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

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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

Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

It was with great excitement I greeted the news of a new entry into the Kickboxer franchise. The series, which started off with Jean-Claude Van Damme before handing the reins over to the excellent Sasha Mitchell (and then, briefly, Mark Dacascos), was a lot of fun – even though some of the series was directed by ISCFC Hall of Shamer Albert Pyun – with colourful locations, and lots and lots of fights. They also established / popularised the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which goes as follows:

  1. Two brothers / best friends, one of whom is a champion fighter

  2. Champion fighter is killed by a master of a slightly different martial art

  3. Brother / best friend tries to get revenge and fails

  4. He (it’s always a he) goes to exotic locale, learns new martial art

  5. He falls in love with a local who really doesn’t want him to die against villain X

  6. Revenge is had

Although there are some minor differences, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” follows this plot almost to a T. But it’s got the extra fun of starring some fairly big name UFC fighters, martial arts / acting crossover star Gina Carano, and JCVD in a supporting role, showing that he’s kinda sorta learned how to act in the intervening years.

I’ve long disliked the trope of show a clip, then go “6 months earlier”, because it’s often done by people who don’t really understand it, because they’ve seen it done in other better movies and want a bit of that class. Much is the same here, as we start with Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi, better known as a stunt performer) goes to the compound of Tong Po in order to train – only, he’s not there to train, he wants revenge for the death of his brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi, who we’ve covered before and is sadly missed, having died in 2015). He gets his ass kicked, of course, but Tong Po lets him go rather than killing him. Insult!

Tong Po’s gatekeeper is played by UFC champ Georges St Pierre, who, what he lacks in acting ability, makes up for in lack of acting ability; one of the other goons is UFC guy Cain Velasquez; and Tong Po himself is former WWE guy, surprisingly good actor and current star Dave Bautista. Judging by Shahlavi’s involvement (he died early in 2015) this was probably made in 2014, before “Guardians of the Galaxy” pushed him out of the price range of productions like this, one would have thought.

I was also about to make a slight comment about how sad it is Tong Po, judging by his name, has never once been played by an actual Asian actor (the guy who played him in parts 1-3, Michel Qissi, is Moroccan/Belgian, and his replacement for part 4 is Kamel Krifa, a Tunisian). But, Mr Bautista has a Filipino father, which makes him closest, geographically speaking. Sort of well done, movie! My wife also didn’t believe Liu, the cop / love interest was a local either, but she’s Sara Malakul Lane, ISCFC regular (“Sharktopus”, “100 Degrees Below Zero”), and half-Thai, which means they can have scenes where she’s talking to locals and other cops and it can be in actual Thai, not just heavily accented English.

Anyway, back to the movie! If you don’t love training montages, I don’t think we would ever be friends. This movie features a couple of beauties, where Kurt is taken by Liu to hide out at Master Durand’s place and Durand takes him from zero to hero. JCVD plays him in a half-homage to Xian from the original, half as a weird hipster gone to seed sort of guy, and it works. There’s a recreation of the famous scene from the original where the trainer takes Kurt to a bar and gets him involved in a brawl to test his mettle, too.

Gina Carano, who I think deserves better roles than the sort of middling straight-to-VOD stuff she’s gotten recently, has a very curious role in “Kickboxer”. She’s the fight promoter for Tong Po, responsible for getting Eric to go to Thailand to fight him, and seems genuinely upset that he died (perhaps they had a relationship). And given that Eric was also trained by Durand, her remorse appears genuine…until she reveals her true colours later. Also, she never so much as throws a punch in this movie, a curious choice at best (it’s like having Fred Astaire and not having him dance). Best guess is they hired her for a day or two and having her fight was too expensive. But it’s a shame, and her weird motivation doesn’t help. Also, they pay Eric $200,000 to fight, and when you see the contest, it’s in what looks like the back room of a bar with maybe 200 people in attendance, none of whom look that rich. No signs of broadcast, no betting going on. How’s she making her money in all this?

I want to talk two scenes now, which I think reveal the rather shoddy finished product that we get. One is a fight on top of two elephants. Now this sounds exciting, and in different hands it would be! But what director John Stockwell gives us is perhaps the least convincing fake elephants of all time, with occasional cuts to real elephants that definitely don’t have anyone on top of them. Now, I don’t want animals to be abused for the sake of my entertainment, but if you’re going to use fakes, either use better ones or cut around them more. Come on!

And the second scene is when Carano sends her goons to kill Liu…and tells them to “make it messy”. Again, could be a great scene! But what we get is one guy. They send one guy! And he, despite having all the time in the world to hide and aim his rifle, misses them all and then dies fairly quickly. Could they not have just filled a car up with bad guys?

Alan Moussi is a gifted screen fighter, for sure, but he needs better direction than he was given. A huge majority of his fights are just repeated attempts to go for some wildly OTT manoeuvre like a double-back-flip kick or a Superman punch, and he gets blocked and thrown to the ground every time. Learn to stop doing that! After a while, it just becomes monotonous, and I don’t think it’s being played for laughs either.

It appears there was some rather substantial reshooting of the final fight scene, as there are quite a lot of cuts where you don’t see Van Damme’s face, indicating he wasn’t there, and his voice is dubbed by a very different sounding actor. Plus, they show the same scene of him looking slightly pensive maybe five times.

I wonder what Bautista thinks of his role in this. While he’s a bad guy – watching his trainees beat the crap out of each other, he just gets bored and wanders back into his room, where two women immediately stop what they’re doing, disrobe and join him – he’s not really bad enough. He treats Kurt, at least in the beginning, with a modicum of honour, and is seen meditating in front of a statue of the Buddha. He doesn’t strike me as a man villainous enough to kill the multiple in-ring competitors the MC tells us he’s killed, and he’s a little too low-key.

One last point – the presence of UFC fighters hints at this, but the last 20 years have proved to us that Eastern martial arts, Muay Thai among them (the exotic skill Kurt has to learn) is no better than any system designed anywhere else. UFC fighters have to be able to box and wrestle as well, and a fighter who only specialises in one style is going to get their ass kicked, quickly. So it’s weird to see the fetishisation of the mystic East here, which you can forgive in the pre-UFC days the original movie existed in but not so much now.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Stockwell is that good a director, or has any particular flair for martial arts movies. The original was made by a couple of journeymen too, but its definite B-movie aesthetic made it more willing to be slightly camp, plus the fights were very well staged. While “Kickboxer: Vengeance” has some humour in it, it takes itself a little too seriously, I think – as an example of what could have been, Alan Moussi recreates JCVD’s famous dancing scene…over the end credits. Too little, too late! And even though having your stars able to fight means there’s little having to edit round them, I feel Stockwell never takes advantage of this.

I was really pleased to hear about this, and thought up to the point I pressed play that I would have a good time with it. But, while it has its moments, it’s just not quite up to the standard of the original.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Karate Warrior 2 (1988)

That’s a fine pout

Making its third appearance in an ISCFC review is a new favourite low-budget Italian movie trick, the “boat in New York harbour”. Want to look like you filmed there, despite you not having the money to do so? Well, sail a boat with one or two actors in it to Manhattan, get a nice shot of them against the skyline, then go back to whichever cheap location you had – in this case, Miami – and make the rest of your movie. If you’re anything like director Fabrizio De Angelis, you’ll film palm trees and stuff that says “Miami” on it in big letters and not even worry one bit!

Or, you know, he could have been going from New York to Miami at the beginning of the movie, and the terrible dubbing might have tricked me. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. But we’re back with part 2! Of a series that I only checked out because Ted Prior has a tiny role in this one! Fun fact – he must have realised he wasn’t going to get much screen time, as there’s a scene in a dojo where he’s wearing a gi with “Ted Pryor” (his screen name at the time) written on the back. Good work Ted!

But as he’s barely in it, so we’re not going to talk about him too much. Kim Rossi Stuart returns as Anthony, who’s gone back to the USA to visit his grandparents then go to college – his parents, who were also USA-bound, are never mentioned again, and he (I think) breaks up with his Filipino girlfriend in a phone call right at the beginning. If you were wondering if he’s as big a dick to everyone around him as he was in part 1, then the answer is “yes, only more so”. He knocks over a couple carrying their shopping and causes the arrest of a few guys by kicking their car as he bikes past, which makes them chase him – he ducks out of the way while they get stopped by cops, then bikes past them with a cheeky “have a nice day”.

Then…gets a new car from his grandparents, and while he’s taking it for a drive (in the middle of the party, which is never referred to again) he annoys a group of local thugs and they run him off the road into a pond. Car destroyed! He hitches a ride with someone who insists, before he gets in, that they become friends – he goes to the same college, although as they’re on a random stretch of highway nowhere near anywhere, I’m not sure why either of them assumed that about the other. Anyway, new best friend Luke (Winston Haynes) also puts him up in his huge mansion and serves him food – the only thing he has in the entire mansion is champagne and caviar. Perhaps this is how the director thinks all Americans live? Luke also tells Anthony that the group he messed with are “The Tigers”, college bullies – not sure they’re a thing that exists, but whatever – and are all karate experts too.

If you thought the plot of part 1 was thin, then part 2’s is positively transparent. He goes up to the gang of toughs (who, remember, were minding their own business until he pissed them off) and challenges their leader to a real in the ring style fight – their leader being the charmingly named Dick (Christopher Alan). And Anthony hits on Dick’s girlfriend too, to the point he dumps her and allows his friends to physically threaten her – just stopping short of rape, so, thanks movie!

So anyway, he wins the fight despite the Tigers cheating, and gets the girl despite her not particularly wanting him at any point, so the Tigers hire the founder of their evil organisation, who I think is called Tommy Bull, to come back to town and kick his ass. To get him to fight again, they threaten to break Luke’s neck – Tommy holds said neck while talking about defending the honour of the Tigers, which is a curious juxtaposition of image and dialogue. But whatever.

Master Kimura comes to town to spout more of his rotten philosophy, we get another fight, etc. And that’s that for another in this series of “Karate Kid” / “No Retreat No Surrender” (but only the first one) ripoffs! Anthony remains among the least likeable of all movie heroes, but in this, unlike the first, there’s no-one to cheer on as the bad guys are also super-evil.

Everything’s ugly and sort of poorly filmed and dubbed, and the budget is probably even lower than the last one as Anthony does his special punch…but the rubbish blue light effect doesn’t show up. I mean, how can you tell he’s performing what is essentially magic? And how does the blow that can knock a tree over not instantly kill the person he’s doing it to?

Annoying git wins and wins and wins, is the lesson of the first two parts of this franchise. Parts 3-6 were so unwanted by the American viewing audience that they’ve never been translated into English – the only way you can watch them is on an Italian DVD, which only comes with Spanish subtitles. So that’s the end of all that nonsense, and we can move on to “Deadly Prey”. *

Rating: thumbs down

  • I just discovered that part 6 is available in English but life’s too short.