Bloodrage (1979)

Director Joseph Zito (here billed as Joseph Bigwood, which sounds like a fake “adult entertainment” name) has got serious form in the sort of thing we like here at the ISCFC. His credits: the second-best Friday the 13th movie, part 4; the best Chuck Norris movie, “Invasion USA”; an okay Chuck Norris movie, “Missing In Action”; and a totally decent Dolph Lundgren vehicle, “Red Scorpion”. Then, around the late 80s, he seemingly decided to bin off the movie industry, before briefly returning around the millenium and then leaving again (he’s now a TV producer in Egypt).

So what did the man who formed quality action around Chuck Norris do early in his career? Slasher movies, but really dull ones that are a bit like “Taxi Driver” and “Driller Killer” only nowhere near as good as either.

Back in the good old days, on-screen prostitutes were something other than drug-addicted victims of pimps and organised crime. I don’t know if things were actually better for them back then, but they seemed to have little solo businesses and had real relationships with characters (often cops). The lady here, Beverly, first insults her client, telling him to take more vitamins so they can have a better time next time, before welcoming a cop into her home, who she seems to have a warm relationship with. He knows her job and doesn’t care – ah, the days before real serious STDs!

Although you’d think everyone knows everyone in this town, as the cop leaves to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy with Beverly, he passes a creepy looking young man, Richie, in the doorway he doesn’t recognise. Richie wants sex, obviously, but is disgusted by her ways and slams her head through a window then chokes her to death. Now, if I knew a cop had seen my face, for quite a long time, I’d probably think twice about doing a murder; also, it seems a fairly busy area, with other drivers and residents of the admittedly rural location in the background. But he is able to dispose of the body and then leave town with no problem.

We’re then treated to his voiceover, making this the second ISCFC review in a row with a bad VO (“Blood Street” being the other). Charlie’s got all sorts of ideas about purity and whatnot, fairly standard slasher villain stuff, but he’s also matched with a great location – late 70s New York City. This is before the city began cleaning its downtown area up, and Zito captures, presumably guerilla-style, some of the sorts of people who called the worst parts of the city home.

The cop thinks Beverly has just left for New York, and decides to follow her, presumably to ask her to come back with him, settle down, etc. So he decides to go there too and try to find her, but has no luck. He befriends a few local cops (including former “Dillinger” and future Reservoir Dog, Laurence Tierney, who must have owed someone a favour), as Richie befriends a few of the low-lifes in his building, and then it sort of ambles on for act 2, as Richie does a shockingly small number of murders and the cop does basically nothing.

The final “action” takes place when the cop hears on the radio that the body of Beverly has been found back home, and flies into a rage. Now, I’m going to take a wild guess that 1980 New York had enough murders of its own to report on without having to mention those happening elsewhere, but what do I know? Oh, and Richie kills a dog, which I understand is quite important information for those of you who really don’t enjoy watching movies with those sort of scenes in (myself included).

Almost every positive thing about “Bloodrage” is related to its atmosphere. Everything is filthy and miserable, no-one is happy and I can’t imagine why anyone could bear living there if you were just trying to make an honest living and live a normal life. The acting is fine, as all the characters look nervous and unhappy – also keep an eye out for a cameo from one of the all-time great That Guys, Irwin Keyes, as “pimp in hallway”. There are some genuinely creepy images, too, like the old woman who stares back across the alleyway at him as he’s spying on one of the prostitutes in there.

The negative stuff is almost everything else. The pace is incredibly slow, and although it’s only 80 minutes long, it could have easily been 45 and no-one would have missed much of anything. And then there’s the ending, an astonishing, bizarre, abrupt ending that’s almost, almost, worth the cost of admission on its own. Seriously, I’d suggest watching the first half then skipping to the last five minutes, as I guarantee you’ll go “wait, what? Did that really happen?” as the credits begin to roll.

A minor, and justly forgotten, entry both in the slasher canon, and the career of its director.

Rating: thumbs down

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Blood Street (1988)

Friend of ISCFC Len Kabasinski, low-budget movie auteur par excellence, has a new release coming out on Christmas day, called “Challenge of the Five Gauntlets” (if you get on his Patreon, $2 a month, you’ll be able to watch it on the day of release). It sounds amazing, and one of his co-stars in that movie is a fellow by the name of Leo Fong.

Fong is a name I’ve been aware of for some time, as he’s made at least one bad movie classic, “Low Blow”. Born in China in 1928, moved to the US in the early 30s, became an amateur boxer, was allegedly a friend of Bruce Lee, then in his mid 40s, decided to get into the movie business. His first movie was also the first movie of a beloved ISCFC figure, Ron Marchini (“Omega Cop”, “Karate Cop”), and it looks like he spent a few years appearing in small roles in other Eastern-made movies and even occasionally writing them, before his first starring role in a Western movie, 1984’s “Killpoint”. Don’t worry, dear reader, after this incredibly strong first showing we’ll definitely be doing a season of Leo Fong movies!

Anyway, it’s a period from 1986’s “Low Blow” to 1993’s “Showdown” that appears to be prime Fong – not only did he star in everything, he had writing credits, producing credits, and even a few directing credits (including some movies he didn’t star in, which is something of a wasted opportunity). He’s worked with Loren Avedon and Cynthia Rothrock as well as Marchini and Kabasinski, and after one movie we’re hooked!

This is a minor entry in our “The Future Already Happened” review series, being released in 1988 but set in the heady far-off days of 1990, by which time San Fransisco will have become a drug-riddled hellhole. The opening text crawl is perhaps the most magnificently literal thing I’ve ever read, as it tells us who the characters are going to be, who’s fighting who, where it’s set and what the first scene is going to contain. I admire a movie that can leave you off guard and confused before it’s even started!

Feels like they just made up the last name with whatever spare letters they had lying around

There are two gangs of drug dealers. One of them is led by “some Italian guy” (as the movie’s official IMDB synopsis states!), whose character name is actually MacDonald; he’s got a couple of lieutenants, two genuine That Guy actors (Stack Pierce and Chuck Jeffreys, whose names you won’t recognise but whose faces you definitely will) and plenty of goons. The other gang is led by Richard Norton, legendary screen martial artist who’s been in plenty of Cynthia Rothrock movies and whose career has ranged as far as “ABBA: The Movie” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Both of these groups of people are vicious monsters.

Oh, in one scene you see Richard Norton spar with a guy in a ring, as if he told the director “you know I’m a really good fighter, right? Would you not like me to do at least some martial arts?” He’s even in charge of what looks like an underground fighting league! But doesn’t fight in it, and we only see the fight league in the background of one scene!

Leo Fong is a private eye, the same character as in “Low Blow” apparently, but I’m pretty sure I’m not missing too much character continuity. The one amusing thing about him is, unlike most other movie heroes, he doesn’t wait to be hit or attacked by villains before beating the crap out of them. Like a taciturn Han Solo. He enters the story when MacDonald’s wife Vanna (Playboy playmate Kimberley Paige) asks him to find her apparently missing husband, but she’s got no money so she shows him her boobs and offers to pay him in sex (he refuses, but takes the case anyway).

It’s not so much that “Blood Street” has any one thing which identifies it as a so-bad-it’s-good classic, it’s just got lots of little things. Like the opening crawl. Or the crime scenes, which Fong just casually walks into even though he’s not a cop, passing the time of day with the two cops there and then leaving again. The crappy mics they used, which pick up so much background noise you can barely hear the dialogue. The way the same room, with it’s ugly artexed walls, stands in for like four or five different scenes. Fong’s backup team, made up of an insanely overdressed lawyer and an old-timey bodybuilder with a weird moustache. How Fong just walks up to people and asks to buy a kilo of heroin, like you or I would talk about the weather.

I would like to talk about how I think “Blood Street” was originally filmed as two different movies, or two sequels to “Low Blow”, but that idea was abandoned halfway through and all the ideas they had were just shoved into one movie. The plot moves at a genuinely insane pace, with people shot and characters showing up and then disappearing again and Fong moving from one place to another with nothing but the slightest whisper of an explanation as to why he’s now somewhere entirely different, kicking the ass of a whole new group of people (his sudden departure to and equally sudden return from Mexico is perhaps the classic example of this). The fight league, which could have been a whole movie in lesser hands, is briefly alluded to, shown for a few seconds then completely ignored.

My favourite part of the entire movie, though, is a little after half-way, when we see Fong teaching a bunch of teenagers some martial arts. Isn’t he a private eye, not a teacher? Never mind that. Then his daughter walks in, who has never been seen or hinted at previously, with her new boyfriend, who Fong approves of thanks to his chaste and conservative nature. Then, in the next scene, the two of them are out on a date and are murdered by some goons we’ve never met before! Fong is seen cradling his daughter and crying, but like three or four minutes later he’s back to his normal self, even coming out with a few wisecracks. What? It’s like if the entire plot of the movie “Taken” was actually just five minutes in the middle of a movie about a different mystery, and is a genuinely bizarre choice.

But then! We see him dialling a phone, and they keep every second of him doing that, being kept on hold, etc. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the editing process.

The puzzling choices keep coming right to the end. We even get a mini-version of the “Ultimate Badass” speech, where one of the characters, lamenting their inability to seduce or just kill Fong, says he’s like “a combination of Columbo, Philip Marlowe, Bruce Lee and a Catholic priest”. Fong is perhaps the ur-example of the invincible hero, as I’m not sure anyone so much as lands a punch on him at any point, but he kills a heck of a lot of people with his moves. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, either – I mean, he’s not great, but he doesn’t sound and look like he’d rather be anywhere else than in front of a camera.

I have nothing but positive words for “Blood Street”. A genuinely bizarre experience, with the wonderful Fong, who remained independent and therefore free from people telling him “maybe this movie ought to make sense” or “why did you hire Richard Norton and not have a big final fight with him?” A genuine bad movie pleasure, and one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.

Rating: thumbs up

Blood & Donuts (1995)

I feel like I spent most of my movie-watching 90s, rather than with Van Damme, Rothrock, AIP, horror franchises and Full Moon, watching movies like this. The genre / movement started, roughly speaking, with “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, and “Slacker”, but by this point in the decade we were getting (both good and bad) “Clerks”, “Living In Oblivion”, “Kicking and Screaming”, “S.F.W.”, “Empire Records”, “Reality Bites”, “Bodies Rest and Motion”, “Kids”, “Sleep With Me” and “The Doom Generation”, among many many others.

It did feel for a while like anyone with a film school degree, or several credit cards to max out, could get a distribution deal – and many of the directors and writers that came up in that generation are now our elder statesmen of entertainment. But as you look through old lists you made, or indeed the list I made above, which is limited to just 1994-1996, you realise you really don’t want to revisit those days. I assume today’s kids are too busy being amazed at the apartments and cars the disaffected, under-employed youth of their parents’ generation could afford to want to watch these movies as well – that, or wondering how badly previous generations wrecked government and the planet and how they can fix it.

But you didn’t come here to listen to me make terribly informed guesses of the mores of a generation I’m entirely unaware of! My point is that happening upon an indie movie from the mid-90s I didn’t know about, which ties in with my ongoing mission to watch every movie I can find that starts with the word “Blood”, is a minor cause for celebration and a major cause for worry at the things I used to find entertaining.

Boya (one letter away from the star of our previously covered series, “Undisputed”, pointless coincidence fans) is a vampire who decided to hibernate in a disused basement in 1969, after seeing the moon landing. A guy hitting golf balls across the city happens to put one through a basement window, disturbing Boya’s sleep. So he gets up, encounters cab driver Earl (Louis Ferreira, superb “That Guy” actor), digs up a suitcase full of his possessions and checks into a fleabag motel across the road from an all-night donut shop.

Inside the shop is the beautiful, charming collection of 90s indie tics and quirks, Molly (Helene Clarkson, whose final role was sadly in “Earth: Final Conflict”), and two low-level hoodlums, Pierce and Axel (two other That Guy actors, Frank Moore and Hadley Kay), who want Earl’s help ferrying them to and from crimes, for some reason. Oh, and their boss is played by David Cronenberg, who really must have owed someone a favour, although he did do quite a bit of acting at the time.

Oh, and there’s Boya’s former girlfriend from 1969, who senses he’s woken up thanks to him almost having turned her into a vampire back then; she wants him to finish the job and is jealous, ish, of his obvious love for Molly. And these are the people who bounce off each other in a variety of ways throughout the movie. Boya is almost too gentle and sensitive, rendering him relatively useless in his own story; but as he offers Earl a place to stay, their friendship develops, and Molly warms to him too.

Director Holly Dale clearly had almost no money to work with, so we’re left with something which is a little too minimalist – the grubby interior of the donut shop, the even grubbier interior of Boya’s rooms, a few back alleys and a graveyard are basically the only locations, and while that sort of thing can work for some directors, I’m not sure she was one of them. Her career is an interesting one – starting off making documentaries about women in prison, and prostitutes and drug dealers on the streets, “Blood and Donuts” was her first feature (one of only two, that I can tell) before she became a TV director, making episodes of pretty much every TV series of the last 20 years (at least those that film in Canada).

Perhaps the strangest choice of the lot was Louis Ferreira’s, to do an impression of Christopher Walken doing an impression of an Italian-American. He’d been acting for a decade before this, so has no “rookie mistake” excuse to fall back on, but he’s not only odd, but also sort of monotonous. The only actors I really bought in their roles were Clarkson and Moore, who did well with what they had.

I know it’s a strange thing to say about a movie featuring a vampire, asleep since 1969, falling in love with a woman who works in a donut shop, but it feels generic. From the music, straight out of “Now That’s What I Call The Soundtrack To A 90s Indie Film”, to the colour scheme, to most of the performances…its Canadian setting gives it some leeway (and is responsible for the funniest line, delivered by David Cronenberg) but sadly not enough.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – If you’re desperate to give it a go, it appears available on Youtube in its entirety.

 

Boyka: Undisputed 4 (2016)

Scott Adkins enjoyed playing Yuri Boyka, gone from foil to Michael Jai White to deeply religious (and newly escaped from prison) ass-kicker; he wanted to make a part 4 based on Boyka but as he honestly told fans, money was pretty tight in the low-budget world and there just weren’t the same investors any more as there were in the heyday of Van Damme, Seagal, etc.

But luckily for us, by 2016 they’d rustled up enough money and we’re back with our favourite Russian MMA-ist, significantly more humble than the man who screamed in part 2 that he was the world’s most complete fighter but no less deadly. He’s living in (unspecified Eastern European place, but probably Ukraine) and, having spent all the money he made in part 2 on donations to his local church and repairing his still-injured knee, he’s working hard to get himself onto the official MMA circuit and start earning some decent money.

I feel like I’m burying the lede, because the first person we see is the Big Bad, a monster who needs a face mask and four guards holding him with those pole things, a prison fighter by the name of Koshmar (the 6’8”, 320lb Martyn Ford, one of the scariest individuals you’re ever likely to see). He’s fighting in Boyka’s old stamping grounds, and sort of casually beats his opponent to death. Now, if I was a fighter and this dude was in my prison, or league, or general area, I’d 100% take a month in solitary confinement over taking him on! Now, you sort of know how the movie is going to end, but the prospect of what’s going to happen when Boyka and this monster get together keeps you pretty riveted throughout.

In a rather interesting parallel, Boyka has a fight to qualify for the big leagues, and in a brilliantly-filmed but rather one-sided fight, he also kills his opponent, just accidentally. Because he takes his faith seriously and thinks deeply on what he’s done, he decides to take his winnings from the fight and give them to the dead man’s wife. Problem is, she lives in Russia, and he’s still a wanted fugitive there, so he needs a fake passport.

In one of those “really? They’re going with this as the plot?” choices, the dead fighter’s wife, Alma (Teodora Duhovnikova), runs a community centre and (along with her dead husband) had to take a loan out from a local gangster by the name of Zourab, who also runs…a nightclub with an MMA ring in the middle of it! Can you tell what’s going to happen? Yes, she rejects Boyka’s blood money so he approaches Zourab (who wants Alma for his very own) and offers to fight for him three times to clear Alma’s debt – but because he only has a very short amount of time before his big fight back in (unspecified country), he has to take all three fights in a week.

So, for the next half-hour, we get what amounts to a very long training montage. Boyka slowly wears Alma down with his quiet, decent nature, he discovers he likes showing the kids how to defend themselves, and he beats the crap out of a bunch of tattooed Russian guys. It’s only when we get down to the final fight, against the best fighter in the club, that we begin to wonder “when’s that Koshmar fella turning up?”

When you’ve seen one of the all-time great twists pulled off, in a boxing movie no less, in “Diggstown” (aka “Midnight Sting”), then the rather laboured trick they pull on Boyka here can only look weak in comparison. Sadly, the whole last section is a little on the weak side, like they couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it – although the final fight is a rare example of story being told through fighting, and is great. The ending, though, is kinda just a setup for a potential part 5 like they were petrified of thinking of something new to do with the series.

I’ve passed over this, because I’m an atheist and it means absolutely nothing to me, but Boyka’s religious belief, tied to the same person he’s been all his life, makes an interesting character. His local priest says, while accepting a donation bought with fight winnings, “violence has a way of consuming men” to which Boyka replies “I think God gave me this gift. And I think it would be a sin to waste it.” This intensity of belief makes it entirely understandable that he would sacrifice his new, better life in order to help Alma, because he’s not motivated by cash or fame, but by the prospect of saving his soul. Also, because he loves fighting, which is kind of a crucial part of his personality. This is reflected very well by Scott Adkins, who’s quietly become a very strong actor to go along with his superb ass-kicking capabilities.

I think it’s kind of interesting to reflect on why we’ve gotten 4 “Undisputed” movies, and that’s thank to director of part 1, the great Walter Hill. He insisted that both stars of his movie be black, and that made it very difficult to find funding in 2002 (plus, he’d hated every second of working on 1998’s “Supernova”, so had no particular love for major studios). He got money from all over the world, and one of those companies, Millennium Films, saw the potential in it and gave the series to Isaac Florentine, and we can all be very grateful they did.

I love this sort of movie, which will come as no surprise to those of you who’ve read any of my reviews. I appreciate money is tight, but if you can steer some of your entertainment cash towards product like this and not, say, the latest Marvel blockbuster, then we might start getting more of this sort of thing again. I would be delighted to see Florentine and Adkins given a serious budget.

Rating: thumbs up

Undisputed 3: Redemption (2010)

One of my favourite topics to ponder while watching the sort of movies we love here at the ISCFC is Bad Guy Economics. Like, how does this criminal enterprise run? Is it a sustainable long-term model? Or would they get themselves murdered by competitors on day two? And so it is we come to the third instalment in the excellent “Undisputed” series.

To briefly summarise the plot – Boyka (ISCFC Hall of Famer Scott Adkins), the villain of part 2, has been reduced to toilet cleaning duty due to his horrific leg injury sustained at the hands of Michael Jai White in the previous movie. He’s become a religious man in the meantime, and ignores money thrown at his feet by his former organised crime handler, but when he learns of a tournament to crown a prison champion, one who will go to another inter-prison tournament where the ultimate prize is freedom, he starts exercising his damaged knee again.

Of course he wins, and of course he goes off to Georgia for a tournament featuring 8 men from all round the world – North Korea, the USA, Brazil, Colombia, and a few generic Eastern European guys who lose in the first round so who cares. It’s starring Scott Adkins and is directed by Isaac Florentine, so you know it’s going to be decent even if the plot is somewhat on the generic side.

So it’s right here that this tournament, organised professionally enough that high-level criminals from all over the world are in attendance with their best prison fighters, begins to raise doubts. The competitors are all locked up in a Georgian prison and forced to do hard labour while the home-team fighter (the Colombian, for some reason) gets to relax and train as much as he likes. Also, the losing fighters are taken out into the woods and shot after their fights.

I know I mentioned this in part 2, but imagine you’re a big criminal who’s bet a lot of money on this fight, only to discover that the people who organised it are cheating to ensure their guy wins. Would you laugh off the loss of all your money or would you send a team of mean dudes round with shotguns and slaughter the prison warden and his entire family, in case anyone thought of messing with you ever again? If you were the handler of one of the fighters who was murdered after losing, would you enter again the next year or would you tell everyone you ever met to never do business with that Georgian psychopath; or hell, just organise your own tournament and not invite him?

To be fair to the movie, it makes a half-hearted attempt to circumvent part of the criticism, but I’m really not sure it works. I feel like I could be a really successful criminal just by being nice to other criminals, honestly.

I like the gradual redemption of the Boyka character, how he’s still a mean guy but one who understands, perhaps, the impact of his previous actions. And although it’s obvious as hell, I like the gradual building of his friendship with the American boxer, one “Turbo” (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, a former winner of a reality show where the prize was a gig on a soap opera). I also like the development of Gaga, the Russian mobster who’s Boyka’s handler and perhaps friend; as both characters are now more central, they’ve become more sympathetic and the movie works better as a result. Mark Ivanir, perhaps best known as a voice guy in computer games, is having a good time as Gaga, even given a curious character quirk (he’s been forced to become a vegetarian to combat his high cholesterol).

I think the budget is a little lower than part 2, not just because of the relative lack of star power. The extraordinarily filthy prison is barely glimpsed, and the new prison feels like a repurposed industrial facility and all the scenes are filmed in some decaying part of eastern Europe or other. Still, at least they’re not pretending it’s the USA!

A quick note about the fighting in all three “Undisputed” sequels – it’s supposed to be MMA, but it’s more like the martial arts that are being mixed together are high-flying ones from movies, not effective ones from real life. People fly through the air and do complicated spin-kicks, when if that was tried in a “real” fight, the opponent would probably do something short (like a punch or simple kick) that landed while the other guy was still half-way through his spinning thing. Listen at me, pretending to be an expert on fighting styles! What does come across a little in part 3, though, is that it feels like an 80s classic, where people of radically different fighting styles get together to see who’s best, the sort of thing that the early UFC bouts finished off forever. Let it be said that Scott Adkins is absolutely superb, though, and the benefit that’s gained by being able to shoot him in long, continuous takes of multiple moves is a huge boon for the entire series.

As well as colourful styles, we get some colourful characters, too. My favourites were the two prison guards, who were so specifically odd-looking that I wondered if they were archetypes from some Eastern European tradition I was unaware of. I also liked how ludicrously camp the main Colombian villain was, reading magic realism underneath a parasol while watching the other prisoners break rocks.

One interesting thing that my wife pointed out to me as a positive is that there are no women in this movie. Not a one, none on camera anywhere as far as I can tell (there might be one in a crowd shot somewhere?) To have a story which doesn’t resort to cheap unearned sex, or the exploitation of nude ladies, is something of a relief honestly. And, you know, a movie about prison-fighting men doesn’t perhaps need any women in it – obviously, that lack of female representation is its own problem, but just telling a story simply and reasonably is a win in my book.

This is a surprisingly decent movie. There’s a good central friendship between Boyka and Turbo, lots of great, well-filmed action, and while the Bad Guy Economics once again let us all down, you’ll have a fine time with this one.

Rating: thumbs up