Double Impact (1991)

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I think this is how the pitch meeting went.

JCVD: I have an idea for a new action movie, where I play twins.
Producer: Okay! How are you going to tell them apart?
JCVD: Well, one of them has terrible dress sense, and the other is a violently misogynist homophobe!
Producer: Here’s a blank cheque!

JCVD plays Chad and Alex, twins separated in infancy, thanks to their father being double-crossed by his business partners in building a tunnel from Hong Kong to the mainland. Chad is taken to an orphanage, eventually becoming a low-level smuggler, and Alex is kept by Frank, his Dad’s old head of security and taken round the world, eventually settling somewhere in the USA, probably, where they run a combined aerobics / karate school. Luckily, both brothers have identical accents and are equally badass at martial arts. Wait, what? Ah, never mind, let’s get to the good stuff.

Chad, in his line of work, gets to meet his Dad’s old friends, who are now into big-league drug running. But Frank turns up with Alex, the two brothers rescue each other a few times, and they decide to work together to take down the drug operation and get back their rights to the tunnel and all the money it earns.

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Writer / director Sheldon Lettich had worked with JCVD before, on “Bloodsport”, and that formed a friendship that went on til at least 2006 (Lettich hasn’t really worked since then). This is their second film as director and star, after “Lionheart”,which sounds pretty awesome too, and that relationship helps JCVD, whose strengths are played to throughout. I worry about making too much of this, but he can act! Kind of! We have visual cues to which brother we’re watching at all times, but he does make an effort. He’s also credited as a co-writer.

The fights are really well staged too. When the two brothers fight each other, the angles are all done well and there’s no real moment where one guy is in an unnatural position because it’s JCVD’s stunt double. The firefights aren’t quite so strong, as no-one seems to be able to shoot worth a damn unless it’s plot-relevant, but none of it is bad.

We’ve got strong fights, a director who knows the best way to use his star, great locations (it looks like Hong Kong just closed off streets for them whenever they asked) and a really strong plot. Yes, really strong – their attempts to take down the criminal enterprise are handled well, with Alex’s girlfriend Danielle on the inside working for the evil land development company providing tension. It’s a real action thriller film rather than just a bunch of fights strung together.

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The rest of the cast is loaded with good people. Bolo Yeung is the main henchman, and is great as always, but though he was around when they were infants, he appears to have not aged a day in 25 years. At least give him a bit of grey hair, you guys! Plus, fans of horror cinema might be interested in a very brief cameo from Julie Strain as a martial arts student, from around the same time she was a Penthouse Pet, right at the very beginning of her career.

But as I mentioned above, there’s some serious problems. Alex calls Chad “faggot” on multiple occasions, and when Chad has to rush off to save Danielle without Alex, he gets drunk, waits for them to get back then hits her, pretty hard. Does he apologise or show any growth before she rushes back into his arms at the end? No, he just saves the day and, as we know, women are prizes to awarded for competence, not people with their own thoughts, feelings or agency.

Provided you’re prepared to talk to any impressionable viewers of this about the occasionally rotten attitudes, you’ll really enjoy this. It looks great, moves along quickly, has loads of action and also shows you just how insanely packed with people Hong Kong was at the time – it’s always fun to see how much access film crews used to be able to get to stuff before landowners realised they could charge them for everything they did.

Rating: thumbs up

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Bloodsport (1988)

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Frank Dux is a lucky man. In an era like today, when fact-checking is almost instant, his rather wild life story would have been pulled apart in seconds; yet, growing up when he did, he was able to become a successful martial arts trainer, friend of celebs and bestselling author.

To quickly break it down – he almost certainly never fought in the kumite (the secret underground fighting tournament), as the address he gave for the organisation was his own home. The trophy he claims to have won was just bought at a local trophy store, as a reporter found the receipt. He almost certainly never trained with the famous ninjitsu master he claimed. His prior military service can’t be verified. Add that to the list of kumite records (a tournament there’s no evidence for the existence of outside Dux’s book) displayed at the end of the film that Dux apparently still holds, and you’ve got an impressive amount of lying.

But who cares? Jean Claude Van Damme is kicking ass! There’s a moderately confusing first ten minutes where he jumps forward and backward in time (the only clue is the hair), a jumble of scenes where he breaks into Master Tanaka’s house, gets his ass kicked by Tanaka’s son then becomes friends with him, gets trained by Tanaka himself, joins the army then comes back to see the dying Tanaka before heading off to Hong Kong for the kumite. This whole bit feels really weirdly edited – Tanaka’s son dies off screen, for reasons never stated, and did Tanaka win the kumite himself as a young man?

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The film is basically one big fighting competition with a few little scenes dotted around. Forest Whitaker, already a pretty famous actor by this point, must have fancied a few weeks holiday in the Far East, as he plays one of the two CIA agents tasked with taking Dux home – the only reason being is he’s so amazingly awesome a soldier, they can’t afford him dying in this tournament. Bit flimsy, eh? Then there’s a sexy reporter who wants to get the scoop on the kumite; the great Donald Gibb (“Ogre” from the Revenge of the Nerds movies) as another American competitor; a lot of funny little turns from “locals”, and Bolo Yeung, well-known to anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie, as Chong Li, the no.1 fighter in the kumite.

For most of the first 30 minutes, my wife was insisting we’d seen this before, fairly recently, but the problem was it’s just really similar to a lot of other movies. The montage! The insanely strong villain! The wacky best friend! The love interest! This film does manage to separate itself from the pack by having a healthy dose of racism in it – among a few other references, primarily it’s the chief black fighter doing an impression of a monkey (I guess he’s trying to do monkey style kung fu, but it looks nothing like that). Add a little sprinkling of sexism in there – the reporter is absolutely useless – and you’ve got yourself a 1980s martial arts movie.

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This all sounds like I hated it, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s so much fun! JCVD is having the time of his life, most notably in a scene where he evades the CIA agents in a chase through Hong Kong. He’s ripped in this movie like he never was before or since, too, and the camera loves him. The fighting is fun, the styles of the characters does tell sort of a story (when they can be bothered) and the ending is nice and satisfying. I did wonder why Chong Li, a man who’s killed several people in the kumite and cheated in the end, was so popular, but thinking that much about this awesome display of ass-kicking is a fool’s errand.

Rating: thumbs up

Cyborg (1989)

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Those of you who love JCVD and his great run of early movies probably don’t even know why this one is sort-of forgotten, the one that you either think sucks, or just avoid whenever you’re in the mood for a movie. Luckily, you have me to help, and the reason you all hate this film is Albert Pyun.

Pyun has made at least two almost-tolerable movies (the first “Nemesis” and “Dollman”) but his list of true garbage is a mile long, starting with the “Nemesis” sequels and extending far in every direction. This is the first in a Cyborg trilogy from Pyun, but they aren’t the actual sequels – “Cyborg 2”, nothing to do with him, is Angelina Jolie’s first starring role, and there’s a 3 as well (Pyun’s two “sequels” are “Knights” and “Omega Doom”). I hope this confuses you and irritates you a little, because it will recreate the feeling of watching this movie. Pyun proves my thesis that most directors aren’t making films because they’re good at it, or have anything to say, they can just hustle well, or they’re friends with a rich person.

Hey, movie, when are you set?

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So, we’re in your standard post-apocalypse situation, with the addition of the “living death”, a virus which is never really shown happening to anyone. The remnants of the CDC want to stop it, so they send their best agent to go and get some important information from New York, but they convert her into a cyborg before she goes so she can store the information, or whatever. Anyway, her escort dies, an evil gang who want to control the vaccine are after her, so she has to go and get help from a “slinger”, like a bounty hunter or something (JCVD, character name Gibson Rickenbacker, is the only one we ever see).

But she doesn’t really get help from him, and that’s where the weirdness of this film starts. He keeps getting his ass kicked, so she sort of decides it would be easier to travel with the gang to Atlanta and the CDC then fight them there; JCVD then meets up with an entirely different woman, who ran away from the same gang in an earlier fight but is now prepared to risk her life to help, and spends most of the movie travelling with her. Plus, flashbacks to some time he helped a woman, fell in love with her and stopped the slinging lifestyle for a while.

The one thing JCVD is really good at is fighting. So, if you’re going to have him in a film with a lot of fighting in it, you might reasonably expect his parts to be decent. Aside from a few cool moments here and there, though, he fights like a punch-drunk old boxer, just standing there and taking blows from his opponent, occasionally dishing one out in return (like I said, he gets his ass kicked a lot in this movie). It’s really surprisingly boring, and there’s a lot of it.

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Main baddie Fender Tremolo (I have no idea why most of the characters in this are named after guitars, and I can’t be bothered to check) has weird bright-coloured eyes, and reveals them a lot from behind sunglasses – however, after like the third time, I began to wonder why they kept expecting us to be surprised. Or maybe we might think his eyes changed colours? Ah, who cares? JCVD is literally nailed to a cross at one point, but because he’s quite clearly better than Jesus, manages to break it and get himself down. The exact same flashback footage is used twice within about 5 minutes, making me think the movie had lapped itself.

So it’s bad and boring and stupid, and really slow, is what I’m getting at. Two final, related examples of how strange this movie is – when JCVD has his big emotional moment at the end, it’s not with the cyborg woman, nor is it with the woman he’s spent most of the movie with, it’s with an entirely different third woman (the young girl from his flashbacks, all grown up and in the baddie’s gang). And talking of the titular female, you’d think a movie called “Cyborg” would have the actual cyborg be front-and-centre, right? Wrong. She’s fifth-billed and is barely in it, which would be like changing the title of “Candyman” to “The Woman Who Lives Down The Hall From The Heroine Movie”.

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Some of this film’s problems can actually be explained though. Cannon Films had lost a boatload of money on deals for “Masters of the Universe” and “Spider-Man” movies that had fallen through, so Pyun, who was going to direct both films simultaneously (!) knocked up a plot for “Cyborg” in a weekend, got “less than $500,000” and filmed it in 23 days. While great films have been made in less time and for less money, not many of them have been post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies; to add injury to insult, one of the actors lost an eye thanks to JCVD stabbing him with a prop knife accidentally, sued and won $485,000.

Sadly, “Cyborg” commits the unforgivable crime of being boring, and it really shouldn’t be. The “stupid” and “sort of pointless” crimes are just corollary.

Rating: thumbs down

Kickboxer (1989)

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Jean Claude Van Damme has become something of a reality TV star in recent years, so to add to his immense martial arts abilities, surprising comic timing and sweet dance moves, we have him being a bit of a sexist asshole. If you can watch how he treats his assistant in his “Behind Closed Doors” show and still want to see his movies, pull up a chair and read about one of his first starring roles.

Explained away by being raised by separated parents, JCVD is Kurt, the Belgian-sounding brother of the very American-sounding Eric, and Eric is the ISKA World Kickboxing champion. When Eric decides that he’s beaten everyone ISKA has to offer and goes to Thailand to fight the top muay thai guys, he meets the extraordinarily evil Tong Po and, thanks to the complete absence of DQs, law enforcement or medical care, is paralysed in his very first fight while his opponent barely breaks a sweat.

Now, right away it’s a little odd, because the ISKA is a real organisation and that is a real championship (also, Dennis Alexio, who plays Eric, has held it in real life). Muay thai is seen as the ultimate style, so much so that Eric is barely competitive in his only fight. Now, if I was in charge of ISKA, which is a serious group, I’d be less than thrilled to have my top guy portrayed as a chump – the only thing I can think of is this film being a love-letter to the main Muay Thai organisation to try and get them into the ISKA family? It’d be like a film where one of the Klitschko brothers, while holding his real world heavyweight boxing titles, gets his ass thoroughly kicked when he goes to fight in England, the home of real boxing. It makes no sense.

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Kurt, wanting revenge, meets up with a former CIA agent in Bangkok, who takes him under his wing and then introduces him to Xian Chow, a mystical Yoda-like trainer who lives out in the wilderness. Kurt works his way into training with Xian, and in a montage you’ve seen a hundred times before, goes from scrub to killer in ten minutes. Thanks to Tong Po being involved in organised crime, it’s fairly easy to bait him into a fight, but can Kurt compete in the “Ancient Way”, where the hands are wrapped in twine, dipped in resin and then broken glass?

“Kickboxer” comes right at the end of the life-cycle of movies which show Oriental martial arts as intrinsically better than Western fighting, due to the mystical element, their kids being brought up in it, and so on. It seems odd because the year before, JCVD made “Bloodsport”, about a Westerner going to Japan and dominating their fight league; and the Eastern dominance of martial arts was ruined forever in the early 90s, when Royce Gracie, a small Brazilian guy, beat the world’s best and toughest fighters in the UFC; along with Ken Shamrock, an American wrestler / submission grappler, destroying all comers in Japan’s Pancrase league.

As I’ve seen this film many times before, my mind pondered some of the finer points of this particular gem. For instance, Eric’s first activity in Thailand is grabbing a prostitute (and when he’s in hospital, you know he’s recovering because he pinches a nurse’s ass). Oh, isn’t sexual harassment a blast? There’s the way they filmed this in some really beautiful locations – Buddhist temples and places where a 2014 film crew would never have a chance of going to. There’s wondering how a dangerous, violent lunatic like Tong Po, who regularly hospitalises people in the ring, could be the popular hero. Then, of course, there’s the dancing, showing that JCVD is perhaps the finest mover ever to grace the silver screen:

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The oft-repeated message of this film is that revenge is bad. But, what it says and what it does are very different – although he’s told over and over again not to get revenge by fighting Tong Po, he does so in quite spectacular fashion. Perhaps, because Tong Po kidnaps his brother and almost kills Xian’s dog, it should be “revenge is bad, unless the guy you’re getting revenge on is a real scumbag”.

It’s great, though. The storyline is fairly slight, but Van Damme is obviously a star in the making and the fighting looks suitably meaty. A relic of a bygone era, for sure, but one where it’s a lot of fun to hang out for a few hours.

Rating: thumbs up

PS – In news I’m really looking forward to, they’re currently filming a remake of this, with JCVD in the Xian role, Dave Bautista of pro wrestling and “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame in the Tong Po role, and Gina Carano as…not sure. I get the feeling they’re not going to waste someone as awesome as her as the simpering love interest, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

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Welcome To The Jungle (2013)

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If you wanted to pick the most generic title possible for your film, then “Welcome To The Jungle” could be it – 5 other films and 22 TV episodes of various shows share the name. But none of them have Jean-Claude Van Damme returning to comedy, which makes this the best one.

It seems Chris (Adam Brody) has never seen any films or watched any TV, because he allows his immediate superior Phil (Rob Huebel) to steal his idea for some product packaging and win a big contract with it. Don’t be so dumb, Chris! Anyway, the packaging-design company they work for is full of weird and wonderful types – sleazy scumbag Phil; Jared (Eric Edelstein), Chris’s slobby friend; Brenda (Kristen Schaal), slightly typecast by now as the kooky one; Phil’s pathetic assistant Troy (Aaron Takahashi); and the beautiful but friendly Lisa (Megan Boone). Now, those of you who watch “The Blacklist” on TV might be expecting Ms. Boone to be a bit wooden, but she’s great here – perhaps the wig she’s forced to wear on that show for reasons unknown is putting her off her game.

Boss Dennis Haysbert decides, because businesses in films do stuff like this, to send them on a 2-day retreat to a deserted jungle-covered island, with tour guide / former army guy Storm (JCVD) and that’s where the magic happens. The pilot of the plane dies almost immediately, the radio doesn’t work, Storm gets savaged by a tiger and disappears, and the poisoned meat / hallucinogenic tea that everyone but Chris, Jared, Brenda and Lisa eat and drink turns them from mild-mannered office drones into a Lord Of The Flies sort of group, only one that has orgies. Can our four heroes save the day? How fortunate is it that Chris used to be a scout and Jared was a radio ham?

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The problem with this film isn’t the cast. Huebel and Schaal are both talented comedians so they lift all their scenes, Adam Brody is good too as the sad office guy who needs to discover his backbone, save the day and win the girl, Boone is fine, and JCVD mocks his own film persona very cleverly, and can absolutely do comedy.

The problem is most definitely the script and direction. I like the way that Phil’s group turn into savages so quickly (they build a huge statue of him on a hilltop within a day of them landing there) but they go that far then sort of stop, and if anything turn the craziness down a little. There’s a weirdly scatological bent running through the film, too – Schaal has a monologue about how much she wants to take a shit, a corpse gets accidentally urinated on, and so on. Swearing is used in place of jokes once too often (and I like swearing just fine).

I picture Huebel, Schaal and Brody getting together every night after filming and wishing they could rewrite the script, because they’re ill-served by it all. It could do with being a lot weirder or a lot less weird, I think (I had an idea about how the main cast members crash-land on an island, and the rest of the cast is another office team, that got stranded there a year ago and have turned native, which would solve some of the problems…but no-one likes an armchair quarterback, sorry).

It’s almost great. There are plenty of laughs in it, a decent cast and an interesting, if fairly predictable, premise. JCVD is underused, but when he’s there he’s brilliant. If he ever gets bored of kicking ass in low-budget films made in Eastern Europe, I predict a decent sitcom role for him…I just wish the film overall was that little bit better. If your heart is set on a film about office workers trapped in a wilderness environment, then “Severance” is the film for you.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Ninja (2009)

Before we get started, you might like to read this article. While some of it, from the excellent Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, is slightly OTT clickbait-style journalism (of course, I would never CHRISTINA HENDRICKS NUDE PICS do that) there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about the modern world of direct-to-video action films.

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Sofia in Bulgaria is the central city to this new world, and it’s one where people like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme continue to make the same sort of films they used to back in the 80s and early 90s, and where action films are treated as serious business, not as a faintly embarrassing joke of the recent past, “Expendables” style. It even has its big names – directors like Isaac Florentine, and stars like Scott Adkins, who went from martial artist to bit part player in British soaps to “bad guy 3” in some fairly big films (he was in The Expendables 2, as JCVD’s sidekick) to starring in his own films. We reviewed his surprisingly good Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning some time ago.

Adkins and Florentine have worked together on six films now, “Ninja” being the fourth. It must make certain things easier, knowing your leading man’s strengths and weaknesses, and it shows here. Adkins is Casey Bowman, an orphan who was raised in a dojo in Japan. He becomes one of the best martial artists there, even if according to my wife it looks like he spent a bit too much time on his muscles, with his main rival for the soon-to-retire Sensei’s position is Masazuka. The two of them are strong, but in different areas, and in classic kung-fu film style, the ultimate victor will be the one who learns most from the other.

There’s a huge MacGuffin in this film, the Yoroi Bitsu, a big case containing all the best martial arts kit. Or something. It’s really not important. Masazuka is thrown out of the dojo for losing his temper, goes away and trains as a ninja, becoming a hired assassin for a group of shadowy businessmen at Temple Industries. They hire him to steal the Yoroi Bitsu, but the sensei sends it with Casey and his daughter Namiko to New York to hide, and that’s where the majority of the film takes place. Temple’s thugs, known as “The Ring”, pursue Casey, and after Masazuka kills the sensei he joins in too.

First and foremost, this film is exciting. If you’re a fan of action movies at all, you’ll remember that moment, whether it was “Commando”, “Kickboxer”, “Cobra” or “Die Hard”, where some sequence had you completely fixated, where the artistry of the fighting and the staging of it had you cheering at the end (even if you were only cheering in your head). “Ninja” has tons of those moments, including the increasingly-famous subway fight scene and a few other set pieces that are just brilliant. Considering the extremely low budget (the New York city street is very obviously a set, and the subway trains are old Russian ones), the quality of the fight scenes is even more impressive.

A lot is made in reviews of action cinema about a sense of place, knowing where people are in relation to each other and how that affects the way the scene unfolds. It’s one of those things you don’t really notice until it’s done well, as Florentine has undoubtedly done here – there’s no shaky cam, no people suddenly beaming across large rooms to get involved in fights they were nowhere near. With a lead guy like Adkins, who can do pretty much everything asked of him in terms of stunts and fighting, it makes it a lot easier too. Heck, he can even act! He’s unlikely to win any Oscars, but so what? He does what is needed.

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The plot is pretty paper-thin though, if we’re being honest. From the reason Adkins was left in a Japanese dojo, to the evil plan of the Temple Corporation, to the rather crowbarred-in nature of some of the fight scenes; it exists mostly to hang the action on. The romantic subplot, while necessary to give Casey something to worry about in the amazing final fight, is a bit underdeveloped, and Masazuka’s expression is pure evil from the start, leaving his betrayal as less than a surprise. But if you watch a film called “Ninja”, starring a guy like Scott Adkins, and are worried about the romance element, then I suggest you’re doing it wrong. There’s an argument to be made that low-budget martial arts films are more highlight reel than actual movie; I choose to look at it a different way. Hollywood action movies are about marvelling at the amount of money spent on a scene, or getting a headache at the shaky-cam usage – the action has become secondary. A simple plot isn’t necessarily a bad plot.

“Ninja” is great, dramatic, exciting in a way few films are these days, and if you’ve got love for old-school action films at all, you’ll enjoy this one.