12.29.2017

Drive (1997)

PLOT: A Chinese corporation implants a man with a synthetic “bio-engine” that gives him enhanced reaction time, speed, and fighting ability. When he flees to California, the group scrambles to prevent him from delivering the device to a competitor. This is why it’s important to require your cyborg prototypes to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Director: Steve Wang
Writer: Scott Phillips
Cast: Mark Dacascos, Kadeem Hardison, John Pyper-Ferguson, Brittany Murphy, Tracey Walter, James Shigeta, Masaya Kato, Ron Yuan, David Hayter


PLOT THICKENER

In a 2010 article for Wired, comedian Patton Oswalt articulated the idea, “Everything that ever was, available forever” (ETEWAF) as a way of framing geek culture in the era of high-speed Internet and on-demand content. In some ways, this idea also extends to our current film geek landscape, where dozens of boutique genre film distribution labels are dedicated to the high-resolution restoration of obscure films that were only ever released to the VHS rental market (if that!) The horror and exploitation genres have been the primary beneficiaries of this technological wave, resulting in the mass availability of films that few saw during their initial home video runs. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cult action films have been orphaned as undeserving of this same glossy treatment. That said, if I were to start my own prestige action movie label tomorrow, and I was forced to pick one movie as the flagship release, it would be Steve Wang’s 1997 film, Drive.


Toby Wong (Dacascos) is a walking, talking science experiment, implanted by the nefarious Leung Corporation with an experimental “turbo drive” device that gives him borderline superhuman physical abilities. When things go sideways, Wong flees to the American West Coast, hoping to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles to a more benevolent tech company that will uninstall the device and pay him a hefty sum of money for the technological advances that it yields. Unfortunately, Leung Corporation’s head honcho, Mr. Lau (Shigeta) has outsourced the apprehension of Wong (the “object”) to a group of violent and savvy American mercenaries led by Vic Madison (Pyper-Ferguson) and Hedgehog (Walter), and they’re hot on Wong’s trail.

Mere moments after pulling up a stool at a Bay Area bar to drink some five-hop hipster brew, Toby is forced to fight and flee again, this time with the help (however coerced) of a struggling and divorced songwriter, Malik Brody (Hardison) and his 1973 Dodge Challenger. After Toby shares the reasons for his actions and offers Malik half of his money once they get to L.A., the pair joins together for a high-paced chase from a dangerous group of men. Will they make it to Los Angeles in one piece? Can they trust each other, let alone the people they meet along the way? And is it elephant seal mating season at this time of year? Because I’ve heard there are some good stops along the Pacific Coast Highway to watch them on the beach.


THIS MOVIE IS INSANE. I’ve been banging this drum for a long time, and I haven’t seen everything, but Drive has the best fight choreography of any American action b-movie I’ve ever seen. You can certainly make arguments for both of the Undisputed sequels, a few other Scott Adkins movies, or perhaps 2008’s Broken Path (directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who did choreography in this film), but for me, this is still tops. The differences in environment, the use of weapons (e.g., guns, “stun rods,” boots, and even dirtbikes), and the consideration of impediments (e.g., Toby handcuffed to Malik), are all deployed logically and effectively. The fight scenes scale well, they’re shot and edited competently, and they escalate appropriately toward a truly bonkers climax where Toby fights a more advanced model of himself (Kato) in an Apollo-themed night club. The filmmakers, comprised of a Taiwan-born American director and an action team of primarily Japanese and American performers, managed to approximate the look and feel of classic Hong Kong fight choreography (specifically, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) during just a six-week production schedule. Is it *as good* as the best from Hong Kong’s golden era? No, but it’s in the conversation. That alone is a major feat for a low-budget direct-to-video action film made in the States.

As good as the fight scenes are, you have to also consider what’s happening during the downtime. The plot is silly but fairly simple, with elements of a road movie, a reluctant partner buddy-cop dynamic, and the man-as-machine territory Wang previously explored with the Guyver films. Hardison and Dacascos forge an easygoing chemistry together over the course of the film; the early bits feel a little forced but Hardison’s light demeanor makes their conversations interesting and at the mid-way point, they started to play better off each other. Their counterparts on the other side of the moral spectrum, John Pyper-Ferguson and Tracey Walter, have a more consistent and natural vibe, along with quirkier character ticks. Walter’s Hedgehog is into bad American television programming (e.g., Walter the Einstein Frog, more on that here) and a junk food intake bemoaned by his partner, Madison. In creating the look for his country-fried hitman, Pyper-Ferguson seems to be channeling equal parts Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff and Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula with his bolo ties, tinted glasses, and manicured facial hair. It’s an odd, entertaining performance and he delivers some of the best lines of dialogue in the film (on Toby, he remarks that “the son of a bitch could eat flour and shit cupcakes.”)


Brittany Murphy’s performance as the flaky, motel heir, Deliverance Bodine is alternately grating and colorful. At times, she lays on the crazy vibe too thick, and combined with her exposition-laden dialogue, it makes the character feel one-dimensional. (We’ve all met people who come on too strong too quickly, so it’s still believable). It’s only through Deliverance’s continuing interactions with Malik and Toby that we see Murphy peel away the additional layers -- she knows a ton about cars and handles automatic weapons with the glee of a kid in a water balloon fight -- and by the end of the trio’s time together, I was actually looking forward to more. I may be alone on that, and I’m fine with it. 

In terms of overall performance, Dacascos may be the biggest revelation of them all. As the action star and focal point of some fast and complex fight choreography, he’s already carrying a heavy load. He surprised me with his ability to handle comedy, though, from his timely facial expressions to a bizarre singing scene that precedes the climax. Very few action stars have the will and self-awareness to try some of that stuff, let alone make it work. This sort of rare and multi-faceted performance will only reinforce the notion that Dacascos should have been a much, much bigger star. (Iron Chef America ain't a bad place to unwind, I suppose.)

If there’s one big critique I have of this film, it’s the pacing and padding. The version of the film I watched was the 117-minute director’s cut. That’s a bit long for this sort of movie, and you really notice the length during several scenes with expository dialogue that don’t move the story forward. According to one of the special features on the disc, Dacascos’s singing scene at the Apollo 14 Club -- he serenades Malik with a song about Malik’s own dysfunctional romantic relationship with his ex-wife -- was only supposed to show three verses. With this version of the film, we get the whole shebang, and while it’s kinda funny and a great example of Dacascos’s charisma, it’s endemic of the sort of bloat that occasionally dogs the movie. Because the action scenes are so frequent and so good, this film gets away with it, but a lesser action film might not. Similar to Guyver: Dark Hero, it seems that Wang either fell in love with too much of the footage, or couldn’t determine how to streamline the story in the editing room.


When Seasonal Films started their run of English-language productions back in the mid-1980s, they infused those films with varying versions of Hong Kong style action choreography. They recognized that good fight scenes took time, but the process was a worthy investment. The blueprint had been translated and was demonstrated to work for the American market. So many American b-movies that came afterward were either unable or unwilling to follow that model, though, and you’ve been reading about those movies for years on this very platform. Drive is something a perfect storm, though. It had a great action star, with a great stunt team, along with a director with unique visual sensibilities, and just enough money to make it all work. But it also came at a time when American audiences, especially those consuming DTV action films, had more and more Hong Kong film directly at its fingertips. Drive was able to cater directly to that appetite in a way that its DTV brethren of the decade prior probably ignored. 

VERDICT

Generally speaking, Drive is not a perfect film, but its strengths are so off-the-charts exceptional, that it would be ridiculous of me to dock it points for the absence of silly DTV genre markers like Zubaz pants or bad line delivery. After all, shouldn’t fight films be about the fighting itself? If your answer is no, quit being a smart-ass. If your answer is yes, there is no finer or more convincing example of an English-language movie executing Hong Kong-style action choreography during this era than Drive. The Seasonal Films Corporation’s “Super 7” set the bar, and this film just about jumps over it. Strongly recommended. 

AVAILABILITY

Your best bets are Amazon or eBay on DVD. Be mindful that there's a few different versions floating around, including the aforementioned "Director's Cut" with lots of bonus features.

7 / 7

12.19.2017

Fists of Steel (1991)

PLOT: A former boxer and Vietnam veteran is called into action after a terrorist group executes his father. The head of the group is hiding out in Hawaii, under the assumption that the prohibitively expensive airfare and living costs will keep away federal investigators.

Director: Jerry Schafer
Writer: Jerry Schafer
Cast: Carlos Palomino, Henry Silva, Marianne Marks, Kenny Kerr, Sam Melville, Robert Tessier, Alexis Arguello, Rockne Tarkington


PLOT THICKENER

So many b-grade action films of the 1980s and ‘90s have featured professional kickboxers as the lead stars, but few of them attracted strict practitioners of the sweet science. One might think that some of boxing’s finest trash talkers -- from Roy Jones Jr. to James Toney -- would have made the transition to acting in droves, but that was not quite the case. Marvelous Marvin Hagler starred in a couple of Italian b-movies (Indio, Indio 2, respectively) and Ken Norton broke into movies in the late 1970s with Mandingo and its sequel, Drum. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was prolific in supporting roles throughout the ‘80s, and Sugar Ray Leonard appeared in the 1997 Gary Daniels film, Riot. With more than 30 acting credits to his name, though, few boxers had the dramatic seasoning of former welterweight champion of the world, Carlos Palomino. With massive and loyal fan bases in Mexico and Southern California, he was well-positioned for a move into Hollywood. Filmed in 1988, tested theatrically in 1989, and finally released to video in 1991, Fists of Steel was his foray into action movies as a leading star.

Carlos (Palomino) is a former boxing champion, a doting father to a little girl, and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. He’s also a complete unknown within the American national security apparatus and its adversaries, which makes him the perfect candidate for a dangerous mission. His veteran pal at the C.I.A., Bobby Breenberg (Melville), reaches out to Carlos after his team comes into possession of a videotape that depicts Carlos’s father being killed at a terrorist camp run by Shogi (Silva), a sadistic drug kingpin and terrorist mastermind currently hiding in Hawaii. Due to information leaks and Shogi’s apparent familiarity with agency personnel, no one has been able to disrupt his activities or infiltrate his network. Every agent who got close shared the fate of thousands of innocents, and got killed. However, as an outsider, and compelled by vengeance for his father’s murder, Carlos may be the right man to cut off the “head of the snake.”


In addition to his military background, peak physical condition, and hand-to-hand combat prowess, Carlos has another ace up his sleeve: his hands were reinforced with steel, giving him exceptional knockout power (as Breenberg awkwardly dubs them, his “puños de acero”). In looking over the file on Shogi and his number-one assassin, a former KGB agent, Katrina (Marks), Carlos disregards any illusions about a quick and efficient termination of his target, stating that “[Shogi’s] gonna die slow, and mean, and hard.” His only other demand of Breenberg and his C.I.A. unit is that he work alone, with his own trusted group of friends from Los Angeles.

One of these friends puts Carlos in contact with Girl (Kerr), a big-haired singer who seems to know every shade of questionable character in the nightlife scene, including drug dealers like Saylor (Tessier). Carlos’s hope is that by scoring some narcotics, he’ll have a ticket into the supply chain, and he can then work his way up the ladder to Shogi. Will he be able to infiltrate the madman’s defense and put a stop to the senseless killings? Can he trust Girl and the other people he meets in the Aloha State? Will he be able to quickly and frequently traverse the island given the cost of gas, or instead be forced to ride a bicycle to get from one location to the next?


Hold onto your butts, this is a wild one. From the opening scene, the Henry Silva performance we failed to get in Trained to Kill is here in all of its bizarre splendor. Shogi kicks off the film with a trio of odd killing scenes. In the first, he dresses up in a baseball uniform to pummel an informer to death with a baseball bat (but only after turning on a lively dance track, and activating a disco ball and fog machine to liven things up). In the next scene, he dresses in a dentist’s outfit and drops hydrochloric acid into an agent’s open eyes. And in the final scene to cement his status as the film’s lead antagonist, he oversees the daytime stabbing of a man in a public park from the comfort of his limo. As a refined evildoer, Shogi likes death in high volume, and his booze at exactly 78 degrees fahrenheit. 

In a 1988 Sports Illustrated article published after production wrapped, Palomino and Jerry Schafer both had high hopes for how Fists of Steel would impact the theaters and the Mexican-American self-image. Palomino noted his character was “saving the youth of American from drug runners,” and Schafer believed it would “do for middle- and upper-class Hispanics what ‘The Bill Cosby Show’ did for similarly situated blacks.” Sadly, the film never saw a proper theatrical release and if its rarity on the VHS resale market is any indication, it quickly fell out of circulation on home video.


Its obscurity is exacerbated by a strangely simple issue: the title. Efforts to find it using your favorite search engine on title keywords alone will most likely lead to the 1993 Dale Apollo Cook and Cynthia Khan team-up, Fist of Steel (also known as Eternal Fist). But it could also lead to this Time-Life book about the Third Reich or even this box set of Chuck Norris movies -- yikes! These cases of mistaken identity seem appropriate for a film interested primarily in themes and issues of identity. Carlos is a Vietnam vet who gets coaxed into a covert operation by the Caucasian friend with whom he served, but once he takes the assignment, he refuses any direct help from that friend or the institution that employs him. Instead, he relies solely on his network of Mexican friends based in Los Angeles. The subtext is that for Carlos, his ethnic and social identity as a Mexican man trumps his experiential identity as a military veteran; he finds more trust and security among social peers than his operational cohorts. 

Kerr prided himself on his ability to impersonate famous women, from Cher to Barbara Streisand and more. He was a trailblazer and pioneer for the art of drag performance, and a huge star in Las Vegas, but did not identify as a woman. It’s more difficult to find that line of distinction with his character, Julie “Girl” Darcel, though. Virtually every character in the film refers to Girl with the pronouns of “she/her” and while it’d be nice to think that Shafer & Co. were attempting to strike a progressive blow for transgender equality in an era that frequently and woefully mishandled certain gender expression as deviant or evil, that good will is almost totally eroded by an unnecessary reveal in the last act of the film. Nuanced questions around gender identity on a blog about b-grade chopsocky films is a rare commentary, I’ll grant you that, but if the topic makes you uncomfortable you can always watch some Steven Seagal movies for a macho safe space. Regardless, Kerr is really good in this role, and his tense interrogation scene with Silva was a high-point for me. 


There are other identity-focused story threads as well. The C.I.A. operatives mention that Shogi is a man of ambiguous Middle Eastern origin, but Silva makes no effort to play the part in that way. As Katrina, Marks’s vaguely Russian accent comes and goes. In a scene that was clearly designed to offend as many people as possible, Breenberg dresses in brown-face and women’s clothing in order to surprise Carlos as a hotel maid, solely for the purpose of nudging him into a vacant room for a mission status report. All of this adds up to a wildly paranoid tone that presumably tries to demonstrate that things nor people are ever as they seem. The only exception is our hero, Carlos, who is definitely Mexican, undoubtedly a former boxing champ, and presumably a guy with steel joints and knuckles: “puños de acero.”

VERDICT

Fists of Steel is a surprisingly original film that stands out from the pack due in large part to the strengths of its performances. Kerr’s performance is terrific and he consistently steals scenes throughout the film. Palomino is a likable lead star capable of carrying the movie on his back, and Silva alternates between suave and unhinged as only he can. Throw in an unpredictable script, solid action, two completely bizarre book-end scenes, and you’ve got a cinematic gift that keeps on giving. 

AVAILABILITY

Difficult to find on official physical media. Seek the gray market, my friends. This film is worth it.

5 / 7

12.11.2017

Sword of Heaven (1985)

PLOT: An ancient sword forged by Zen monks from a meteorite falls into the hands of a paramilitary madman. Can a police trainer based in Los Angeles recover it, or will he be too busy Googling the differences between comets, asteroids, meteors, and space rocks, to get the job done?

Director: Byron Meyers
Writers: James Bruner, Britt Lomond, William O’Hagan, Joseph J. Randazzo
Cast: Tadashi Yamashita, Mel Novak, Gerry Gibson, Mika, Joseph J. Randazzo, William Ghent, Wynston A. Jones, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Gerald Okamura, Karen Sheperd



PLOT THICKENER

Among the actors who played villains opposite some of the biggest action stars of the 1970s and 80s (e.g., Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee) there are few who loom larger than Mel Novak and Tadashi Yamashita. (Bolo Yeung is one of those few). Both actors played important foils to heroes in major studio films, but they also have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle when discussing the era, in part because neither of them got major leading roles as a point of differentiation. The 1985 film Sword of Heaven attempts to rectify that by casting one man opposite the other, thereby dooming one of them to the inescapable fate of playing evil men ad infinitum, despite his possible wishes to star in a comedy or a cheery musical.

Hundreds of years ago, a meteorite fell to earth and zen monks forged a sword from the remains. The custodial family for the sword was the Kobiashi family, and their modern day descendants include Toshiro (Gent) and his daughter, Satoko (Mika). However, the sword was recently acquired illicitly by a self-proclaimed “collector” and former special forces soldier named Dirk St. John (Novak). These days, he runs an extortion ring in Los Angeles that targets the well-off rather than the super-rich, because it tends to attract less attention from the authorities. If the targets don’t pay, Dirk’s weapons of choice are a knife or his trusty garrote. As he tells his army of paramilitary trainees, these close-range weapons inspire fear, and “fear is our greatest weapon.” As he repeatedly demonstrates, though, knives and garrotes are also great weapons.


A Japanese police trainer and motorcycle enthusiast, Tadashi (Yamashita) works with the Los Angeles Police Department and educates them in the martial arts. One of his students and friends on the force, Patrick (Gibson) is investigating the recent spat of killings, which leads him  to a brothel where Satoko works as a prostitute. During a lunch stop in the middle of the woods where he rides his bike, Tadashi crosses paths with Toshiro, who finds him sufficiently samurai to be chosen to retrieve the sword from St. John and his gang. All these random threads end up converging in the misshapen cable-knit sweater that is Sword of Heaven.

This was a weird one. The first half-hour or so is a bit of a mess and it was difficult to tell where things were going. The first three scenes alone were randomly sized pieces from completely different puzzles. A meteorite falls to earth, monks turn it into a sword -- scene. A woman goes to her sports car and gets strangled by a creep in the backseat -- scene. A mysterious figure is motorcycling all over an endless landscape of sand dunes -- scene. Stick with it though, because a bounty of strange treasures awaits. As the plot develops, the pace really picks up in the second act and the film finishes quite strong, with solid fight scenes (e.g., Bill Wallace vs. Tadashi Yamashita) and a climactic sword fight in a shallow river bed.


Mel Novak is certainly the best actor in this cast and he plays a fine villain -- he’s both intense and capable -- but he’s not even the most treacherous jerk on display. That would be Cain, the sadistic one-gloved pimp, played by screenwriter Joseph Randazzo. By pulling double-duty as both the scene setter and the character, Randazzo gives himself some of the most cringe-worthy lines of dialogue in the film, almost all of which involve a misogynist, homophobic, or racial slur. (Because apparently it wasn’t enough to throw a wheelchair-bound nun off a cliff, or terrorize the prostitutes in his employ and keep them under the constant threat of being forcibly shot up with heroin). By any standard, this sleazebag is extra sleazy and deserving of his fate.

Keeping with the theme of strange choices, Yamashita joins the ranks of Bolo Yeung and Chris Ramsey as actors in martial arts b-movies who used cross-dressing as a not-so-subtle disguise. In this particular case, Tadashi attempts to infiltrate the “Pink Poodle” rock club -- with a live performance by an actual band called The Ninja -- to locate Cain as a way to get to Satoko. Tadashi neglects to bring a change of clothes and remains in the dress for a good amount of time after this scene, even fighting off some enemies. Could he have done all of this without dressing as a foxy brunette in a red cocktail dress? We’ll never know.


There’s an air of mystery around this film, and not just because it features a mystical glowing sword. IMDb lists this film twice, with one title stub for 1981 and another for 1985, each with the same director and cast. The 1981 version has no release date and lists LD Video as a distributor. The 1985 release was put out the following year by Trans World Entertainment. If I may put on my librarian’s cardigan for just a moment to discuss information integrity, there could be lots of reasons for this. The main one is bad data; IMDb is somewhat ambiguous about the sources of their information, but it tends to be a combination of “official” data feeds but also site visitors like you and I. A VHS distributed by LD Video is listed on Amazon with a release date of *1991* so we might just chalk it up to an input error and a source/user ignoring or overlooking the existing title stub on IMDb for the 1985 version. I had gotten my hopes up that this film was initially made as a short just four years earlier, but that’s simply not the case. All of this is a long way of saying: trust no one.

The enigmatic fog around the film persists. She’s listed in the credits as “Valley Girl Patient” but I can neither confirm nor deny whether Karen Sheperd actually appears in this movie. Why any filmmaker would cast a world-class martial artist only to have her playing a bit part without any fighting is beyond me, but this is similar to the situation with 1984’s Furious, where Loren Avedon was listed in the cast but was all but absent in the actual film. Four years prior, Yamashita pulled Sheperd into the production of 1981’s The Shinobi Ninja when she was looking for film work, and that may have been the case here as well, but I can only conclude that her scene was left on the cutting room floor. Sad! That’s your cue to start writing your “Karen Sheperd as a martial arts Valley Girl getting evaluated for strep throat” fan fiction.


In putting Yamashita in a dress, leading bad guys on violent motorcycle chases, fighting tons of recyclable enemies, and pairing him with a stereotypical Irish cop simply for the high comedy of it all, this film was trying to portray him as a well-rounded action star who could do a little bit of everything. He doesn’t succeed in every area equally, but it was a fine effort that demonstrated he was every bit as deserving of a lead role as other martial artists of his era.

VERDICT

As is the case with any film that’s difficult to find in a watchable format, you need to put a figure on how much time, money, and energy you’re willing to expend to see it. Sword of Heaven is most certainly something for which you could find a torrent, and that might be the way to go if you can’t find a reasonably priced hard copy (VHS versions run in the $30-$40 range). Here’s what I’ll say: it features some decent villains, a cool sword gimmick, and solid fights towards the back-end. It also has a handful of those nutty, WTF kitchen-sink moments I find myself raving about so often. Worth a watch if you stumble into it.

AVAILABILITY

Hard to find on physical media; VHS or grey market DVD only.

4.5 / 7

12.05.2017

Sworn to Justice (1996)

PLOT: After her sister and nephew are murdered during a break-in at her home,  a psychologist must pick up the shattered fragments of her life. Will she be doomed to step on tiny shards she may have missed during the clean-up? (It’s tough to find them all with high pile carpeting).

Director: Paul Maslak
Writers: Robert Easter, Paul Maslak, Neva Friedenn
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Kurt McKinney, Tony Lo Bianco, Kenn Scott, Katie Mitchell, Mako, Brad Dourif, Max Thayer, Vince Murdocco, Eric Lee, Art Camacho, Ian Jacklin


PLOT THICKENER

Beginning in 1985, Cynthia Rothrock appeared in seven Hong Kong action films over four years, smack dab in the middle of the territory’s cinematic golden age. They didn’t all reach the cinematic high of Yes, Madam! but this run of films was instrumental in making her a star. She parlayed this status into steady paychecks and softer landings in an American film industry that was less mindful of the level of effort that went into action choreography, and much easier on the bodies of its performers. She worked steadily in the U.S. after her time abroad -- starring in five films in 1990 alone, and ten films between 1992 and 1994 -- but by the mid 1990s that pace had slowed considerably. In spite of this, Rothrock used Paul Maslak’s 1996 debut film, Sworn to Justice to effectively point down at her hypothetical diamond-encrusted name plate necklace (“ACTION SUPERSTAR”) to remind all of us that she still ran the game.

Janna (Rothrock) comes home during a home invasion to find her nephew murdered and her sister succumbing to fatal injuries. She escapes a similar fate from the same violent burglars but incurs trauma to her head during a daring escape. The upside? By touching any object, she now has the psychic ability of psychometry, which allows her to “see” the recent past of anyone else who has touched it previously. This might come in handy with her day job as a psychologist at Forensitec, where she works as an expert witness for criminal defense lawyers, but it’s tough to focus on work with hunky new copyright lawyer and publisher, Nicholas (McKinney) strutting around the office. Her boss, Lorraine (Mitchell) think she’s coming back to work too early after the tragedy, but Janna needs a healthy distraction from the sputtering investigation led by Detective Briggs (Lo Bianco), still ongoing at her home.



Idle hands hands do the devil’s work, and Janna can’t help from using her newfound abilities to solve the crime for herself. What starts off as some harmless snooping soon turns into her dispensing vigilante justice on a nightly basis to the city’s criminals. All the while, a major court case looms and she’s beginning to fall in love with Nicholas. Will the local crime kingpin, Eugene (Scott) squash her efforts before she can find the men responsible for her family members’ deaths? In a world full of shadows, who can she really trust? And how can she really be falling for a guy who wears tighty whities?

This film has it all: action, melodrama, martial-arts-sparring-as-foreplay, and a terrific cast. I’m a sucker for a star-studded ensemble, but very few films in our wheelhouse ever approach the dense clustering of b-movie action stars that Sworn to Justice manages. Ian Jacklin, a guy who has starred in his own films and appeared in countless others, shows up for a cameo where he spouts three lines and gets thrown through an office window! Max Thayer, the Han Solo of No Retreat, No Surrender 2, shows up in an arrowhead bolo tie and slick hair for a quick cigarette and some hearty laughs at an office party! Art Camacho robs an armored truck, Vince Murdocco is a meathead gang member, and Mako gets three scenes as a blind guy who runs a newstand in a lobby. This is Cynthia Rothrock’s constellation of friends, and they’ll happily put in a day’s work and get paid in meatball subs.


This film does a fair amount of thematic shape-shifting over the course of its 90 minutes -- psychological thriller, court-room drama, romantic romp -- but it’s an action film at heart, so let’s start there. The opening is a damn barn-burner! Janna fights the home invaders tooth-and-nail, throwing one guy through a glass table and smashing another guy’s head through a vase. As another aggressor unleashes a barrage of gunshots, she runs *through* a glass door to her balcony, and continues to outrun the gunfire. When she reaches the railing, she throws herself off to evade the thieves and falls about two or three stories through the branches and foliage of a tree before landing on the manicured lawn below. Considering the variety and intensity of the action in the opening, it’s a little puzzling how the rest of these scenes took shape.

Both Eric Lee and Tak Yuen (Douglas Kung in the credits) were credited as fight choreographers on this set, with Art Camacho acting as second unit director. I won’t use the differences in the fight scene quality to criticize any of the personnel, but they are worth pointing out. One scene in the storage room of a convenience store has Janna fighting off some would-be robbers with a lethal combination duct tape, cardboard, and slapstick, complete with cartoon sound effects. Oh, and Latin instrumental pop music!


A fight scene later in the film features Janna fighting off Eugene’s gang in his chop shop. One sequence has her fighting an attacker on the roof of the car before the action spills to the floor and leads to a fast exchange of blocking-and-punching techniques (i.e., the closest the film gets to Hong Kong style fight choreography). The fighter then tries to electrocute Janna with car battery cables before being downed for good. What’s my point with all these details? They demonstrate major differences in the underlying tones of each fight scene -- one comedic and clumsy, one gritty and technical -- and different approaches to how the action flows from shot to shot. For some that’s a draw, for others it’s a hurdle.

This might be the best acting we’ve ever seen from Rothrock, and from a dramatic perspective, Maslak makes sure she runs the gauntlet: there are crying scenes, flirty scenes, fighting scenes, love scenes, and intense scenes in which she has to hold her own alongside seasoned actors like Dourif and Lo Bianco. Her and McKinney have a genuine chemistry and it was surprisingly enjoyable to watch that relationship play out. Now, I’m no James Lipton and this ol’ blog is chewed gum on the underside of the table where they film Inside the Actors’ Studio, but I was really impressed by the completeness of her performance. In the past, most directors for her American films had a tendency to leave her out to dry with awkward dialogue and unearned emotion; that’s (mostly) not the case here. Maslak’s direction is good, and Rothrock is great as a result.


The only thing that may have surprised me more than Rothrock’s solid acting was Kenn Scott’s turn as a dickish villain. As an actor of somewhat short stature and relaxed demeanor, he was convincing as a bullying victim who learns to defend himself in 1994’s Showdown. He even played a Ninja Turtle (not here, I hope). Everything about what we know about Scott as an on-screen performer screams wholesome. But between his snarky insults, brutal methods of intimidation, and a blazer at least two sizes too big for him, he manages to make Eugene the sort of jerk we love to hate. (To that end, his hoop earrings and stubbly beard evoke roughly one-fifth of all late-‘90s boy-band members).

VERDICT

Even though Sworn to Justice is a later Cynthia Rothrock film, and the fight scene quality is all over the place like your grandma after three mint juleps, and it wasn’t filmed by Godfrey Ho in the state of Maryland, I dug this film on balance. Between the great cast of familiar faces, the solid action, a wacky story, and a pace that keeps you engaged, this film offers plenty of positives for Rothrock fans and fight film aficionados alike. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. DVD on Amazon, Netflix, or eBay.


4.5 / 7

11.27.2017

Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985)

PLOT: A bus full of tourists in the Philippines are kidnapped and held hostage by a group of terrorists. Will an elite trio of special operatives be able to stop their evil plans, or at least delay them, no doubt causing annoyance and perhaps even a complete deferral of the evil plans until the next financial quarter?

Director: Emmett Alston
Writer: Emmett Alston
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Brent Huff, Emilia Crow, Blackie Dammett, Regina Richardson, Vijay Amritraj, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Bruce Fanger, Sonny Erang, John Ladalski

PLOT THICKENER

Most ninja movies lie to us. They tell us that ninjas can fly, or burrow underground, or multiply in seconds. Few would accept it if cinema were to repeatedly depict Celtic druids with flippers or Egyptian warrior queens as fire-breathers who wore denim jumpsuits, but we turn a blind eye to the errant ninja mythology that continues to warp the historical record. Very few ninja films portray their human subjects all that closely to what they were (the Shinobi-no-Mono series is a fine place for that) but the American film scene couldn’t give a damn their origins as covert spies who waged guerrilla warfare. (We can reasonably debate whether lasers and smoke bombs fall under that umbrella, but I digress).

Apart from this historical deception in ninja film, though, there’s a completely different subcategory of ninja film that pulls an active bait-and-switch in an effort to dupe you into viewing what you think will be an awesome movie featuring ninjas. This might manifest as misleading cover art, some clever chicanery in the film title, or the casting of someone known to frequently portray ninjas on film. Directed in 1985 by Emmett Alston, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, would purport to depict at least nine instances of ninja death, but instead pulls all of this aforementioned shady-ass marketing bullshit. I ain’t mad though.


Unlike a lot of teams assembled to conduct covert overseas missions in dangerous situations on behalf of the U.S. government, the DART team is comprised of just three people. Steve Gordon (Huff) is a smooth-talker who fancies himself a squad leader but would honestly rather be sitting poolside while slugging beers or shamelessly hitting on women. Jennifer Barnes (Crow) is the group’s resident communications expert and the logistical heart of the team. Rounding out the trio is Spike Shinobi (Kosugi), a former practitioner of ninjutsu, a certified lollipop addict, and the best name ever for the hero in a 4th grade story writing assignment. The trio is the most elite in the world at counterterrorism operations, and their expertise is needed desperately after a kidnapping in Manila.

Somewhere on the list of Southeast Asia travel risk factors, between outdated vaccinations and back-pocket wallets, is riding a tourist bus in a 1980s action film. Alby “the Cruel” (Dammett) is a wheelchair-bound, Nazi-sympathizing terrorist responsible for not just a massive drug operation but also a mischievous pet monkey. On his orders, his second-in-command, Col. Honey Hump (Richardson), leads a team of mercenaries to kidnap a bus full of tourists visiting the Imus Cathedral in Manila. In exchange for the safe return of these hostages, Alby’s group demands the release of their terrorist pal, Rahji (Erang) from government prison, and the complete expulsion of American DEA agents in Southeast Asia. On paper -- a pretty good deal!

Poor Alby probably should have read the terms and conditions, though, because local useless government guy, Rankin (Amritraj), folds an unspoken sweetener into the transaction: a search-and-destroy rescue mission by the DART team! (This is the part of the film where my best guess at the meaning of the team’s acronym, “Don’t Answer Rankin’s Texts” went to shit). The trio lands in Manila and hits the ground running, faster than you can say, “Hey Sho, maybe don’t cut that watermelon so close to that kitten while blindfolded!”



While Gordon is frequently at the hotel bar, or trying to woo the local ladies with his special brand of douche vibes, Spike is doing the real spy work by donning all manner of silly disguises -- from “harmless old man” to “self respecting guy in a speedo” -- to infiltrate Alby’s dangerous network of affiliates and hangouts. Can the team work together to find the hostages and destroy Alby’s gang of mercenaries once and for all? How is Col. Honey Hump able to reconcile her feminist perspective with her colleagues’ propensity for sexual assault? And who the hell is dubbing Sho Kosugi’s voice in this movie -- Alex Trebek?

Before we can discuss what this film is, we need to mention what it is not: a straight martial-arts ninja film where Sho Kosugi plays a ninja. Can you watch this film’s opening -- fog machine, interpretive jazzercise, Kosugi kata demonstration, and all -- and expect a serious ninja film afterwards? Nah. This is definitely more of an action-adventure with a focus on the ensemble cast and some broad comedic touches. Among all of its obvious nods to the James Bond series and action-adventure spy films in general, none is more on-the-nose than the casting of Vijay Amritraj, a former tennis star who also appeared in the Bond film Octopussy. Unfortunately, most of this gimmickry comes at the expense of Kosugi and his usually reliable cinematic ninja hijnks. If Revenge of the Ninja was Kosugi dressed in a $5,000 suit for a critical business negotiation, this movie is Kosugi working from home on his laptop as a part-time consultant, dressed in sweatpants and an Oakland Raiders hoodie. It is stained with spaghetti sauce.


Blackie Dammett’s performance of Alby the Cruel might be a top-five, all-time strange villain performance in the history martial arts b-movies. Between his half-hearted and cartoonish German accent, loose riffing on Peter Sellers’s ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove, the pet monkey, his Tom Waits haircut, and wardrobe choices that scream, “saxophonist in a late 1970s no-wave band,” Dammett really went all out to make this a memorable character. How many of these character ticks were in the script, we’ll never know, but Alby was (for me) the highlight of the film. A number of reviews have noted some sort of homosexual overtones in the relationship between Alby and Rahji, but I’ll have to admit that I didn’t pick up on this at all.

VERDICT

Nine Deaths of the Ninja is not a good ninja movie, nor is it an especially good Sho Kosugi movie (and it's not even his best film from 1985). That said, it’s better than its 3.4 (out of 10) user rating on IMDb would lead you to believe. It’s a weirdly paced adventure film with some referential try-hard humor that occasionally lands a glancing blow to the funny bone. Kosugi completists will want to clear 90 minutes in their watching schedules but most of you can move along if this doesn’t sound like your jam.

AVAILABILITY

On DVD at Amazon or eBay.

3.5 / 7

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