10.23.2010

Back in Action (1993)

PLOT: A botched drug sting takes a giant shit in the punch bowl called Life for cop Frank Rossi and a cab driver named Billy. Rossi’s partner is killed during the violent fallout. Billy’s sister is dating one of the drug dealers at the scene and escapes unharmed. Since she’s a witness, her boytoy’s gang thinks she’s going to snitch and wants her dead. As both men go vigilante to exact their revenge, the body count skyrockets to levels unseen since the launch of the McRib.

Directors: Paul Ziller and Steve DiMarco
Writer: Karl Schiffman
Cast: Billy Blanks, Roddy Piper, Bobbie Phillips, Matt Birman, Nigel Bennett, Kai Soremekun

PLOT THICKENER:
It should surprise no one to learn that the people behind the 1993 action vehicle Back in Action probably hate Looney Tunes. Not because they’re Hanna-Barbera guys (though they might be), but because their film is almost always buried in search results by Joe Dante’s 2003 animated feature, Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Are they justified in these hostile feelings that I made up and projected onto them? Doubtful.

Dante’s effort was the first Looney Tunes feature film since 1996’s Space Jam.  It was the second Looney Tunes feature to blend their 2-D characters with live action. The franchise was returning to action following a long layoff. Hence, Back in Action. Frank Rossi (Piper) is removed from an investigation by his boss and is forced to go rogue in order to get vengeance for his partner’s death. Billy (Blanks) is an ex- Special Forces soldier trying to rescue his sister from criminal drug dealers. But what exactly are these guys coming back from? A Caribbean cruise? Nasty colds? In light of the facts, this title makes no fucking sense. Thankfully, these types of action movies rarely do.


Billy Blanks really stretches himself artistically with this film role, portraying a high-kicking bad-ass named Billy. His years in the elite fighting ranks of the U.S. military somehow translated to him driving a cab in Toronto, and he has the added frustration of trying to support his deadbeat sister, Tara. She’s a real winner: won’t look for a job, has no discernible life skills, and dates a guy who looks more like a New Age percussionist than the drug-dealing gang member he purports to be. (Full disclosure: this describes all of my ex-girlfriends.) Since Tara fled the shootout with Billy instead of waiting patiently in the car until everyone exhausted their ammo, the gang wants her and her brother dead. When you want the job done right, you send in your top men with the best firepower money can buy. Because this is an early 90s Shapiro-Glickenhaus film, the gang sends a pair of unarmed twins in Zubaz pants, tank tops, mustaches, and mullets. Billy fights them in nothing more than his boxer briefs and kills them both. And detective Frank Rossi is left to pick up the pieces.


After watching his partner get stabbed to death during the botched sting, Rossi (Piper) is on a mission to bring his killer to justice. As the hardened narcotics detective, Piper gets to put his fingers in a lot of different pies: the chief-hating anti-authority pie, the street-fighting cop bent on vengeance pie, and also the Helen the news reporter pie, played by Bobbie Phillips. While Frank is her go-to cop for public comment, he’s also an evolving love interest. Most action films would use the romance as an excuse to show gratuitous nudity, but this is no ordinary action film. The closest we get is a picture on the back of the DVD showing the two in a bubble bath. In the film, the pair simply hangs around in towels and talks. Hmm.

Billy and Frank repeatedly cross paths as the former storms through the criminal underworld looking for Kasajian, the gang leader who he believes kidnapped his sister. (In reality, she’s gone into hiding with her loser boyfriend.) At first, Frank sees Billy as just another thug but begins to appreciate his brand of vigilante justice after learning of their common enemy.


When you have action heroes as unhinged as Piper and as skilled as Blanks, the villains in your story need to be equal to the task. Unfortunately, the baddies in Back in Action are pure villainfiller. Chakka, the dickweed in designer glasses who killed Wallace, consists of two-parts Color Me Badd and one-part giant gold medallion. His fighting skills are subpar and while he does some pretty evil shit in knifing people and shooting members of his own gang, I thought the character required a more grizzled and world-weary portrayal. He plays violent enforcer to Kasajian’s foppish mastermind, who spends most of his scenes in a robe and flip-flops. Played by British theatre actor Nigel Bennett, Kasajian is the type of villain I hate to see in this kind of movie: a relaxed and unmenacing douche who pontificates constantly and never actually fights. I could certainly see him running a meditation and spiritual wellness retreat. And I can’t help but imagine him standing in front of his mirror late at night doing the Buffalo Bill tuck-and-dance. But this is the vicious leader of a Toronto drug gang? Not buying.


The action throughout the film comes fast and furious. Piper, forever dogged by the high standards he set in 1988’s They Live, still brings his enjoyable blend of street-fighting and wrestling moves mixed with light comedy. His selling of strikes makes for some very convincing fights, particularly in an early skirmish with Billy at the local watering hole. Blanks operates almost exclusively in invincibility mode, growling and screeching as he mows down a variety of straw men. While none are a match for his fighting skill, they come in an entertaining array of shapes and sizes, from the mulleted Zubaz twins, to a dude that looks like Kenny Powers, to a 7-foot giant who yells a lot and moves really slowly.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out what has to be the crown jewel of Billy’s path of destruction. While infiltrating the late-night drag racing scene, he realizes he needs a more covert ensemble, as his all-denim motif would surely give him away. So he sneaks up on an unsuspecting dude leaning against a pillar who, at first glance, appears to be urinating. However, there’s no stream and his zipper is closed; worse, the man’s hand appears to be making a stroking motion. I can only conclude that in an effort to ward off would-be solicitors, the miscreant is pretending to jack off. Billy is unfazed, and he knocks out the phantom-masturbator and steals his sleeveless hoodie. Most of us would have simply walked away in that situation so this is quite commendable; that he’s willing to confront a guy faking a wank underscores Billy’s determination to bring his sister to safety.



Of course, we can’t discuss a Billy Blanks movie without mentioning his incredible outfits. As with most of his films, Blanks wears nothing more than pants and sweat during the story’s epic climax. The vibrant vest he sports in the opening scene is similar to the clothes my mom wore when she was experimenting with found fabrics and her new sewing machine circa 1989. During his bar fight with Rossi, he’s decked out in a full Canadian tuxedo, and spends the majority of the film wearing yet another vest, but without an undershirt. I rarely dip into hyperbole, but I’ll brave it here: Billy Blanks has done for vests and denim what Bruce Lee did for yellow-and-black tracksuits and Onitsuka Tiger sneakers.


VERDICT:
Tango and Cash. Bodhi and Utah. Tequila and Alan. Add Rossi and Billy to whatever random list of action cinema team-ups you have stuck to your fridge (assuming that’s where you keep it). While the weak and one-dimensional villains in Back in Action could have ruined lesser films, the combination of Piper and Blanks somehow cuts through these and other weaknesses. The filmmakers strike a nice balance in letting Blanks loose and building the majority of his scenes around his fighting prowess, while giving Piper plenty of scenery to chew in addition to some solid fight scenes of his own. This might actually be Blanks’ best good guy performance; he comes off as especially stiff when paired with equally wooden martial artists but Piper is animated and emotive enough to bring a little flavor to their team dynamic.

AVAILABILITY:
Your best bet is on VHS. Of course, you can try for an out-of-region DVD but you may have to sift through dozens of pages of Looney Tunes results to find it.

5.5 / 7

10.12.2010

Undefeatable (1993)

PLOT:
It’s a race against time as a mulleted martial-arts killer named Stingray is pursued by police and a street-fighting waitress avenging her sister’s death. How long will the carnage go on before Stingray is stopped? Only 90 minutes, because that’s the runtime of the film.







Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Steve Harper, Robert Vassar, Tai Yim
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Don Niam, John Miller, Donna Jason, Sunny David, Gerald Klein

PLOT THICKENER
The cost of attending college has steadily risen each decade for the last 30 years. Grants and scholarships can help, but the supply for these financial gifts is limited. As a result, many students and their families take out huge loans in order to pay for tuition. Those who can’t absorb that kind of debt might instead attend community college, or in some cases, forgo higher education entirely. Still, others pay their way through school by working part-time.

In Godfrey Ho’s 1993 epic Undefeatable, pre-med student Karen Jones can’t be bothered to get off her ass and get a fucking job. Instead, her older sister, Kristi, battles in underground Baltimore street fights for her tuition money. (Street fighter ranks #3 on experts’ annual list of jobs for easy college cash, sandwiched between library assistant and stripper). Kristi’s involvement in the world of street fighting is certainly not without its hazards. The money is dirty and fights are organized and overseen by mobsters. The fighters are often desperate men dressed in accessories culled from yard sales. Worse, the cops are always on the hunt to break up the illegal throwdowns. After all, it’s not like there are worse things going on in Baltimore.


It’s during the latest of these fights that Kristi crosses paths with Nick DiMarco. Martial arts enthusiast, homicide detective, basketball fan, and overpriced coffee lover, DiMarco is a straight-laced cop who sees nothing but dead ends in Kristi’s choice of thug life. After arresting her for fighting and then pocketing her winnings, he encourages her to reject the horrible cycle of violence and quit her gang, the Red Dragons. Like the Bloods and Crips before them, the Dragons are fond of leather jackets, aren’t enrolled in college, and are comprised mostly of Asian guys. Despite protests from DiMarco and her sister, Kristi doesn’t want to quit fighting only to die poor and feeble. In her mind, waitressing and fighting in the streets fit together to form a Voltron of financial stability.

Perched atop the higher end of the underground fighting circuit is Paul, better known by his street name of Stingray. While his life would appear to be pure bliss -- big paydays, Plymouth minivan, no children -- his wife, Anna, has been seeing a therapist and spilling the beans about her hubby’s increasingly violent behavior. Flowers in hand, he returns home after his latest fight to find his wife cooking steak for dinner. But Stingray’s in the mood for a different kind of meat: Sweet and Sour Anna with Pineapple & Rape Sauce. During the entirety of the sexual assault, Stingray reminisces about pummeling a recently vanquished opponent while the steak burns in the background. Only a director of Godfrey Ho’s skill would dare offer this kind of visual commentary on rape, violence, and overcooked meat. What's the significance? I DON’T KNOW!



This was apparently the tipping point, however. Stingray arrives home the next night to find his favorite meal of veggies and steak carefully arranged at the dinner table. After an angry search of the residence, he finds a letter from Anna declaring that she’s left him for good. Just like his mother years earlier, his wife has abandoned him. As one would expect, he’s supremely butt-hurt and tosses everything on the table to the floor with a violent swipe of his forearm. But prior to that, he picks up the slab of cooked meat and throws it against the wall; the allure of beef is apparently gone. After all, what good is a steak if you can’t rape your wife while thinking about beating someone up before eating it?

After spraypainting red streaks in his hair (Anna would’ve loved it) Stingray gasses up the minivan and departs on the Illogical Rampage of Murder, Rape, and Eye-Gouging ‘93. DiMarco and his bumbling partner investigate the string of homicides and eventually deduce that the killer targets petite white women with long, reddish hair: i.e. girls that look like Stingray’s ex-wife if you’re legally blind or murderously psychotic. Unfortunately, Karen Jones fits this bill and becomes a card-carrying member of the victim club. Because it’s a martial-arts film, Kristi vows revenge, and DiMarco and Jennifer, Anna’s former psychiatrist, join in the hunt. She also knows martial arts. Obviously.

  

The fight scenes throughout the film fall within the range of awful to average but it’s somehow passable by early 90s American action standards. The obvious crown jewel is the now-infamous climax between Stingray, DiMarco, and Kristi; on-screen fights rarely get as sweaty, screamy, and drooly as this one. (Braveheart comes close, but didn’t have nearly enough drool.)

There are a few things at work that really distinguish it from similarly crafted B-grade action pictures from the same period. As many martial arts films utilize vengeance as a major theme, audiences are accustomed to seeing the roots of a protagonist’s journey to right the wrongs. Ho and the film’s writers flip the script by injecting the villain’s backstory with some bizarre semblance of pathos. Stingray has mommy issues on steroids with a crystal meth chaser. The few flashbacks to his childhood allude to abandonment and while I’m not a psychiatrist, I’d guess this would lead to relationship trouble later in life. In the case of Stingray, I’m not sure how it led to a propensity for rape, murder, and eye-gouging, but hey -- different strokes, different folks.

Don Niam really makes the Stingray character his own: he has a gloriously puffy mullet, plays scenes completely over the top, and is a decent enough martial artist to hold his own during fights. Rothrock is generally solid, and even gets a grieving/crying scene to show off her ability to emote awkwardly while staring at a fake dead body. The Nick DiMarco character is almost instantly unlikeable because of his wholesome righteousness, and while John Miller is a decent enough fighter, his performance vacillates between wooden and goofy before settling on inept.


VERDICT:
As a diehard NRNS fan, it pains me to say this: Undefeatable may be the most enjoyable “so bad it’s good” martial arts film I’ve seen. The star of the show is obviously Stingray -- this is a character that should inspire fan fiction. Little kids should be dressing up in denim vests and puffy mullet wigs for Halloween. And for fuck’s sake, give me a Stingray t-shirt with “ANNA!” underneath. But all of the film’s elements coalesce beautifully: the convoluted serial killer plot is a joy to watch unfold; the early 90s fashion staples of leather jackets, Zubaz pants, and denim vests are on full display; and the climactic fight scene is one of the most hilarious things captured on celluloid.

AVAILABILITY:
There are actually two versions of the film on the market: the U.S. print reviewed here, and a version for the Asian market that features scenes with Robin Shou and Yukari Oshima. Netflix carries the former and Amazon offers both versions.

7 / 7

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