8.26.2011

Sakura Killers (1987)

PLOT: Two Americans are tasked with recovering a highly sensitive tape stolen by a secretive sect of ninjas. This is very unfortunate for the ninjas. Not because the Americans are a big threat, but because people who carry secrets tend to have higher rates of influenza and hypertension. When will ninjas learn to take better care of themselves?

Directors: Dusty Nelson, Wang Yu (as Richard Ward)
Writers: Dusty Nelson, George Tan, David Marks
Cast: George Nicholas, Mike Kelly, Chuck Connors, Mark Long, Cara Casey, John Ladalski, Manji Otsuki, Jack Long

PLOT THICKENER:
What is a ninja? History (i.e. Wikipedia) says that it was a covert agent in feudal Japan which utilized unorthodox methods of warfare. Real Ultimate Power would have you believe that ninjas are mammals that fight all the time and their purpose is to flip out and kill people. Ninjas in film run the gamut from the seriously awesome (Shinobi No Mono and Ninja in the Dragon’s Den) to the awesomely bizarre (Ninja Wars and Mafia vs. Ninja). Because the 1980s had a hard-on for all things oversaturated, there were a lot of piss-poor ninja films produced worldwide to fill the gaps around the aforementioned extremes. I don’t know how the fuck we’ve gone a year without covering a proper ninja joint and one would think that by this point I’d at have drunkenly stumbled into a review of an American Ninja film. Anyways, 1987’s Sakura Killers teaches us that ninjas should be regarded as one thing and one thing alone: murdering bastards.


The film opens with a group of ninjas utilizing their full bag of covert tricks -- spring boards, garrote wires, etc. -- to break into a high-security facility and steal a beta tape. What’s on the tape isn’t important unless you think THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE is important. Even if you don’t, others do, and some of those others are Americans, and one of those Americans is The Colonel. The Colonel is played by The Rifleman, who happens to be Chuck Connors. As a semi-retired veteran of covert operations, The Colonel is trying to chill out on his ranch and improve his golf chipping technique but a group of ninjas has other plans. Unfortunately for them, their plans did not include knowing who the fuck they were dealing with, because The Colonel reaches into his golf bag and serves up swift death through the business end of a loaded shotgun.

The Colonel's jazzercising companion on the ranch, Karen (Casey), informs her superior of the tape theft that occurred the previous night. He knows just the guys they'll need to get it back. The Colonel calls on his trusted operative Dennis (Nicholas), a swinging bachelor, exercise freak, and owner of a vanity license plate labeled "PUCHOK." (Who the fuck knows). Through some shoe-horned exposition, we learn that The Colonel has set up a front for Dennis to lead a "fitness club" in Taiwan, where he'll win the trust of the locals before making contact with his partner. What this really means is that George Nicholas gets stuck in the worst kind of mustard-yellow duds in the history of awful 1980s athletic apparel.


After Dennis is visited by his old partner and friend, Sonny (Kelly), the two embark on a fact-finding mission that starts in the most logical place possible when you’re pursuing a dangerous enemy cloaked in shadows: a Benihana-style teppanyaki Japanese restaurant. Only after watching what I suspect was a dazzling array of cooking theatrics, they single out the restaurant’s hostess as a shady character who might provide the information they need. She plays coy when asked about a mysterious emblem left behind at the crime scene, and then tips off her boy-toy Ohtani that the Americans have come sniffing around.

Played by Mark Long, Ohtani isn’t just some primped and proper mustachioed lothario. As Dennis and Sonny eventually learn, he’s also the leader of a group of thieving ninjas called the Cold Snow Association, a division of the Sakura Organization. While the Sakura fancy themselves businessmen, they’re not much different from any other corporation that uses ninja treachery to gain a competitive advantage (*cough* Whole Foods). The group’s underhandedness makes them extremely dangerous and our heroes are ill-prepared for their tactics. Sonny and Dennis can both fight, but before they can even think about recovering the tape, they must use the help of their friends to learn the ways of the ninja.


By 1987, after a half-dozen Sho Kosugi movies and the Chuck Norris film The Octagon, there was no one left on the planet who didn’t know what a ninja was. Except for the characters in this movie. Early on, Karen asks the question: “What are ninjas?” to which The Colonel replies: “The best trained killers in the world.” After his first scrape-up with the Cold Snow gang, Dennis laments that “guys in black pajamas jump out and attack us. Who were they?!” After confirming that the guys in said pajamas were ninjas, Sonny answers the question with a question: “Do you know what ninjas do? They kill people.” As a movie-going ninja, it must have been maddening to be pigeonholed by this film as nothing more than a killer. Ninjas do other things besides kill, and they really aren’t much different from you or I. They ride bikes, eat ice cream, they even roller-skate.

To say that the acting is bad and the dubbing is atrocious is akin to saying getting hit in the back of the head with an iron skillet is better than getting hit in the back of the head with a cactus; both are painful in their own special ways. The heroes are likable, if not a little dim, but there are plenty of odd characters to enhance the downtime in between fights. Hong Kong film veteran John Ladalski shows up as hired muscle to grimace, grumble, and show off his butterfly knife skills and an impressive skullet that would make Hulk Hogan flex in envy. Undoubtedly the best actor in the lot, Chuck Connors grounds the story where he can but even the former Rifleman’s scenes run a bit goofy in a film swimming in action cheese. The cream of the crop has to be a brief scene where a Sakura member confronts Ohtani with important news while the latter is getting his hair did at an upscale boutique. This harkens back to the theme of secrecy in ninja films; no one would expect the leader of a ninja gang to be out in public getting his mop tussled at some high-class hair salon. Is it possible that one of the deleted scenes in Revenge of the Ninja had Sho Kosugi getting a bikini wax or having his nails done? I suppose, but the Internet would have sniffed that out by now.


From the opening ninja theft scene to the glorious ninja climax, the action scenes in Sakura Killers are enjoyable and deliciously over the top. All of the performers are capable martial artists and the oft-frenetic pace of the fight scenes is captured nicely by the filmmakers without sacrificing too much to the Altar of the Overedited. The audience also gets a robust cross-section of ninja techniques: smoke-bomb costume transformations, burrowing and tunneling underground, and the requisite flipping repeatedly in the air with laser sound effects. The stunt team sells everything quite well and all of the principals show fluidity in their movements and look really at home with the pace of the fights, the American stars included.


Though this movie was technically a U.S.-Taiwan co-production, you can add Kelly and Nicholas to the list of American martial arts actors whose skills have been maximized by a quicker, Hong Kong style of fight choreography. It’s a bit of shame that neither guy had a long career in these types of films -- Kelly’s last role was a Referee in a Mighty Ducks sequel and Nicholas capped off his career in a 1992 Dennis Farina PM Entertainment joint -- but purely from an action perspective, Sakura Killers is a good piece of work upon which both actors can hang their respective hats.

VERDICT:
Here’s some real talk: you need to throw on a Hazmat suit and sift through a mountain of petrified crizzap to find good 1980s ninja movies. The combination of American studios and distributors trying to cash in on the craze, and the cut-and-paste production methods used by directors like Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai flooded the marketplace with subpar films featuring the archetype. While it doesn’t quite carry the torch for the ninja film genre, Sakura Killers is several grades above those types of efforts and a recommended watch.

AVAILABILITY:
VHS or all-region PAL DVD.

6 / 7

BONUS!
Karl Brezdin and Matt-suzaka cover Sakura Killers on the Midnite Ride podcast.

8.17.2011

Fist of Further Reading: One-Armed Liebster Meets the Five Deadly Blogs

For the past several weeks, I’ve been mulling over ways I might be able to more actively promote blog and site content that I dig. Blogrolls, while succinct, don’t really put recommended reading into context. My efforts to champion the great and relevant work of others who share similar cinematic interests will be a running feature going forward, but a recent development has given me a starting point.

Fist of B-List was called out as a recipient of the Liebster Award by my very good friend, Aaron of The Death Rattle. In addition to his work there, he’s also El Jefe for The Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema, so in short, he’s one of the hardest-working dudes in genre film coverage. Be sure to check out his written work as well as his terrific guest appearance on The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast, where he, Big Willie, and the Samurai covered the first two Howling movies. It will put hair on your balls (and probably your back).

Those who receive the Liebster Award are charged with passing on the achievement to five other blogs of their choosing, but each must have less than 200 Followers. There were plenty of folks I wanted to call out for their excellent work, but it seems only blogs that display their Followers gadget are eligible. So here are five that meet both criteria: having less than 200 regular readers, and being awesome on the regular.


The Ninja Squid - An awesome gal who features her art work, perfect screen captures and captions for films, and unbridled love for martial arts and Anthony Wong. A million times, yes.

Ninja Dixon - There’s always room for another blog with “ninja” in the title, especially when it features great writing about genre cinema from around the world.

Video Junkie Strikes Back from Beyond the Grave - Need proof that we’re blogging brothers from another mother? Check out the running Gweilo Dojo feature. Hilarious reviews of some really obscure cinema.

Lone Wolves and Hidden Dragons - The two authors have other blogs as well, but you need look no further for your Asian genre cinema fix.

When the Vietnam War raged... in the Philippines - One of the most unique editorial concepts you’re likely to find in the wide world of genre film blogging, executed to absolute perfection. Fantastic reading.

8.14.2011

To Be the Best (1993)

PLOT: A disgraced family of fighters is put to the ultimate test during a world championship kickboxing tournament in Las Vegas. No, not the MCAT. I mean, sure, it’s a difficult test, but why would you make a kickboxing movie set in Vegas and base the central conflict around the MCAT? That’s stupid.

Director: Joseph Merhi
Writer: Michael January
Cast: Michael Worth, Phillip Troy Lingers, Martin Kove, Alex Card, Brittney Powell, Steven Vincent Leigh, Vince Murdocco, Ron Yuan


PLOT THICKENER:
After classics like Five Fingers of Death, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Enter the Dragon, and Bloodsport, the drop-off to the next tier of tournament-themed martial arts movies is stark. With the incredible oversaturation of this subgenre that film fans observed during the late 1980s and early 90s, how much differentiation can there really be? Shootfighter added weapons and gore to the fights. Heatseeker added cyborgs and American Apparel leggings. For a fresh angle, Joseph Merhi’s 1993 film To Be the Best adds a round-robin point system, fight-rigging, and baggy American flag warm-up pants and I have to admit: that just might be a winning formula.

Legendary b-movie bad-ass Martin Kove plays Rick Kulhane, the alcoholic patriarch of a family of kickboxing has-beens. After taking a bribe to take a dive during a fight, his career was derailed by a combination of bad decisions and alcohol. If he’d only stuck to beer crafted by Sam Adams --in their words, “Always a Good Decision” -- he could have mitigated the ill effects of his behavior. For the record, that previous sentence was not paid for by Sam Adams, and I’m a little pissed about it, because they put out a fine product. Except Cherry Wheat, which sucks mightily.


Perhaps worse, Papa Kulhane’s past mistakes have taken root in his kickboxing sons, Eric (Worth) and Sam (Lingers). While Eric is still young and shows promise, Sam has gone down the same dark paths of greed and addiction as his father, and has been reduced to street fighting for cash. When Rick shows up at their gym to recruit five willing and qualified American fighters for a yearly international kickboxing tournament in Las Vegas, they’re energized by the possibilities. For all three men, it represents an opportunity to return glory to the Kulhane name. A win for the U.S. would spell redemption for Rick’s past misdeeds. A win for Sam would mean a validation of his long journey to defeat addiction and return to elite status in his sport. For Eric, the championship would provide financial security for his future with Cheryl (Powell), the woman he hopes to make his wife. For U.S. teammate Duke (Murdocco), the trip to Las Vegas represents an opportunity to get shitfaced and play Blackjack until he passes out.

Victory will be far from easy. The Thai team has won the event for the last five years and is comprised of one guy with brown hair who clearly isn’t Asian, and four guys with Chinese names, two of whom have vaguely Californian accents. Played by Steven Vincent Leigh, Hong Do (pronounced “dough”) is the team’s charismatic leader who has found that “everywhere I go, people love Hong Do.” Uh, YEAH. Who wouldn’t love a kickboxing rhymesmith? The Thais’ dominance doesn’t just extend to the ring though. During a scene that sees enough Zubaz and acid wash jeans to choke a Valley girl, the Thai and U.S. teams find themselves bowling next to each other at the local lanes and things quickly turn violent. Sadly, this is only the second best bowling-alley-conflict-that-directly-leads-to-an-arm-injury scene of the 1990s.


As if the temptations of booze, drugs, and women weren’t enough, a wealthy businessman who purports to be a friend of Cheryl’s father is in town to monitor the tournament. Played by Alex Cord, the sleazy Jack Rodgers never met a Bolo tie he didn’t like or a kickboxer he didn’t attempt to bribe. He targets the youngest Kulhane as a vulnerable pawn who he can buy off in order to manipulate the tournament results and rake in millions in gambling winnings. Will Eric cave to the same pressures that doomed his father and older brother? Can he overcome girlfriend troubles, death threats, and terrible fashion sense to win the championship? Furthermore, will Hong Do and the Thais continue their streak of dominance, or crumble like the Peach Cobbler served daily at the Wynn Brunch Buffet?

This was pretty decent and the overall spread of action in the film offers a little something for everyone. There’s an opening helicopter crash to satisfy a thirst for splosiony stunts, we get our requisite training montage complete with a freeze-frame outro, and a boat load of tournament fighting. Since it comprises the largest part of the action quotient, it’s probably the most deserving of extended critique.


If you’ve read these posts for a while, I’ve not made secret my distaste for fights in spaces like rings or cages. Beyond the obvious spacial limitations, they can constrict interaction with the surrounding environment that can really choke the creativity of the fight choreography. With the large-scale tournament device, the filmmakers are married to showing a lot of fights using the same space over and over, and it’s hard to get any one to stick out from the crowd. That said, it was pretty tolerable here. The themed Zubaz pants for each team was a nice visual touch and I appreciated that some fighters isolated and attack specific appendages to weaken their opponents. It’s a psychological trope common to pro wrestling, and speaking of pro wrestling, some of these fights have a lot of pro wrestling moves. Arm bars, backbreakers, and even a flying clothesline from the second rope pepper the otherwise punchy and kicky proceedings. While the moves don’t really have any logic or context in a legitimate kickboxing tournament, they’re apparently legal. Almost everything is legal in Las Vegas.


While the film’s central conflict surrounds Eric Kulhane and his rise-or-fall dilemma, this is an ensemble piece and everyone gets their fair share of screen time. Michael Worth was pretty decent as the lead, which is to say neither his fighting nor his acting sucked badly enough to detract from the viewing experience. Phillip Troy Lingers was equally up for the task as Sam; again, solid dramatically, but otherwise nothing noteworthy. The real glue was Martin Kove, who guzzled down scotch-and-sodas with ease and rocked a swank Los Angeles Raiders leather jacket for the majority of the film. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do any fighting but still commands the screen better than about 80% of the cast and conveys Rick Kulhane’s human flaws believably while still playing the role of the good guy mentor.

To Be the Best is a film replete with villains -- the dominant and cocky Thai team and the Vegas mobsters among them -- but the main villain is the fight-rigging Jack Rodgers. This character was dangerously close to villainfiller territory but this perception was upended by the terrific performance of Alex Card. Scheming middle-aged businessmen are by no means an original archetype in these films, but Card turned Jack Rodgers into Halliburton executive material: a rich, sleazy, and batshit-crazy asshole. From the soft-spoken manner with which he initially approaches Cheryl, to his turn as a violent and double-crossing hothead, Card makes you believe both extremes and everything in between. He doesn’t really fight per se, but like James Hong in Talons of the Eagle, his performance is so good that he doesn’t have to.


VERDICT:
To Be the Best features a few interesting characters, some good performances, amazing jackets, and moderately entertaining in-ring fights. This one came during the latter portion of Joseph Merhi’s career and directorially, he was in the groove. Tune in for the familiar faces and the unbridled onslaught of American flag themed warm-up pants. Though not without flaws, To Be the Best is an entertaining watch for the kickboxing-inclined.

AVAILABILITY:
Amazon, Netflix, EBay.

4.5 / 7

8.04.2011

Ring of Fire II: Blood and Steel (1993)

PLOT: A doctor’s fiancee is kidnapped by a ruthless gang and taken to a hide-out deep below Los Angeles. Can he and his friends battle through various underworld gangs to save her, or will they pass out after a massive lunch order of Double-Doubles from In-N-Out Burger?

Director: Richard W. Munchkin
Writers: Richard W. Munchkin, Steve Tymon, Paul Maslak
Cast: Don Wilson, Ian Jacklin, Sy Richardson, Evan Lurie, Dale Jacoby, Maria Ford, Vince Murducco, Eric Lee, Ron Yuan, Gerald Okamura, David Loo


PLOT THICKENER:
The Blackjack Hall of Fame counts mathematicians and computer analysts among its members. Its 2009 inductee also happens to be the director of the 1993 film, Ring of Fire 2: Blood and Steel. So was Richard W. Munchkin’s choice to follow up his 1991 Don Wilson vehicle a gamble? Will the return of Maria Ford as Julie be a total bust? Does the film double up the action of the original and hit you with the whole loaf of kung-fu, or stand by idly and force you to split? Having exhausted my full arsenal of terrible jokes incorporating Blackjack terminology, let’s get to the movie.

In the first installment of the Ring of Fire saga, the filmmakers combined elements of West Side Story with Kickboxer and washed it down with a chaser of racial tension and Zubaz pants. For the sequel, Munchkin and company crib from the Mad Max franchise, The Warriors, and almost every search-and-rescue film you’ve ever seen. The question is not so much whether the sequel improves upon its predecessor. Rather: do I like a movie that shamelessly rips off a lot of fun genre movies more than one which borrows heavily from a musical I was forced to watch during my freshman year of high school?


The last time we saw Johnny Wu (Wilson) and Julie (Ford), he was carrying her out of an arena after her brother accidentally stabbed her with a samurai sword. Their relationship has since evolved into an engagement, and the opening scene finds the lovebirds shopping for a ring. Unfortunately, a group of thieves are pulling a smash-and-grab at that very store and one thug has his eye on Julie’s rock. When she resists, he uses the pimp hand, which is generally inadvisable in the presence of Dr. Wu, the best kickboxing surgeon in cinema history. He puts the jerk through a window but before the gang scatters, Julie is shot. A car chase ensues between the cops and robbers, and one carsplosion and five smashed panels of glass later, we’re off to a good start.

Johnny tends to Julie’s wounds at the hospital just in time for her to be kidnapped by Predator (Lurie), the number-one guy in a gang run by the devious Kalin, played by Ian Jacklin. Following a skirmish at the hospital in which his brother is shot, Kalin gets arrested, vows revenge and Johnny is left to freak out over the disappearance of his fiancee. Kalin’s in police custody for all of about five minutes, as Predator runs the county prison bus off the road and uses his mind bullets to make it explode as the thugs escape to their underground lair (literally).


What do you do when the love of your life gets kidnapped by a bunch of guys who look like they wandered off the set of The Road Warrior? You call your boy Ron Yuan (reprising his role as Li) on his car phone and tell him to assemble the crew. In this case, the crew consists of Li, Kwong (Eric Lee), and the two guys they were fighting to the death in a race war only six weeks ago in Chuck (Murducco) and Brad (Jacoby). It was comforting to see these characters back, but it was a little surreal to see Jacoby as a good guy. He practically made a career out of douchey, Zabka-lite villain roles, and his face-turn felt like bad pro wrestling booking more than the organic result of virtuous actions.

Johnny can’t wait for his buddies because they’re too busy surfing or eating guacamole or some other time-consuming activity common to native Californians, so he goes it alone. Within seconds of entering their underground lair, Johnny is attacked by a bunch of dudes in goalie masks brandishing flash lights. A homeless veteran named Ernest (Richardson) comes to Johnny’s aid before begrudgingly leading him through the hobo underground to where Julie is being held by Kalin. Along the way, they encounter all manner of fighting gangs in weird outfits. There’s the Garbage Gang, a group of rowdies in trash-covered football shoulder pads. The Shadow Warriors do not dress in all black, but rather in colorful outfits with day-glo paint smeared on their faces. The Nightrats are not rat-human hybrids, but guys on rollerblades and skateboards with head-mounted flashlights. Would you believe that the majority of the film’s budget went towards a Russian-built supercomputer used to generate these ingenious naming conventions?


After Johnny and Ernest fight through the various gangs, the trailing Li, Kwong, Brad, and Chuck get the sloppy seconds and do some fighting of their own. This pattern continues all the way to the final showdown, where Kalin and company preside over a cage and a wild and unwashed crowd. It’s never stated what the purpose of the fighting venue is, but we’ll have to assume it’s something to pass the time when you’re living in the Los Angeles sewer system.

A quick note for you burgeoning filmmakers out there: just because you load up on neon wardrobe and flashlights, it doesn’t mean you can skimp on lighting. There were stretches where it was tough to see the movement during action scenes simply because they weren’t lit well enough. Beyond that, Munchkin makes decent use of the locations and the film definitely has a choked, dark, subterranean feel to it. And no, I did not draw that conclusion because I practice autoerotic asphyxiation while watching films to review... although that is an interesting idea for one of those month-long, themed post series.

The story structure of the various “mini-boss” gang fights is a good device for driving up the action quotient. The quality of the fights varies though. During an isolated stretch, Eric Lee puts on the best fight in the movie where he wards off some attackers with a three-section staff. The fights in Kalin’s cage are decent, but they have the same limitations on space and visuals that shooting through the obstacle of chain link fencing always does. Still, everyone gets to show their stuff and the editing was often reminiscent of the Wing Kong/Chang Sing alley fight in Big Trouble in Little China: quick cuts between shots of impacting blows with less attention given to flowy combination exchanges.


The cast of characters is solid. Eric Lee is amusing as Kwong, equal parts nervous wreck and total horndog. Yuan, Murducco, and Jacoby do little to stand out beyond Murducco’s unprompted “LET’S GET NAKED!” line when they encounter a gang of foxy females. Evan Lurie has some decent lines and may have been a more menacing main villain. However, from the ridiculous clothes and accessories (BBQ rib necklace?) to the obvious wig, Jacklin nails his part as Kalin.

The scene that made it for me was a phone call he makes to Johnny at the hospital to deliver his ransom demand of $250,000 in exchange for Julie. She grabs the phone and screams for her lover not to buy the bait. He bops her on the head with the receiver and with a spoken cadence straight out of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, admonishes her: “I’M TRYING TO USE THE PHONE!” before telling Johnny, “pardon me, your wife was being a bitch.” Amazing.

VERDICT:
At the end of the day, Ring of Fire II: Blood and Steel is an offbeat and enjoyable sequel. It’s less grim in tone and the filmmakers had some fun with the different gangs and their respective wardrobes. It doesn’t quite have me itching for the continued adventures of Dr. Johnny Wu and his merry band of meatheads, but that’s not the goal. At its essence, it’s derivative and disposable DTV action that has its moments. Tune in for Eric Lee hamming it up, some absurd villain performances, and the silly costumes.

AVAILABILITY:
VHS or Instant Download on Amazon, DVD or VHS on EBay.

5 / 7
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