Heatseeker (1995)

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This guy isn’t in the movie

Like any sensible B-movie enthusiast, I was drawn to “Heatseeker” by its amazing IMDB description.

“A kickboxing champion is forced to fight cyborgs in a tournament when the company kidnaps his fiancee.”

Given its free availability on Youtube, I hope there’s at least a few of you who’ve already stopped reading this review and have gone to watch it. But for those of a more cautious bent, read on!

Time to deflate that excitement bubble. Writing, producing and directing is one Albert Pyun, who we’ve encountered many times – from “The Sword And The Sorceror” to “Cyborg” to “Captain America” to “Dollman” to the “Nemesis” series, he’s genuinely one of the worst directors to have ever been employed for as long as he has (34 years and counting). His particular directorial fetish is to not show how one scene connects to the next scene, and that’s in full effect here. Joining him are some of his favourite actors – most notably for us, ISCFC Hall of Famer (if we had one) Tim Thomerson, as a futuristic corporate type who appears to have turned up in “Hunger Games” cosplay gear; but also, Norbert Weisser (too many Full Moon movies to bother counting) and Thom Matthews (“Return Of The Living Dead”), among many others.

“Heatseeker” (why is it called Heatseeker? No bloody idea) rests on a number of very shaky premises. But before I get to them, I’d best fill in the plot. Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke, who was also in both “China O’Brien” movies, so I’m sure just a coincidence on the name) is the world full contact karate champion. In the far off future of 2019, all the other fighters are cybernetically enhanced (to a maximum of 10% of their body mass) but he’s pure human, and is still the best. At the beginning, we see him defeat the uber-powerful Xao (Gary Daniels, who can be great but really isn’t here), but we also see the Sianon Corporation build an entirely new cybernetic body for Xao, who I guess is just a brain and a nervous system at this point.

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Sianon has had the idea of putting their cybernetic enhancements to the test against those of the other cyber-corporations, and to that end puts on a tournament in international waters, so all the psychopathic fighters can kill their opponents with impunity. Each corp sends their best fighter, with their best enhancements (up to a limit of 50% of body mass this time), and the winner will dominate the tech market for the foreseeable future. But there’s a problem! Chance wants nothing to do with it, so…well, you know, having read the first line of the review. There is a cool scene where Xao invades Chance’s post-title defence press conference, a classic sports movie trick, so I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.

A solid hour of the movie is just this fight league, with one guy we’ve never seen before fighting another guy we’ve never seen before, along with a very upbeat commentary as this is obviously being shown on whatever TV channel was in “Videodrome”, as there are a ton of murders and mutilations in it.

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The idea of corporations and their different tech is sort of similar to the story of how the UFC started. The Gracie family from Brazil wanted to both make a lot of money, and to show how superior Gracie jiu-jitsu was, so put on a tournament where the masters of a bunch of styles got together and fought (this was before every fighter worth his salt cross-trained in every different style) – it’s possible that’s where Pyun got his inspiration from (UFC started in 1993, this is from 1995).

Let’s deal with the first baffling premise. Part of why corporate bad guy Tsui Tung (Weisser) kidnaps Jo (Tina Cote), Chance’s trainer / fiancée, is so she can help Xao. But not in terms of his fighting style, which is almost perfect, but in terms of his heart, by pretending to love him, which will apparently make him a better fighter. Jo, quite reasonably, tells him to go forth and multiply, but he shows her tape of Xao and says if she doesn’t play along, Xao will kill Chance. Okay, I guess, but wouldn’t it have been a ton easier to just lock her up and pay some prostitute to provide the “girlfriend experience” for a week or two? He is in charge of the world’s biggest cybernetics corporation, after all, so can’t be short of a few quid. They end up having sex at least once, and as she’s being coerced into it, it leaves a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

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There’s a very big and very odd elephant in the room, though. The whole point of this tournament is to decide which corporation is better, but Tung also wants Xao to get revenge on Chance. If you’re already stacking the deck in your favour by having 50% cybernetic enhancements (and not really checking when people cheat and use even more), and the pure human is able to hold his own in any way against your robot, that’s a terrible endorsement for your product! Although it’s never mentioned (Pyun not being a fan of explanations of stuff) Chance’s lack of enhancements seems to be a personal choice, so people who also don’t want cyber-enhancements are not part of your target audience. Why bother involving him at all and taking the risk? I’m pretty sure this question never occurred to anyone during the making of “Heatseeker”, because that question asker would also have asked about the title, and that would have set a house of cards crashing down, I’m sure.

I do need to mention the ending, so spoilers ahoy. Jo is being very visibly held at gunpoint by one of Tung’s goons, on camera, and then when Chance starts beating Xao, pretty easily, Tung grabs his gun and storms the stage. The commentator then continues to commentate on the murder and mayhem all around – hold on mate, aren’t you a corporate employee? Shouldn’t you cut to adverts or something when your CEO starts shooting people? Also, how does Xao get beat worse the second time around, when his opponent is fighting injured (broken wrist, acid-burned hands) and he’s got way more and better cybernetic implants? And why are there so many white Europeans with Asian names in this movie?

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Hopefully this has provided you with a flavour of how terrible this movie is. It’s almost literally impossible to care about most of the fight scenes, because they’re just random dudes; the acting is either way over the top (Weisser) or wooden as hell (everyone else); and Pyun is a crappy director, with his one redeeming quality (to his employers) being he delivers the right amount of footage, on time and on budget (this was apparently shot in 11 days, and it shows). Still, one more for you “fighting tournament movie” completists, and one more to add to your “never watch ever” list for the rest of you.

Rating: thumbs down

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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.

City Hunter (1993)

tho-san-thanh-pho-city-hunter-1992 After a fairly hefty slice of disappointment at recent viewings of “classic” Jackie Chan films, I admit I was a bit nervous about revisiting this. He was such a big part of my film youth, but would this one still hold up? “City Hunter” has a somewhat confusing provenance. It started off as a “manga”, basically, a comic book, and under that format released many volumes of adventures, each one focusing on one damsel in distress that our hero would have to save, romance, and ignore if a more beautiful woman came along. There have been multiple animated series, a live action TV series, and many alternate versions where the characters have been borrowed for other very similar series. Jackie Chan’s film version is nothing but a footnote in the Wikipedia article about the franchise, and he’s apparently said he’s not happy with it. Perhaps it’s an indicator of how he’s not a very good judge of his own work, as it’s hilarious! The craziness starts from the very first second and never lets up. He’s a complete doofus of a private eye and, along with the orphaned daughter of his former partner, is assigned the job of hunting down the missing daughter of a wealthy businessman. CityHunter-JoeyWong_TanLapMan_MikeAbbot_GaryDaniels_60736a7e99a6b9ddc4833202dbf2c5b7 This and associated shenanigans leads them to a cruise liner and a bunch of jewel thieves, and…it’s really not important. The plot is absolutely only there to be a backdrop for the jokes and stunts. Talking of backdrop, there’s a scene that seems to go on forever with a comedy musical dance troupe, zero relation to the plot, so I have to assume they’re friends of the producers or something.

 

The stunts are, just as standard for a Chan movie, fantastic. There’s a skateboard chase through oncoming traffic, a gun battle across the top of the boat, multiple fantastic fight scenes, and most famous of all, the “Street Fighter” fight, where Chan and main bad-guy muscle Gary Daniels get electrocuted by a Street Fighter arcade machine and turn themselves into all the different characters from that game. It’s amazing, and is a rare example of blatant product placement being used for something interesting (talking of product placement, the character E Honda has his name changed in the film to E Honde because of Chan’s lifelong sponsorship deal with Mitsubishi).

 

Yet again, we must resent the portrayal of women in these films. Despite him being a scumbag – one of the women in this film says of him, he’s “reputed to be an infamous sex fiend” – he’s irresistible to women and has three of them lusting after him. Still, it’s pretty much par for the course, but what isn’t is the reshooting of an entire scene because the women in the background weren’t pretty enough. If there’s ever a sentence which sums up everything wrong with the attitudes of this sort of cinema, it’s that. City-Hunter-10101568 The icing on the cake is a frankly disgusting homophobic scene, which was so appalling that the European distributors cut it out of the original release. One of the people on the cruise ship says of the (largely caucasian) jewel thieves, “I hope they all get AIDS and die”. There’s a scene of gay panic in there too, but that’s pretty minor in comparison.

 

So, an extremely entertaining film, chock full of comedy that works, by and large, with a huge number of thoughtfully laid out fight scenes too. But, it’s so thoroughly awful in some of its execution that it’s difficult to just kick back and have a good time with it; even appearances from ISCFC favourites Richard Norton and Gary Daniels aren’t enough to tip the scales in its favour.

 

I don’t even think it’s to do with me being a feminist, or a socialist – there’s no reason to have attitudes like this in film, and you don’t need to be actively political to have this leave a bad taste in your mouth. You just need to care about people being portrayed equally, no matter their gender. When we’ve just reviewed a film like “Pride”, a magnificent film about gays and lesbians, this seems even more archaic, more from the 1950s than the early 1990s.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

 

You can read RJW’s review of ‘City Hunter’ by clicking here