The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema
This is the rare podcast for which I'll delay all other music and podcast listening when their episodes drop. Hosted by Big Willie and The Samurai, the GGtMC has a high degree of relistenability and you'll want to keep a notepad nearby to jot down the various names and titles referenced throughout the runtime of each episode. It's a special kind of podcast that features nuanced and sophisticated discussion of film without making the slide towards pretension, while also leaving room for quips about boobs, mustaches, leather pants, and mesh tank tops. If you consider yourself a fan of genre films (or mesh tank tops), I can't recommend it strongly enough.
Jump Off Episodes:
Episode 99: Undefeatable Butthorn - This was the first episode I recall that made me laugh uncontrollably during my morning commute as NYC subway riders watched me nervously and made snide comments. The gents bring in Pickleloaf (co-host of the Silva and Gold podcast) to lay the critical smack down on Godfrey Ho's Undefeatable and the Gary Busey action trash romp Bulletproof. Brace yourself fools!
Episode 136: Super Violators - One of the more action-heavy episodes the Gentlemen have produced. Hilarious reviews of the Strandberg-penned Seasonal Films gem Superfights and the b-grade action opus Parole Violators.
Episode 143: Night Breathing - I'm showing totally blatant bias by plugging an episode that I had the good fortune to program, but they did cover FoBL favorite, Breathing Fire, so it's still relevant. Also features coverage of the terrific psychological thriller Night Warning with Susan Tyrrell and Bo Svenson.
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Paul De Mielche, Avi Kleinberger, Gideon Amir, James R. Silke
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Tadashi Yamashita, Judie Aronson, Guich Koock, Don Stewart, Nick Nicholson
This space is a little over a year old and I’ve yet to make any Internet enemies, so I’ve resorted to inventing detractors in my head. These medieval dickweeds often pose the question: how can you dedicate your content to Western martial arts b-films and not cover American Ninja? I’ll admit that ignoring it up to this point was a conscious choice. We try to cover movies wallowing in straight-to-video obscurity, not a Cannon Films picture that scored $3.2 million in its opening weekend. Our preference is for real martial artists giving the acting thing a go, not a model-turned-actor who had no real martial arts credits prior to filming. Last, I may have ignored it on a subconscious level out of pure shame. Before watching it for this review, I’d never even seen American Ninja. What’s that high-pitched wheeze? Oh, right: the sound of my tattered Internet credibility disappearing into the ether.
After a string of small parts in films like Bloody Birthday and Bachelor Party, Michael Dudikoff was handed the ball for American Ninja and told to run with it. (Secretly and under the cover of smokebombs, of course; this was a ninja movie). Ninjas had done some Entering and Revenging at the box office, but never American-style, and Dudikoff was the handsome (white) devil of Cannon Films producers’ dreams. He plays Army Private Joe Armstrong, a soft-spoken amnesic military truck driver stationed in the Philippines who has a penchant for effortlessly beating the shit out of people. That’s right. Without American Ninja, there would be no Jason Bourne films. Ignore the fact that The Bourne Identity novel was written in 1980, and that quip is a lot funnier.
During an ambush on his unit that leaves several fellow soldiers dead, Armstrong survives using a mix of unique fighting skills (punching) and improvisation (a screwdriver and tire iron) to fight off a group of ninja attackers. Instead of getting the hero’s treatment for saving the daughter of Col. Hickock (Koock), Armstrong is reprimanded and shunned by the entire base. They all seem to think his aggression caused a lot of unnecessary deaths. Armstrong seems to think that being a giant pussy is no way to act around ninjas.
Tough-as-nails corporal and fighting expert Curtis Jackson (James) wants to make an example out of Armstrong because no one likes a “glory boy” when it comes at the cost of teamwork. Instead, Jackson gets his ass handed to him in front of his peers and underlings. He’s not so much embarrassed or angry as he is curious about where Armstrong picked up such advanced skills, and they become pals. Theirs is the latest in a long line of action movie friendships forged during the act of trying to beat the piss out of each other.
Armstrong is going to need all the help he can get, because he stumbles upon a devious arrangement between the local American military leadership and a black market arms dealer named Ortega (Stewart) that could blow the roof off the establishment. In order to get the guilty parties, he’ll have to go through an army of ninjas led by Ortega’s main hatchet man, Black Star Ninja (Yamashita). No one actually calls him this by name, but he has a cute little black star tattoo on his face. Could have been a birthmark or a mole, I don’t fucking know.
American Ninja is definitely a movie I would have loved as a nine year-old burgeoning martial arts student. Which is not to say you can’t dig this as an adult, because the action moves at a great clip and the ninja-heavy climax cuts loose and properly zany. Brandishing more than two screenwriters is usually a clue that the resulting film will be a fucking mess, but unlike a lot of other projects with a Frankenstein crew of scribes, it manages to keep its head above water for the most part.
In what amounts to his first real leading role, Dudikoff is reasonably OK. He doesn’t bring much charisma, has little emotional conviction in his line delivery, and is a neutral element in some otherwise entertaining fight scenes. I don’t doubt that he honed his craft and improved over the course of the franchise and his career, but he doesn’t do enough on either the action or dramatic fronts to carry the film, nor is he bad enough to be laughably entertaining. The real star of this affair is Steve James -- the man is an absolute bad-ass and unlike the fresh-faced Dudikoff, he looks the part. Fortunately, he supplies enough personality and screen presence for the both of them. And of course, by personality and screen presence, I mean an awesome “helicopter explosion by way of rocket launcher” scene.
One other note: Judie Aronson plays Patricia, Armstrong’s love interest and the Colonel’s daughter. As I did, a lot of people will remember her from Weird Science as Hilly, the eventual love interest of Wyatt Donnelly. That film featured prominently in my youth, and I thought it was important to mention that even as an kid, I thought she was the hottest chick in that entire film, which is a little odd because the whole point of the movie is to give you a giant hard-on for Kelly LeBrock and her cosmic abilities and sexy outfits. Also, Steve James had an uncredited role in Weird Science. How’s that for some full circle shit?
American Ninja ranks very favorably in the canon of 1980s American action films. No one in their right mind is going to confuse Michael Dudikoff for Sho Kosugi or even Leo Fong in terms of actual martial arts skills, but the filmmakers manage to hide his lack of training through a delicate balance of pace, editing, and absurdity. Might this have been a better action effort with a young Jean Claude Van Damme in the lead role? Perhaps, but the world wasn’t quite ready for American Ninja with a Belgian Accent.
Wide and large.
Exiled from Contentment
Unlike a lot of sites I like to highlight, I have very little content overlap with Exiled from Contentment. I call him out almost solely because he's one of my favorite film writers to read, whether he's covering Michael Bay movies or a sizzling chop of 1970s genre cinema like Prime Cut. Memories are hazy, but I think I came across EFC initially while performing drunken web searches for Kill Squad or Hard Target or Albert Pyun. Most important, it’s the only blog for which I routinely violate my rule about avoiding posts in excess of 1500 words. EFC has a self-effacing, rant-like style of writing laced with profanity and coated with pure gold and he looks at new and old films alike. Even better, he’s one of many lucky bastards who lives within traveling distance of the Tarantino-owned New Beverly Cinema and his write-ups of their double features are required reading.
Jump-Off Post: Hard Target
Director: Teddy Page
Writer: Nothing to see here
Cast: Sean P. Donahue, Jerry Beyer, Ned Hourani, Jim Gaines, Jim Moss, Christine Landson, Nick Nicholson
As a premise, the home invasion unfurls a plethora of engaging narrative possibilities. Filmmakers might set the stage for a kid-friendly slapstick opus (Home Alone), an exercise in sadistic aggression with social commentary (Funny Games), or a rumination on the relationship between masculinity and brutality (Straw Dogs). It’s used primarily in horror and thriller films as of late, but the device is somewhat underutilized in the action genre. In Teddy Page’s 1990 film, Blood Hands, a home invasion is used as the impetus to hurl its central character into a protracted feud with a gang of kickboxing baddies. I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a special thanks to the very awesome Australian behind the Explosive Action film blog for facilitating my viewing of this film. He also has a review up containing some hilarious screen-caps as well as a fight scene clip. Be sure to read it here for another angle on the film.
Up until finding the lifeless bodies of his mother and father at home, Steve Callahan (Donahue) was having a pretty good day. His girlfriend, Tracy (Landson) professed her love, it was his birthday, and while sparring at his kickboxing school, his coach and prospective father-in-law nodded in something that resembled approval. A giant wet blanket comes in the form of his violated home and pummeled parents left for dead. What kind of animals would do this to such gentle people? Tigers or great white sharks are good guesses, but the most likely culprits are humans.
The leader of the guilty party is champion kickboxer James Clavel (Hourani). After a drunken celebration with his homeboys which accidentally left a convenience store owner dead, the crew stumbled upon the Callahan home to get fresh water for an overheated car radiator. As luck would have it, Diane Callahan just happens to be Clavel’s ex-squeeze, and even though she’s moved on to a new marriage, his old feelings come rushing back with such force that he ended up breaking her neck in a jealous rage. When doting husband Edward (Nicholson) returned home with a birthday cake for his son, the gang greeted him with a fatal beating. The lesson here? Drinking and driving can lead to death, even if you’re not in the car and especially when you fail to monitor the temperature gauge on the thermostat.
The only clue left behind at the scene of the crime, not to mention the biggest one the cops overlook, is a championship kickboxing medallion torn from the neck of Clavel’s buddy, George (Moss). Tracy brings it to Steve while alternately begging him to take it to the police instead of trying to chase clues on his own. While the medallion gives Steve a solid lead on the perpetrators, they’re also on the hunt to recover it and the respective pursuits lead to more trouble than Steve bargained for. All the while, Tracy begs for her love to quit this path of vengeance; he’s no murderer and she doesn’t want to see his hands “stained with blood.” However, seeking justice requires you to occasionally get your hands dirty. Sometimes you need to get your hands stained....with BLOOD.
We’ve previously covered director Teddy Page’s film, Blood Chase, and despite its confusing structure, the plot dealt with both protagonists and antagonists pursuing the same objective while alternately pursuing each other. There’s something similar going on in Blood Hands, but it’s more streamlined and easier to follow. Is the inciting incident believable? That depends on how much stock you place in the ability of cheap beer to cause homicidal behavior. So while the story’s not perfect, or even that logical, it’s engaging to watch unfold.
As in all his films, Page keeps the action flowing almost non-stop and everyone is up for the task. Based on their martial arts training, Hourani, Donahue, and Jerry Beyer as henchman Diego are the best-equipped to execute the fight choreography but the efforts of non-fighters like Nick Nicholson, Jim Gaines, and Jim Moss are also admirable. What really stuck out for me were the awesomely cheesy sound effects. Plenty of whooshes and the repeated thwack of baseball bats hitting heads of lettuce are up for consumption, and they’re synced reasonably well with the on-screen strikes. Some people hate that shit, but in a movie of this grade I think it’s an absolute necessity. Last, I really dug that Page went with a “mini-boss” style of climax that saw Donahue fighting a mix of random dudes before tangling with Clavel. Pair all that with some grisly deaths and I’m skipping toward the closing credits a very happy camper.
This is yet another notch in the belt for a group of actors that includes Nicholson, Moss, and Gaines, among many others. One or more of these guys made appearances in pretty much every Filipino kickpuncher from 1985 to around 1995. Conspicuous by his absence is Mike Monty, but the brother had five film credits to his name in 1990 alone, including two Black Cobra sequels. In keeping with the Rat Pack, the Frat Pack, and the Brat Pack, this collective of mostly American actors adventuring in the Filipino action film industry during this era really begs for a unifying nickname. My offering: the Expat Pack. (Hopefully it sticks because I had several thousand t-shirts printed with plans for a limited edition series of Trapper Keepers and lunchboxes).
Looking at the VHS cover, you might be disappointed to observe that while there is blood on our star, it’s on his face and chest. Conspicuously absent from his hands? Blood! So what gives? The fucking movie isn’t called Chest Blood and Denim (awesome title, btw). Fear not, though -- I’m happy to report that Blood Hands is a rare b-grade action film that actually delivers on what its title promises and its box art fails to convey: actual blood on actual hands.
One of the quirks we often encounter in watching these movies is the appearance of film posters from other properties in which the film company holds stake. In Showdown, some characters walk by a Breathing Fire poster in a movie theater (the distribution and/or production of both films involved Imperial Entertainment). In the climax of the PM Entertainment joint, Rage, Gary Daniels tosses a half-dozen motherfuckers among the shelves at a mall video store and the walls are plastered in posters of PM Entertainment flicks. Something similar happens in Blood Hands. Keep in mind that this was filmed in the Philippines, which apparently allowed the filmmakers to flout any semblance of licensing or copyright protocol and slap a poster of the JCVD classic Kickboxer on the wall during a scene where Steve visits the office of a film producer. A bit egregious, but they covered themselves legally using the “absurd superimposed handlebar moustache” loophole.
From what I’ve seen, this is probably Donahue’s most concerted effort at doing a straight martial arts film and the results are solid. The plot is hardly original and the script is practically non-existent, but if you like your kickboxing with a heaping side of bad acting and terrible dialogue, Blood Hands fits the bill. While it doesn’t reach the heights of the previously reviewed Parole Violators, it’s still a fun romp and a good starting point to observe how Donahue’s early exploits in fight-heavy Filipino actioners paved the way for his batshit-insane stunt antics in his later films.
Extremely difficult to come by. Even non-R1 copies in circulation seem to be few and far between. Cross your fingers and happy snagging.