Triple Threat (2019)

There’s a long tradition of movies made in Asia having a white / Western villain – think of pretty much any Jackie Chan movie, for example – but most movies made in English, at least partially for a Western audience, with “big” names in starring roles, definitely hew to the template of the brave (white) hero going overseas and whupping ass.

But nowadays, Chinese cash is flooding the movie business, and things are looking different. At the top end of things, that means big budget normal Hollywood fare with a Chinese co-star (such as “The Meg”) and at the level we normally come in at, movies like “Triple Threat”. I presume the title is nothing more than a happy coincidence with the Ben Affleck-starring “Triple Frontier”, and I’m also pretty sure this will be a lot more entertaining, and proper action movie length (not over two hours, in other words).

But enough of my half-assed theories about modern action cinema! You want to know if you should spend your hard-earned time / cash on this movie! I think if you’re a fan of the sort of movies we cover here, then just listing the cast will likely be enough to have you heading for your nearest movie rental service. Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, Furious 7, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage)! Iko Uwais (the two “Raid” movies)! Tiger Hu Chen (Man of Tai Chi, Kung Fu Traveler)! Celina Jade (Arrow)! And that’s just the Asian stars!

On the other side of things, let’s start with Michael Jai White (Undisputed, Black Dynamite). He’s long been a favourite of ours, so it’s cool to see him in a big-budget movie doing his thing. Michael Bisping, former UFC fighter and surprisingly not-terrible actor, is here too; as is another ISCFC superstar, Scott Adkins. We’ve covered a decent amount of his movies and have enjoyed pretty much all of them, and it’s cool to see him here as a really unhinged villain.

There’s a plot, but it’s definitely secondary to proceedings. A criminal syndicate is targeting Chinese people and businesses in the Asian diaspora, but authorities are powerless to stop them. So, two things happen at once. One, Xian (Jade) inherits her family business and pledges her enormous wealth to putting an end to the syndicate and protecting the world’s Chinese people. Two, a group of soldiers led by Devereaux (White) moves through the jungle and murders everyone at an MI-5 black site, to rescue one particular prisoner, Collins (Adkins). Well, they murder almost everyone – one guy, Jaka (Uwais) is thought dead but he survived – he was beaten by Payu (Jaa) and Long Fei (Chen) and is looking for revenge – he didn’t see any of the other terrorists.

Collins, Devereaux and their gang are then sent to kill Xian. Turns out Payu and Long Fei were just trackers they’d hired and then also left for dead as they wired the black site with explosives and destroyed it, so after a fight – in an underground fight league! Never change, movies! – the three men, all from different countries, team up to protect Xian and take down the terrorists.

Nice and simple. The joy in “Triple Threat” is, well, not only seeing some of the world’s best martial artist-actors doing their thing. Director Jesse Johnson (who also works as a stunt performer) knows enough to get out of the way of these guys – they all hit their signature moves and the fights are well choreographed and crisply shot and edited. There are some pretty good set pieces, too, like the assault on the police station and the chases through the streets.

I think it’s hampered, if anything, by its script. Perhaps the stars, from all over the world, all wanted to push things in different directions. Perhaps the Chinese backers insisted on certain plot devices. It’s the clunkiest part of what is otherwise a superb movie.

I had a hell of a good time watching this. Had the feel of an old-fashioned movie while having all the exciting camerawork and effects of a 2019 movie. While a lot of the enjoyment comes from seeing a cast of such legendary martial arts performers work together, it’s not just that. Okay, watching Scott Adkins go toe-to-toe with Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa at the same time is pretty amazing, and their fight delivers in spades. If you’re struggling to understand what a big deal this is for martial arts fans like me, then imagine some superhero you like and some other superhero you like teaming up to fight some iconic villain?

Recommended wholeheartedly. Director Johnson and star Adkins have another movie coming out this year, called “Avengement”, which doesn’t exactly help his “naming a movie something very similar to another, bigger-budget movie” issue with this one. But anyway! It looks great, and more Adkins is a good thing.

Rating: thumbs up

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The Strike (2001)

Our friend Donald Farmer made movies in an interesting array of styles, after his early, low-budget horror. There’s sexy thrillers (“Compelling Evidence”), sexy horror (“An Erotic Vampire In Paris”), historical (“Blood and Honor”), child-friendly (“Space Kid”), comedy (“Bollywood and Vine”, which I think remains unreleased) and revenge thriller (“Body Shop”), among more horror.

Also, in 2002, he made a martial arts movie! Well, I imagine his friend Andre Buckner, who’d appeared in several Farmer movies to this point, came to him with the script and asked him to direct (Buckner would go on to direct a couple of his own movies in the years to come), so add another string to the bow of one of the more individual genre directors of the last forty years.

I’ve seen a lot of martial arts movies, and you can get a fairly good sense of where things are going quite quickly, but “The Strike” mocks such easy attempts at categorisation! The Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which this is definitely set up to follow, goes as follows: the star’s big brother is killed in a different country, taking part in a tournament or because he won a tournament. The star must go to the country and take revenge for his brother, either by winning the tournament or killing his brother’s killers, or both. It’s typical that he gets some ancient wisdom or learns a new technique along the way (and, surprisingly often, shacks up with his brother’s girlfriend).

There are two brothers, one of whom is a champion pro kickboxer, the other a hotheaded amateur who wants to compete in the big leagues. But at every point where you expect it to get going with some action, it just doesn’t – not that all fighting movies should fit this template, but they should at least offer us a decent reason to keep watching.

Right from the beginning, it feels curious, as we see a scene of older brother Damon (Buckner) training a class of kids. Compare this to, say, “Kickboxer 5: Redemption”, where an identical scene at an identical point lasts 15 seconds. Here, it goes on for two minutes, which doesn’t seem like a lot but when it’s kids who have zero to do with the rest of the movie, really begins to drag. Anyway, he’s a good guy ex-cop who helps kids, and his younger brother Joe (Tony Luke) is…also a pretty good guy, honestly, even though Damon tells anyone who’ll listen what a dog Joe is with the ladies.

Joe’s girlfriend Rachel (Stephanie Sinclair) has some character quirks, like wearing a Juliana Hatfield t-shirt and lecturing him about the wonders of female indie singer-songwriters; also, she has a large, square free-standing poster of Andy Garcia in the corner of her bedroom. I’m genuinely fascinated about the sort of person who would spend money on such an item, and would have that and only that next to their bed!

Damon and his girlfriend talk about Joe a lot, like, way too much, while they’re in the apartment and while they’re on a random walk round the city. About 20 minutes in, they’re strolling round when Damon sees a couple of guys attempt to abduct / rape a woman in an alleyway. I need to break this scene down, a little. One of the two guys is holding the woman from behind with a pipe across her throat, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say he’d only had the concept of acting explained to him thirty seconds before Farmer called “action”, as he starts off by looking right at the camera, and throughout his too-brief time in the spotlight looks nervous and away from the action, as if he’s looking to someone behind the camera for advice. It’s amazing and is almost worth the cost of admission on its own.

Joe wants to get involved in the real fight league, but because he’s dumb as a box of rocks and his friend is a sleazy asshole, he goes to see Mr Ramsey (Farmer regular Danny Fendley). Apparently, if he fights for Ramsey, there’ll be all sorts of influential people there who can help him move up the ladder. Unfortunately, the actual fight is in a large warehouse, where there are maybe 5 people there to watch. Did he at no point smell a rat? Also, the fights are to the death, and as I’ve said before, running a fighting organisation where all the losers are killed just seems like a very poor business model.

There’s a brief appearance by B-movie legend George Stover (who has his name spelled wrong in the credits) as the producer of “American Expose”, the tabloid TV show that links a number of Farmer movies together and has given me the idea for the script I’m writing set in the Farmer-verse; their film crew films one of the fights and then disappears from the movie. What? Also, there are two very similar-looking redheads (Jenny Wallace, as Ramsey’s secretary; and the host of the TV report on the fight league) which lends an air of confusion to a movie which doesn’t need any more confusion.

I’m getting way too bogged down in the minutiae of “The Strike”, but I feel that’s because it seems determined to confuse and disappoint. The camera cuts just as sex scenes are starting, on several occasions (we still see a few naked women though), which is, sources close to the production tell me, were filmed but removed on the insistence of an actor’s wife. But I need to break down one more scene!

To keep him fighting for them, Momota, one of the other criminals involved in the fight league (who may or may not be in league with Ramsey, it’s almost impossible to tell) kidnaps Rachel. But, he’s also got a bunch of other attractive white women enslaved in another corner of what I presume is the same warehouse, and wants this young lady drugged up and turned into a prostitute. The four women aren’t on beds, they’re just on what look like long painting tables, two to a plank, and aren’t in a room, just a corner of a massive warehouse. Who does this? Could no-one have sprung for just one extra room to film in?

The best way to describe this is “unsatisfying”. The plot is poor, the acting poor, and the stakes are rather low. The direction is fine, but I’m going to guess (again) that Farmer didn’t have a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or available talent. It starts off nowhere and goes nowhere, unable to decide which of the two brothers is supposed to be the star. It ends nowhere too, with there being no real crescendo to the action, and although both brothers appear able to fight, the fight scenes are slow and sort of boring.

Because its structure is so odd, I’m going to take a wild guess and say it was quite personal for Buckner. Maybe he has a brother who helped him out at a tough time in his life, or he read a story when he was younger that really affected him. Or maybe it was just written by a guy who’d never done a script before and had no real idea how to structure them? Who knows?

An intriguing curio from one of our favourite directors, but perhaps not worth spending too much money tracking down.

Rating: thumbs down

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

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

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

 

Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018)

After a franchise resurrecting movie which didn’t have the action, the humour or the technical chops to be enjoyable enough, we have a sequel which, despite a lower budget, fewer stars and a writer/director I’d never heard of, manages to be vastly more entertaining. All those little things that fell flat in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” work exactly as they’re supposed to here.

The theme of this movie is, if you’re really good at martial arts, you can predict the future. Well, there’s other stuff to it, but you’ll definitely turn it off with that impression. Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi) and his wife Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) are on a train going through the mountains, and their dance number is interrupted by a bunch of bad hombres who want to kidnap her and kill him. A few well-places kicks and a fight on top of a train later, and…it was all a dream! But, despite him never meeting these people before, a whole bunch of them turn up as the villain’s goons in the last third, and Kurt has that “where do I know you from?” face.

Kurt’s a UFC (or whatever off-brand cage-based fighting league they’re saying it is) fighter now, living his best life and making mincemeat out of his opponents. After getting kidnapped by a couple of fake cops one night, he finds himself in Thailand, in front of the fellow we presume is part 1’s unseen Mr Big, Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert, who should have fired his agent around 1990, and now looks like the reanimated zombie version of himself). It’s a matter of honour that Kurt should give him a chance for a rematch, and is even prepared to pay him a million dollars for another fight to the death. If not, well, they’re fully prepared to throw him in a Thai jail for the murder of Tong Po in “Vengeance”…despite, one would imagine, that all having been cleaned up a while ago, what with his wife being a cop at the time and them not exactly leaving Thailand in a hurry.

But, you may not have seen “Vengeance”? So let’s not poke too many holes in the continuity, as continuity snobs are the worst – yes, I’m definitely one myself, but I’d go to Continuity Snobs Anonymous if I could.

Anyway, he gets thrown in jail, and the first thing he does is fight his way through the place in a brilliant fight scene which is all done in one continuous take. I mean, it’s not really, as you can see the cuts, and it’s a very long way from the frenetic pace of the modern classic of this mini-genre, Tony Jaa kicking an entire hotel’s ass in “The Protector”; but they’re trying! It’s easily better than any individual scene in “Vengeance”.

So, he hangs out in prison, not breaking as Mr Moore throws everything he can at Kurt to get him to submit, including regular whippings. Eventually, Kurt discovers a little gang of friends inside the jail, including his old trainer Master Durand – a welcome return for Jean-Claude Van Damme – who was blinded after the events of part 1 for his role in the murder of Tong Po; a footballer, played by real-life Brazilian footie legend and far-right lunatic Ronaldinho; and Briggs, a boxer, played by Mike Tyson. The scene where Kurt meets Briggs is hilarious, because you can imagine the negotiations that went on behind the scenes to get Tyson to appear – even though Kurt is supposedly one of the world’s best martial artists, the 51 year old Tyson has to win the fight and do cool stuff like punch straight through walls and so on. There are also a boatload of appearances from UFC guys like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua playing pretty much themselves.

As well as learning to box, he gets some wisdom from Durand. Now he’s blind (sort of a reference to his other beloved 80s franchise “Bloodsport”), his other senses are heightened, which results in him being able to “see” where a blow will land before it’s even thrown (not sure what sense this is, but whatever, it’s not played seriously anyway). Both these new skills are shown to us in that favourite of all scenes, the training montage! I love a training montage! Oh, and he can even “see” fights he’s not involved in due to sensing the air, or something. I have no idea, but it’s wonderful.

The guy he’s got to fight is Mongkut, played by none other than Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, former World’s Strongest Man contestant and currently The Mountain on “Game Of Thrones”. He’s genetically engineered like Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky 4”, for much the same purpose, even though you might wonder why a 6’8”, 400 lb beast of a man needs any more chemical help to beat up the 6’0”, 200 lb Kurt. The bit during the final fight, when Mongkut’s hipster trainer / technician just openly shoots him up with high-grade pharmaceuticals at ringside, is a hoot.

There are a few logic holes that, weirdly, just add to the camp charm of this gem of a movie. Even though Kurt is presumably a relatively famous martial artist back in the States, no-one seems to give a damn about getting him out of the jail where he was illegally kidnapped and taken to…apart from his wife, thank heavens. His American promoter doesn’t send over a group of tough dudes to bust him out, or anything! There’s also the way that in this almost entirely Thailand-set movie, none of the people we meet (apart from background extras and so on) is Thai. Hero and villain are both white Westerners, the villain’s boss is French, the main people in the jail are a black American, a Belgian and a Brazilian, the fight MC apparently has Asian, Hispanic, French and Native American ancestry….you’re about twenty people deep in the cast list before you get to anyone who’s actually from the country they’re traipsing through, and that person has the huge role of “Female Valet No.1”. One last bit of racial business – the chanting of “White Warrior” by the crowd during the final fight was problematic in “Vengeance” (although perhaps I’m missing something in translation) but its return here makes literally no sense as both competitors are white.

But please put any notion I didn’t enjoy this far from your mind. I loved it, and I think you will too. First up, the fights are very well shot, with the epic final confrontation even telling some of the story, and the action is fun and exciting. Kudos to director Dimitri Logothetis, who, if he’s known at all, is as a producer, not a writer / director (although he’s done all three). I imagine there’s an interesting story behind it all, or perhaps he just came into some money and bought into the relaunching franchise. Who knows? But he’s a great match for the material.

The script is over the top in all sorts of subtle ways, and it appears Moussi learned a lot about acting in the intervening years, as he’s able to deliver its ludicrous premise much better than he did before. I do like how some of the reviews of this complain about the silliness, as if a movie about an underground fight league where people are regularly murdered by a giant steroid freak should be serious business. Come on! What some people seem desperate to forget about the golden age of martial arts movies is that they were, by and large, silly as hell. That’s fine, of course, and you can still have tight action and good performances in a camp movie (which I believe “Retaliation” achieves).

Okay, before I leave you, I want to talk Bad Guy Economics, one of my favourite subjects. Moore puts his giant up against Kurt, and works hard to ensure Mongkut wins – including injecting him with steroids at ringside. Now, given Moore is in charge of the betting, who the hell is betting against the monster, especially after the first round when Kurt is virtually dead and Mongkut is entirely unharmed? No matter how short the odds, everyone would have been betting one way, so he’s definitely going to lose money, right? He really ought to be either telling Mongkut to go easy on him for a while, or to finish things off quickly, because the longer it goes on the worse his payday gets. Or, he should want Kurt to pull off the upset!

Rating: thumbs up