Fist Of The North Star (1995)

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Another to check off the “I should have watched it when it first came out” list. Regular ISCFC readers will know Gary Daniels’ name – as well as being the goon in a ton of low-budget martial arts movies starring people like Jackie Chan and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, starting with 1994’s “Deadly Target” and ending around 2001’s “Queen’s Messenger” he had an extremely busy time of it as a leading man. He’s a very good martial artist, and not the world’s worst actor, so if you’re a lover of B-movies and see his face on the cover of something, there’s a baseline of entertainment there. He’s still working, too (he was in the first “Expendables” movie) but more as second or third banana these days.

“Fist Of The North Star” is based on an anime, which I know basically nothing about, so if I get any details wrong or make any assumptions about the source text which are way off the mark, please excuse me. But that’s not important because THIS MOVIE IS BADASS! It’s got a classic martial arts movie plot, with a really well-done post apocalyptic visual style, and it starts with the battle between two rival schools. Well, I think they’re schools, it’s honestly never clear. The North Star and Southern Cross represent some sort of balance, and “the ancient teachings” (seriously, you ancient teachers, leave more behind than just vague aphorisms) say how they should never fight each other, or something. Who cares?

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Anyway, one day the Southern Cross finds itself with Lord Shin (Costas Mandylor, sporting a sweet mullet) in charge, and he’s not into balance. So, he murders Ryuken, the boss of the North Star (Malcolm MacDowell, in the middle of his “I will appear in literally anything” phase) and takes over the city, at the same time (it’s hinted) causing some sort of environmental disaster. It’s all about the balance!

So, all there is outside the city is endless desert-wilderness, with the occasional small settlement, and one of these is X (I’m sure it had a name, but I didn’t write it down), with such acting luminaries as Downtown Julie Brown and Melvin Van Peebles (!) among its residents. They “farm” water, try and avoid the acid rain, and generally live the sort of mud-and-rust existence you’ll be familiar with from a hundred other post-apocalyptic b-movies.

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Southern Cross decides, pretty much on a whim, to invade the little town, and Shin sends his top goons, including Jackal (Chris Penn, with a horrible mesh headpiece to hold his skull together), Stalin (Clint “Gentle Ben” Howard) and Goliath (pro wrestler Vader) to kill or enslave them all and steal all their water; a task they take to with great relish. At the same time, out of the wilderness comes Kenshiro (Daniels), Ryuken’s son and now-inheritor of the North Star…clan? School? Mystical power ring? Perhaps the film told us and I wasn’t listening, I apologise. He wants revenge, although when we first meet him he doesn’t seem motivated by anything in particular.

The plot has very few surprises if you’ve spent any time in the deep end of the straight to video pool, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad because it still takes skill to tell a standard story with a bit of excitement – see, every Albert Pyun movie for how to get it wrong. Anyway, Kenshiro, after a bit of encouragement from a few plucky children, helps out the small town, first by beating the crap out of the invading goons (with some truly spectacular set-pieces where people get broken in all manner of interesting ways) and then by heading off to Southern Cross to get his revenge for the death of his father. There’s a love triangle element to it, but it doesn’t really make much of a difference to anything, apart from to get our hero up off the floor at the crucial moment of the final battle, so we can safely skate over that.

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The cast definitely realise what sort of movie they’re in and have a good time. Penn delivers a line as dumb as “it ain’t easy being sleazy” remarkably well, and while it’s not much of a stretch for Gentle Ben to play a weird-looking psycho, he gives it his all. Daniels is a bit more serious than everyone else, but kudos to him for keeping a straight face when Shin takes his cloak off to reveal perhaps the ugliest outfit in the history of cinema – like the top section of leather dungarees. It’s fun!

Now, a very rare section of an ISCFC review – praising the technical aspects of a dirt-cheap post-apocalyptic kung-fu movie. The cinematography hides the low budget well (the shanty town looks like a real shanty town, for one), and some of the sets at the end of the film look surprisingly good. The art Shin has chosen to decorate his throne room is a mix of Russian and Chinese state propaganda styles, which is a nice touch they didn’t need to do. But it’s also the way it’s shot and edited. Two last examples – there are two very different fights going on at the same time at the end, and the mirroring of them is just superb, as a move from one fight is subtly altered and replayed in the other fight. Great stuff.

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But there’s one touch which is just cleverness on a level these movies very rarely achieve. Kenshiro and Shin, in the final fight, both have their supernatural “finishing moves”. Shin uses his on Kenshiro, which seems to cause blood vessels in his arms to explode and nearly finishes him off. But Kenshiro is made of stronger stuff, of course, gets up and continues to fight…but doesn’t use his arms. So many movies treat injuries to their leading man as a mild inconvenience, so when someone bothers paying attention it really stands out.

This movie has had a rough time of it, critically. Looking at IMDB, a lot of negative reviews are from people who are familiar with the anime – I’ve never seen it – or just seemingly annoyed at watching a good old martial arts film. And that’s what it is, at its heart, with a fantastic martial artist sort-of acting his way through a good, fast-paced, fun movie. It’s unlikely to make you rethink your life, but you’ll have a damn good time watching it.

Rating: thumbs up

PS-  I’m glad the era of Western anime nerddom seems to be over, because most of it was a right load of old rubbish. Have you ever seen “Legend of the Overfiend”? Like asking an 18 year old to just list the most shocking and offensive things he could think of, for 90 minutes – anyway, a story for another time.

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Best Of The Best (1989)

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If there’s ever a film that requires you to judge it on its own merits, it’s “Best Of The Best”. You’ll need to put far from your mind the thought that two of the main cast are, being polite, not in the shape you’d expect of top martial artists; and that you’re pretty sure that’s not how teams are picked for what must be relatively minor international challenges. Oh, plus most of the rest of the film is bonkers too. Would you expect anything else?

The thing is, this film is sort of a classic. A bold statement, but it’s so single-minded and so completely earnest that our irony-drenched 21st century brains may not be able to cope with it. Eric Roberts is Alex, a blue-collar worker forced into karate retirement due to a bum shoulder, who’s also looking after his 5-year old son due to the death of his wife. Can he have any more sadness heaped on him? But a ray of light comes in the form of a letter inviting him to a tryout for the US National Karate Team, going for a special event taking on the South Koreans, regarded as the best in the world (they specially train 12 months a year, and so on).

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Joining him on the team are a splendid mix of people – Travis, a cowboy from Miami, of all places (Chris Penn); Sonny, an Italian-American; Virgil, a Buddhist; and Tommy, who’s got a special reason for being there, and not just because he’s also the writer and producer. His big brother was killed in the ring by Korean captain Dae Han years ago and Tommy witnessed it, so he finally has a chance for some revenge.

Joining the gang of five is head trainer James Earl Jones and ridiculous new age nonsense-spouter Sally Kirkland, who sure loves to say meaningless things like “centre yourself” and “breathe out all the negativity”. The training section is the longest, because not only have they got to get good at fighting, they’ve got to deal with their ISSUES. Alex’s son is injured and he has to leave the training camp to care for him, jeopardising his place; Travis has to stop being such a massive racist (a weird attribute for a karate black belt who must have interacted with hundreds of Asian guys); and Tommy has to decide how important revenge is to him, and can he conquer his fear of fully committing to a punch or kick?

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The thing to notice about this is that every emotion is at an absolute fever pitch. Alex tosses his magnificent mane around and lets you know just how important this competition is to him, as is his son! Jones is in charge of this team, dammit! Don’t you dare try and force some new trainer on him! I can only guess that someone tried to play a scene in a subdued way on the first day of filming and they got shot by the director, whose only direction was “BIGGER!” Watching them wildly over-emote while dealing with what are fairly minor issues is a joy.

With some films, you can see the plan they had with hiring the actors they did, but with this one it genuinely seems random – James Earl Jones as a karate trainer? Chris Penn as a redneck blackbelt? At least one makes sense – Dae Han and Tommy Lee are real-life brothers. The mix ends up being fun, though, even though you know it’s unlikely as hell. Will they bond and earn the right to wear their “Team USA” tracksuits?

The last third of the film is the big tournament in Korea, and there’s some sweet matchups. It’s at this point you realise that Tommy is the star of the movie – fights last, has the huge emotional moment as tears stream down everyones’ faces – but his teammates get their licks in too. The fighting is well shot and exciting, and a little unusual to we viewers of martial arts movies – there’s only one fight outside a ring, and there appear to be rules which are actually adhered to!

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I LOVE THIS MOVIE!! There’s so much to enjoy, mostly related to Eric Roberts and his amazing performance. Him teaching his kid to ride a bike at the beginning is so amazingly funny without meaning to be, and there’s so much more like that, including his superb final fight. He really is the gift that keeps on giving, and if he wasn’t doing it deliberately it’s one of the weirdest performances in movie history. It’s just so good! Philip Rhee is significantly better than some of the other vanity producer-stars we’ve seen in martial arts movies, yet the four “Best Of The Best” movies represent the beginning and end of his writing, producing and directing careers (although he’s got a new film coming out which seems to be the same plot as this one, only centred around street kids fighting Beverly Hills kids in a karate tournament, with a similarly randomly-assembled cast).

I would lay good odds on the three sequels not being able to match this quality, but if you even remotely enjoy martial arts overcoming-adversity movies, then you really ought to give this a go. Heck, you could even introduce your kids to properly brilliant movies using this – no sex, no nudity, the only real violence is in a sanctioned martial arts environment, plenty of laughs and plenty of drama. And that ending! Enough to melt the coldest heart.

Rating: thumbs up