While I love writing about movies, I’m not the best at it – call me an enthusiastic amateur, if you’re feeling generous. There’s a guy who covers the same sort of stuff as me who may well be the best at it, Vern, and if you’re not reading his stuff as well as mine, then you really ought to. “Blood and Bone” is one of his favourite movies, and you can read his take on it here.
But hopefully you’ll enjoy mine too! I love martial arts movies, how they take the same rough building blocks and do all sorts of fun things with them. It’s not so much the originality that we fans of the genre are looking for, it’s the skill – both behind the camera, in how you keep the pace up, shoot fight scenes, and plan out stunts; and in front of the camera, when guys who normally work in Hollywood as stuntmen or goons get their chance to shine, and black belts / martial arts champions with less-than-stellar acting skills are front and centre.
One of the most common templates is what I christened “The Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot” – guy’s brother dies in martial arts tournament, guy tries to get revenge, gets his ass kicked, goes off and learns a new martial arts, gets with either a local hottie or the brother’s girlfriend, gets revenge. That’s not the case for “Blood and Bone”, which is more your classic “mysterious stranger comes to town” story, but it has some of those classic beats which I’ll be telling you about in a moment.
If anything, the plot is fairly similar to that of the Charles Bronson / James Coburn classic “Hard Times”, about a depression-era prizefighter who drifts into town to make some money on the bare-knuckle circuit. But that’s just the first half, as there’s a lot more packed into the running time here (I say nothing bad about “Hard Times”, the directing debut of Walter Hill and one of the more underappreciated classics of the 70s).
Although we never get the “ultimate badass” speech, where some ancillary character breaks down the history of the main character, we get an opening fight scene which does all that heavy lifting for us. Michael Jai White – who was so ludicrously entertaining in “Black Dynamite” and divides his time between kicking ass and Tyler Perry projects – is Bone, and he’s in jail. No explanation, but none is needed when a group of mean-looking dudes, led by former backyard-street-fighter turned real MMA fighter Kimbo Slice, come up on him while he’s at a washbasin with murder on their minds. He calmly assesses the situation, all while keeping his back to them, then explodes in a perfectly choreographed blur, kicking the ass of all five assailants without even, really, breaking a sweat. He’s an almost supernaturally good fighter, is the message we’re getting across.
So, Bone gets out of jail and goes to a boarding house, run by a friendly woman who’s looking after a few foster kids. He also gets involved in the nearest underground fight league by just turning up, finding the promoter and putting up all the money he has left to get in a fight on the ground floor (he wins almost embarrassingly easily, of course). The fight hype man / promoter, a hyper fellow by the name of Pinball (Dante Basco) becomes his manager, but the person he seems most interested in is James (Eamon Walker), the manager of another fighter, the accurately named Hammerman (Bob Sapp, one of many real MMA stars and pro wrestlers to have bit parts in “Blood and Bone”). He wants to fight Hammerman but to everyone around, he’s just some new guy and not worthy of a “championship” shot; he’s also very interested in James’ girlfriend / moll Angela (Michelle Belegrin), but you’re immediately caught off guard because she doesn’t appear…special? Like, why is he so interested in her?
One of the many reasons “Blood and Bone” works so well is that it carefully and slowly reveals its twists and turns, laying plenty of groundwork while giving us plenty of top-level action. Bone’s plan, the motivations of James, the real story behind Angela and the people living at the boarding house…it’s a fantastically paced movie. As we see characters go back on their firmly held beliefs as the noose tightens around their neck, it’s done subtly and in the background and expects you to be paying attention. Also, kudos to Michael Jai White’s performance, which manages a subtle strand of comedy while also playing an invincible fighting machine with a secret plan.
It’s technically superb as well. They make it easier on themselves by having superb martial artists in the main fighting roles, which reduces the need to cut around them to the stuntmen, as big budget Hollywood movies are more likely to do. So the fights look amazing, and you see a lot of Michael Jai White’s athleticism and fluid movement in the scenes. Also, the styles on display contribute to the story – Bone can jump-kick multiple people at once with the best of them, but most of the time he’s just interested in finishing an opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible. When he gets into a fight, we see his mental process as he identifies his opponent’s main weakness and adapts to it. Bone is something of an irresistible force, as he barely ever gets touched in any fights and spends most of his time just relentlessly beating on guys. This is not a bad thing! Bruce Lee destroyed pretty much every opponent he ever faced, and there’s fun to be had in watching a badass destroy wave after wave of goons.
I mentioned above that a few MMA and pro wrestling stars feature in “Blood and Bone”. As well as Sapp, there’s an early cameo from Ernest “The Cat” Miller, legit kickboxer and pro wrestler for late-era WCW, as “Mommie Dearest”, the gay fighter – I guess he wins, so the weird air of homophobia can be slightly excused? There’s former UFC champ Maurice Smith as “Fasthands”. There’s the legendary “Judo” Gene LeBell as a security guard who gets punched out in his three seconds of screen time. There’s even Gina Carano, right on the cusp of mainstream stardom, in a part I imagine the producers wished had been much longer.
The final fighter that Bone takes on is Matt Mullins, who we’ve encountered before in “Bloodfist 2050” (he’s much better known as a stunt guy). Their fight is technically superb from both a human perspective (both combatants are absolutely top-level screen fighters) and from a camerawork perspective, as everything is caught very well, no blurring or having to cut round either of them.
There’s a heck of a lot to enjoy in this movie, if you’d not already guessed that. A throwback to the classics of the 80s and 90s, in a good way. Also, it has a black director, a black star and a black villain, which is pretty unusual and almost completely unheard of when it comes to straight-to-video action. If you’ve not already seen it, definitely one to add to the list.
Rating: thumbs up