12.29.2012

Psycho Kickboxer (1997)

PLOT: After a kickboxer gets engaged to his girlfriend, the couple’s plans for matrimony are derailed -- not by lousy choices of the catering service or wedding band, but by homicide. Will he take vengeance on the crime boss responsible? Better yet, can he get his deposit back from the wedding venue?

Directors: David Haycox, Mardy South
Writers: Kathy Varner (screenplay), Danny Dennison (story)
Cast: Curtis Bush, Kathy Reynolds, Rodney Suitor, Tom Story, Rick Clark

PLOT THICKENER:
Following in the footsteps of those before him -- Don “The Dragon” Wilson, and Jerry “Golden Boy” Trimble included -- Curtis “The Explosive Thin Man” Bush swapped out his gloves and shin guards for acting in 1990, when he played “Poacher/Ninja” in an obscure Canadian kickboxing movie called Dragon Hunt. After a few years of supporting roles, he graduated to star performer in 1997’s Psycho Kickboxer. While it’s true that we’ve failed to cover anything in the Best of the Best franchise, any of Jeff Speakman’s output, and not a single fucking Lorenzo Lamas movie, I guess I’m a sucker for box art depicting a ninja kicking a dude’s head off his body with blood spurting out.

A kickboxing Virginian named Alex Hunter (Bush) has his world turned upside down when both his new fiancee and his police chief father are murdered by goons working for Hawthorne (Story), the foppish crime boss Papa Hunter was trying to lock away. Shot and left for dead, Alex awakens days later to find that a handicapped homeless war veteran named Joshua (Suiter) has taken him in, healed his wounds, and nursed him back to health. While grateful, Alex laments the lost opportunity to protect his loved ones, recounting the terrible event with all the raw emotion of an elderly man reading letters off an eye chart. It turns out that Hawthorne is a common enemy for both men; Joshua reveals that he was paralyzed by Hawthorne’s gang. He wants Alex to act as his legs and warns that their vengenace hinges upon Alex “controlling the animal." Whatever dude.


Among other activities, controlling the animal consists of Alex hitting the heavy bag, doing sit-ups, running along a beach, and dressing up like a ninja while stopping petty criminals from committing everything from armed robbery to grand theft auto. He also scares some children from spraypainting the side of a warehouse, an act which experts agree is either a gateway crime to more violent deeds or a good way to break into the art world. His completely unoriginal brand of vigilante justice earns Alex the moniker of "The Dark Angel" in the media and catches the interest of private investigator Jack Cook (Clark) and a character named Cassie Wells (Reynolds) who may or may not have been a journalist, but definitely had a topless scene.


We should probably start off with the good. Curtis Bush has a solid moustache and you can tell that he's a legitimate fighter; he’s athletic, his strikes are crisp and his kicks in particular are delivered with great form. However, sabotaging Bush’s display of physical skills is the usual three-headed Ghidorah of pedestrian choreography, poor camera angles, and amateurish editing. Some unusual touches brighten up this blueprint on occasion. Alex dons his ninja gear to fight a pair of gangbangers donned in Zubaz pants in the middle of the day on the Virginia Beach boardwalk as beachgoers observe with confused restraint. In a scene that recalls Lady Snowblood’s unique combination of cinematic violence and serene snowfall, Bush’s character kicks a bag of cocaine in the air and covers two violent drug dealers in Colombian Marching Powder before beating them unconscious.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ridiculous amount of gore strewn throughout the film: a gruesome headshot in an ode to Tom Savini’s work in Maniac, a crushed head beneath a car tire, and a chopped hand during a tense gang meeting are some of the highlights. I counted one instance where chocolate syrup was substituted for blood, and it honestly would’ve been better used on ice cream or mixed with bourbon, as I often do when lacking more suitable mixers.

On what was, no doubt, a shoestring budget, directors David Haycox and Mardy South prove occasionally capable. While Haycox won’t get any comparisons to Christopher Doyle or Dean Cundey for his camera work, he frames a few good shots throughout the film but the frequent use of steadicam was nauseating. There’s no major technical faux pas on the level of a visible boom mic or crash mat, but the film looks really washed out and poorly lit overall. That can be forgiven considering the budget, but a better effort in this area alone could have elevated the content. The directing duo’s attention to gore is both curious and gratuitous, so I obviously loved it. In a kickboxing movie filled with shit lighting and SNES-level music, I appreciated that they flouted most tenets of technically sound filmmaking to focus on executing not one, but two exploding head scenes. Perhaps to the film’s benefit, they leaned on a lot of footage of a pair of radio DJ personalities talking about The Dark Angel's deeds to pad out the running time. While grating, they provide an element of quirk to the story which, outside of the Joshua character, the film sorely lacks.


VERDICT:
If you got through the trailer for this movie and thought anything other than “I’ve been waiting my entire life for a movie that combines video-quality production values, kickboxing, campy gore, and on-air banter from Virginia radio DJs” you are going to be sorely disappointed by Psycho Kickboxer. I think a weak script left Curtis Bush vulnerable to some fairly awful moments -- screams of despair and dialogue that exposes his discomfort with emoting come to mind -- but he acquits himself reasonably well during fight scenes. At the end of the day, this is a quirky slice of movie-making best enjoyed amongst friends. Forgiving, non-judgemental, extremely stoned, possibly unconscious friends.

AVAILABILITY:
Amazon, Netflix, EBay.

3.5 / 7

12.01.2012

Miami Connection (1987)

PLOT: A synth rock band comprised of taekwondo orphans battles drug dealers, ninja bikers, and drug-dealing ninja bikers during the heyday of Central Florida's cocaine epidemic.

Directors: Y.K. Kim, Woo-sang Park
Writers: Y.K. Kim, Woo-sang Park, Joseph Diamand
Cast: Y.K. Kim, William Eagle, Vincent Hirsch, Si Y Jo, Joseph Diamand, Maurice Smith, Angelo Janotti, Kathy Collier






PLOT THICKENER:
On one side of the room, there are martial arts movies about ninjas. On the other side of the room, there are martial arts movies about gangs. Lining the staircase are martial arts movies featuring drug deals. But sitting alone in a darkened corner of the room, sharpening its katana sword with a wild look in its eyes, is a movie involving a gang of drug-dealing ninjas. That movie is 1987’s Miami Connection. Co-directed by Woo-sang Park of L.A. Streetfighters fame and taekwondo master Y.K. Kim, this film had taken on a “holy grail” quality, having eluded me for years since I’d first caught wind of it through YouTube clips and blog coverage. The inflated VHS price bordered on criminal and Brezdin don’t torrent, so I resigned myself to the likelihood that I’d never see it. When you deal with a sub-genre peppered with titles that have never seen a U.S. video release, this comes with the territory.

In the spring of 2012, though, a 35mm print of the film was acquired by the distribution wing of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the rest is history. In a true rarity, I found myself in the viewing audience for a 1980s American martial arts b-movie in a local, independent, one-screen repertory theater on a chilly Sunday night recently. I haven’t been to a ton of late-night cult film showings, so I couldn’t quite prepare myself for the scene that unfolded. This screening of Miami Connection was, without a doubt, the best time I’ve had at a movie theater in recent memory.


The inciting incident is appropriately lively. During a cocaine deal between two gangs, a group of motorcycle-riding ninjas crashes the party and grabs the cash and the stash, leaving a trail of bodies behind in the process. That trail leads to Yashito (Jo), head ninja boss and motorcycle enthusiast. When he isn’t rocking a silk scarf with his leather jackets during rides to the biker bar, he’s wearing rather conspicuous white ninja garb during the gang’s business operations. All the better to show off the blood of his enemies.

Yashito’s homeboy is Jeff (Eagle), a cocaine dealer whose beard has relentless coverage and thickness. He’s fond of sleeveless tees, camouflage pants, and his single sabre tooth earring. It’s small enough to scream “accessory” but probably large enough to be used as a weapon in a pinch. His gang life and cocaine-dealing has left him hardened, but a soft spot for his sister Julie (Collier) remains. He shows this by berating her in public and punching out her boyfriend, John (Hirsch) upon meeting him. Good thing John didn’t retaliate, because he could have hurt his hand, which would have made it awfully hard to play bass in his synth rock band, Dragon Sound.


Joining John on bass and Julie on vocals are John’s roommates, fellow orphans, and taekwondo classmates. There's Mark (Kim), whose unorthodox guitar-holding form is as eye-catching as his spin kicks. Keyboardist Jim (Smith) puts on a happy face during gigs but harbors a sad past. Rounding out the line-up are drummer Jack (Diamand) and lead guitarist and mulleted, mustachioed vocalist Tom (Janotti). The crew has just started a gig as the house band for a hot local night club, and their shows are wild affairs, full of fist pumps and dancing teenagers. The band members either wear matching "DRAGON SOUND" shirts, or their taekwondo gis (the former is certainly the bigger faux pas of the two). Their success has the former house band jealous with rage, makes Jeff seething with anger, and turns biker ninja gang leaders frothing with murderous intent.

The film is a blast. There are so many things that I could say about it, but none would adequately capture the experience. That, and for some reason people have grown rather sensitive about distractions during movie theater viewings, so I couldn't take notes. The performances are about what one should expect out of a group of non-actor martial artists, but it only adds to the film's charm. Along with Cory Yuen, Woo-san Park pretty much wrote the book on unusual interpretations of the young American male by Asian directors, so the head-scratching behavior of the characters borders on otherworldly. I'm not sure there was much of a script with which to work -- characters routinely disappear for long periods of time and one character with an open chest wound is dragged through bacteria-filled swamp water by a friend -- but it barely matters. Embrace the weirdness and you will be rewarded handsomely.


While the fight scenes are technically unspectacular for the most part, there’s a kinetic energy about them that makes them highly watchable. Of all the principals, Kim and Hirsch and the ones who stand out. Kim because he seems legitimately skilled and puts on a good rage face during the climax, and Hirsch because he's so friggin' gangly. Seriously, he's like Joey Ramone combined with an awkward pre-teen Michael Phelps. The filmmakers inject the climax with excessive slow-motion, a ton of blood spurts, and a band member battle wound so upsetting that it had a crowd of 60 theater-goers screaming "NOOOO!" in unison at the screen.

I love that this film is getting wide praise and mainstream press. I love that it’s getting a Bluray release with deluxe collector’s edition packaging options (for fuck’s sake, you can get Dragon Sound on 7” vinyl!) I love that Y.K. Kim, once shamed for this film, is now feeling a sense of vindication. It’s well-paced, violent, campy, clumsy, rewatchable, and a lot of other adjectives that go into the secret stew of what makes these kinds of film so enjoyable. For all its zany moments and offbeat weirdness, though, I don’t think it’s much “better” or worse than a lot of films residing near the high watermark of American martial arts b-movies. I really dug Miami Connection and its production backstory is compelling, but why this particular film has been elevated over so many others like it is, for me, a bit of a mystery.


That being said, this movie will be a litmus test. If a cinematic artifact of the 1980s American martial arts craze is demonstrated to be newly popular and profitable in the second decade of the 21st century, that could be game-changing for hardcore fans of this sub-genre, and genre film fans in general. Would a genre film distributor -- Drafthouse Films or otherwise -- continue to acquire the rights to more obscure American chopsocky? Could we see a No Retreat, No Surrender trilogy get the high-definition treatment with commentary from figures like Loren Avedon and Keith Strandberg? Might Woo-sang’s L.A. Streetfighters find new life as a fixture of midnight movie rotations in independent theaters across the U.S.? However unlikely those possibilities, the unique distribution model for Miami Connection has started a conversation about how forgotten genre films might find bigger audiences in modern times. That alone is important.

VERDICT:
I’ve only seen it just this once, and perhaps the rowdy live experience has colored my critical lens. From where I’m standing, though, Miami Connection can take its rightful place alongside standard-bearers like Undefeatable, No Retreat, No Surrender, and L.A. Streetfighters as one of the most entertaining films of its kind. This is a film so endearing, so gratuitously violent, and so enjoyable, that it simply needs to be seen to be believed. If you’ve ever visited this blog on purpose or purely by chance, I implore you to support this movie by whatever means you can. Whether it’s rounding up a posse and heading to a screening, or buying the “Oh My God!” Edition for yourself on your parents’ dime, the success of Miami Connection could determine whether or not audiences get more film releases like this in the future.

AVAILABILITY:
Limited release in theaters nationwide. Will be released on DVD and Bluray on December 11, 2012.

6.5 / 7

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