12.11.2017

Sword of Heaven (1985)

PLOT: An ancient sword forged by Zen monks from a meteorite falls into the hands of a paramilitary madman. Can a police trainer based in Los Angeles recover it, or will he be too busy Googling the differences between comets, asteroids, meteors, and space rocks, to get the job done?

Director: Byron Meyers
Writers: James Bruner, Britt Lomond, William O’Hagan, Joseph J. Randazzo
Cast: Tadashi Yamashita, Mel Novak, Gerry Gibson, Mika, Joseph J. Randazzo, William Ghent, Wynston A. Jones, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Gerald Okamura, Karen Sheperd



PLOT THICKENER

Among the actors who played villains opposite some of the biggest action stars of the 1970s and 80s (e.g., Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee) there are few who loom larger than Mel Novak and Tadashi Yamashita. (Bolo Yeung is one of those few). Both actors played important foils to heroes in major studio films, but they also have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle when discussing the era, in part because neither of them got major leading roles as a point of differentiation. The 1985 film Sword of Heaven attempts to rectify that by casting one man opposite the other, thereby dooming one of them to the inescapable fate of playing evil men ad infinitum, despite his possible wishes to star in a comedy or a cheery musical.

Hundreds of years ago, a meteorite fell to earth and zen monks forged a sword from the remains. The custodial family for the sword was the Kobiashi family, and their modern day descendants include Toshiro (Gent) and his daughter, Satoko (Mika). However, the sword was recently acquired illicitly by a self-proclaimed “collector” and former special forces soldier named Dirk St. John (Novak). These days, he runs an extortion ring in Los Angeles that targets the well-off rather than the super-rich, because it tends to attract less attention from the authorities. If the targets don’t pay, Dirk’s weapons of choice are a knife or his trusty garrote. As he tells his army of paramilitary trainees, these close-range weapons inspire fear, and “fear is our greatest weapon.” As he repeatedly demonstrates, though, knives and garrotes are also great weapons.


A Japanese police trainer and motorcycle enthusiast, Tadashi (Yamashita) works with the Los Angeles Police Department and educates them in the martial arts. One of his students and friends on the force, Patrick (Gibson) is investigating the recent spat of killings, which leads him  to a brothel where Satoko works as a prostitute. During a lunch stop in the middle of the woods where he rides his bike, Tadashi crosses paths with Toshiro, who finds him sufficiently samurai to be chosen to retrieve the sword from St. John and his gang. All these random threads end up converging in the misshapen cable-knit sweater that is Sword of Heaven.

This was a weird one. The first half-hour or so is a bit of a mess and it was difficult to tell where things were going. The first three scenes alone were randomly sized pieces from completely different puzzles. A meteorite falls to earth, monks turn it into a sword -- scene. A woman goes to her sports car and gets strangled by a creep in the backseat -- scene. A mysterious figure is motorcycling all over an endless landscape of sand dunes -- scene. Stick with it though, because a bounty of strange treasures awaits. As the plot develops, the pace really picks up in the second act and the film finishes quite strong, with solid fight scenes (e.g., Bill Wallace vs. Tadashi Yamashita) and a climactic sword fight in a shallow river bed.


Mel Novak is certainly the best actor in this cast and he plays a fine villain -- he’s both intense and capable -- but he’s not even the most treacherous jerk on display. That would be Cain, the sadistic one-gloved pimp, played by screenwriter Joseph Randazzo. By pulling double-duty as both the scene setter and the character, Randazzo gives himself some of the most cringe-worthy lines of dialogue in the film, almost all of which involve a misogynist, homophobic, or racial slur. (Because apparently it wasn’t enough to throw a wheelchair-bound nun off a cliff, or terrorize the prostitutes in his employ and keep them under the constant threat of being forcibly shot up with heroin). By any standard, this sleazebag is extra sleazy and deserving of his fate.

Keeping with the theme of strange choices, Yamashita joins the ranks of Bolo Yeung and Chris Ramsey as actors in martial arts b-movies who used cross-dressing as a not-so-subtle disguise. In this particular case, Tadashi attempts to infiltrate the “Pink Poodle” rock club -- with a live performance by an actual band called The Ninja -- to locate Cain as a way to get to Satoko. Tadashi neglects to bring a change of clothes and remains in the dress for a good amount of time after this scene, even fighting off some enemies. Could he have done all of this without dressing as a foxy brunette in a red cocktail dress? We’ll never know.


There’s an air of mystery around this film, and not just because it features a mystical glowing sword. IMDb lists this film twice, with one title stub for 1981 and another for 1985, each with the same director and cast. The 1981 version has no release date and lists LD Video as a distributor. The 1985 release was put out the following year by Trans World Entertainment. If I may put on my librarian’s cardigan for just a moment to discuss information integrity, there could be lots of reasons for this. The main one is bad data; IMDb is somewhat ambiguous about the sources of their information, but it tends to be a combination of “official” data feeds but also site visitors like you and I. A VHS distributed by LD Video is listed on Amazon with a release date of *1991* so we might just chalk it up to an input error and a source/user ignoring or overlooking the existing title stub on IMDb for the 1985 version. I had gotten my hopes up that this film was initially made as a short just four years earlier, but that’s simply not the case. All of this is a long way of saying: trust no one.

The enigmatic fog around the film persists. She’s listed in the credits as “Valley Girl Patient” but I can neither confirm nor deny whether Karen Sheperd actually appears in this movie. Why any filmmaker would cast a world-class martial artist only to have her playing a bit part without any fighting is beyond me, but this is similar to the situation with 1984’s Furious, where Loren Avedon was listed in the cast but was all but absent in the actual film. Four years prior, Yamashita pulled Sheperd into the production of 1981’s The Shinobi Ninja when she was looking for film work, and that may have been the case here as well, but I can only conclude that her scene was left on the cutting room floor. Sad! That’s your cue to start writing your “Karen Sheperd as a martial arts Valley Girl getting evaluated for strep throat” fan fiction.


In putting Yamashita in a dress, leading bad guys on violent motorcycle chases, fighting tons of recyclable enemies, and pairing him with a stereotypical Irish cop simply for the high comedy of it all, this film was trying to portray him as a well-rounded action star who could do a little bit of everything. He doesn’t succeed in every area equally, but it was a fine effort that demonstrated he was every bit as deserving of a lead role as other martial artists of his era.

VERDICT

As is the case with any film that’s difficult to find in a watchable format, you need to put a figure on how much time, money, and energy you’re willing to expend to see it. Sword of Heaven is most certainly something for which you could find a torrent, and that might be the way to go if you can’t find a reasonably priced hard copy (VHS versions run in the $30-$40 range). Here’s what I’ll say: it features some decent villains, a cool sword gimmick, and solid fights towards the back-end. It also has a handful of those nutty, WTF kitchen-sink moments I find myself raving about so often. Worth a watch if you stumble into it.

AVAILABILITY

Hard to find on physical media; VHS or grey market DVD only.

4.5 / 7

12.05.2017

Sworn to Justice (1996)

PLOT: After her sister and nephew are murdered during a break-in at her home,  a psychologist must pick up the shattered fragments of her life. Will she be doomed to step on tiny shards she may have missed during the clean-up? (It’s tough to find them all with high pile carpeting).

Director: Paul Maslak
Writers: Robert Easter, Paul Maslak, Neva Friedenn
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Kurt McKinney, Tony Lo Bianco, Kenn Scott, Katie Mitchell, Mako, Brad Dourif, Max Thayer, Vince Murdocco, Eric Lee, Art Camacho, Ian Jacklin


PLOT THICKENER

Beginning in 1985, Cynthia Rothrock appeared in seven Hong Kong action films over four years, smack dab in the middle of the territory’s cinematic golden age. They didn’t all reach the cinematic high of Yes, Madam! but this run of films was instrumental in making her a star. She parlayed this status into steady paychecks and softer landings in an American film industry that was less mindful of the level of effort that went into action choreography, and much easier on the bodies of its performers. She worked steadily in the U.S. after her time abroad -- starring in five films in 1990 alone, and ten films between 1992 and 1994 -- but by the mid 1990s that pace had slowed considerably. In spite of this, Rothrock used Paul Maslak’s 1996 debut film, Sworn to Justice to effectively point down at her hypothetical diamond-encrusted name plate necklace (“ACTION SUPERSTAR”) to remind all of us that she still ran the game.

Janna (Rothrock) comes home during a home invasion to find her nephew murdered and her sister succumbing to fatal injuries. She escapes a similar fate from the same violent burglars but incurs trauma to her head during a daring escape. The upside? By touching any object, she now has the psychic ability of psychometry, which allows her to “see” the recent past of anyone else who has touched it previously. This might come in handy with her day job as a psychologist at Forensitec, where she works as an expert witness for criminal defense lawyers, but it’s tough to focus on work with hunky new copyright lawyer and publisher, Nicholas (McKinney) strutting around the office. Her boss, Lorraine (Mitchell) think she’s coming back to work too early after the tragedy, but Janna needs a healthy distraction from the sputtering investigation led by Detective Briggs (Lo Bianco), still ongoing at her home.



Idle hands hands do the devil’s work, and Janna can’t help from using her newfound abilities to solve the crime for herself. What starts off as some harmless snooping soon turns into her dispensing vigilante justice on a nightly basis to the city’s criminals. All the while, a major court case looms and she’s beginning to fall in love with Nicholas. Will the local crime kingpin, Eugene (Scott) squash her efforts before she can find the men responsible for her family members’ deaths? In a world full of shadows, who can she really trust? And how can she really be falling for a guy who wears tighty whities?

This film has it all: action, melodrama, martial-arts-sparring-as-foreplay, and a terrific cast. I’m a sucker for a star-studded ensemble, but very few films in our wheelhouse ever approach the dense clustering of b-movie action stars that Sworn to Justice manages. Ian Jacklin, a guy who has starred in his own films and appeared in countless others, shows up for a cameo where he spouts three lines and gets thrown through an office window! Max Thayer, the Han Solo of No Retreat, No Surrender 2, shows up in an arrowhead bolo tie and slick hair for a quick cigarette and some hearty laughs at an office party! Art Camacho robs an armored truck, Vince Murdocco is a meathead gang member, and Mako gets three scenes as a blind guy who runs a newstand in a lobby. This is Cynthia Rothrock’s constellation of friends, and they’ll happily put in a day’s work and get paid in meatball subs.


This film does a fair amount of thematic shape-shifting over the course of its 90 minutes -- psychological thriller, court-room drama, romantic romp -- but it’s an action film at heart, so let’s start there. The opening is a damn barn-burner! Janna fights the home invaders tooth-and-nail, throwing one guy through a glass table and smashing another guy’s head through a vase. As another aggressor unleashes a barrage of gunshots, she runs *through* a glass door to her balcony, and continues to outrun the gunfire. When she reaches the railing, she throws herself off to evade the thieves and falls about two or three stories through the branches and foliage of a tree before landing on the manicured lawn below. Considering the variety and intensity of the action in the opening, it’s a little puzzling how the rest of these scenes took shape.

Both Eric Lee and Tak Yuen (Douglas Kung in the credits) were credited as fight choreographers on this set, with Art Camacho acting as second unit director. I won’t use the differences in the fight scene quality to criticize any of the personnel, but they are worth pointing out. One scene in the storage room of a convenience store has Janna fighting off some would-be robbers with a lethal combination duct tape, cardboard, and slapstick, complete with cartoon sound effects. Oh, and Latin instrumental pop music!


A fight scene later in the film features Janna fighting off Eugene’s gang in his chop shop. One sequence has her fighting an attacker on the roof of the car before the action spills to the floor and leads to a fast exchange of blocking-and-punching techniques (i.e., the closest the film gets to Hong Kong style fight choreography). The fighter then tries to electrocute Janna with car battery cables before being downed for good. What’s my point with all these details? They demonstrate major differences in the underlying tones of each fight scene -- one comedic and clumsy, one gritty and technical -- and different approaches to how the action flows from shot to shot. For some that’s a draw, for others it’s a hurdle.

This might be the best acting we’ve ever seen from Rothrock, and from a dramatic perspective, Maslak makes sure she runs the gauntlet: there are crying scenes, flirty scenes, fighting scenes, love scenes, and intense scenes in which she has to hold her own alongside seasoned actors like Dourif and Lo Bianco. Her and McKinney have a genuine chemistry and it was surprisingly enjoyable to watch that relationship play out. Now, I’m no James Lipton and this ol’ blog is chewed gum on the underside of the table where they film Inside the Actors’ Studio, but I was really impressed by the completeness of her performance. In the past, most directors for her American films had a tendency to leave her out to dry with awkward dialogue and unearned emotion; that’s (mostly) not the case here. Maslak’s direction is good, and Rothrock is great as a result.


The only thing that may have surprised me more than Rothrock’s solid acting was Kenn Scott’s turn as a dickish villain. As an actor of somewhat short stature and relaxed demeanor, he was convincing as a bullying victim who learns to defend himself in 1994’s Showdown. He even played a Ninja Turtle (not here, I hope). Everything about what we know about Scott as an on-screen performer screams wholesome. But between his snarky insults, brutal methods of intimidation, and a blazer at least two sizes too big for him, he manages to make Eugene the sort of jerk we love to hate. (To that end, his hoop earrings and stubbly beard evoke roughly one-fifth of all late-‘90s boy-band members).

VERDICT

Even though Sworn to Justice is a later Cynthia Rothrock film, and the fight scene quality is all over the place like your grandma after three mint juleps, and it wasn’t filmed by Godfrey Ho in the state of Maryland, I dug this film on balance. Between the great cast of familiar faces, the solid action, a wacky story, and a pace that keeps you engaged, this film offers plenty of positives for Rothrock fans and fight film aficionados alike. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. DVD on Amazon, Netflix, or eBay.


4.5 / 7
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