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


1.20.2017

Black Belt Jones (1974)

PLOT: A righteous martial artist comes to the aid of his master when his karate school is being targeted for hostile takeover by a local crime boss beholden to the Italian Mafia. They probably want to turn it into a Whole Foods.

Director: Robert Clouse
Writers: Fred Weintraub, Alexandra Rose, Oscar Williams
Cast: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Alan Weeks, Malik Carter, Eric Laneuville, Scatman Crothers, Mel Novak, Andre Philippe





PLOT THICKENER

If you ever find yourself at some rich jerk’s house and he takes you into his climate-controlled wine closet and offers up a vintage 1974 merlot from Del Orso Vineyards, you would be wise to pay attention to the following notes. See that brick red color? The viscosity of the liquid as it coats the glass while you swirl it about? Maybe you taste the faint presence of tobacco, iron, or even meat? The reason for this is because this wine was fermented in a vat with a dead body in it. You are drinking dead people. Spit that wine the fuck outta here and welcome to the 1974 Jim Kelly classic, Black Belt Jones.

When Pop Byrd (Crothers) and his karate school come under attack from a neighborhood crime boss named Pinky (Carter), the sparks, fur, and polyester will surely fly. Pinky is under the thumb of Italian mafioso and wine magnate, Don Steffano (Philippe), and he has orders to secure the location of the school for future real estate development. If the combined efforts of the karate school’s teacher, Toppy (Weeks) and his understudy, Quincy (Laneuville), aren’t enough muscle to hold off the goon squad, where else can they turn?


Enter Black Belt Jones (Kelly), a martial arts expert, unabashed trampoline enthusiast, and righteous dude with the unwavering respect of his community. As a one-time student of Byrd and a school loyalist, he’s more than willing to lead the fight against Pinky’s hostile advances. In parallel, the local police force is trying to recruit Jones to infiltrate the Don’s vineyard gang, with everyone apparently unaware of the links between the mafia and Pinky. When Byrd’s long-lost daughter, Sydney (Hendry) unexpectedly arrives in town to defend the honor of her pop and his school, the battle lines are drawn. Can Jones and Sydney get along well enough to fend off the aggressors? Will the alliance of Pinky’s gang and the mafia -- including a handsome menace known only as Blue Eyes (Novak) -- prove too strong a force? And is this the film which shows the very first 360-degree roundhouse kick in cinema history, courtesy of Scatman Crothers?

This follows Jim Kelly's scene-stealing role as Williams in Enter the Dragon, released just a year beforehand, and it's really a showcase for Kelly as a leading man. The action is choreographed to his strengths: kicking ass and looking good while doing it. If there’s a problem with this one-note approach, it’s that the outcomes of the fight scenes become predictable. The stunt guys sell out really well to make Kelly’s character look like a total superhero, but Jones lacks a logical, physical equal in the story (other than his ally, Sydney). The salve for this effect is a lot of visual creativity in the presentation. One scene has Jones working with Toppy during a night-time raid of the dojo by Pinky’s gang to use the indoor lighting strategically as he repeatedly busts heads and disappears in the darkness, only to re-emerge in the light and do it all over again. Another sees him fighting off Pinky’s men inside of an abandoned train car, and in one confrontation after another, the bruised henchmen fly through the train car windows to the outside, to almost comical effect.


In the infamous climax, Jones battles the remnants of the various gangs at a truck wash lot in a sudsy sea of knee-high soap. He makes easy work of his enemies using a variety of moves, though none more flashy than a chain of butterfly kicks that takes out four consecutive unlucky henchmen. In modern terms, a lot of this is going to look silly because there’s plenty of dreaded “stunt guys standing around and waiting to get hit” on the screen. I’m not sure it’s fair to nitpick the fight choreography, though, since American filmmakers were still figuring out how to stage martial arts for film audiences. Regardless, the scenes are creative and humorous on the whole and you’re not watching this for the fight scenes alone.

What I will nitpick, however, is some dated and regrettable language that, while not unique to this particular film, is certainly endemic to exploitation cinema as a whole. Prior to a physical confrontation with some of Pinky’s gang members, Sydney drops a gay slur in the middle of some trash-talking dialogue that will land with an awkward thud with most modern viewers. Why was this level of homophobia ever a thing in this genre? Do we blame Clouse for including it? The screenwriters for hatching the line? I would hate to think that Hendry ad-libbed it. And by the by, I can’t justifiably knock the film for a throwaway line like this without acknowledging the casual misogyny of BBJ telling Sydney to “do those dishes or something” before she shoots all of them with a loaded revolver and quips, “they’re done.” The humor there is in her assertive push-back against his misguided misogyny. That’s the joke!


Despite not being a technical marvel of filmmaking, this is quite possibly the most unadulterated *fun* that an American martial arts film has delivered, and it’s a historically important film to boot. I won’t lecture readers on the cultural significance of Kelly as the first black martial arts superstar -- I wasn’t alive when this was released, and frankly, as just another privileged white dude blogging on the web about cult movies, I don’t wield that authority -- but Black Belt Jones helped to kick off an incredible run of films through the end of the 1970s that melded martial arts and blaxploitation film elements. This Reddit thread does a good job of unpacking the context for how this type of film became so popular, and this tribute written by Michael over at Kiai Kick provides a good perspective for why Jim Kelly was so important to black moviegoers and other people of color who loved martial arts and action film. Jim Kelly really was a trailblazer, and will be remembered as a legend.

VERDICT

For many, Black Belt Jones is one of the great American martial arts films of all time, and I count myself among those ranks. The action scenes are ton of fun, it features an incredibly charismatic lead coming into his own as an action star, and the relationship between the two main characters is enjoyable and engaging. Such cool, very recommend!

AVAILABILITY

Streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes. DVD is widely available on Netflix or the 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action collection from Warner Bros.

5.5 / 7


1.10.2017

Ninja Busters (1984)

PLOT: Two unemployed friends join a martial arts school to meet girls, but must first contend with a fierce trio of enemies determined to confront them: discipline, maturity, and self-respect.

Director: Paul Kyriazi
Writers: Sid Campbell, William C. Martell
Cast: Eric Lee, Sid Campbell, Gerald Okamura, Carlos Navarro, Dalia Gutierrez, Nancy Lee, Frank Navarro, Juan Morales, Fumiko Takahashi, Harry Mok




PLOT THICKENER

It’s a rare thing in film or television to see a full-grown adult suddenly decide to start training in martial arts as a plot point (Seinfeld’s Kramer is an obvious exception). In most films, any portrayal finds a professional fighter training in the run-up to a big match or a hero who is depicted as a bad-ass from the very beginning. In both of these cases, his or her first entrance into the dojo (or dojang, for the taekwondo-inclined) occurred years beforehand. In Paul Kyriazi’s 1984 action-comedy Ninja Busters, two adult friends join a karate class after making a joint New Year’s resolution to make positive changes in their physical well-being. Just kidding. They join a class to meet women.

Bernie (Lee) and Chic (Campbell) are two pals who work together at a San Francisco warehouse owned by a purported crime boss. They’re fired (and beaten up) after snooping around some crates marked with a cryptic dragon symbol, and then beaten up again during lunch when they argue with some local bikers. After licking their battle wounds on a long walk, they observe a lesson through the window of a local karate school. Not only are the students great fighters, but most of them are women. In short order, the two friends join the school for all of the wrong reasons.


The school’s Master (Okamura) and primary teacher, Romero (Carlos Navarro) are shocked by the behavior of their new students. Aside from being lazy and undisciplined, Chic and Bernie won’t stop hitting on the advanced students, Kathy (Gutierrez) and Tina (Lee). Romero is inclined to give these idiots the boot, but the Master sees value in their presence; the teachers have an opportunity to learn the virtue of patience through a dogged effort to reform them. Will the masters succeed and turn these slobs into fighting machines? Can bikers, ninjas, street gangs, karate students, Vietnam vets, and black separatists peacefully co-exist? And is it possible to have too many amazing turtleneck sweaters in the same movie?

The success of the 2012 Alamo Drafthouse re-release of Miami Connection established a demand for slick, modern presentations of lost action films of the 1970s and 80s. The market responded with subsequent releases of films like 1984’s Furious (once only available on VHS), 1982’s Raw Force, 1990’s Killing American Style (previously unreleased) and the 26-year action odyssey, Dangerous Men. While it shares an earnestness and the “lost” quality of the aforementioned titles, Ninja Busters otherwise bears little resemblance. For starters, it’s a comedy that aims to be intentionally funny; you won't get much ironic enjoyment here. Kyriazi was also on his third feature film, after having cut his teeth in the film departments at both San Francisco State University and the U.S. Air Force. He got good production value out of the filming locations, so the limitations of its budget aren’t as visible as in other, similar films.



The comedic tone of the film is not unlike a lot of comedies of the 1980s; sometimes the jokes work, and other times the try-hard humor is a poor fit by today’s standards. Campbell, in particular, had a tendency to overdo the physical comedy bits, and much of the horndog behavior -- from 30+ year-old adults, no less -- came off as forced. (That the ladies at the martial arts school put both schmucks in their place for their stupidity helps to dilute the awkwardness, somewhat). On balance, the frequent deadpan humor and occasional visual gag tended to work the best, e.g., when the guys leave the dojo for a long run only to return with pizza sauce and regret all over the faces. We've all been there, amirite?!


Despite the emphasis on comedic elements, this didn’t necessarily carry over into the action choreography and manifest itself as full-on slapstick. A good majority of it is straightforward, honest martial arts. One sequence set in a junkyard -- where gangsters, ninjas, black separatists, and our heroes fight it out in a free-for-all brawl -- makes clever use of tires and swinging doors in the choreography. The film has a proper climax set in Romero’s Latin night club, and the fight choreography has a nice, flowing pace on the whole. Kyriazi worked with Lee and Okamura previously for 1981's The Weapons of Death, and it certainly shows in the action sequences.

VERDICT

As a film that attempts to blend elements of a prototypical 1980s comedy with martial arts, Ninja Busters is in a category all its own. There’s no doubting the earnestness that went into the performances and the filmmaking, but one’s mileage may vary because the humor is emphasized over the action, and falls flat at times. Despite this, it’s an interesting curiosity of the genre and definitely worth a watch.

AVAILABILITY

The Bluray release from Garagehouse Pictures can be had at Amazon and your finest online retailers.


4 / 7

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...