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

Advertisements

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

Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing (2006)

After a sadly flawed first part to the franchise, the major studio financing went away but, not wanting to abandon a potential profitable name, Miramax farmed it out to Eastern Europe and the low-budget, unashamedly old-school action factory out there. Luckily for us, the director they hired was Isaac Florentine, the future ISCFC Hall of Famer who’s given us such gems as “Bridge of Dragons”, “The Shepherd” and both “Ninja” movies.

In one of the more curious pieces of continuity you’ll see, Michael Jai White, this movie’s star, plays the same character as Ving Rhames from part 1 – George “Iceman” Chambers. Only they don’t make any reference to him having previously been in prison, or the rape (that part 1 certainly seems to think he did) that landed him in prison, or even bother to have White play the part remotely the same way Rhames did. There’s also the curious visual of having White, 8 years younger than Rhames, play the older version of the character.

But we don’t really care about that! What we do care about is how much fun this movie is, how it’s tightly plotted, well directed, with plenty of exciting fight scenes that avoid a problem from part 1 – that boxing is sort of dull visually – by pivoting to mixed martial arts; a couple of great central performances; and by filmimg in one of the most legitimately filthy-looking prisons in movie history.

Chambers has been reduced, thanks to the downturn of his boxing career, to selling vodka in cheesy ads in some unspecified Eastern European country, and he’s angry / contemptuous of it, But he doesn’t have to put up with it for very long, as he has some drugs planted in his own personal Bible and, thanks to the legendarily corrupt legal systems in that part of the world, sent straight to prison.

We know he’s going to have some company there, as we’ve already met Boyka (the amazing Scott Adkins, Florentine’s muse), who dominates the underground fight league in prison with high-power, high-speed mixed martial arts, along with some way-too-flashy-to-be-effective-in-real-life spinning high kicks and stuff like that. He’s such a good screen fighter, and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work here – he even did it after bulking up considerably, as his normal walking-around weight would look too small next to the massive Michael Jai White. We also have fight choreographer JJ “Loco” Perry to thank for these fights, and it’s clear Hollywood recognised the talent as he’s now doing stuff like the most recent “Fast and Furious” movie.

One of the other problems of part 1 that I mentioned previously is how I didn’t buy the motivation of either of the main characters, or why I should be remotely interested in the outcome of their fight. One was a murderer, the other a rapist. Here, Chambers is an asshole, but one who’s been imprisoned under false pretences, and he has an arc! He refuses to fight and stands up to the guards, then agrees when his manager negotiates a deal with the Russian mobster who runs the fight league to let him out if he takes part. He earns the respect of the other inmates for his attitude during and after the first fight, and this seems transformative for him. If you can buy he’s just a wrongly convicted guy with a bad attitude at the beginning, he becomes a decent person at the end of it. His transformation is also mirrored by him having to learn a new style to combat his far more rounded opponent (handily, White is also a top-level on-screen fighter in all styles).

Things are similar for Boyka. He’s undoubtedly a psychopath, who kills fellow inmates, beats his opponents half to death and uses fear to get what he wants; but he’s honest about his fighting skills, wanting to prove that his mixed style is the ultimate evolution of fighting against the world’s best. He also has an odd hobby (stamp collecting) to tie into the Wesley Snipes character and his model-building from part 1.

We learn an important thing about Boyka during the course of the movie, too. Spoilers, I guess, but it’s an important spoiler! (Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to read it). Boyka’s backers are worried that Chambers might actually win, so they persuade Chambers’ ring second / cellmate Parker (Ben Cross, who’s one of British TV’s premier “that guy” actors) to give him drugged water by threatening to withhold his heroin supply. He comes out for the second round staggering round, barely able to keep his eyes open or stay on his feet, and Boyka wins very quickly and easily. But when he finds out what happened, he’s disgusted, loudly denouncing the Mafia backers and demanding a straight rematch to prove his superiority. This is an interesting character beat and sets him up for parts 3 and 4, where he’s the central character.

But, there’s a crucial and rather unfortunate plot hole here. Imagine you’re a villain, and bet on a fight, only to discover that the promoter drugged one of the fighters to make sure he lost. Would you go “oh well, easy come easy go” and bet just as much on the rematch, or would you find that promoter and tear his fingernails out? Luckily, this movie assumes answer two, although I think in real life the response would be slightly different.

While I didn’t hate part 1, this is just better in every way. According to those in the know, part 3 is even better, so I look forward to sharing my opinions on that with you soon.

Rating: thumbs up

Undisputed (2002)

Because Michael Jai White was so fantastic in “Blood and Bone”, I’ll be taking a brief break from our blood-titled movies to cover a fighting series which involves him.

White stars in part 2 of the “Undisputed” franchise, which was a straight-to-video Eastern European production directed by the superstar of modern B-movie action, Isaac Florentine, who’d also direct part 3; part 1, on the other hand, was a fairly high budget affair, starring two pretty big names, by 2002 standards at least, Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes. There’s also roles for Peter Falk, Michael Rooker, Fisher Stevens, and Yo MTV Raps’ own Ed Lover, and was written and directed by the great Walter Hill (The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, and many many others).

George “Iceman” Chambers (Rhames) is the undisputed world boxing champion when a conviction for rape sends him to jail for 6-8 years; of course, there’s an inter-prison boxing league which several people, including old school mobster Mendy Ripstein (Falk) are very interested to see Chambers take part in. The prison already has its own champion, Monroe Hutchen (Snipes) who’s occasionally interested in defending the honour of the prison fighting league against the wealthy outsider, and occasionally sits in his room making models from matchsticks.

The problem that the movie never really gets over, although your mileage may definitely vary, is that boxing is sort of boring, visually. Especially modern boxing, which is largely a dull tactical display (the reason very very few boxing matches do big business these days), and even though “Undisputed” features all sorts of flashy moves that no pro would do, it’s still a little on the dry side.

But anyway. The prison authorities get Chambers to fight by promising him an early release, and by offering Hutchen’s family on the outside some cash. The two men circle each other, occasionally coming to blows, until they have the inevitable fight at the end.

The original plot is not why we watch movies like this. But, some sense of characterisation is quite important. A question I asked myself repeatedly throughout is “who are we supposed to be rooting for here?” Snipes is, probably, the hero but he gets far less screen time than Rhames and is seen, over and over again, to not be a particularly sympathetic person (he’s also in prison for murder). Rhames, on the other hand, protests his innocence of the rape charges but the movie repeatedly cuts to TV interviews with his accuser, who is never doubted by the movie for one second. Smarter experts than me have said this creates an interesting air of tension in that either man could win, but I disagree. You could have done that by making both men at least a little decent, but this way seems odd and discordant.

Women are seen as the root of all the main men’s woes – Rhames is obvious, Snipes was just trying to make money to feed his wife, Falk is in prison thanks to the women in his life, who he spends one memorable monologue cursing with some excellent expletive-filled dialogue. I’m not sure I like this?

One last curious thing – Falk draws up the rules for the final fight, which includes bare knuckles. He’s really into this, making a point of mentioning it several times. Then Rhames says bare knuckles is a bad idea and Falk immediately withdraws the suggestion without so much as defending his idea once. What gives?

What I like about it is the lack of irrelevant B-plots – it gets right to the central conflict and does it well. It also has some strong supporting characters, such as nice-guy-but-corrupt guard Rooker. But…I just can’t get behind it fully. Not upset I watched it, but if I were you I’d probably jump into things with part 2 (more on that tomorrow).

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Blood And Bone (2009)

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