Endangered Species (2003)

Don't know who this bloke is, but he's not in this movie

Don’t know who this bloke is, but he’s not in this movie

John Rhys-Davies is a first-ballot ISCFC Hall of Famer, without a doubt. As well as entertaining us for all the good seasons of “Sliders”, he’s done sterling work in a number of Asylum movies, something called “Lord of the Rings” (too big-budget for us) and , if you look at his IMDB credits, what looks like every sci-fi or horror movie of the last twenty years. He’s clearly a guy who loves working, and while that brings honourable failures and enormous successes, sometimes it leaves us with “what the hell were you going for?” choices, like “Endangered Species”. But more on him later.

One thing you could not accuse this movie of is originality. Take a smidgeon of “Predator 2”, a hefty bit of “The Hidden”, and a storyline which has occurred in pretty much every sci-fi TV series ever, and you’ve got this. An alien is on earth, hunting and skinning us; because we’re a protected nature reserve, in intergalactic terms, a “park ranger” is sent down to stop the poaching. The “ranger” is Arnold Vosloo, star of almost as many genre things as Rhys-Davies, and of course the cops think he’s the bad guy at first, but eventually it all gets sorted and they help each other track down the effectively indestructible alien hunter. That cop? Eric Roberts, who perhaps lost the same bet the rest of the cast of this did, which led to him agreeing to be in it. Still, he gets a nice sex scene or two, and his wife is very attractive, so perhaps that was it. Do actors even think that way? “Well, I’m not getting paid very much, but I do get to see that person naked”.

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A lot of this film’s really odd feel comes from its location. It was filmed in Lithuania and zero attempt is made to make it look anything like the USA. The lack of road signs, actual signs, advertising billboards or anything like that makes it feel like a really old computer game, where all they could manage was vague shapes of buildings and roads. Most of the murders take place in health spas and gyms, and they’re always on ugly streets with bad lighting – unlike just about every gym ever, but never mind.

John Rhys-Davies is the comic relief in this, which is a weird bit of casting. He runs after bad guys, swearing the entire time, and partakes in banter with his fellow cops, perhaps the worst most stilted banter in movie history. He does get a great line in, though, while toying with an alien gun – “I may not be from the University of scientific smartarses”, delivered with way more gravitas than it deserves. He’s great, as always, but it’s properly bizarre casting.

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Everything feels off. Not just the casting (for example, the cop’s tech guy is Al Sapienza, who only really plays villains), not just the locations, not just the banter, but everything. Too many boobs on display, cop cars made of petrol and dynamite, that incredibly annoying siren in the seemingly never-ending car chase in the last two-thirds of the movie, the family subplot which might as well just be a black screen with the word “FILLER” on it, and the boring inevitability of it all.

One last thing – the invincible alien trope. Both Vosloo and the hunter are completely indestructible, and not just because of the leather jackets they both wear. The hunter takes a couple of shots to the skull and laughs it off. Now, the comparison is made that they are to us, as we are to apes. If an ape threw a rock at my head, it would hurt like hell, but they can take an automatic rifle to the dome and not lose a step? Boo, I say to you. I hate the invincible alien trope.

Anyway, if you’re a mad Eric Roberts or JRD completist, pop this on, by all means. But otherwise just watch “The Hidden”, as it’s much better.

Rating: thumbs down

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Best Of The Best 2 (1993)

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It would seem, in the years between parts 1 and 2 of this franchise, two things happened. One, someone said to producer / star Philip Rhee, “if you do a sequel, I reckon you might want to tone down the wild over-emoting”. Two, Rhee said “okay, but only a little”. The concept where men cry, hug and share their deepest emotions with each other while being badass fighters (a surprisingly strong idea) has been abandoned, sadly.

Literally cutting the two other guys out of the picture, Alex, Tommy and Travis (Eric Roberts, Philip Rhee and Chris Penn) decide to move to Las Vegas and set up a karate school. I think. The movie is pretty vague on the details. While they’re in Vegas, Alex trains his son for his black belt, and the look of pride he has in his son’s achievements once again wanders close to the happy / creepy borderland; at the same time, Travis finds the world of the COLOSSEUM!

Wayne Newton, Vegas entertainer extraordinaire, is the MC and manager of the Colosseum, a gigantic underground arena where people gamble on no-holds-barred fights. If challengers can get past three of the Colosseum’s gladiators, they get to take on the gigantic Brakus in a fight to the death for the ownership of the place. Cool, right? Don’t let anything in this bit stick in your mind, though, like how is such a huge place secret, and why does this secret place have a large stone entrance with “Colosseum” written on it? How are they hiding the presumably regular stream of dead bodies?

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This film joins the “Bloodsport” series and no doubt several others in featuring the rather curious spectacle of rooms full of people cheering on murder. Travis, sadly, gets destroyed by Brakus and the crowd cheers for him to die…now, how jaded would you have to be to witness murder and be really happy about it? Is the world so awful? Not a single person was disgusted by this? If you see the crowd, though, they’re absolutely loving it – perhaps because it’s more entertaining than the dance club which is the above-ground front for this place, full of the worst music and the lamest old-white-guy dancers known to man.

Alex, Tommy and the kid go on the run from Wayne Newton’s goons, who aren’t happy that they’re trying to solve the mystery of their friend’s death, so we get the obligatory act 2 training montages. Turns out Tommy was brought up by a Native American woman…don’t think about part 1, where we saw him with his real Asian mother in a flashback, it will just hurt your brain. Turns out his…adoptive brother?…is a master martial artist who once fought Brakus himself and lost. Sure, why not? I’ve seen stupider coincidences. There’s a stupid bit where he has to train in stick fighting – possibly because Rhee is good at it and wanted to show off. Certainly not because anyone cared about it (when was the last time you saw televised stick fighting compared to boxing or MMA?)

So, you know how it’s going to go, but after the confusion of who was the star of the first movie, this is definitely the Tommy show. Eric Roberts must have liked the pay, or something, because he’s the sidekick in this, without a doubt, to a vanity producer / star. Anyway, Alex goes off to do his thing while Tommy gets ready to fight in the Colosseum. Was there any doubt? They do a lot of fighting of goons, though, so it’s more like a normal martial arts action movie – plus, there’s tons of death and violence in this, too, just to traumatise all the kids who enjoyed the family-friendly-ish part 1.

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Anyway, it’s not as insanely awesome as part 1, but it’s still got a decent budget, lots of nice set and a cast list that’s not horribly embarrassing. Eric Roberts apparently made this as a sort of apology to fans for part 1, which indicates he’s got no idea of what makes a good film.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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