American Commando Ninja (1988)

Normally, when I write notes when doing a review, they’ll be full of lines I liked, or things I want to remember, things that puzzled me or stuff I think will be entertaining to read, but here it’s almost all questions.  “What?” and “who’s that guy?” and “where the hell are they?” and “is this supposed to make sense?” among many others. I’ve seen a whole heap of movies, dear reader, but few of them are as incomprehensible as this one. I just read the synopsis on IMDB and I was all “is that what this movie is supposed to be about?”

It’s also a rare example of a movie from the Godfrey Ho stable (he merely wrote this one) which is, as far as I can tell, the same thing from start to finish. Often, these no-budget masters will buy a movie from another part of the Far East, and splice in scenes they either specifically shot themselves, or scenes from some other unfinished movie, and release it as a new thing, with the barest attempt made to make all the parts make sense. Please check out our Godfrey Ho reviews to see some of the gems I’m talking about.

That does not mean it makes the least bit of sense, though. According to experts in these things, “American Commando Ninja” (which features no Americans in lead roles, and I don’t think there are any commandos in it either) is actually edited together from a Taiwanese TV series, and Godfrey Ho, along with frequent co-conspirator Joseph Lai, just made some footage into a movie with scant regard for making a pleasant narrative experience. That would explain how ugly it looks, as it’s shot on video, which is fine for TV but not so great for the big screen. Ah, who am I kidding, this never got shown on a big screen. The same series was also turned into this movie’s “sequel?”, “Born A Ninja”, so if I can find that we’ll review it soon.

So, there’s a guy, David, in black martial arts robes. He’s just meditating when a sudden attack almost catches him off guard, but he’s too badass so fights all the various traps and flying stuff off quite easily. Turns out it’s just a test from his teacher, who wants him to go to another country (I believe they’re in China?) and help out their secret services. There’s a scientist who has a formula for something or other he invented during WW2, and it belongs to China. I’m pretty sure about all this. You even see him in the airport (100% guerilla footage, I’m sure) before he disappears from the movie for about half an hour.

We cut to a young woman in Confederate flag shorts (!) who’s trying to get Tanaka to tell her where the formula is. But she gets beaten up, despite being a pretty decent fighter, and the guys take Tanaka and get him to dig up the box with the formula in it. Confederate Flag lady has a sister, who lets us know “never trust a scientist” which seems at best out of left field and at worst slightly unfair to the rest of the scientific community. Anyway.

Right from here, it’s confusing as hell. Who are these people? Are they in any way related to the guy we saw at the beginning? Are they the good guys, even? One thing I need to state at this point is that it’s the worst dressed movie perhaps of all time, as I hope you’ll notice if I can find a few screengrabs to share with you. Everyone’s dressed like they’re a nerd trying to hang out with the cool kids at a beach party.

The two women have an Uncle, who seems shady as hell, despite being one of the good guys. I think. Maybe it’s a Charlie’s Angels style situation? Then there’s a dude called Larry, who turns up with his badass martial arts style and is so awesome that David decides the two of them should be friends and team up, so they go for a meal together and just hang out. A scene that would have been fine in a long-running TV series, but not so hot when we’re in the middle of a martial arts movie. Ah, who cares, it’s as coherent as anything else in this damn bizarre affair.

I really got lost here. I don’t enjoy going “this makes no sense hur hur hur”, I want to describe what the filmmakers were going for, even if I think they didn’t achieve it, but with this one I’m genuinely stumped. There’s a white guy in a cheap suit who wants the formula and is presumably up to no good, and then there’s a climactic fight scene in what might be a local park, and features a giant statue of the Buddha, painted a garish orange. They let the bad guy go at the end, for no reason other than he was presumably the villain of the series and needed to come up with a new plan every week to stymie our heroes. Oh, the fighting sucks too, in case you were wondering about that.

Dubbing! Now, if you’ve seen any martial arts movies from that part of the world, you’ll have seen some bad dubbing, but here it’s taken to a whole new level. It’s wooden and everyone sounds like they were dubbed by the same guy, that’s a given: what I’m referring to is how the dubber blows lines almost constantly. I wonder if, the first time he messed up, the director just motioned for him to carry on, as they’d only booked the recording studio for 90 minutes and they didn’t have time for retakes or anything like that.

A couple of random thoughts before we wrap things up – there’s a lovely scene with a fight on a rope bridge, and the cameraman is stood on the bridge too, so the scene is almost like some modern work of art as he’s flying all over the place, desperately trying to stay upright. And there’s the party / nightclub scene, which features one of the greatest songs of all time, “Tiger Of The Night”. I wish I could share it with you, but it seems impossible to find.

Lastly is the relationship between David and Larry. I assumed they were a couple at the end, but it seems one of the sisters was a bit in love with David, and she wanted to go with him as he drove off (spoilers!) He just says “no thanks” and leaves, and it’s Larry who looks the saddest. I assume it’s to do with China – Taiwan friendship, or something, but it really looks like they should have driven off together.

This was among the oddest experiences I’ve had reviewing movies for the ISCFC. “American Commando Ninja” is certainly an experience, though, and if you’re in the mood, it could provide a decent bit of entertainment on your next bad movie night.

Rating: thumbs down

 

EDIT: If you’d like to read even more words about “American Commando Ninja”, then I highly recommend the site “Ninjas All The Way Down”. Read their review – https://ninjasallthewaydown.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/american-commando-ninja-1988/

 

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Highway To Hell (1991)

Much like our last review, this features the brother of a much more famous actor in a prominent role; but unlike our last review, this movie is really good and entertaining and you won’t want to beat me up if you watch it based on my recommendation.

There’s also a few really interesting names to talk about, which is pretty fantastic for a movie I just picked off my pile of VHS tapes to review without knowing a great deal about it. First up is the writer, Brian Helgeland. Obviously, we know him from “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4” but less horror-literate fans may remember him from “LA Confidential”, where he won an Oscar for his script (he was also nominated a few years after that for “Mystic River”).

Then there’s the cast. Not so much the main names (although they’re all totally decent) but some of the supporting cast, who would go on to much much bigger things. First up, Ben Stiller! A year away from getting his own show on MTV, he plays two small parts and has a whale of a time with them both. His parents, legendary comic actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, also pop up in grotesque cameos, as does his sister Amy; and Gilbert Gottfried, who I’m pretty sure got to improvise his own lines, plays Hitler in one scene. Lita Ford acquits herself well in her only acting role too.

Anyway. Two young lovers are off to Vegas to get married, and it was here, before I knew who was going to show up later, that I thought “this is an A-list cast (for us)”. Chad “brother of Rob” Lowe and Kristy Swanson are Charlie and Rachel, and they’re eloping for…some reason. Are they too young? Not really, judging by looking at them. Controlling parents? Who knows. Anyway, with their cute dog Mr Ben in tow, off they go, but because they’re worried the authorities will be looking for them (?) they decide to get off the highway and use the back roads.

When they hit the Last Chance gas station, I noticed that someone had spent a decent chunk of change on this movie and my hopes lifted even further. Real sets! This has that classic old man who warns them against carrying on down that road, and especially warns them not to sleep in their car before they get past a second large tree. Of course, they both fall asleep almost immediately and nearly crash their car, and that’s when they meet Hell Cop, a mute monster with words and symbols carved into his face, with a very unusual pair of handcuffs, who decides to beat the crap out of Charlie, then kidnap Rachel and take her back to hell with him. Luckily, when Charlie wakes up and goes back to the gas station, the old man is full of useful information, giving him a car and a bunch of stuff that will help him out – and off Charlie goes to hell, which you can do just by driving to a certain place and then believing in it, really hard.

It’s at this point where the movie gets both better and worse. Better, because it becomes a funny (if over-broad) grotesque comedy with some superb characters; worse, because it seems a little too episodic, like the various places Charlie goes to find Rachel don’t seem connected to each other. Hell Cop seems to keep stopping at these colourful locations for no good reason other than to allow Charlie to catch up, look around for a few minutes, then have a confrontation and carry on.

But, those places are a heck of a lot of fun. First up is a diner, where cops (one of whom is Jerry Stiller) try and get a cup of coffee from the monstrous Medea (Anne Meara), and there’s a cook outside, frying up steaks on the hot concrete (Ben Stiller). The makeup is great, the look of the place is great, it’s a fine scene.

Charlie’s car breaks down and he meets the curiously helpful Beezle (Patrick Bergin), who fixes it for no charge – his tow-truck has “AAA – Anarchy Armageddon Annihilation” on the side; as he drives further he sees “Good Intentions Paving”, which is…er…a group of construction workers who are all Andy Warhol, feeding people who say stuff like “I only had sex with my husband’s boss” or “I let him drink bleach so he’d learn” into a gigantic grinder and coating the road in them.

And so on. I don’t want to recap the entire plot, because it would just be a rather breathless “and then he went here, and there was this cool reference, and then he went…” but let’s just say it unfolds at a decent pace and while it’s never enormously surprising, it has some good laughs, some good grotesquerie and…well, some of the acting is fine. Chad Lowe is a little too dull a main character to really support, and you kind-of want the smooth, charming, helpful Satan to win, but you’re having a good time so his wet-blanket-ness is less of a problem to overcome.

Hell Cop is a great villain, too. Mute, scary-looking, and with a badass weapon, he does what’s needed. The other main antagonist, Royce (Adam Storke, who was in “The Stand”) could have and should have been the good guy (he might have needed a haircut to look less like a douchebag, I suppose), and did a great job with what he had.

So, I enjoyed it a lot, but it doesn’t quite work. I think the biggest problem is the lack of flow – it’s perhaps more a series of sketches based in Hell than it is a proper movie. Some of the scenes are fantastic, and they’ve really worked hard on the visuals, but I kept wishing it would settle down a little. Helgeland was still honing his craft at this point, but he populates the movie with some memorable characters, if not a terribly memorable story. Perhaps the issue might be the director, one Ate de Jong, who also directed “Drop Dead Fred” (which I really wanted to like, but boy was it bad) in 1991 before going back to his native Netherlands and directing movies and TV there.

Still, this is head and shoulders above the sort of thing we normally cover here, and I recommend it without exception. Funny, odd, and nightmarish in about the right proportion, it’s just got a blu-ray release so you can enjoy it properly now.

Rating: thumbs up

Outlaw Force (1988)

“Hey Mark, why did this movie suck so bad?”

On IMDB, there’s one of those user-created lists of Frank Stallone movies. How bored must you have to be, how finished with every human activity that could bring you joy, to create a list of Frank Stallone movies? Although, saying all that, he’s kind of fine in this movie. Sorry.

A long time ago, we started covering the movies of David Heavener. He’s one of those names you hear at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to B-movies – a guy who made a little money selling country songs (we think, information is hard to come by), and parlayed that cash into a long movie career. He’s directed over 20 movies, starred in a handful more – his career briefly intersected with that of Donald Jackson and Scott Shaw, who gave the world “The Roller Blade Seven” – and is a genuine lunatic.

If you’re thinking “he can’t be that bad, surely” then I will present the title of a Youtube video from August 2018 as exhibit A. “They Are Slaughtering Our Babies And Trafficking Their Body Parts!” where Heavener, along with a fellow by the name of Coach Dave, discuss their rather extreme anti-choice views. He’s in favour of building a wall along the Canadian border to stop Islamic terrorism, which is apparently being bred there, thinks communism is still the global evil to rail against, and…well, it’s too miserable to continue with. I only discovered his Youtube work as I was sitting down to write this, so forgive my going on about it a little. I’ve no reason to think he’s not genuine in his beliefs but that doesn’t make them any less abhorrent.

So, this may be our last Heavener movie. The two we’ve seen (this and “Massacre”) were so dull that I’m honestly relieved to have a reason not to go deep down another rabbit hole. Given I’ve already tipped my hand as to whether you should track this movie down or not, let’s try and have some fun with this review.

Heavener is Billy Ray Dalton, a country singer (Heavener also wrote and performed the majority of the soundtrack, giving us such gems as “This Honky’s Gonna Honky-Tonk Tonight”) who helps out a guy at a gas station who’s being hassled by some gang of…sort of punks? Metal-heads? Anyway, while he’s out performing, the bad guys come back to town, and to get revenge for the guy being mean to them, rape and murder his wife and kidnap his daughter, planning to sell her to a child pornographer. Fun times!

At the funeral, one of the local cops approaches Billy and says “is there anything I can do for you?” My response would have been “catch the people who did this, you lazy asshole” but Billy is too nice, not even getting annoyed when he’s told that, due to the lack of evidence or eye-witnesses, there’s nothing they can really do. What? There’s tons of evidence! And plenty of people who saw them! Is this cop trying to tell us that he’ll only bother investigating murders when he’s got a witness who actually saw it all happening?

Anyway, Billy puts on his cowboy gear and he’s off to LA to investigate these hoodlums. Well, I say investigate, as he actually asks a few questions when he gets there, but most of the time, just appears to have psychic powers, as there’s no other explanation for how he knows what he knows.

The two cops Heavener pressures to help him are Stallone and the great Paul Smith (Bluto from “Popeye”, “Crimewave”, a million other roles). Smith is playing so far against type that it’s kinda fun, well, if you like reasonable cop dialogue from a guy who looks and dresses like an angry homeless guy (seriously, his shirt is stained and full of holes, while everyone around him is wearing suits). They’re both given personalities, but are extremely irrelevant to the plot, and are definitely only there to get the thing up to feature-length. In fact, their primary role, the only thing that couldn’t be replaced, is looking up Mr Dalton and finding out he’s former Special Forces, what is known in our part of the world as the “ultimate badass” scene.

He kicks a bit of ass, shoots a bunch of people, gets help from one of the abused gang-women (who’s cool with the drug-dealing, but not so cool with the child-porn) and shows these dirty LA scumbags how justice is meted out, old-west style. He literally hangs someone!

Why is this movie so bad? Well, one thing, it’s very poorly directed, by Heavener. My particular favourite was, whenever a character got punched, they just sort of stood there for an uncomfortably long time waiting for the fist to hit them. There’s poor lighting and the way everything looks very slightly out of focus and the sound is pretty rotten too. But we’ve seen lots of movies that we enjoyed with all those technical flaws, and the true fault with this one is it’s boring. The final fight has generated no tension, no atmosphere, and the main character is so taciturn that it’s impossible to support him. Also, with the wild media panics about missing white girls and gang violence (adding in the murder of the wife) there’s no way in hell that the LA police would be so casual about it. It would have been front-page news all over the country!

There’s also the way it’s structured. Take a look at any modern revenge thriller, and how the thing that needs revenging happens pretty early on. We know what’s coming, so get to the good stuff. “Outlaw Force” drags on to almost the halfway point before he sets off for LA, and doesn’t exactly accelerate once it gets there. “John Wick” it ain’t.

If anything, David Heavener reminds me of Neil Breen, only with the barest level of competence. He’s in the movie business purely as vanity, has those ideas that he goes back to again and again, but unlike Breen doesn’t make absolutely bonkers bargain-basement movies; there’s just enough cash and just enough sense to make movies that sort of look like the B-movies we know and love, but with absolutely nothing enjoyable in them.

Rating: thumbs down

The Strike (2001)

Our friend Donald Farmer made movies in an interesting array of styles, after his early, low-budget horror. There’s sexy thrillers (“Compelling Evidence”), sexy horror (“An Erotic Vampire In Paris”), historical (“Blood and Honor”), child-friendly (“Space Kid”), comedy (“Bollywood and Vine”, which I think remains unreleased) and revenge thriller (“Body Shop”), among more horror.

Also, in 2002, he made a martial arts movie! Well, I imagine his friend Andre Buckner, who’d appeared in several Farmer movies to this point, came to him with the script and asked him to direct (Buckner would go on to direct a couple of his own movies in the years to come), so add another string to the bow of one of the more individual genre directors of the last forty years.

I’ve seen a lot of martial arts movies, and you can get a fairly good sense of where things are going quite quickly, but “The Strike” mocks such easy attempts at categorisation! The Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which this is definitely set up to follow, goes as follows: the star’s big brother is killed in a different country, taking part in a tournament or because he won a tournament. The star must go to the country and take revenge for his brother, either by winning the tournament or killing his brother’s killers, or both. It’s typical that he gets some ancient wisdom or learns a new technique along the way (and, surprisingly often, shacks up with his brother’s girlfriend).

There are two brothers, one of whom is a champion pro kickboxer, the other a hotheaded amateur who wants to compete in the big leagues. But at every point where you expect it to get going with some action, it just doesn’t – not that all fighting movies should fit this template, but they should at least offer us a decent reason to keep watching.

Right from the beginning, it feels curious, as we see a scene of older brother Damon (Buckner) training a class of kids. Compare this to, say, “Kickboxer 5: Redemption”, where an identical scene at an identical point lasts 15 seconds. Here, it goes on for two minutes, which doesn’t seem like a lot but when it’s kids who have zero to do with the rest of the movie, really begins to drag. Anyway, he’s a good guy ex-cop who helps kids, and his younger brother Joe (Tony Luke) is…also a pretty good guy, honestly, even though Damon tells anyone who’ll listen what a dog Joe is with the ladies.

Joe’s girlfriend Rachel (Stephanie Sinclair) has some character quirks, like wearing a Juliana Hatfield t-shirt and lecturing him about the wonders of female indie singer-songwriters; also, she has a large, square free-standing poster of Andy Garcia in the corner of her bedroom. I’m genuinely fascinated about the sort of person who would spend money on such an item, and would have that and only that next to their bed!

Damon and his girlfriend talk about Joe a lot, like, way too much, while they’re in the apartment and while they’re on a random walk round the city. About 20 minutes in, they’re strolling round when Damon sees a couple of guys attempt to abduct / rape a woman in an alleyway. I need to break this scene down, a little. One of the two guys is holding the woman from behind with a pipe across her throat, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say he’d only had the concept of acting explained to him thirty seconds before Farmer called “action”, as he starts off by looking right at the camera, and throughout his too-brief time in the spotlight looks nervous and away from the action, as if he’s looking to someone behind the camera for advice. It’s amazing and is almost worth the cost of admission on its own.

Joe wants to get involved in the real fight league, but because he’s dumb as a box of rocks and his friend is a sleazy asshole, he goes to see Mr Ramsey (Farmer regular Danny Fendley). Apparently, if he fights for Ramsey, there’ll be all sorts of influential people there who can help him move up the ladder. Unfortunately, the actual fight is in a large warehouse, where there are maybe 5 people there to watch. Did he at no point smell a rat? Also, the fights are to the death, and as I’ve said before, running a fighting organisation where all the losers are killed just seems like a very poor business model.

There’s a brief appearance by B-movie legend George Stover (who has his name spelled wrong in the credits) as the producer of “American Expose”, the tabloid TV show that links a number of Farmer movies together and has given me the idea for the script I’m writing set in the Farmer-verse; their film crew films one of the fights and then disappears from the movie. What? Also, there are two very similar-looking redheads (Jenny Wallace, as Ramsey’s secretary; and the host of the TV report on the fight league) which lends an air of confusion to a movie which doesn’t need any more confusion.

I’m getting way too bogged down in the minutiae of “The Strike”, but I feel that’s because it seems determined to confuse and disappoint. The camera cuts just as sex scenes are starting, on several occasions (we still see a few naked women though), which is, sources close to the production tell me, were filmed but removed on the insistence of an actor’s wife. But I need to break down one more scene!

To keep him fighting for them, Momota, one of the other criminals involved in the fight league (who may or may not be in league with Ramsey, it’s almost impossible to tell) kidnaps Rachel. But, he’s also got a bunch of other attractive white women enslaved in another corner of what I presume is the same warehouse, and wants this young lady drugged up and turned into a prostitute. The four women aren’t on beds, they’re just on what look like long painting tables, two to a plank, and aren’t in a room, just a corner of a massive warehouse. Who does this? Could no-one have sprung for just one extra room to film in?

The best way to describe this is “unsatisfying”. The plot is poor, the acting poor, and the stakes are rather low. The direction is fine, but I’m going to guess (again) that Farmer didn’t have a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or available talent. It starts off nowhere and goes nowhere, unable to decide which of the two brothers is supposed to be the star. It ends nowhere too, with there being no real crescendo to the action, and although both brothers appear able to fight, the fight scenes are slow and sort of boring.

Because its structure is so odd, I’m going to take a wild guess and say it was quite personal for Buckner. Maybe he has a brother who helped him out at a tough time in his life, or he read a story when he was younger that really affected him. Or maybe it was just written by a guy who’d never done a script before and had no real idea how to structure them? Who knows?

An intriguing curio from one of our favourite directors, but perhaps not worth spending too much money tracking down.

Rating: thumbs down