanda just so happens to work at the office of a medical doctor who treats a number of area athletes, including Andreas himself!


The blonde karate master initially sets his romantic sights on Sandra -- they attend a boxing card together where Dany is the headliner, unbeknownst to them -- and the story teases a love triangle. That is, until first-dan karate student, Lisa (Elber) flies into town on her private jet in search of private lessons, and begins to steal Andreas’s gaze and heart. The destiny of all four characters converge on a fateful night at the local disco, where Dany and Sandra are grinding out a glittery, denim-laden dance of seduction. Lisa and Andreas arrive with his karate posse in tow, and sparks of jealousy fly between the two men who are macho. (Is it jealousy over Sandra? Or jealousy over Dany’s amazing denim jump-suit? Inquiring minds gotta know). Recognizing the possibilities, Lisa goads Andreas into challenging Dany to the ultimate style vs. style match.

Will the two random fighters make good on following through with the fight of the decade? Or will the looming threat of the heroin gang derail those plans and get everyone hooked on China white? And what is Benda trying to say about the “macho man” archetype as a manifestation of toxic masculinity and the male gender as it relates to violence and sex? Ha, just kidding. Nothing much.


Throughout the 1980s and 90s, plenty of b-movie production houses formalized the practice of bringing seasoned competitive fighters into the filmmaking game as leading actors; this extended overseas as well. When this film was released, Weller was an accomplished professional boxer on the European scene but would only do one more film after this during his initial foray into movies (more on that in a minute). As a former heating engineer, jeweler, and goldsmith (and wow! … cocaine dealer?) we’ll have to assume his many varied interests were simply too consuming for a full-time career in acting.

In 1991, a half-decade after Macho Man was released, a German court forced the filmmakers to remove all of Weller’s sex scenes with Bea Fiedler from the film, per his request. (Surprising to see a professional boxer get beat to the punch by such a significant margin, but I digress). We’ll never know the extent to which this experience may have soured him on movies, but apparently not so much that he could resist the urge to come back for Macho Man 2, which is a real, actual thing being crowdfunded and made in 2017 for reasons I can’t understand (the website is in German and I literally can’t read it). On my big list of analogies I never expected to make, “Macho Man is to Germany as Samurai Cop is to America” was very close to the top.


Between the karate sparring, board (and rock!) breaking, boxing bouts, and the rumbles between our heroes and the various villains, the fighting scenes in this film are a mixed bag. The karate and boxing exhibitions, while broadly impressive on an athletic level and well integrated into the montages, aren’t likely to move the needle for most fight film fans. (How many close-up shots of boxing footwork are too many? This film doesn’t care!)

Where Macho Man really hits, however, is with its approach to street fights and bar brawls (one is preceded by a heroic watch synchronization scene). Consciously or not, Benda takes a few pages from the 1980s Filipino and Indonesia action movie playbook and made these fights dirty, smashy, and trashy. Breakaway furniture, strikes to the balls, and flailing strikes are just some of the tricks the filmmakers deploy to keep things chaotic. Throw in flowing scarves, crisp leather, and macho shit-talking in the German language, and the result is a unique and enjoyable blueprint that can be continually used without getting stale. Truly wunderbar!

VERDICT

If anyone ever doubts the pervasive influence of machismo-laden 1980s American action film at a global scale, one need look no further than Macho Man for evidence. The various fashions of the era -- the haircuts, the facial hair, the clothing -- mark it as an artifact of not just a particular time, but also a particular place. The Bavarian flavor here is extra funky, and almost entirely unique to the genre (the 1979 West German film Roots of Evil preceded it by a good six years). Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

For our pals in Europe, pick up the PAL DVD! For everybody else, dig in on YouTube.

4 / 7

6.12.2017

Manhattan Chase (2000)

PLOT: A former hitman for a drug gang is recently released from prison, and must put his life together, raise his estranged son, and help a victim of drug violence evade his former cohorts. Can he find an apartment in the Five Boroughs for less than $1200 a month so he has decent place to sleep in between all this stuff?

Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Lisa Cory
Cast: Loren Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock, Steve Tartalia, Nicol Zanzarella, Roberto Gutierrez, Robin Berry, Ron Van Clief


 

PLOT THICKENER

As many New York City visitors can attest, walking its streets can feel like walking through the set of a movie. From Juice and West Side Story to Mean Streets and Annie Hall, some of the greatest films in the history of cinema were filmed in New York City, the biggest city in the world (if you ignore the rest of the world). Countless critics have astutely pointed out that the Big Apple itself often serves as a character in the films in which it appears, and in no film is that more apparent than 2000’s Manhattan Chase, where NYC plays an innocent urban landscape terrorized by a low budget Godfrey Ho film production.

Loren Avedon plays Jason Reed, a former drug gang hitman who gets released from prison after serving a six-year sentence for attempted murder. He’s not about that life anymore, though, and he attempts to leave behind his checkered past so he can raise his estranged son, Tommy (Berry). But only *after* having his former gang cohort, Keith (Tartalia), give him a lift home from prison. Because who’s keeping track, amirite? Keith mocks Jason for his likely employment options with his criminal record (e.g., K-Mart), and his continued refusal to return to the gang fold. Part of raising his son will require some semblance of financial stability, and in that regard, Jason is entering an uncertain future rife with risk (and either a bike messenger gig or dressing up as a knock-off Batman in Times Square).


Jason’s attempted reconciliation with Tommy is strained, at best (as is the dramatic scene that depicts it). Despite his private wishes to have his father in his life -- which the audience learns from his telepathic monologue with the wish-granting sea gulls of Coney Island -- Tommy offers only a cold shoulder upon his dad’s return. Had Jason simply noted the current year, he could have avoided at least one major misstep. Gifting your child with a decade-old handheld gaming device like the original Gameboy is not usually the best method to getting back into the good graces of a surly kid. Just last year I got my 11-year-old cousin a game for the PS3 and he tried to gut me with a cake cutter. Kids grow up so fast!


As fate would have it, circumstances beyond Jason’s control add another roadblock to his attempt at responsible parenting. After her wicked stepfather’s stash of heroin goes missing, Jennifer (Zanzarella) escapes her home after the rest of her family is gunned down in a brutal drug-killing led by Keith. During her desperate sprint from the killers -- they want their drugs back, naturally -- she ends up on the hood of Jason’s moving vehicle (!) and is driven to safety. Jason is hesitant to help her after that point, but Tommy convinces him otherwise, and they find refuge at the apartment of Victor (Gutierrez), Jason’s old prison buddy. Let’s recap: ex-convicts, the lone survivor of a drug hit, a gang in hot pursuit, and an 11-year-old? This should end fine.

To complicate matters, Jason’s ex and Tommy’s mother, Brenda (Sweeney), is back in town after sobering up in California. After running into her cop sister, Nancy (Rothrock), during a purse snatching (don’t ask) we get a huge lunch-time exposition scene with all of the gory details. Did I mention that Nancy was the cop who arrested Jason during an attempted hit six years ago and put him in prison? I didn’t? I must have been distracted by all of these shiny, wild coincidences!


Following Undefeatable and Honor and Glory, Manhattan Chase was the third and final film in an unofficial trilogy of late-cycle Godfrey Ho films that were: a) filmed in the U.S.; b) featured mostly American casts; and c) strangely coherent with no traces of Ho’s trademark cut-and-paste technique. Of the three, this might be the most violent and nihilistic among them, and given that Undefeatable featured a serial-killing kung fu rapist, that’s saying something. The drug violence throughout the movie is quite grisly, and the climax contains a character death that may legitimately surprise viewers.

All that said, the film suffers from the absence of a colorful and equally unlikable main heavy. Tartalia as the gang lackey, Keith, is the closest thing to a real villain, and he has the necessary fighting chops to gel with both Avedon and Rothrock (though he only fights with the former). However, the character lacks the over-the-top qualities of Stingray from Undefeatable, the pompous presence of Jason Slade from Honor and Glory, and the sustained screen-time and narrative focus of either character. Tartalia made a career playing the evil gwailo, so I’m not totally sure why he didn’t get top baddie billing here. He does have a protracted and curiously graphic and out-of-place sex scene, though, so maybe it was in his contract?


The fights are actually pretty good -- quickly paced with good striking and blocking combinations -- and it’s always cool to see Hong Kong action choreography to go along with some familiar American faces with experience. Avedon runs with that ball for most of the film, and Rothrock’s fight scenes are unfortunately minimal. The pair of NRNS2 alumni is kept largely separated for the majority of the film, which feels like a major missed opportunity (though not as egregious as Ron Van Clief’s 120-second appearance as a mini-van kidnapper).

VERDICT

Manhattan Chase is not a “good” movie in the traditional sense, but I think there’s enough happening here to keep you -- rabid and unpretentious b-movie chopsocky fan -- engaged throughout the run-time: upbeat fight scenes, quirky dialogue, a sincere Loren Avedon performance, and enough squibs to fill a bucket typically used to hold acorns. It’s a shockingly coherent capstone to a unique filmmaking career.

AVAILABILITY

Streaming on Amazon Prime.,YouTube.

3 / 7

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