11.13.2017

Force of the Ninja (1988)

PLOT: When the daughter of a Japanese diplomat is kidnapped by a gang of American mercenaries in Arizona, there’s only one man up to the task of infiltrating their compound to rescue her. Unfortunately, he’s busy filming Black Eagle with Jean-Claude Van Damme, so another ninja will have to do.

Director: Emmett Alston
Writers: Douglas Ivan, Dan Ivan
Cast: Douglas Ivan, Patricia Ball, Robert Williams, John Hobson, Lee Thomas, Chester Salisbury, Brook Lynne, Osamu Ozawa


PLOT THICKENER

To begin, let’s get our facts straight about 1988’s Force of the Ninja. It was a low-budget movie that failed to gain American distribution in a saturated direct-to-video landscape in the 1980s. It stars a guy who did stunt work in American Ninja, and he appears in the drinking scene at the beginning of Enter the Ninja. It was directed by the guy who made Demonwarp, one of the craziest WTF low-budget movies I’ve ever seen. It was filmed in Tonto National Forest, a state park in Arizona. It was also filmed in Japan. It features Japanese dialogue without any English subtitles. These are the facts I know about Force of the Ninja, a movie that has some ninjas in it.

Kenji (Ivan) is a practicing ninja at an elite martial arts academy in Japan. As a Japanese-American living in the country as a security agent of the U.S. government, he is afforded the unique opportunity to straddle both cultures. While he’s dedicated to the ancient traditions of his Japanese roots, he also enjoys the bar brawls and lax weapon control laws of America. After Kazuko (Ball), the daughter of a high-ranking Japanese diplomat is kidnapped while hiking Stateside in Arizona, his master (Ozawa) decides that the time has come for Kenji’s training to end. Only a ninja of his caliber is capable of the dangerous search-and-rescue mission that lies ahead.


The kidnappers are a cruel group of mercenary scum, led by the opportunistic Karl Ryan (Williams). They kill Kazuko’s friends when they stumble upon the gang’s arms deal with some Mexican crime lords, and nearly kill her before one-eyed Wells (Salisbury) figures out the significance of her passport. As a relative to political royalty, she’ll fetch a handsome ransom from her parents back home. The gang keeps her hostage at their desert compound, and Karl sends Wells to Japan to meet with their associate, Pretty Boy Wilson (Hunt), to set up a deal.

Kenji arrives in Arizona and immediately pounds the pavement to find Kazuko, befriending a national park guide named Wendy (Lynne) who just so happens to be her college friend and feels terrible guilt for convincing her to come to the wilds of Arizona. She connects him to local sheriff Scott Parker (Thomas) and mere hours later that night, they cross paths with some of Karl’s thugs at the local watering hole during a bar brawl. As we all know, sloppy drunks are terrible at covering their tracks in anything except vomit and Funyuns, and Kenji is able to track them back to camp. Will he complete his mission or will the intense Arizona heat force him to the air conditioned lobby of the nearest Hampton Inn & Suites?


If you ever need evidence that the American film production dollar was better spent in the Philippines than domestically in the 1980s, you need only compare the production values between Alston’s third film, 1985’s Nine Deaths of the Ninja, and this one. The former film takes advantage of the lush natural beauty of Southeast Asia, and features a bigger cast with a more experienced crew. On the other hand, Force of the Ninja is a more minimalist effort with economical production choices as a consequence of a slim budget. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it gives you a sense of what Alston was up against in trying to translate this script for the screen.

Filmmaker Godfrey Ho was known for dressing his actors in every flavor of ninja garb under the sun, from banana yellow to Paisley Park purple to camouflage or simple white. Given his appreciation for the full spectrum of color possibilities and his extensive ninja filmography, it’s a little strange that this American indie film delivers the first Taupe Ninja in cinema history. It’s the only suitable costuming for doing ninja stuff in the arid desert landscape, but it can also be treated as a visual metaphor of how I felt about this film: it’s the cinematic equivalent of biting into a raw, unscrubbed potato.

It’s not offensively bad by any means, and I have genuine appreciation for Alston’s attempt at situating a ninja film in a totally incongruent setting, but it’s not an especially satisfying watch. One of the bigger problems is that while he’s a fine martial artist with a manly moustache, Douglas Ivan lacks the screen presence to carry the film. Say what you will about Sho Kosugi’s acting chops or his command of the English language, but between his martial arts skills, facial expressions, and physical intensity, he had charisma to burn. No one else in this particular cast -- a collection of first-timers and Alston associates -- is able to elevate the material. None of the villains are chewing scenery, and what could have been a decent buddy dynamic between Kenji and Parker is dull and unchanging.


The film earns some points back in the presentation of the action scenes. The climax is well-paced with short bursts of intense, hand-to-hand combat and Kenji stalking the mercenaries and killing them off from long distance, all while trying to blend into the surroundings. Our heroes’ final push towards the compound comprises a pretty sizeable chunk of the third act (15+ minutes) and this allows for the full gamut of ninja weaponry to get some play: shurikens, arrows, smoke bombs, and katanas are deployed to slice and stab enemies to pieces. Added to this mix is the odd choice to stage part of this climax on what looks like a dilapidated film set from a 1960s Western -- complete with saloon doors and breakaway roofing and pillars -- which was a unique and welcomed touch that was probably the result of some happy accident during location scounting. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the “in town” bar fight that gets initiated by Karl’s merry men and thoroughly squashed by Kenji and Parker. In what has to be a cinematic first, the violent offenders are forced to pay cash to the bar owner for property damages in a protracted on-screen shaming. There’s even a collection hat!

VERDICT

While Force of the Ninja is unlikely to blow your hair back or provide additional proof of Alston’s neglected cinematic genius (e.g., Demonwarp!), damn -- have you looked around the low-budget ninja movie landscape? This ain’t prime Sho-time, but it doesn’t have to be amazing either. It’s a suitable ninja film in a totally weird and unexpected location with fighting, gunfire, and ninja gadgets. Maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age, but this is fine.

AVAILABILITY

VHS, YouTube or grey market only.

3 / 7

10.20.2017

Raw Force (1982)

PLOT: A group of martial artists from a California karate club board a cruise ship destined for Warrior’s Island, a remote stomping ground for undead martial artists. Will they make it to their destination or be forced back to port on account of a norovirus outbreak?

Director: Edward D. Murphy
Writer: Edward D. Murphy
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, John Dresden, Jillian Kessner, Rey Malonzo, Ralph Lombardi, Mark Tanous, John Locke, Hope Holiday, Carl Anthony, Jennifer Holmes



PLOT THICKENER

The martial-arts-horror film is a difficult cinematic feat to pull off convincingly. The action needs to be done well enough to satisfy the chopsocky crowd, but the horror needs to have the right set-up and scares. That’s not always the most natural fit. Imagine, then, also trying to squeeze in the silly and salacious antics of a sex comedy, all set aboard a cruise ship. On paper, this shouldn’t work! On screen, it sometimes doesn’t! On a toasted bagel, it’s delicious! To hell with our pre-conceived notions, though, because filmmaker Edward D. Murphy had a vision for 1982’s Raw Force (a.k.a. Kung Fu Cannibals) that I can only assume was informed by the consumption of late-night spaghetti, Love Boat re-runs, and psychedelic drugs (in reverse order). Let’s dig in.


On an island somewhere in the South Pacific, the souls of disgraced martial artists throughout history -- some are samurai, others are Shaolin monks -- are doomed to an eternity of fantastic weather and drinks served out of a coconut. A group of evil monks living on the island (led by Filipino acting legend Vic Diaz) has determined through trial and error that by sacrificing females and eating their flesh, they can actually conjure up the island’s undead and deploy them to do their bidding. (Eating fish just made the undead twitch slightly and go back to sleep) . But while the island has plenty of undead martial artists and pure jade, it completely lacks women. An opportunistic German with a Hitlery moustache named Speer (Lombardi) employs a hippie named Cooper (Tanous) and his pals to kidnap sex workers on the mainland and fly them to the island in exchange for the monks’ precious jade. If you ever forget how the laws of supply and demand work, this is a good example to mention in your Economics class.

Outsiders have dubbed this spooky, isolated corner of the world, “Warrior’s Island,” and a niche tourism industry has sprung up around it. Ship owner Hazel Buck (Holiday) and her ship captain, Harry Dodds (Mitchell) operate a leisure cruise liner for which Warrior’s Island is a port of call on the voyage. The latest round of curious tourists includes a few handsome dudes from the Burbank karate club, Mike O’Malley (Binney), John Taylor (Dresden), and Gary Schwartz (Locke). Joining them aboard are the usual tourists, like married couple Ann and Lloyd Davis (played by Holmes and Anthony, respectively), and a couple of secretly great fighters -- Los Angeles SWAT team bad-ass, Cookie Winchell (Kesner), and a friendly guy named Chin (Malonzo).


Dodds steers the ship while squabbling with Hazel, the booze flows without pause, people pair off for random sexual escapades, husbands step out on their wives for unfaithful excursions, and everyone is having a grand old time. But when a couple of the passengers encounter Speer and Cooper on the mainland during one of the kidnapping operations, all hell breaks loose. The baddies follow them back to the ship with reinforcements and board the ship with bad intentions that have nothing to do with abuse of the buffet service. Will the cruise goers be able to fend off these party crashers? Will our heroic tourists make it to Warrior’s Island to take in the sights? Better yet, will the boat run out of ice or rum?


If you like your cinema weird and wild with a musty grindhouse stank, this is the flick of your dreams. Despite trying to stamp this flick with so many hallmarks of the exploitation cinema of the day, and doing none of it especially well, Murphy still manages to wrangle all the elements together for an enjoyable movie. It’s flawed but fun! Raw Force fell right in the middle of Cameron Mitchell’s prime check-cashing run (some will say it lasted a couple decades) but he’s motivated to steal scenes and has good chemistry with Hope Holiday, his then-girlfriend. The ship’s cast of characters are a good mix, but I can’t lie: I couldn’t tell the Burbank karate bros from each other at all, making the presence of Kesner and Malonzo -- and their high usage rates in the fight scenes -- all the more essential. The villains are mostly good. The monks are creepy, cackling, and lecherous. Speer is a terrific shit-bag villain. The weak link in the coalition, believe it or not, might actually be the army of undead martial artists. They have a decent look (dirty with the blue hue of the Dawn of the Dead zombies) but they turn out to be rather terrible and unthreatening fighters.


Before “fight choreographer” became a standard crew credit in action films, there was the catch-all “stunt coordinator” position, occupied here by Mike Stone. (Most will remember him as “Tojo Ken” in American Ninja 2; he did fight choreography for four of the films in that franchise). Outside of Rey Malonzo, I’m not sure how many members of the Raw Force cast were serious martial artists before they got to this film set, but the fight scenes are enjoyable for what they are -- energetic without being especially technical. Case in point is the cramped cabin fight between a thug wearing a helmet with a swastika while throwing around gasoline -- let's call him Gas Nazi -- and an unusually vociferous guy who will just not stay down no matter how beaten up he gets. His persistence becomes almost comical as he screams and kicks his way through the bathroom door behind which Gas Nazi is hiding out, and stuffs his head into a toilet. Did I mention there’s a nude woman strapped to the bed the entire time this fight takes place? Again, this is a strange movie.

VERDICT

I’ve made no secret about my admiration for the kitchen-sink film, that rare work of cinema that throws everything at the problem of filling a solid 80-90 minutes of screen time -- planning, money, and logic be damned. I'll even admit I have a tendency to overrate them, but I love what I love. Raw Force is yet another example of that wacky witch’s brew previously seen in films like Devil’s Express, Furious, and Demon Master, and it has just enough spooky stuff for you chopsocky heads looking to get that seasonal fix. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

Raw Force is streaming on Amazon Prime with a Shudder subscription, but do yourself a favor and pick up the Bluray from Vinegar Syndrome.

4 / 7

10.05.2017

Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)

PLOT: A young man possessed by weaponized alien armor known as the Guyver travels to a mysterious archaeological dig site that may hold the key to explaining its origins. It may also hold around 800 million barrels of salted caramel, a candy lover’s dream.

Director: Steve Wang
Writers: Steve Wang, Nathan Long, Yoshiki Takaya
Cast: David Hayter, Kathy Christopherson, Christopher Michael, Bruno Patrick





PLOT THICKENER

You know that old saying about how “clothes make the person?” Somewhat true! Certain articles of clothing can make you feel cool and confident. Yet other outfits will make you feel like a bargain-bin Mayor McCheese on a casual Friday. Somewhere between these two ends of the fashion spectrum is the sort of clothing that can make you feel like you can jump really high, perform lethal martial arts moves, and shoot lasers out of your chest. But what if this clothing -- hell, let’s call it armor -- couldn’t be removed at all? What if it was actually part of your body and you were merely hosting it? This is the premise of Bio-Booster Armor Guyver, a Japanese manga series from the 1980s and 90s that was adapted for the American film screen twice by filmmaker Steve Wang: first in 1991 under the title, The Guyver, and again just three years later as Guyver: Dark Hero.


Sean Barker (Hayter) keeps waking up violently in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. Night terrors? Consuming sugar too close to bedtime? Yeah, close. Some time has passed since the Guyver, an alien bio-armor, took over his body. It has a mind of its own and activates at random, turning Sean into a lethal fighting machine. Sure -- it was useful when he was battling the Cronos Corporation, a nefarious group trying to locate the Guyver for its own evil means, but now it’s just cramping his style. On the one hand, it lets him fight large criminal enterprises with relative ease, but on the other hand, he can’t go to the grocery store to shop for soup ingredients without worrying about the Guyver taking control of his faculties and blasting the produce section to a pulpy mess.

While watching a local news story about some mysterious killings near a covert dig site, Sean notices footage of cave paintings that correlate to the notebook sketches he’s been compulsively doodling in his waking hours. He takes a taxi to a general store -- like most of us did before Google Maps -- seeking help to identify a non-specific location he’s curious to visit. Once there, he meets Cori Edwards (Christopherson) a researcher buying a case of cheap beer for her archaeological dig team. Initially reluctant because of potential stranger danger, she finally agrees to take him there based on the intrigue of his notebook sketches. She fibs to the dig organizers on his behalf and Sean is suddenly lending a hand in their efforts.


In time, he begins to discover the objectives for the dig, the shadowy sources of its financing, and the various intentions of some of the so-called “researchers” on the project. The mysterious killings, previously attributed to wildlife or even a werewolf, may be the work of Zoanoids, the monstrous shape-shifting battle forms that comprise the Cronos Corporation. Will Sean find the source behind the Guyver? Can he defeat Cronos and the Zoanoids and rid himself of the Guyver once and for all? And will the persistent lower back pain he experiences after consecutive hours of shoveling respond better to a heated pad or deep tissue massage? Maybe a little of both?

The last few Octobers, I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on movies that feature some sort of monsters, spooky elements, and schlocky gore. Prior to watching it, I had no idea that Guyver: Dark Hero would satisfy all these criteria. While I’ve never seen the first one -- by all indications, this is the stronger of the two efforts -- the sequel stands on its own as an enjoyable romp that requires little pretext or understanding of the source material. At its core, this is a film about a man who is unable to control his body and the misdeeds that result from its strange powers. Anyone who has eaten at Chipotle can probably relate.

The creature design of the various Zoanoids might seem familiar to those viewers who have watched any number of Kamen Rider or Power Rangers episodes, but what threw me for a loop was the amount of blood and gore during the fight scenes. It was a minor but effective touch that upped the shlock factor and raised the stakes within the story (who wants to see a vanquished enemy dissolve out of a composite shot?!) The spectacle of violence may even make you disregard the fact that the action scenes are unevenly distributed and the fight choreography is a bit inconsistent.


The fight scenes are quite good for the most part, even with the obvious performative restrictions of bulky costuming. Fight choreographer Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunt Team certainly deserve credit for that. There’s some goofy stuff -- surprise wrestling moves, a plodding splash-fight in the water, and Guyver killing an enemy with his random laser titties -- but all of it is forgivable in the context of this cinematic universe. What can’t be ignored is staging your climactic fight in a cave with a bunch of stalagmites and stalactites and not incorporating them into the choreography at all. Friggin’ Cliffhanger got it -- why didn’t this film?

Even with all the fun stuff Wang puts in the mix, the film’s excessive run-time -- over two hours -- was nearly a deal-breaker. It drags quite badly in spots and the narrative gets bogged down by attempts to translate what I assume were frequent panels of Sean’s internal monologue strewn throughout the series. It’s chatty to a fault and the script tries to juggle too many secondary plot points and character motivations.  Fans of the original manga series or the initial anime adaptations might appreciate it, but I think viewers approaching the film without that context may risk becoming disengaged. There’s a better film somewhere in here if the filmmakers had left around 20 minutes of narrative fat on the cutting room floor.

VERDICT

If, like me, your introduction to the pairing of Sakamoto and Wang was the non-Gosling Drive (1997) your expectations might have been set artificially high, but the cool stunt shit is here along with plenty of wacky visual touches. The acting performances are serviceable but you’re watching this movie for dudes fighting in elaborate creature suits. They’re aren’t many American tokusatsu (“monster”) films out there, even fewer good ones, and Guyver: Dark Hero might be the best.

AVAILABILITY





3.5 / 7



8.29.2017

Macho Man (1985)

PLOT: A boxer and a karate champion join forces to destroy a gang of heroin dealers in Nuremberg. Fortunately for the local tourism board, they fight only in bars and streets and away from the Schöner Brunnen and the Frauenkirche.

Director: Alexander Titus Benda
Writer: Alexander Titus Benda
Cast: Rene Weller, Peter Althof, Bea Fiedler, Jacqueline Elber, Michael Messing






PLOT THICKENER

At least a decade before organized mixed martial arts provided a platform to answer questions such as “who would win in a fight between a kickboxer and a really overweight sumo wrestler?” a somewhat obscure 1985 film from West Germany sought to provide clarity to a similar proposition, with a slight sartorial spin. (“Who would win in a fight: a guy with moustache in a fur-collar leather jacket, or a tall dude with a mullet in leather pants and a white scarf?”) Macho Man puts real-life boxer, Rene Weller, and karate expert, Peter Althof, in a tiny wardrobe closet and shakes it vigorously to see if they’ll fight. They do, but not in the way you’d expect and not necessarily against each other! This is one of Germany’s only contributions to the golden age of action b-movies; we’re in "tiefschnitt" territory, you might say. Or is it schwacher hintern territory? I always mix those up.


I’ll begin by answering two questions right off the bat that I know most of you are asking. No -- this movie has nothing to do with legendary pro wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage or the Village People song of the same name. And no -- this boxing actor is of no relation to the dude who played RoboCop. Sorry to be so negative, but facts are facts (unless they’re alternative facts)!

The streets of Nuremberg, Germany are being flooded with heroin by a dangerous drug gang headed up by a dude who looks like a sleazy, coked out version of John Ritter. One of his main dealers, Tony, is after a young woman named Sandra (Fiedler) because she had the audacity to help one of her best friends (e.g., Tony’s customer) to get clean and sober. One night, as Tony and his thugs assault Sandra and try to forcibly inject her with heroin on a poorly lit street, a local boxer named Dany Wagner (Weller) just happens to be driving home from practice and sees the fracas. He pummels the thugs and makes the save, but he also makes a mortal enemy in Tony and the other dealers. During the drive to her home, Dany invites Sandra on a date.


Shortly thereafter, Dany goes to a local bank and his path crosses with Andreas (Althof), a local karate school instructor making a routine deposit of dojo funds. The two fighters jointly thwart an attempted bank robbery by two goons (the getaway driver is beaten and captured by Andreas’s karate comrade, Markus, played by Michael Messing). And wouldn’t you know it: Sanda just so happens to work at the office of a medical doctor who treats a number of area athletes, including Andreas himself!


The blonde karate master initially sets his romantic sights on Sandra -- they attend a boxing card together where Dany is the headliner, unbeknownst to them -- and the story teases a love triangle. That is, until first-dan karate student, Lisa (Elber) flies into town on her private jet in search of private lessons, and begins to steal Andreas’s gaze and heart. The destiny of all four characters converge on a fateful night at the local disco, where Dany and Sandra are grinding out a glittery, denim-laden dance of seduction. Lisa and Andreas arrive with his karate posse in tow, and sparks of jealousy fly between the two men who are macho. (Is it jealousy over Sandra? Or jealousy over Dany’s amazing denim jump-suit? Inquiring minds gotta know). Recognizing the possibilities, Lisa goads Andreas into challenging Dany to the ultimate style vs. style match.

Will the two random fighters make good on following through with the fight of the decade? Or will the looming threat of the heroin gang derail those plans and get everyone hooked on China white? And what is Benda trying to say about the “macho man” archetype as a manifestation of toxic masculinity and the male gender as it relates to violence and sex? Ha, just kidding. Nothing much.


Throughout the 1980s and 90s, plenty of b-movie production houses formalized the practice of bringing seasoned competitive fighters into the filmmaking game as leading actors; this extended overseas as well. When this film was released, Weller was an accomplished professional boxer on the European scene but would only do one more film after this during his initial foray into movies (more on that in a minute). As a former heating engineer, jeweler, and goldsmith (and wow! … cocaine dealer?) we’ll have to assume his many varied interests were simply too consuming for a full-time career in acting.

In 1991, a half-decade after Macho Man was released, a German court forced the filmmakers to remove all of Weller’s sex scenes with Bea Fiedler from the film, per his request. (Surprising to see a professional boxer get beat to the punch by such a significant margin, but I digress). We’ll never know the extent to which this experience may have soured him on movies, but apparently not so much that he could resist the urge to come back for Macho Man 2, which is a real, actual thing being crowdfunded and made in 2017 for reasons I can’t understand (the website is in German and I literally can’t read it). On my big list of analogies I never expected to make, “Macho Man is to Germany as Samurai Cop is to America” was very close to the top.


Between the karate sparring, board (and rock!) breaking, boxing bouts, and the rumbles between our heroes and the various villains, the fighting scenes in this film are a mixed bag. The karate and boxing exhibitions, while broadly impressive on an athletic level and well integrated into the montages, aren’t likely to move the needle for most fight film fans. (How many close-up shots of boxing footwork are too many? This film doesn’t care!)

Where Macho Man really hits, however, is with its approach to street fights and bar brawls (one is preceded by a heroic watch synchronization scene). Consciously or not, Benda takes a few pages from the 1980s Filipino and Indonesia action movie playbook and made these fights dirty, smashy, and trashy. Breakaway furniture, strikes to the balls, and flailing strikes are just some of the tricks the filmmakers deploy to keep things chaotic. Throw in flowing scarves, crisp leather, and macho shit-talking in the German language, and the result is a unique and enjoyable blueprint that can be continually used without getting stale. Truly wunderbar!

VERDICT

If anyone ever doubts the pervasive influence of machismo-laden 1980s American action film at a global scale, one need look no further than Macho Man for evidence. The various fashions of the era -- the haircuts, the facial hair, the clothing -- mark it as an artifact of not just a particular time, but also a particular place. The Bavarian flavor here is extra funky, and almost entirely unique to the genre (the 1979 West German film Roots of Evil preceded it by a good six years). Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

For our pals in Europe, pick up the PAL DVD! For everybody else, dig in on YouTube.

4 / 7

6.12.2017

Manhattan Chase (2000)

PLOT: A former hitman for a drug gang is recently released from prison, and must put his life together, raise his estranged son, and help a victim of drug violence evade his former cohorts. Can he find an apartment in the Five Boroughs for less than $1200 a month so he has decent place to sleep in between all this stuff?

Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Lisa Cory
Cast: Loren Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock, Steve Tartalia, Nicol Zanzarella, Roberto Gutierrez, Robin Berry, Ron Van Clief


 

PLOT THICKENER

As many New York City visitors can attest, walking its streets can feel like walking through the set of a movie. From Juice and West Side Story to Mean Streets and Annie Hall, some of the greatest films in the history of cinema were filmed in New York City, the biggest city in the world (if you ignore the rest of the world). Countless critics have astutely pointed out that the Big Apple itself often serves as a character in the films in which it appears, and in no film is that more apparent than 2000’s Manhattan Chase, where NYC plays an innocent urban landscape terrorized by a low budget Godfrey Ho film production.

Loren Avedon plays Jason Reed, a former drug gang hitman who gets released from prison after serving a six-year sentence for attempted murder. He’s not about that life anymore, though, and he attempts to leave behind his checkered past so he can raise his estranged son, Tommy (Berry). But only *after* having his former gang cohort, Keith (Tartalia), give him a lift home from prison. Because who’s keeping track, amirite? Keith mocks Jason for his likely employment options with his criminal record (e.g., K-Mart), and his continued refusal to return to the gang fold. Part of raising his son will require some semblance of financial stability, and in that regard, Jason is entering an uncertain future rife with risk (and either a bike messenger gig or dressing up as a knock-off Batman in Times Square).


Jason’s attempted reconciliation with Tommy is strained, at best (as is the dramatic scene that depicts it). Despite his private wishes to have his father in his life -- which the audience learns from his telepathic monologue with the wish-granting sea gulls of Coney Island -- Tommy offers only a cold shoulder upon his dad’s return. Had Jason simply noted the current year, he could have avoided at least one major misstep. Gifting your child with a decade-old handheld gaming device like the original Gameboy is not usually the best method to getting back into the good graces of a surly kid. Just last year I got my 11-year-old cousin a game for the PS3 and he tried to gut me with a cake cutter. Kids grow up so fast!


As fate would have it, circumstances beyond Jason’s control add another roadblock to his attempt at responsible parenting. After her wicked stepfather’s stash of heroin goes missing, Jennifer (Zanzarella) escapes her home after the rest of her family is gunned down in a brutal drug-killing led by Keith. During her desperate sprint from the killers -- they want their drugs back, naturally -- she ends up on the hood of Jason’s moving vehicle (!) and is driven to safety. Jason is hesitant to help her after that point, but Tommy convinces him otherwise, and they find refuge at the apartment of Victor (Gutierrez), Jason’s old prison buddy. Let’s recap: ex-convicts, the lone survivor of a drug hit, a gang in hot pursuit, and an 11-year-old? This should end fine.

To complicate matters, Jason’s ex and Tommy’s mother, Brenda (Sweeney), is back in town after sobering up in California. After running into her cop sister, Nancy (Rothrock), during a purse snatching (don’t ask) we get a huge lunch-time exposition scene with all of the gory details. Did I mention that Nancy was the cop who arrested Jason during an attempted hit six years ago and put him in prison? I didn’t? I must have been distracted by all of these shiny, wild coincidences!


Following Undefeatable and Honor and Glory, Manhattan Chase was the third and final film in an unofficial trilogy of late-cycle Godfrey Ho films that were: a) filmed in the U.S.; b) featured mostly American casts; and c) strangely coherent with no traces of Ho’s trademark cut-and-paste technique. Of the three, this might be the most violent and nihilistic among them, and given that Undefeatable featured a serial-killing kung fu rapist, that’s saying something. The drug violence throughout the movie is quite grisly, and the climax contains a character death that may legitimately surprise viewers.

All that said, the film suffers from the absence of a colorful and equally unlikable main heavy. Tartalia as the gang lackey, Keith, is the closest thing to a real villain, and he has the necessary fighting chops to gel with both Avedon and Rothrock (though he only fights with the former). However, the character lacks the over-the-top qualities of Stingray from Undefeatable, the pompous presence of Jason Slade from Honor and Glory, and the sustained screen-time and narrative focus of either character. Tartalia made a career playing the evil gwailo, so I’m not totally sure why he didn’t get top baddie billing here. He does have a protracted and curiously graphic and out-of-place sex scene, though, so maybe it was in his contract?


The fights are actually pretty good -- quickly paced with good striking and blocking combinations -- and it’s always cool to see Hong Kong action choreography to go along with some familiar American faces with experience. Avedon runs with that ball for most of the film, and Rothrock’s fight scenes are unfortunately minimal. The pair of NRNS2 alumni is kept largely separated for the majority of the film, which feels like a major missed opportunity (though not as egregious as Ron Van Clief’s 120-second appearance as a mini-van kidnapper).

VERDICT

Manhattan Chase is not a “good” movie in the traditional sense, but I think there’s enough happening here to keep you -- rabid and unpretentious b-movie chopsocky fan -- engaged throughout the run-time: upbeat fight scenes, quirky dialogue, a sincere Loren Avedon performance, and enough squibs to fill a bucket typically used to hold acorns. It’s a shockingly coherent capstone to a unique filmmaking career.

AVAILABILITY

Streaming on Amazon Prime.,YouTube.

3 / 7

5.10.2017

Bloodsport 2 (1996)

PLOT: An art thief is double-crossed by his business partner and then sentenced to prison in Thailand. During his incarceration, he learns about a fighting style called “Iron Hand,” a dangerous tournament known as the kumite, and how to make a tasty prison latte in his cell using milk and instant coffee.

Director: Alan Mehrez
Writer: Alan Mehrez
Cast: Daniel Bernhardt, James Hong, Donald Gibb, Pat Morita, Ong Soo Han, Ron Hall, Lisa McCullough, Nicholas Hill, Hee Il Cho, Lori Lynn Dickerson, Philip Tan, Eric Lee




PLOT THICKENER

The recently completed 2017 film Kill’em All represents a circuitous crossing of paths more than two decades in the making between an action star who launched a film franchise -- Bloodsport’s Jean-Claude Van Damme -- and the guy who replaced him, Swiss martial artist Daniel Bernhardt. Both actors are in good places now; JCVD is enjoying a professional and pop cultural renaissance while Bernhardt has had roles in major studio films like John Wick and Logan. While he could not have helped his European origins -- or the fact that he looked like Van Damme, sort of sounded like him, and is several inches taller -- inquiring minds want to know why Bernhardt decided to sign on for 1996’s Bloodsport 2 as his action movie debut, especially since it led to a decade of typecast roles that JCVD himself had already done or didn’t want. Is this something the two laughed about while filiming together recently? Or was the working relationship between them akin to two dudes who are tangentially aware that they dated the same person? Questions -- I got ‘em.


During a break in martial arts class, the elderly Sun (Hong) shares with his young students the story of a man whose greed and terrible life choices laid a foundation for redemption. Alex Cardo (Bernhardt) is a suave art thief who makes his living schmoozing his way into soirees at luxurious estates and making off with priceless artifacts. (When you can’t decide between your favorite twins in 1992’s Double Impact -- slick-haired Alex or foppish Chad -- Cardo is there to quip, “why not both?”) His most recent heist at the home of a rich dude named Leung (Morita) sees him walk away with a jeweled sword and a lunch date with the inquisitive Janine (Dickerson). Neither of these prizes comes without a cost, however. The next day at the hotel, he gets set up by his crooked business partner, John (Tan), is arrested by the authorities, and gets an all-expenses-paid trip to a Thai prison. Worst date ever!


The food is garbage. Most of the inmates are violent, and the more docile ones simply wander the all-dirt prison yard sweeping up non-existent trash. Everyone is forced to wear pink. Worse yet, the unholy duo of prison boss Chien (Chuay) and a brutal prison guard named Demon (Ong Soo Han) seems to have it out for Alex. Fortunately, the benevolent master Sun comes to the newbie’s defense during an attempted beat-down and takes him under his wing. What the elderly master lacks in brawn, he makes up for with a style known as “iron hand.” He was forced to use the technique against a former student who turned into a violent rapist, and the result was lethal. Due to the student’s politically connected father, Sun ended up incarcerated for life. In time, Alex learns the iron hand technique from Sun and is able to defend himself against constant attacks by Chien and his cronies.

As prisoners are want to do, the pair discusses the crime that landed Alex in the joint, and Sun reveals that the sword he stole wasn’t just any old blade, but rather the grand prize for an underground invite-only kumite tournament. Alex aspires to enter the tournament and win it using Sun’s iron hand technique as some sort of tribute, but there’s the minor detail of imprisonment standing the way. Have no fear! This is a movie with a bored screenwriter, so the superintendent lets Alex out early for reasons the movie will deal with later (if you’re lucky). Our hero feels bad about leaving Sun behind, but not so bad that he’s going to pass up the chance to breathe free air, enter the kumite, and eat a decent fucking meal. Sun informs him that Demon is also entering the kumite and must be stopped because he’s dishonorable or something. Hijinks ensue, motives are revealed, and Ray Jackson (Gibb) is back in the fray as an English-speaking handler for all the gringos and gweilos at the kumite, Alex included.


The action in the film is good and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that on balance, this film actually has much better fighters and fight choreography than its predecessor. That will sound wacky to fans of the original, but it’s true. For that, we have action choreographer Philip Tan to thank. As Alex’s treacherous former partner, he’s a bit underutilized and doesn’t get quite as much screen time as one might expect. As fight choreographer, though, he makes everybody look good in their fight scenes, whether it’s Bernhardt and Ron Hall in their fast-paced, block-heavy kumite match, or even 67-year-old James Hong throwing strikes in the prison yard like a genuine martial arts O.G.


It is beyond surprising to me that this film had a theatrical run, albeit a short one. My disbelief is informed less by the quality of the film -- it’s good for what it is -- and more by the general circumstances in which it was released. The charismatic Belgian star who helped launch the franchise was replaced by an unknown Swiss look-alike. No threatening glares from Bolo Yeung. No Paul Hertzog soundtrack. The only holdover from the original film is Donald Gibb, who appears to be having a lot less fun with his scenes than he did in the first film. The distributor, Transcontinental Film Corporation, cut its teeth on bringing cheap 1970s Hong Kong martial arts films to American theaters, but had never distributed a homegrown film. Even with the lack of serious star power and a film property that was nearly a decade old, they still pushed this film to theaters for a three-month run, and made a paltry $700,000 at the box office for their efforts. This was the last film they ever touched and my guess is that they’d probably like a mulligan on that decision.

VERDICT

Bloodsport 2 is the sort of sequel you get when you combine a solid lead actor, some good martial arts choreography, and an inferior story propped up with misplaced nostalgia and character actors. It’s not especially distinctive among its tournament chopsocky brethren in its presentation, but the supporting performances and fight choreography are good enough to make it a worthwhile watch. Kumite.

AVAILABILITY

The usual: Amazon, eBay. Not a tough one to find.


3.5 / 7


3.24.2017

Hardcase and Fist (1989)

PLOT: An honest cop is framed by his crooked partner and sent to prison. His only remaining friends? His Vietnam war buddy who now works for the Italian mafia, and the kindly Chinese martial arts expert with whom he shares his prison cell.

Director: Tony Zarindast
Writer: Tony Zarindast
Cast: Ted Prior, Carter Wong, Tony Zarindast, Tony Bova, Christine Lunde, Vincent Barbi, Debra Lamb

PLOT THICKENER

American action films of the 1980s hold up remarkably well as cinematic artifacts. On the one hand, the action is usually fun -- ‘splosions, fights, and car chases -- even if it isn’t well crafted. On the other hand, the substance of these films is heavily influenced by the Cold War, a brash, Reagan-era hyper-nationalism, and the specter of an unsuccessful Vietnam war. As a result, much of it is perfectly suitable for viewings both ironic and sincere. Some of the more unique films born out of this period, though, were made by Iranian filmmakers patchworking together the most shallow elements of the sub-genre as they saw it -- guns, muscular tough guys, beautiful women -- while working on micro-budgets for the home video market. The work of filmmakers like Amir Shervan (Samurai Cop), Jahangi Salehi (a.k.a. John Rad), and Tony Zarindast (this movie!), held a funhouse mirror up to the American action film. And if what was reflected back at us felt shoddy or clunky -- well, perhaps we should blame the blueprints these filmmakers followed, rather than those who did the emulating.

Out of the three aforementioned directors, Zarindast, born in the mid-1930s as Mohammed Zarrindast, was the most prolific, churning out roughly a dozen films for the American market between 1978 and 2012. He was also, I suspect, the president of his own fan club; he wrote, produced, and performed in most of his own films. The term “vanity project” gets thrown around a lot these days, but the term was invented for a cat like Zarindast. Hell, look at the size of the font for his director credit from the Hardcase and Fist trailer! If he could have made it bigger, I’m sure he would have. 


The film starts with a prison bus rolling up to the gate of a high security facility, before the doors open and a couple dozen fresh inmates shuffle out. Bud McCall (Prior) is one such inmate, and even worse for him, a former cop. What he thought was a routine undercover narcotics sting turned out to be a cash grab by his dirty partner, Tully (Bova). When Bud refused to participate and take a cut of the proceeds, Tully framed *him* as the dirty cop. Worse yet, Tully’s on the Mafia’s payroll and has convinced the Don (Barbi) to have Bud whacked in prison to tie up the final loose end and prevent him from testifying against them. The man they pick for the job is Tony (Zarindast), who, as Bud’s former war pal from the war in Vietnam, is the only one in their ranks who can get close enough to Bud to do it. Tony’s conscience is torn in half by two worlds: the crime syndicate that gave him the good life, and the former friend who saved his life in the war. 


Meanwhile, Bud is slowly adapting to the rigors of incarcerated life: getting to know new friends in the yard (e.g., people he arrested for crimes who now threaten his life), hashing out differences with the management (e.g., Warden Borden, who hates dirty cops), and negotiating his bunk with his new cell-mate, Eddy Lee (Wong). Even though Eddy gets the bottom bunk, he’s a good guy. They talk about the women they left behind out in the world -- an aerobics instructor (Lunde) and a stripper (Lamb), respectively -- and the two strike up a fast and mutually convenient comradery. You roundhouse-kick the guy trying to shiv me from behind, and I’ll punch out the guy who keeps stealing your pudding cup. Because isn’t violence the bedrock of all lasting prison friendships?


Can Bud stay alive in this hellhole long enough to exchange his testimony in the FBI’s case against the Mafia for freedom? Will Tony betray his loyalty to his mob bosses, or his loyalty to the friend who saved him from rotting in the swamps of Southeast Asia? Will Eddy crack up in prison before he’s able to reunite with his fire-breathing stripper wife? And how much dialogue will Tony Zarindast really get in this film? 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the common cold, or unfinished lumber (splinters and all), but this is a bad film made possible by poor filmmaking. It is not bad in that “wow, look at all this overacting, and this script is bad, and your boom mic is showing, and look at all these continuity errors” sort of way, but rather in that “these story elements are solid, but handled clumsily, and the action scenes aren’t distributed evenly, and who is this person, and why is he doing that, and this filmmaker doesn’t really know how to engage the audience for any meaningful period of time” sort of way. This was a real bummer because I recently signed a six-figure publishing deal for at least three volumes worth of Eddy Lee fan fiction. 


It’s a shame because the opening 25 minutes of the film are reasonably compelling. The opening scene cuts from Bud at the prison entrance to a flashback of his alleged “crime,” and then transitions back to the line of weary prisoners with a stylish fish-lens camera view. Shortly after being confronted with his moral dilemma, Zarindast gets arguably the best dramatic scence in the film. Slumped in a chair in his living room, he has one hand filled with a bottle of liquor, and fills the other with a gun. Racked by guilt, he unloads multiple rounds on his television, a lamp, and even a bottle of booze held by his attractive female companion! If his exclamation of "CHUT UP! You're nothing, don’t you understand?! I owe him!" doesn’t capture the depths of his despair, I’m not sure what words could. More or less, this film has the right parts in the model kit -- a friendship, some car chases, decent fight scenes, guns, 'splosions, an aerobics class, etc. -- but no idea how to put it all together.


If the gap between expectation and cinematic reality were to be expressed as a freakishly tall 1990s NBA center, this film would be Gheorge Muresan (7ft 7in / 2.31m). If you recall, he started off as an unpolished rookie, became decent by his third season, but completely fell off a cliff due to injuries. The elements on this film, on paper anyways, gave me high hopes for this film. Low-budget prison action flick featuring the star of Deadly Prey and the most distinctive henchman from Big Trouble in Little China and a certified legend of Hong Kong kung fu film? Where do I sign up? (Assuming there is some sort of sheet that requires a signature to express hypothetical interest in such a film?) There are plenty of people at whom one could point the finger for this mess of a movie, but since I’m using most of them to type this review, I’ll use my one free one to point at director Tony Zarindast and his obsession with 1980s American genre movies. 


VERDICT

While the first act of the film suggests the makings of an obscure cult gem, the remainder sinks Hardcase and Fist as not much more than a limp afterthought. Prior nor Wong is able to rise above Zarindast’s sleepy story and filmmaking style, and the action scenes aren’t frequent enough to break up the the slog. Occasionally amusing, but not a critical watch.


AVAILABILITY

DVD and VHS on Amazon, eBay.

2.5 / 7

3.06.2017

Bloodfist (1989)

PLOT: After his brother is killed in Manila, an American boxer enters an underground kickboxing tournament to find his murderer. The entry fee: 500 tickets from a Skee-Ball game.

Director: Terrence Winkless
Writer: Robert King
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Joe Mari Avellana, Michael Shaner, Billy Blanks, Riley Bowman, Vic Diaz, Rob Kaman, Cris Aguilar, Kenneth Peerless, Ned Hourani




PLOT THICKENER

After roughly three decades of watching films, I’ve taken away one cinematic life lesson above all others. Not “follow your heart” or “hope can set you free.” If you’re receiving money to take a fall in a kickboxing fight in a foreign country, just throw the fight! Once all parties have agreed to it, nothing good can come from flipping the script and reneging. Maybe you’re cool with winning the fight, spending the prize money on booze, getting killed in an alley in a foreign country, and getting your brother mixed up in the sleazy underworld of fixed fights to the death, but I ain’t. So, if you need a short 80-minute primer on this lesson for reinforcement, allow me to fix you up with 1989’s Bloodfist. It’ll set you straight.

This is the film debut of Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Most of you will know him from his successful professional kickboxing career and his starring roles in a prolific string of 1990s direct-to-video martial arts films. A handful of you will know him from that time he dressed up in neon and got whooped by Chris O’Donnell’s character in Batman Forever. Here, he’s playing Jake Raye, an unremarkable former boxer teaching self-defense classes to kids at a gym in California with his friend and trainer, Hal (Peerless). Due to a prior act of bodily sacrifice, he’s down one whole kidney, but up one half-brother, Michael (Hourani), himself a fighter based in the Philippines.


That was nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? Following a fixed fight where he refused to take the fall, Michael is tracked down after a late night out in Manila and gets killed by a shadowy figure. Good news travels quickly, like sound, but bad news travels faster, like me running after a recently departed taco truck. Jake receives a phone call about his brother and before you can say, “avenging sibling” he’s on a plane to Manila with a bag filled with t-shirts from his boxing gym. I have no idea why that’s relevant here, I just thought it was strange enough to mention.

Action movies with a sheltered American tough guy who travels to an exotic foreign land usually begin that introduction with one of two things: a distracting scene of locals gambling on bug fights, or a good old-fashioned pickpocketing. This film has both, in that exact order. After recovering his stolen bag of shirts, Jake eventually stumbles upon an outdoor training compound and gets chased for his voyeurism. He learns from a nearby random vagrant and landscape painter named Kwong (Avellana) that it’s a highly exclusive fighting club called the Red Fist, and their annual tournament, the “Ta-Chang” is being held soon.


Parallel to that fast friendship, Jake meets a fellow American named “Baby” Davies (Shaner) during a mano-a-mano bar fight manufactured by Davies himself (don’t ask -- gambling problems). Jake visits his pad and meets his sister, Nancy (Bowman), the kind of big-haired blonde who performs seductive slow-motion rooftop aerobics in a unitard as a matter of habit. You know the type. This on-screen relationship set off what would become a legendary run of gratuitous Don “The Dragon” love scenes rivaled only by Jean Claude Van Damme himself. Was this contractual? Or did distributors get a look at this movie and demand topless Dragon scenes in all his films, ad infinitum?

Jake gets a hint that he must enter the Red Fist tournament to find his brother’s killer, and as luck would have it, Kwong is a martial arts trainer and has an “in” with the Red Fist group. In a colorful sequence that provides equal parts character back story and pure machismo, Kwong guides Jake through the Red Fist training center as the competitors prepare for tournament battle. There’s the mini-mulleted Black Rose (Blanks), a fierce fighter whose intensity is matched only by his hatred for unbroken bricks. And who can forget Chin Woo (Aguilar), Vietnamese napalm survivor and total wrecking ball? Then there’s Raton (Kaman), a German music fan who spars and fights with his earphones in at all times. Among all these different fighters is a consistent theme: they not only punch, but kick, headbutt, knee, and throw elbows. Jake is a boxer, so Kwong must train up his deficiencies in order for him to contend with the field.


Stories that focus on a mentor-student dynamic hinge upon two main things: the push-and-pull tension between the characters, and the sadistic training methods that will force the student to achieve his or her fullest potential. Jake and Kwong have a nice, easygoing chemistry together and it’s easy to buy into their partnership (Avellana played a similar mentor role in 1978’s Death Force). The slightly more bizarre proposition is that the film’s central character -- played by a legendary kickboxing champion -- has no idea how to kick. Luckily, Kwong knows just how to teach him. Because if running up dirt hills, having local kids throw rotten fruit at you, and pummeling huge bags of goat shit doesn’t prepare you for the underground kickboxing fight of your life, what will?

The action in the film is solid on balance, but some fight scenes are better than others. The highlight was seeing Wilson and Blanks duke it out in a short but compelling fight that made interesting use of camera angles and undercranking to make both guys look good through crisp choreography and a fast pace. At the back-end of the film were two surprisingly violent confrontations, one of which involves a fighter being pinned to a metal railing and beaten before having his earring ripped out, and another that features a brutal act I can only refer to as “pointy thing impalement.” It was probably scrap metal.


This isn't a knock: Bloodfist is the sort of film that is so cookie-cutter in its story and presentation that you can trick yourself into thinking you’ve seen it before. Even the title itself -- mashed together from two random words -- evokes a hundred other movies in the realm of action cinema. (Teddy Page was responsible for four such “Blood____” films but I’m not going to ruminate on the “fist” film titles because of the frightening implications it has for my Google referral keywords). Perhaps that’s what led CNN (of all news outlets) to include it in a January 2015 listicle feature about Hollywood’s most violent films. Sandwiched between Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Goodfellas, you’ll find Bloodfist, 1989 direct-to-video Filipino Roger Corman production. Maybe the author was just a Don “The Dragon” fan?

VERDICT

Sibling vengeance. Underground fighting. Hammy training montages. The bait-and-switch VHS cover. And a ton of sequels, some related, some not. There may be no more well-rounded representation of the 1980s and 90s DTV chopsocky experience than Bloodfist. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

On disc at Amazon, eBay.

5 / 7


2.09.2017

U.S. Seals II (2001)

PLOT: When a former U.S. Navy SEAL chief goes rogue and threatens to strike his own home country with a nuclear missile, a team led by his former subordinate is sent to an island near Siberia to stop him.

Director: Isaac Florentine
Writers: Boaz Davidson, Michael D. Weiss
Cast: Michael Worth, Damian Chapa, Karen Kim, Hakim Alston, Marshall Teague, Sophia Crawford, Andy Cheng, Kate Connor, George Cheung






PLOT THICKENER

I’m not sure when it happened, because slow evolutions are sometimes tough to observe as they're happening. As the direct to video action market began to slump, though, American chopsocky films left behind neon, rock ballads, and the breezy comfort of Zubaz pants to embrace the modern film landscape. Instead of the ambiguous threat of rich white old guys, some films turned their gazes towards things like unsecured nuclear arsenals in Eastern Europe. One of these films even traded in the smoke-filled halls of underground fighting for a methane-rich atmosphere that prevented the use of firearms. This is the world of 2001’s US Seals II, a landmark Nu Image film directed by Isaac Florentine, and for better or worse, a film completely devoid of actual seals.

Former PM Entertainment golden boy Michael Worth plays Casey Sheppard, a righteous lieutenant in a Navy SEALs unit under the command of Chief Frank Ratliff (Chapa). Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, the two are also classmates in a martial arts school led by Sensei Matsumura (Cheung). When Casey discovers that Ratliff has killed one of their sensei’s twin daughters (both played by Karen Kim), he tries to prevent his commander from burning the remains but gets knocked unconscious for his efforts. Matsumura, overcome with grief over his daughter’s death, commits suicide, and his surviving daughter, Kamiko, blames Casey and Frank for the grave misfortune.


Years later, Casey has left his service days and the tragedy of Okinawa behind. Ratliff has also been discharged and has transitioned into a full-time position as a terrorist, and his team of malcontents has just recently kidnapped nuclear physicist, Dr. Jane Burrows (Connor), to help them launch a Soviet nuclear warhead at the United States. Unless Uncle Sam digs into its deep pockets and pays up, that is.

This sets in motion a rapid and proportionate response from the military. Major Nathan Donner (Teague) feels a sense of personal responsibility, as the kidnapped doctor was under his supervision. Fortunately, the good doctor was “geotagged” and the military determines that she’s been transported to an island near Siberia. Unfortunately, this particular island has a large proportion of residual methane in the atmosphere from years of nuclear testing, and the slightest spark would set the entire area aflame. In order to rescue the doctor and prevent a nuclear war, Donner will need a team who can defeat the terrorists without the use of firearms.

He turns to Casey Sheppard, now a civilian and metal shop worker. Initially recalcitrant at the invitation, Casey takes on the mission when he finds out that Ratliff is the man behind it all. However, he’ll only do it on his own terms, with a team comprised of his hand-picked selections. His pal, Omar (Alston) will cost a pretty penny but is just the man for the job due to his martial arts skills. Convicted felon, Finley (Southworth) needs to be sprung from a chain gang but is up to the task. And despite her bitter feelings for Casey, Kumiko relishes the opportunity to get vengeance for her sister’s death. Can this team of misfits work together to save millions of lives from a nuclear strike? Or will someone light up a post-victory cigarette and set the whole shit-house up in flames?


Holy hell, this fucking movie. U.S. Seals II is that rare kind of film that you dig from the start, before growing increasingly irritated about its cheesy technical and plot-driven choices -- swoosh sound effects for mundane movements and atmospheric methane to explain away the use of firearms, among them -- and eventually just accepting it on its own merits, wacky warts and all. A lot of people have issues with Isaac Florentine. He’s one of the best directors of action cinema in the world but also has a tendency towards distracting indulgences that border on comic book gimmickry. Aside from the aforementioned devices, his direction is good here, and he provides second unit director Andy Cheng the opportunity to craft some incredible Hong Kong style choreography that makes the cast shine. The quality of the fighting in this film is off the charts for an American movie (aside from a clumsy and poorly lit underwater scuba fight that is every bit as fun to watch as it sounds).

Michael Worth, practioner of everything from Tang Soo Do to Escrima and Muay Thai, leads a terrific cast of veteran martial arts performers. Kickboxing champion and taekwondo black belt Hakim Alston (“The Machine” on WMAC Masters) didn’t do nearly enough films given his talent and charisma, but he’s fantastic here as the team’s wild card, Omar. I was disappointed with the amount of screen time Sophia Crawford had here given her legacy in Hong Kong film, but any time you get a performer of her talent in a U.S. film, good things happen, even if she’s relegated to “bad guy’s girlfriend” status as she is here. This also marks the first collaboration between Dan Southworth and Cheng himself, and the pair went on to design action sequences for Hollywood films such as 2003’s The Rundown and 2002’s The Scorpion King. In this film, however, they’re adversaries who beat the crap out of each other with a steel chain.


All that said, the most bad-ass kills are reserved for frequent Michael Worth collaborator and former Raiderette, Karen Kim (R.I.P.), pulling double duty as twin sisters Kamiko and Nikki. First off, she skydives out of an airplane with a katana blade! She ends her fights with garish brutality, slicing one unfortunate enemy in half from skull to groin, and stabbing another while doing an athletic back bend. Being that her sister was murdered and her father performed ritualistic suicide as a result, one could probably argue that this is simply her working through her personal issues. We all take different roads in life.

VERDICT

On the basis of fight quality alone, U.S. Seals II is a top 10 American martial arts film by a comfortable margin. The actors and stunt team are all up to the challenge of keeping up with complex Hong Kong style choreography, and the direction and editing make everyone look great. Throw in some colorful characters, a brisk pace, and some leftover bones, and baby, you got a stew going. Highly recommended.

AVAILABILITY

DVD on Amazon or eBay.

6 / 7


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