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



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