12.27.2013

Enter the Podcast: Blood Hands, Elves and the GGTMC


If you follow my exploits through social media, you may already be aware that I recently guested on two podcast episodes under the white leather banner of The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema. For my final post of 2013, I wanted to describe each in a bit more detail for discriminating post-holiday shoppers with limited time budgets.

Are you a fan of foreign films featuring creatively staged fights with edge weapons, sweaty villains, ruined birthday celebrations, dogs named after iconic action stars of the 1980s, and characters being tied to train tracks? You are? That’s pretty random, but you’ll want to check out Episode 267, where I join Matt-suzaka of the Chuck Norris Ate My Baby blog, along with hosts Large William and The Samurai to discuss the 1985 Shaw Brothers action classic Hong Kong Godfather, and 1990’s Filipino fight film, Blood Hands. You may remember that we reviewed the latter film in this space back in 2011. This episode is a great refresher if you can’t remember what I (or you) thought about the film. I assure you that the conversation we have about it on the podcast contains far more giggles and Razor Ramon references than anything I could have produced with the written word.

Episode 267 of the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema (right-click, Save Link As)

Does the thought of a movie with bad creature effects, bathtub electrocution, pervy mall Santas, and Grizzly Adams make your tree water boil with anticipation? If so, be sure to check out Episode 22 of the GGtMC’s short-form companion program, the Midnite Ride. Matt-suzaka and I join forces once again to break down 1989’s Elves, a thoughtful last-minute gift to the world of cinema if there ever was one. A big thanks to Matt for sticking it out through some technical goofs to get this puppy recorded! Be sure to pay him a visit at his blog and compliment him on his black silk underwear.

Episode 22 of the Midnite Ride (right click, Save Link As)

A massive thanks to my friends Will and Sammy at the GGtMC for allowing me to participate in the holiday shenanigans this year! Be sure to visit them on the web or subscribe to their fine program on iTunes.

12.24.2013

Trained to Kill (1989)

PLOT: Following the murder of their father, two brothers must combine their skills and train together to fight his killers. Aided only by dirtbikes, denim, and a single spiked fingerless glove, they must "prepare," "prevail," and "survive," as dictated by the rock song that plays during their training montage.

Director: H. Kaye Dyal
Writers: H. Kaye Dyal, Arthur Webb
Cast: Frank Zagarino, Glen Eaton, Robert Z’Dar, Marshall Teague, Harold Diamond, Henry Silva, Ron O’Neal, Lisa Aliff, Chuck Connors, Kane Hodder


PLOT THICKENER
About eight years ago, I went on vacation in the Caribbean and found myself toweling off on a beach in St. Thomas. It would have been easy enough to drip-dry, because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was at least 90 degrees. I observed a heavy-set man jogging back and forth along the shoreline for at least 45 minutes straight. He was sweating harder than Kobayashi speed-eating ghost peppers. Why exercise so rigorously out here? The lack of shade and the uneven ground of the sand seemed like a surefire recipe for ankle sprains and heat stroke.

Beach training has been a fixture in action cinema ever since Balboa and Creed sprinted and splashed and bro-hugged their way into our hearts back in Rocky III. We’ve actually seen it here at least once before and I have no doubt we’ll see it again, but 1989’s Trained to Kill beach training montage may have shattered the mold with a four-minute sequence focused on the film’s two half-brother heroes. It’s an exceptional mix of varied exercises like abdominal leg throws and push-ups, blatant shirtlessness, an upbeat 1980s rock song, and gripping dramatic heft. Director H. Kaye Dyal uses the song’s bridge not to show his heroes meditating, but rather to show one of the brothers sucking face with his girlfriend.


The brothers find themselves on said beach following their father’s death. Ed Cooper (Connors), fresh off covertly rescuing his twenty-something Cambodian-born son, Sam (Eaton) from the jungles of Southeast Asia, had brought his boy home to sunny California. The escape doesn’t go unnoticed, however, and enemies from Cooper’s past reconvene. Following a coordinated jailbreak from a prison van, drug traffickers Walter Majyk (Z’Dar) and Felix Brenner (Teague) are reunited with cohort Loc Syn (Diamond) and gang leader Ace Duran (Silva). Old military buddies with a shared interest in smuggling heroin back to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, they want to get revenge on the man who dropped a dime on them and got Majyk and Brenner imprisoned over a decade ago: Cooper. Their other objective is to steal a small statue believed to be in Sam’s possession -- Duran has it on good authority that it contains diamonds with a black market value of $5 million.

Sam is initially guarded due to his upbringing in a war-torn hellhole, and is just getting to know his new family members, including a brother named Matt (Zagarino). This process lasts all of about six hours before his parents are gunned down (Mrs. Cooper) and set ablaze (Mr. Cooper) during a night-time home invasion by a masked and heavily armed Duran gang. While Matt was busy necking with his girlfriend Jessie (Aliff) off in some dingy back-seat, Sam is knocked unconscious by Loc Syn, but not before revealing the location of the mysterious box he brought to the States.


An emotional funeral at sea finds the brothers at odds. Sam reveals that he vaguely remembers who assaulted the Cooper home, and Matt is pissed that he didn’t divulge this to the authorities. He believes the brothers should tell the cops what they know, let the system work and justice will prevail. Sam, however, convinces Matt that the only way to eliminate trained killers is to go on the attack and fight them like animals. The brothers enlist the help of their father’s alcoholic military buddy, George Shorter (O'Neal) and he promises to train them as quickly as he can, with no assurances of sobriety. Will the brothers be up to snuff the next time they tangle with Duran and his death squad?

The span of film genres represented by this cast is nothing short of incredible. In no particular order, we’re gifted with The Rifleman (American Western TV), Super Fly (blaxploitation), Johnny Cool (crime), Maniac Cop (horror), Jimmy from Road House (action), and even Jason Voorhees (musical romantic comedy). Everyone plays their part to perfection. The brothers are convincing as fiery upstarts hell-bent on vengeance, and Eaton in particular is a lot of fun as Sam. While older brother Matt opts for denim and Hawaiian shirts or no shirt at all, Sam is fond of what appears to be a Members Only jacket and a single, spiked fingerless glove. Homeboy won’t even take it off when he’s prepping root veggies for dinner!


The action in this film is diverse and well-executed with a romping brand of energy. We get stalking night-time action, a Japanese-influenced sword fight, wild shoot-outs, rocket launcher attacks, dirtbike chases, dirtbike crashes into cardboard, carsplosions, hand-to-hand fights, throat rips, and shark tooth slashes. During a scene in a Las Vegas casino, Loc Syn gets so lathered up by the appearance of the brothers that he pushes a waitress, knocks out two security guards, and then throws himself off a balcony and goes crashing through a poker table just because it’s more fun than taking the stairs. The climax finds the brothers baited into a complex where Jessie is adorned in ragged clothing, chained to a post-apocalyptic jungle gym, and surrounded by flames. It’s epic on a budget, but epic nonetheless.

It’s impossible to discuss this film without highlighting Loc Syn, played by former Floridian kickboxing champion and Andy Sidaris favorite, Harold Diamond. A former military man by the name of Andrew Wilson, he went insane during his service, fell under the tutelage of Duran, and started calling himself Loc Syn for no reason other than it sounded cool and provided a 50% savings in syllables over his birth name. According to George, Syn’s mind “went south” and he started killing for the pure fun of it. He’ll fill both hands with wakizashis while grinning madly, but would rather rip out your larynx barehanded or clench a shark tooth in his front teeth and slash your throat up close. To his credit, Loc Syn refuses to let his sociopathic tendencies dictate his sartorial choices. He wears an array of threads -- fedoras, steel-tipped cowboy boots, dark shades, and tank tops with designer blazers -- in letting his fashionable freak flag fly. That he has virtually no lines in the movie makes him all the more intimidating; he’s seated between diabetes and high-blood pressure at the table of silent killers.


The rest of the villains are up to the task of providing both comic relief and teeming mounds of exposition. As military major and gang leader Ace Duran, Henry Silva showed up for probably no more than two days of shooting, but spouts enjoyable lines and appears to be having fun with the material. Other than a climactic scene where he rides the skies in a helicopter and rains shotgun blasts down on our heroes, he tends not to get his hands dirty, leaving that work to the aforementioned Loc Syn, and Brenner and Majyk. The latter pair have fantastic chemistry on screen, cracking jokes when they’re not talking shop in the goofiest terms possible. While hatching their plan to take out the Cooper brothers, Majyk strokes his machine gun and coos, “I love this piece, this baby’s real hard,” to which Brenner replies, “All right, let’s rock.” Did I mention that Majyk is stroking said firearm at a strip club in the middle of the day? That the onstage stripper is dancing like she’s at a family member’s wedding and “Don’t Stop Believin’” just came on? And that Kane fucking Hodder is working the door as a mulleted bodyguard?

VERDICT
I can’t say it any more plainly: if you love weird and wild action cinema of the 1980s, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of this film. It falls into that elusive category of “films that must be rewatched dozens of times until your eyes fall out” to gain an appreciation for all the weird character ticks, imperfectly hilarious action scenes, and preposterous situations it has to offer. The cast alone might be the genre movie fan’s wet dream but the movie overall delivers in spades. Highly recommended.

AVAILABILITY
Difficult but not impossible. The film never made the leap to DVD, but VHS copies (and rips, certainly) are out there.

6 / 7


12.16.2013

When B-List Goes Hollywood: Part 2

The last time we scoured the earth for martial arts b-film actors in mainstream film and television productions, we found nearly a dozen offbeat appearances. Billy Blanks celebrated a touchdown in a Bruce Willis movie by offing himself, Don Wilson nearly kicked Tom Green in the face, and Jerry Trimble acted alongside Al Pacino in an overstuffed Michael Mann crime film. By no means was that list comprehensive though; our team of researchers* has uncovered a group of eight more.

* Me

Jeff Wincott - Prom Night (1980)
Before he was beating up on Dave Matthews in Lake City or playing undercover cops pretending to be homeless on The Wire, Jeff Wincott was fighting the likes of Matthias Hues and starring in a barrage of PM Entertainment releases. Before *that* however, he was rocking a blonde moptop and tuxedo shirt as a rapey meathead in Paul Lynch’s 1980 Canadian slasher Prom Night.



Chuck Jeffreys - Ghost Dog (1990)
Including Chuck Jeffreys again might be a little obvious considering his prolific career as both Hollywood stunt coordinator and performer. But I chose to list this one because even though Jeffreys’s appearance as a mugger is fleeting and he gets his ass kicked by an old man carrying groceries, I do love Henry Silva making elk noises, and I dig the work of Jim Jarmusch. A personal favorite.



Billy Blanks - Kiss the Girls (1997)
Plays a kickboxing instructor, surprises no one.



Rion Hunter? - The Doors (1991)
I can't confirm this appearance at all. It’s a total shot in the dark and I'm only going by the listed IMDb credit. Given that the NRNS3 super-villain is credited as "Indian in the desert," I watched The Doors with particular attention paid to the desert scenes, with especially close attention paid to the desert scenes involving Native Americans. Hunter was not the dying old Native American man near the beginning of the film. He was not the Native American man with the hat played by Wes Studi. He was also not the Native American man in the cave. I can only conclude then, that Rion Hunter played the naked blurry Indian on horseback on a distant sand dune during the peyote trip scene.



Don Wilson - Batman Forever (1995)
Under a mask of glow-in-the-dark face-paint, Don Wilson is virtually unrecognizable as a gang leader in Batman Forever. This role was historically significant for three main reasons: 1) this is the only film I can recall where Wilson actually plays a villain; 2) this is the film where the first Batman franchise officially went off the rails; and 3) you can observe the exact moment where Chris O’Donnell’s film career peaked upon beating Wilson in a hand-to-hand fight.



Matthias Hues - Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Hues plays a hulking Klingon general alongside British heavyweight actors Christopher Plummer and David Warner. While a cool role, this wasn’t exactly new territory for Hues; he played an alien drug dealer two years earlier in the Dolph Lundgren actioner I Come in Peace.



Loren Avedon - Baywatch (1993)
Failing to ask Loren Avedon in two consecutive interviews about his guest appearance on Baywatch as the evil underground fighter Michael Branson will go down as one of my great regrets in life. How many performers in Hollywood can claim that they got paid to pretend to kick and punch The Hoff in the face? Of those performers, how many can also say that they got to engage in fisticuffs with the innovator of a cash-printing fitness craze? Only one: Loren Avedon.



Mark Dacascos - Iron Chef America (2004-2013)
Whether or not he ever tops the high watermark achieved in 1997’s Drive, Mark Dacascos will also forever be known to mainstream audiences as the wild-eyed dude shouting “SECRET INGREDIENT: ______!” in every episode of Iron Chef America. There’s a possibility that Dacascos is prohibited from munching down on the chefs’ creations and forced to eat mayonnaise sandwiches from catering, but he still has the cushiest and most regular mainstream acting gig of anything we’ve listed here.


Any others come to mind? Leave them in a comment below!

11.22.2013

White Phantom (1987)

PLOT: When a gang of ninjas steals weapons-grade plutonium, a grizzled intelligence officer, a dancing spy, and a ninja harmonica player must join forces to stop them. This is not the start of a bad joke.

Director: Dusty Nelson
Writers: Chris Gallagher, David Hamilton, Dusty Nelson
Cast: Jay Roberts Jr., Jimmy Lee, Page Leong, Bo Svenson, H.F. Chiang, Kathy McClure




PLOT THICKENER
Appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes an old Chinese man walking along a foggy road is just an old Chinese man. Sometimes a ninja performing slow and calculated fighting movements in the fog is just a ninja, practicing his craft. But sometimes the old Chinese man is a young caucasian guy, and the ninja is an exotic dancer played by a girl who was in Body Rock AND Ghostbusters II AND last year’s Oscar-winning Argo. Deception. That’s the lesson of 1987’s White Phantom, a movie that portends amazing slam-bang ninja action with its VHS cover, and … well, we’ll get to that. What was that thing about appearances again?

We’re batting 1.000 this week on ninja films that open with ninja theft. In most cases, weapons-grade plutonium would be under lock and key, subject to 24-hour surveillance, and guarded by security personnel packing heavy artillery. In this case, the plutonium was rattling around in the back of an 18-wheeler while the driver listened to FM rock radio and chowed down on a messy cheeseburger. PURE. NINJA. FODDER. (The lax security scenario, not the cheeseburger).


The ninjas make off with the loot and we soon learn their five-year strategic plan: 1) Hanzo (Lee), leader of the Sakura ninja gang, orders the theft of the plutonium; 2) Sakuras enter the nuclear material black market; 3) gang enjoys increased profile in criminal underworld; 4) everyone laughs maniacally; 5) go legit, start animal rights charity. It’s realistic, it’s flexible, it’s financially solvent!

I honestly wish I could say they had this much foresight, but the Sakuras are all over the fucking map. One day, they’re stealing plutonium. The next, they’re hassling rivals in their night club or roughing up book store owners for “protection” money. They’re equal parts dangerous and unfocused. American intelligence officer Colonel Slater (Svenson) has tabs on the gang, but he’s staying patient and biding his time until the plutonium is exchanged. Covert agent Mei Lin (Leong) has been working the inside as the featured entertainment at their night club, but has she fallen for Hanzo? Can she be trusted? Will Hanzo heed the advice of his gangster father, who encourages him to keep a low profile and be careful in his affairs with “the dancing girl?”


The wild card in all of this is an American drifter named Willi (Roberts Jr.) who apparently just wanders between the Sakuras’ night club and the Sakuras’ brothel, playing a harmonica at random intervals and putting on shades before walking off-camera. In his Yankees cap, scruffy facial hair and brown duster with the sleeves rolled up, he’s playing the unassuming everyman. His lazy and aw-shucks demeanor is the perfect cover for a calculated and cunning plan. Did I mention he can dunk a basketball?

The action in White Phantom is sparse, and the ninja action is almost entirely at the back-end, which is something you might say the morning after a night of heavy drinking and a 4 a.m. stop for a Kuro Burger. The climactic fight scene between Hanzo and Willi is solid but unspectacular. The build-up, while entertaining, doesn’t contain the kind of zany ninja madness we’d come to expect of the 1980s ninja film. Roberts Jr. moves pretty well and the stunt team sells well for him, but there’s a serious lack of imagination in the scenarios and choreography. It doesn’t help that director Dusty Nelson decides to frame almost all of the fight scenes with medium shots.


Most other reviews of this film have discussed its status as an unofficial prequel to Sakura Killers. (The mantle of the “Colonel” character was taken up in the second film by Chuck Connors, while the Sakuras continued their reign of terror, albeit in Taiwan and under different ninja leadership). I can’t say I blame Nelson for returning to the well for a sequel, because he preserved the story elements he liked while improving upon the action quotient he failed to deliver here. The lack of location establishment is another major knock on this effort. The Sakuras are speaking what appears to be Mandarin (with subtitles) but they’re supposed to be Japanese ninjas as evidenced by their Japanese gang name. The truck in the opening scene bares California license plates, so I'm not sure how Nelson expected an audience to figure out where this story was taking place. The geographic and cultural indifference was confusing and unfortunate.


Jay Roberts Jr. is a decent lead and I’d be interested to know why he didn’t feature more prominently in martial arts films of the DTV era. He combines the looks and scruff of Bradley Cooper, decent martial arts prowess, the hair of Wham-era George Michael, and the harmonica skills of Slim Harpo. Wait, what? It was a confusing character quirk, but for better or worse, Nelson puts it to use as an audio cue whenever Willi is on the periphery of a scene. If you hear the harmonica, you know shit is about to go down. Roberts Jr. is a repeat offender too. He put his unique musical talent on display in 1990’s Aftershock, in what can only be described as the worst musical scene in the history of cinema that’s not in City Dragon.  

VERDICT
White Phantom is a tedious and below-average film; thus, the perfect end note for the first Ninjavember event. There is almost always an opportunity at the back-end of a poor action film for the filmmaker to redeem him or herself with a fantastic balls-to-the-wall climax. And even the worst ninja films are entitled to the occasionally cool visual. Unfortunately, the film has neither and the characters are pretty vanilla to boot. Tawdry action and visual boredom built up (slowly) over the course of the film’s runtime and anything short of an insane sequence of decapitations, smoke-bombs, shurikens, and exploding roller-skating laser ninjas would have been a disappointment. Maybe my expectations were too high.

AVAILABILITY
VHS on Amazon or EBay. I'd test drive it on YouTube first.

3 / 7
 

11.18.2013

Ninja Warriors (1985)

PLOT: Document-stealing killer super ninjas are up to no good. A more robust and secure records management system could have discouraged such behavior.

Director: John Lloyd
Writer: John Lloyd
Cast: Ron Marchini, Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson, Paul Vance, Romano Kristoff, Ken Watanabe





PLOT THICKENER
Do you know how many movie titles containing the word “ninja” were released in the 1980s? The answer, according to this quick and dirty IMDb search, is 80. (Take a moment to appreciate the irony of that). In 1985 alone, nine English-language “ninja” films were released. Of those movies, three were directed by Godfrey Ho, two starred Sho Kosugi, two starred Alexander Lo, and one was the first American Ninja movie. The lonely remainder was the 1985 Silver Star film, Ninja Warriors. Not only is this the raucous debut film from Fighting Spirit director John Lloyd, but it’s also our first feature film starring Ron Marchini. He knows karate or something!

Cinematic representations of corporate espionage vary wildly in tone and form. The fact that a steely thriller like Michael Clayton can sit at the same thematic table as campy horror fare like The Stuff and a visual sci-fi feast like Inception is a testament to that. Clinging to the underside of that table, unseen and undetected, is Ninja Warriors, which opens with a ninja siege at a high-security corporate office.  The target: a bunch of classified documents. Collateral damage: a rather unfortunate security guard set ablaze. The music for all this: what sounds like Morricone’s theme from “Death Rides a Horse.” Nevermind that Sakura Killers ripped off the opening scene just two years later. If every movie started off like this, the world would be a better place.


The ninjas stole the documents to support a criminal syndicate pursuing a highly-protected formula that will aid them in controversial scientific experiments. Their objective: to create a superhuman ninja. Meanwhile, the authorities are clueless and can’t even get a proper handle on the criminal element with which they’re dealing. Capt Marlowe (Monty) is skeptical that ninjas are behind the break-in, despite the protests of underling Lt. Kevin Washington (Vance) and his assertion that shurikens at the crime scene are their calling card. He knows from reading Encyclopedia Britannica -- there was no Wikipedia at that time -- that ninjas comprise a secret society and “those who succeed in the arts, are said to be powerful -- very powerful." Actually, Kevin, people who have degrees in the arts are twice as likely to be unemployed as their peers holding technical or science degrees. Not very powerful at all.

What’s a good cop to do when his dickhead captain won’t listen? Washington goes outside the system and turns to his friend, Steve (Marchini), a mysterious loner who lives in the woods. Having spent some time in Japan, Steve knows that anything involving ninjas is serious business, because they’re “masters of deception.” Few are so well-prepared for their sabotage and treachery. Steve keeps his skills sharp by doing martial arts forms, extends his endurance by jogging in a ratty hooded sweatshirt, and simulates the effects of alcohol intoxication by balancing on a tight-rope while blindfolded. When the throwing stars and flaming arrows start to fly, Steve is ready. There's virtually nothing he can't handle.


The ninjas in this film are a deadly pestilence, like norovirus or combination Taco Bell-Pizza Hut locations. Crime boss Kuroda (non-Inception Ken Watanabe) and his partner, Jansen (Nicholson) are terrific, strutting around in tailored suits and looking self-satisfied as they toss around vague cliches about business success and science experiments. Filipino action fixture Romano Kristoff overcomes a terrible character name, Tom, as the de facto leader of the ninja underlings. I would be shocked if this particular gang hadn’t shattered the world record for ninja smoke-bomb exits, and even more shocked if Guinness failed to track that particular statistic because Guinness is usually on their game.

Seeing Nick Nicholson on the screen is always a welcome treat, but between his handsome suits and rugged beard, he brought it to another level here. My own beard has generated unsolicited compliments from complete strangers on a few occasions, but I don’t have shit on Nicholson. Why did he opt for just a moustache or a goatee in so many other films when his potential was so grizzly? He’s a goddamn Wolf Man!


Apropos of nothing but how amazing would a 1980s Filipino werewolf movie starring Nicholson have been? DREAM FUCKING PROJECT ... The space in which that ellipsis resides is the same space in which I imagine Wolfman Nicholson in combat fatigues running around the jungle and shredding commandos with his teeth and claws. Mike Monty is there. Jim Gaines. Exploding huts. Cirio directs. If we can get a holographic Tupac onstage at Coachella, surely we can get Nicholson in Wolfman Commando.


It’s somewhat rare that one watches an 80s ninja film for the masterful choreography. Hong Kong fare like Ninja in the Dragon’s Den or Five Element Ninja are among the elite, and Sakura Killers was an enjoyable effort, but ninja films are more typically known for the spectacle of their fight scenes and not the choreography itself. Ninja Warriors is no different in that respect; it wins points on scale (lots of ninjas), cunning (different traps), and strange behavior (group abdominal exercises, breaking into houses through the chimney).

It’s always interesting to observe the various ways that ninja films from different eras and countries extend, subvert, or otherwise challenge traits of the ninja archetype. Whereas Sakura Killers demonstrated the ninjas’ “burrowing-and-tunneling” behavior, Ninja Warriors gives us a peek behind the curtain in an opening scene where the ninjas dig themselves into holes before presumably tunneling at a later date. How do you presume they dug said holes? Ninja magic? Nope, they used shovels. (Ninjas operating backhoes would have been silly, don’t you think?)


VERDICT
What happens when you marry the wacky spirit of Filipino 1980s action with the zany vibe of a 1980s ninja film? You get a lot of angry guests because the wedding favor is a shuriken to the face, but you also get a 1985 film called Ninja Warriors. The action is serviceable, the plot is ridiculous, the ninja scenes are plentiful, and Marchini shows that even your stone-faced heroes can wear the same ratty sweatshirt every day of the week.

AVAILABILITY
The film movie made the jump to DVD, but you may be able to find the VHS release on Amazon or EBay. At a maximum of $20 for a used copy, you’re better off depending on the kindness of YouTube users.
4 / 7

11.11.2013

Fist of Further Reading: Lost Video Archive


Seth over at Lost Video Archive is truly a god among men. Not only does he write hilarious reviews of hidden-gem genre films, but he also uncovers incredible VHS box art that runs the topical gamut from self-defense to worm fishing techniques to instructional billiards. While I'm sure he's seen more Godfrey Ho films than he might care to admit, his Honky Ninja content demonstrates his acute affection for the chopsocky genre. Don't sleep on his work over at Paracinema either!

Q: What is a first-time reader most likely to notice about your writing style?
A: I’m sarcastic, cynical and probably over think things. Lots of people disagree with my understanding of movies, even the cheap shitty straight-to-video action flicks as somehow political in nature. “It’s just a movie they say” and that’s true if it’s all you want to see but I don’t. I don’t blame people for just wanting to be entertained without all the acute social baggage, but it’s still there whether you try and ignore it or not. I simply think it’s important to check the ID’s before it comes in the mental gate, I have nothing against being entertained by it. In fact I think it’s more entertaining when you can see all the silly (and sometimes insidious) shit these movie-people are trying to pass off as “fantasy.” That’s how I try to write, humorously with an eye towards the political implications. Sometimes it even works!

Q: Which of your posts or ongoing features will give readers the best feel for your site and movie fandom?
A: These questions are tougher than they first appear. I’m most consistently interested in Vietnam movies and movies about ‘Nam vets because I’ve studied late 20th century US politics so much, and so many wonderful explody-shoot-from-the-hip movies came out afterward. Still, I’m pretty fascinated by the buddy-cop thing too…

Q: What was the first martial arts movie you remember seeing?
A: Another tough question, the first thing I can distinctly identify was something with Seagal in it. I remember him dislocating someone’s elbow and that made me sick until I realized it was a fake arm. So I watched it over and over after that, it was funny to watch these people pretend to be mad and hurt each other. It seemed so asinine and childish and I loved it. But I never really got into action flicks beyond the more traditional Chinese wu xiu stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the unintentional humor of a Billy Blanks or Leo Fong picture, but not quite as much as Lo Lieh.

Q: Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme, and why?
A: Even tougher question, maybe the latter because he seems more ‘legitimate’, but the former is such a shill, he’s hard to pass up. Yeah, there it is, Segal because he seems so invested in his persona that I imagine a pretty entertaining conversation. I had a chance to see his blues band a couple of years back, but I passed it up. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

Q: You've encountered a gang of mean dudes in denim jackets and Zubaz pants in an empty warehouse. You can arm yourself with a samurai sword, nunchucks, a baseball bat, or whatever is in the mystery box (no guns). Which do you choose and why?
A: No question about it, the mystery box because it holds the most potential for humor. What if it was empty and I had to fight them off with a wrinkly, soggy cardboard box? Does anyone answer otherwise?

ENTER THE OVERLAP!
Breathing Fire
Expect No Mercy
TC 2000
Tough and Deadly

11.07.2013

Ninjavember 2013


During the week of November 18, 2013, Fist of B-List will be sponsoring its first-ever Internet-wide blogathon dedicated to the best and baddest and worst in ninja film: Ninjavember 2013. What do you have to do to participate? Write a review or feature about a ninja film (or films), post it on your blog or website during Ninjavember Week, and send me the link on Facebook or Twitter via a private message (or just email me) so I can add it to the grand roster of participants on a dedicated section of this site. Recycled posts are welcome, but new content is preferred. Use this image in your post! Or don’t! It literally makes no difference, because at the end of the day -- NINJAS!

CONTRIBUTORS

10.30.2013

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

PLOT: A gang leader tries to give up the thug life to be with his woman, only to have his rivals kill her. Desperate and vengeful, he has two options: kill the gang that killed his girl, or go to community college to get an associate’s degree in nursing.

Director: Jim Van Bebber
Writer: Jim Van Bebber
Cast: Jim Van Bebber, Paul Harper, Marc Pittman, Ric Walker, Megan Murphy, Bill Stover



PLOT THICKENER
Plenty of folks will see this title pop up in their feeds and say, “why the hell is my favorite 1980s cult-psych-gang war-druggie-based-in-Ohio-gore fest getting play on Fist of B-List?” On its face, Deadbeat at Dawn is not the kind of movie that jumps out as a logical candidate for inclusion on a site focused on golden-age DTV martial arts films. There are no martial arts actors in the cast. Woo-Sang Park didn’t direct it. Art Camacho didn’t do the fight choreography. There’s no Zubaz whatsoever and not a stunt mat in sight. What this film does have, however, is the kind of zany, independent fighting-and-filmmaking spirit that we dig around these parts.

In the interview featurette on the movie’s Dark Sky release, director Jim Van Bebber concludes by saying that it "never aspired to be Kafka or Shakepeare -- it's a simple revenge kung fu movie." I’m not sure many folks will watch the movie and immediately think “kung fu” in the same way they’d watch Chinese Connection and think “kung fu,” but it’s a definite nod to the genre with some unique flourishes informed by a young-and-hungry cinematic vision. It also has the greatest goddamn nunchucks-training-in-a-cemetery-scene ever filmed.


New York City’s roughneck landscape in the 1970s nor Detroit's post-boom dystopia can hold a candle to the urban decay of Dayton, Ohio in the 1980s. Crumbling tenements separate seedy adult video stores, and in the alleys between buildings, itchy drug dealers sling crank, the local drug of choice. Elderly women pack heat in their car consoles, and if the police force is even visible, it's totally impotent. The economy is in the tank and gangs of masked maniacs run wild in the streets.

Well, two gangs, anyways. The Ravens are led by Goose (Van Bebber) a fearsome punk whose love of martial arts and knife-fights is equaled only by his love for his girlfriend, Christy (Murphy). Goose’s exploits as a gang leader have given the couple a degree of independence -- they share a decent apartment with a kitchenette! -- but Christy wants her guy to make a clean break from gang life so the couple can join the Peace Corps and assist African villages with access to clean drinking water. (Kidding, I think they wanted to move to Chicago or something).


The Ravens’ rival gang is a collection of misfits and speed freaks known as the Spiders. Their murderous ways and sartorial choices -- leather, flimsy masks, tighty-whities worn OVER their jeans -- are a clear signal that these guys give no fucks. Main muscle Bonecrusher (Pittman) captures the gang’s credo during an amazing drug-induced rant, screaming “I just fucking hate people.” That brand of hatred is on full display in every frame of shared screentime between Goose and the Spiders’ leader, Danny (Harper). Cinematic heroes are only as good as their villains, and Danny is as dickish and devious as they come. He’s the overlap portion of the Venn Diagram between moustaches and the products of fatherless homes. He attempts rape, screws over allies, and orders a hit on Goose that leads to Christy’s horrible death. As a tearful Goose lowers the bloody corpse of his love into a trash compactor during a de facto funeral scene, the audience will be clamoring for payback. Vengeance is sure to come, but at what cost to Goose? To the Ravens? To the good people of Dayton, Ohio?

What a film. The fight scenes lack a certain technical sophistication -- Van Bebber practiced martial arts and I have no idea if he would self-identify as a martial artist -- but the ebbs and flows to the fight scenes have a rompy tone to them. The filmmaker also performs a number of impressive and dangerous stunts. He jumps into reservoirs, lowers himself down the side of a multi-story parking garage, and hangs out of a moving car by his arm as it speeds through a tight alley. Did I mention the robbery scene where he tosses the most comically-sized throwing star in the history of cinema? It’s the size of a damn Frisbee.


Some of the final blows are brutal and lively (think loud thwacks and crimson gushers) and Van Bebber uses the one-versus-many convention with aplomb. The circumstances surrounding Goose’s exit from gang life and new lone wolf status are hammered home in the dynamics of the fight themselves. In the climax especially, we buy the hopelessness of his situation, and his desperate antics -- from his near-decapitation of a thug with nunchuks, to ripping out an enemy’s throat with his bare hand -- seem an appropriate response to his dead end.

The film might also seem an odd choice for the month of October given that the prior review of Night Hunter was an intentional attempt at being seasonally spooky. Though it wields some of the aesthetics and budgetary marks common to exploitation film in a general sense, Deadbeat at Dawn is not a horror film in the traditional sense of the word. However, the creative vision of this menacing industrial gangland where trash compactors comprise funerial proceedings and drug-fueled nihilism reigns is indeed a nightmarish proposition.

DANNY! (SUBMITTED WITHOUT COMMENT)

VERDICT
With films like this and Fighting Spirit, I have some trouble articulating why I love them so much. Both bear a grimy, gritty, violent, and slightly shoddy quality, yet far surpass martial arts b-movies that tried to create a slick technical sheen only to fall flat on the enjoyment factor. Deadbeat at Dawn knows what it is: an indie exploitation fight film fueled by vengeance, leather, narcotics, mesh, and nunchucks. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY
Wide. Amazon, Netflix, EBay, YouTube.

5 / 7

10.13.2013

Fist of Further Reading: Kiai Kick


When I want a top shelf bourbon, I go for Woodford Reserve. When I want a good steak, I get something grass-fed. When I'm not drinking bourbon and eating red meat and I want reviews of martial arts films from all over the globe -- from muay thai to taekwondo, from Billy Blanks to Billy Chow -- I go to Kiai Kick. Michael, the writer/filmmaker/martial artist behind the website, not only has an appreciation for a highly technical fight scene but also for the campy fun of pure chopsocky. A recent post portends a small drop-off in activity, but rest assured: there is plenty of content on the site to guide your viewing for months to come.

Q: What is a first-time reader most likely to notice about your writing style?
A: Readers will notice a laid back, informal style. Like if we were sitting on the couch talking about the movie we just saw, but I'm always evolving how I write reviews.

Q: Which of your posts or ongoing features will give readers the best feel for your site and movie fandom?
A: Just going to the reviews or the Kiai-Kick All Stars, where I shine a spotlight on the famous, the infamous, and the esteemed group known as "that guy".

Q: What was the first martial arts movie you remember seeing?
A: Chang Cheh's The Water Margin. The Mountain Brothers and Young Dragon were my first real heroes, super or otherwise. Fav Moment: "Watch out! The Triple Kick of Death!"

Q: Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme, and why?
A: I'll go with ol' JCVD on the one, and for three words: Hard. Target. Mullet. Steven Seagal ain't got the brass ones to make that film, brother.

Q: You've encountered a gang of mean dudes in denim jackets and Zubaz pants in an empty warehouse. You can arm yourself with a samurai sword, nunchucks, a baseball bat, or whatever is in the mystery box (no guns). Which do you choose and why?
A: I won't take anything. My fists of fury are enough. That and taking their own weapons and using it against them. It's both painful AND embarrassing. First guy that comes near me gets a spinning back kick.

ENTER THE OVERLAP!
Heatseeker
China O'Brien
Bloodmoon
American Ninja
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

10.01.2013

Night Hunter (1996)

PLOT: A moody vampire hunter must destroy a brood of undead bloodsuckers before a lunar eclipse threatens to increase their ranks. Can he finish the job before motion sickness destroys his will to live?

Director: Rick Jacobson
Writer: William C. Martell
Cast: Don Wilson, Melanie Smith, Nicholas Guest, Maria Ford, Vince Murdocco, Vincent Klyn, Sophia Crawford, Cash Casey, James Lew



PLOT THICKENER
Historically, very few directors have dared to combine the vampire film with martial arts -- the entirety of this subgenre could probably be written on the back of the Famous Jewish Sports Legends leaflet. The Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers 1974 collaboration Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires marked the first official attempt, and it would be another decade before Mr. Vampire hopped into theaters. Stateside filmmakers didn’t really warm up to the concept until the success of the first Blade film. But predating even that effort was a Don “The Dragon” Wilson vehicle called Night Hunter. Director Rick Jacobson’s 1996 horror-actioner is disturbing if you’re prone to motion sickness, horrible if you have photosensitive epilepsy, and absolutely terrifying if you have both.

In the world of orphaned vampire hunter Jack Cutter (Wilson) you can’t trust anyone. Some asshole betrayed his parents and left them to die at the hands of a ruthless gang of vampires, and young Jack was forced to flee. Now the last of his kind, Cutter is gradually crossing names off a list of destroyed vampires in the handy, leather-bound reference guide left to him by his father. The mythic means of garlic, stakes, and sunlight won’t cut it against these bloodsuckers though; the only way to kill them is to break their necks. Or their backs. Or maybe it was their left ACLs. The story is a little inconsistent in that regard.


After Jack annihilates a group of American vampires out for a celebratory dinner at a Los Angeles restaurant, a high-ranking British vampire, Bruno (Guest), and his remaining disciples are on alert. When they’re not hot on Cutter’s heels and trying to kill him, they’re cooling down in upright coffins kept at a refrigerated L.A. warehouse lair. The vamps aren’t the only ones after Cutter, though. The L.A.P.D. wants him for the restaurant “murders” -- Vince Murdocco plays a prominent investment banker vampire, after all -- and a curious reporter (Smith) crosses paths with him in search of a scoop.

If you want to please Satan, you slaughter a goat or two. If you want to please directors like Paul Greengrass and Sylvester Stallone, you sacrifice your fight scenes at the Altar of Shaky Cam. After the work on display here, there may be a special place in Cinematic Hell reserved for Jacobson and cinematographer John B. Aronson because they made every effort to assure that the fight scenes were as incomprehensible and nauseating as possible. While it’s easy to blame what was, at that time, a growing production trend in Hollywood, the filmmakers are responsible for the stylistic choices that end up on the screen. Jacobson and Aronson unfortunately betrayed the talents of their performers and fight choreographer Art Camacho, and caved to convention by employing a lame camera technique. For a battle scene in a war movie like Saving Private Ryan? Sure, go nuts. For fight scenes involving actual martial artists, though, you need to check your filmmaking flair at the door and let the fights themselves provide the tension and visuals.


In a film rife with odd technical choices -- shaky cam, oversaturated shot composition, flickering lights in clubs and bathrooms, undercranking selected vampires’ movements, and a very conspicuous dummy fall -- the strangest may have been the repeated use of upbeat Spanish guitar music during almost every action scene involving Cutter. As far as I can tell, Cutter wasn’t Latino. Was Jacobson trying to appeal to the Los Lobos fanbase? Was he making a subtle social comment about the city of Los Angeles as a melting pot of diversity? I honestly have no idea, because any time the cast wasn’t primed for a flamenco dance-off, Jacobson went for a grandiose orchestral sound. It was the most confusing combination of sounds I’ve heard since Jack White teamed with the Insane Clown Posse.

Wilson is surprisingly adept at playing guarded and brooding. Between the messy mid-length hair, black duster, and faraway glare, he looks like a roadie for Alice in Chains, but the grungy, Crow-inspired ensemble is a nice change of pace for an actor known for playing straight-laced and fairly plain characters. The brother-in-law of Jamie Lee Curtis is just fine as head vampire Bruno but it would have been amazing to see Matthias Hues in that role. Smith is perfectly fine as the curious and concerned journalist, and Casey is all kinds of awful as a skeptical cop, but the real revelation is Maria Ford as Tournier, the French bloodsucker. Not only does she put on a fairly believable accent, but she wore a black sequined beret, the kind you’d find at a second store (if it were raspberry). I was halfway expecting her to break out the baguettes and brie, but when’s the last time you saw a vampire eating bread and cheese? It’s quirky performances like these that can really elevate a film and it makes you long for Ford in more over-the-top roles like this.


I would be remiss if I failed to mention the casting of Sophia Crawford in this film. A seasoned veteran of the golden age of Hong Kong action film and a player on WMAC Masters, Crawford is one of the more underrated and underseen females in the action genre. She’s carved out a long career doing stunt work, and has around 40 acting roles to her credit. Thus, I was pretty stoked to watch this film to see how Crawford was utilized in a Stateside production. The answer, which should surprise no one, was, “poorly.” As one of the American vampires, she has a short fight scene with James Lew and others in the opening scene, and is phased out within the first 15 minutes of the movie. “I am disappoint” doesn’t begin to describe my frustration with that choice, but then again, Crawford may have taken the role as a favor to a producer, or to hang out with her martial arts friends for a few days. Not every casting like this is going to make you all sweaty in your Zubaz.


VERDICT
An uneven genre hybrid like this is practically begging for puns -- “I couldn’t sink my teeth into it,” “it sucked the life out of me,” and “I hope Wilson didn’t have too much stake in this as a co-producer” -- so I’ll just say that I was really let down by the way some of the actors were utilized and by the technical choices for the action scenes. Watch it for the Ford performance and the decent shootouts. Wilson completists are encouraged to check it out for a different look at the Dragon, but this might scare you off Rick Jacobson movies for the rest of your days.

AVAILABILITY
It's out there, lurking in the shadows of Amazon, EBay and Netflix.

3 / 7

9.20.2013

Expect No Mercy (1995)

PLOT: An entrepreneurial madman is using a high-tech virtual reality program to build an army of assassins. Can the two agents charged with infiltrating his organization stop him before the company goes public with the inflated IPO price so typical of tech start-ups?

Director: Zale Dalen
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, Wolf Larson, Laurie Holden, Anthony De Longis, Michael Blanks, Real Andrews, Sam Moses


PLOT THICKENER
A couple of Stanford Ph.D students felt that search engine results based on the number of times a word appeared on a page sucked; their alternative became Google. The seeds of Netflix were planted after Reed Hastings got pissed about having to pay $40 in late fees for a copy of Apollo 13. The tech sector is rife with stories of small improvements that led to huge, globally successful companies. The 1995 film Expect No Mercy takes a compelling look at how such technological developments gain traction, reach critical mass, and change human lives in meaningful ways. The movie’s villain is an even bigger asshole than Mark Zuckerberg.


People pay good money to attend the Virtual Arts Academy, a high-tech facility that uses virtual reality technology to turn normal humans into lethal fighting machines. By donning goofy headgear and shoulder pads, any average joe from your Tuesday night karate class can become an expert after two years of sparring with the program’s simulated “fighters,” each one more skilled than the one before it. Not content to merely collect tuition money, the Academy’s founder, Warbeck (Larson) is using some of his more advanced graduates for private aims informed by his global ambitions: he’s assembling an army of assassins to execute contract killings. As Warbeck asks during a wide-eyed rant to a colleague later on in the film, "if the government can kill, why can't I?" Starting with his most trusted students, the ring of assassins is a pilot program of sorts, not unlike Google Glass.

Working from the inside to bring Warbeck's empire down is Eric (Merhi) a lead trainer and self-described "hacker" who's trying to keep his true intentions concealed from fellow trainer and maybe-more-than-a-friend, Vicki (Holden). When the Federal Security Bureau sends in an technophobic fighter named Justin Vanier (Bily Blanks) to pose as a student, Eric might just have the partner he needs to finish the mission. Can Eric get access to the files he needs to bring the VAA down? Whose side is Vicki on? And what kind of conditioner does Warbeck use to maintain that majestic mane? Maybe it's just egg whites and coconut milk.


Admittedly, I went into this one with a cautious posture. Merhi's previous films have been enjoyable on some levels, but also fairly uneven, so you can imagine my surprise when the results were solid. Perhaps the biggest difference was the action, which was frequent and sometimes silly, but also fairly well choreographed. Fight scenes were faster, the moves were more fluid, the combinations were more technical, and there were more moves-per-shot than the usual Film One fare. There's even an extended shootout, and a brief car chase to switch things up. I also appreciated the improved chemistry between Blanks and Merhi. Their relationship lacks the usual reluctance and friction, but their differences are well established. Merhi plays the more uptight square whereas Blanks goes with the flow and has an irrational fear of computers. If you've never seen a character visibly repulsed by the appearance of a compact disc, you'll want to add this one to the watchlist.

In a role that was nearly offered to Gary Daniels, Wolf Larson is really entertaining as Warbeck. My general rule of thumb for martial arts b-movie villains is that they need to be presented as physical threats to the heroes, and their bad behavior needs to encompass more than just drug-dealing or being an old, rich, white guy. Not only does Warbeck get a climactic fight scene with one of the protagonists and provide a hammy YouTube-worthy rant, but his giant face is hung throughout the halls of the Academy campus as visual confirmation of his dickish megalomania. I don't know that Daniels would have been able to capture Warbeck's arrogance and self-satisfaction -- and I'm not saying Larson knocked it out of the park -- but it was a lot of fun watching him try.


The de facto leader of Warbeck's group of killers is Damian (De Longis), an expert with a bullwhip and a no-nonsense tough guy of the highest order. He's flanked by Spyder -- played by Michael Blanks in his only onscreen collaboration opposite brother Billy -- and iguana enthusiast Alexander (Williams) who brings his scaly pet to every job and exchanges uncomfortable kisses with him before the crew performs the hit. Other than being a good way to get salmonella this is the kind of odd character flourish that made so many of the movie's secondary characters compelling during their screen time.

For fans of The Walking Dead, this is a great opportunity to see a young Andrea Taggart on the screen as one of the Academy’s instructors. Do you think Laurie Holden has ever done a panel at Comic-Con and been asked, “what was it like to make out with Jalal Merhi?” Would she deny that the movie ever happened? Would she flip the table and angrily lunge at the audience member who asked the question? Would she compare Merhi’s breath to any particular foods? Merhi looks like a guy who would eat a lot of quinoa and kale chips, but who knows. These are the things that keep me up at night.


At least in terms of frequency of collaboration, actor Jalal Merhi’s favorite director is clearly Jalal Merhi; the pair has worked together a half-dozen times. Merhi’s directorial efforts have suffered, perhaps in part, due to his taking on too much of the workload (acting, directing, choreography). Uneven fight scenes, unemotional line delivery, and lulls in plot development have been just some of the results. These issues are either absent or minimized due to the solid direction of Zale Dalen, however. A veteran of CBC productions and director of the 1977 Canadian crime drama Skip Tracer, Dalen brings a steady hand that helps to elevate the production well above other films like it. The plot cooks, the action is well shot, and the characters are (sort of) believable. Apparently, Merhi handled the fight scenes as second unit director and Dalen directed everything else; is it any wonder that the fights are among the best in any Merhi movie?

On the heels of films like The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic, I’m sure the inclusion of computer-generated “virtual reality” imagery seemed like a good idea at the time. Then again, so was Crystal Pepsi. So was selling the farm for Beanie Babies. It’s not so much that the computer graphics are outdated, it’s that they’re silly sub-Tron dreck and they look awful. By all indications, they used the effects just because they could, which is consistently the worst reason to do something in a film. That said, it did give us the most popular image of Jalal Merhi on the Internet: his disembodied head floating in the ether of the digital universe. To the film's credit, the effects aren't nearly as terrible as the graphics in the film's accompanying Mortal-Kombat-ripoff computer game.


The shame of it is that I have no idea to whom we should point the giant finger of blame for this particular hot mess. Special effect supervisor Stan Zuwala? Eh, he worked on Death Wish V so he’s off the hook. Visual effect supervisor Francois Aubry? He has 37 credits to his name, so he probably knew his shit. Responsible for the “digital assembly” of the visual effects was George Kourounis, who never worked again in film. CIRCLE GETS THE SQUARE... thanks for nothing, G-Kour!

VERDICT
While I can’t proclaim that Expect No Mercy is the greatest Blanks-Merhi collaboration ever -- TC 2000 did happen, after all -- I can say without hesitation that this one achieves a campy, b-movie sense of fun better than any of their other films. While the outdated VR graphics might have you yearning for the glossy production values of Kasumi Ninja, the story moves at a good clip, the dastardly Warbeck joins the list of great martial arts b-movie villains, and the action is solid throughout. The best part: no Merhi banana hammock! Recommended.

AVAILABILITY
DVD is available new or used on Amazon, EBay. Try it out on YouTube for a test drive.

4.5 / 7


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...