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

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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

 

Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

JCVD is back! After dominating the 1990s straight-to-video (and occasionally cinema) low-budget action market, making an appearance on “Friends” – he was pretty funny, if you’ve not seen it – and weathering the storm of multiple lawsuits based on his behaviour on set, he was tempted back to the “Universal Soldier” franchise, to that point in his career the highest-budget movie he’d ever been involved with.

I should have taken my own 2012 advice and ignored the two made-for-TV sequels, as they were miserable and boring (with the slight exception of Jeff Wincott’s appearance in both) and felt like watching double episodes of a particularly boring TV series. It seems that director Mic Rodgers (a stuntman making his sole directorial appearance) and writers William Malone and John Fasano (who’ve both directed cool B-movies – “House on Haunted Hill” and “Black Roses”, respectively) agreed with me, because this is packed with action and incident from beginning to end.

Luc Devereaux is, it turns out, not a UniSol any more, having had the process reversed by Dr Dylan Cotner (the great Xander Berkeley); but he’s still involved with the program in some unspecified capacity, taking part in wargames to train the new generation of zombie soldiers, getting involved in budget meetings with the visiting General (the equally great Daniel Von Bargen) and being the only member of staff allowed to bring his daughter to work. This is to show how nice and benevolent the super-computer, SETH, they’ve designed is – when you listen to SETH act as teacher to his daughter, you might be all “hey, that’s Michael Jai White’s voice, I presume he’ll pop up to kick ass at some point”, and you’d be right.

Bill Goldberg, at the time one of the two or three most famous wrestlers in the world, is Romeo, the biggest and evilest of the UniSols; Heidi Schanz, who looks like a soccer-mom Traci Lords, is Erin the news reporter (this was probably due to the original news reporter from part 1, Ally Walker, being unavailable to reprise her role and the producers just re-using the plotline); and Brent Hinkley, the creepy-looking “That Guy” actor, is Squid, a hacker / former staffer on the program who was kicked out for being too weird even for a program whose sole purpose is to take dead soldiers and turn them into zombie killing machines.

This was, amazingly, made the same year as “The Matrix” – while that movie looked forward and still feels modern today, this looks backwards, to a certain Space Odyssey and its malfunctioning super-computer HAL, but is really just a typical 90s ass-kicking B-movie wearing a fancy jacket. On learning that the program is going to be shut down due to budget cuts / ethical concerns, SETH immediately goes crazy, removing the inhibitor chip (called “Matrix”, coincidentally enough) from all the UniSols, creating a bunch of new ones from the staff of the base, and preparing…it’s never really made super-clear, but there’s some world domination in there, one would think. Squid is required to hack the kill-switch code which will trigger automatically in 8 hours, because of course Devereaux is the only person who has it, requiring him to be kept alive. The text-interface between SETH and Squid is hilariously basic, just words appearing on a blank screen, but there’s also SETH’s voice, I guess in case people didn’t feel like reading?

The army swings into action, and there’s a fantastic scene where four UniSols march out of the base towards the assembled troops and just mow them down, their zombie nature and experimental armour (which contains a built-in fire extinguisher, we discover later) keeping them relatively safe. It’s a lovely example of just how powerful these guys are in a movie series which has been very coy about showing the UniSols do much of anything.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN. (l to r): Jean-Claude Van Damme & Heidi Schantz. 1999.

I guess at one point the entire movie was set inside the base, “Die Hard” style, but they expanded things due to more budget or something, giving us an extremely unnecessary scene in a strip club (where Devereaux and Erin go in order to use their internet and do some hacking – the justification of that being a likely place to have the internet is pretty funny). Erin gets hit on by one of the strippers and only acts slightly repulsed, one of the few signs this isn’t a much older movie; Devereaux kicks some ass and ogles some boobs, the usual.

“The only way is to blow them up…and hope the pieces don’t keep fighting us”. In its way, a brilliant line, and although precious few UniSols get blown up, there’s still a ton of good stuff going on as Devereaux fights his way through the base to get to his daughter, who’s obviously been kidnapped. SETH figures out a way to miniaturise his brain and transplant it into super-soldier corpse Michael Jai White, and even though the final fight belongs to Goldberg (presumably some contractual thing, as it makes no sense whatsoever) White shows why he was an action superstar in the making – we’ll be covering his “Blood and Bone” and the “Undisputed” series soon. I’ll say one thing for Van Damme – he’s pretty good at picking his opponents. I’m basing this on him hiring his childhood friend Michel Qissi as the villain for the “Kickboxer” movies, so I guess he has a hand in casting; he understands that he only looks good if the guy fighting him looks good too. This series alone has had him scrapping with Dolph Lundren, White, and (in the last movie) Scott Adkins, who’s one of the best action-movie stars of recent years.

So, it’s packed with good actors, good action and plenty of incident. I feel like the script could have done with a few more run-throughs, but I realise this is a Van Damme movie and he’d have probably demanded the silly changes anyway. It feels old-fashioned, but that’s not always a bad thing – it’s just a very solid, if stupid, action movie.

It was actually released to cinemas, surprising for a series which just the year before had been a failed TV pilot; but it was an absolute disaster, barely recouping a quarter of its budget. I feel like, if you’re going to have a scene where your super-computer villain programs a hand flipping you off to appear on a screen, you ought to stick to the budget level and straight-to-video outlets you’re more comfortable with.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Android Cop (2014)

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This is a classic Asylum mockbuster. Their rules:
1. Find out when the big blockbuster sci-fi and action movies are going to be released
2. Think of a name which is close enough to remind everyone of that film, but not too close that you get sued (unless it’s a legend or public domain character)
3. Hire one or two B-list stars
4. Rip the plot off other, previously released, sci-fi and action movies
5. Make your film quickly enough to be released around the time of the blockbuster
6. Keep your fingers crossed that the blockbuster is a hit, and you can sweep up 0.01% of their profits

Michael Jai White is Hammond, a cop in 2037 Los Angeles. Large sections of the city are walled-off, apparently due to radioactive meltdowns, and the only people who go there are the unfortunate folk with radiation poisoning, criminals and cops. While Hammond and pals are in a bind, they call in backup and get this guy:

Trailbiking goes extreme in the future

Trailbiking goes extreme in the future

Of course, they become partners, and are sent into the forbidden zone, or whatever the hell it’s called, to rescue the Mayor’s daughter, who’s actually in a hospital bed in a coma but “inhabits” an android body. There’s police double-crossing, questions of LA real estate, a secret plan to take out every crime boss in the forbidden zone which is just a red herring, and (of course) major twists and turns.

While they’re after some of that sweet “Robocop” money, the thing this most resembles is an extended episode of TV show “Almost Human”. A human cop and his “wacky” android cop sidekick, in the future, try to save the day…there’s a taste of “Avatar” in there too, with people controlling, well, avatars. Throw in a bit of “Escape From New York”, then some of whatever movie it is where people can’t shoot for shit, and you’ve got yourself an Asylum feature.

Before I get on to whether the film was any good or not, I want to vent about a personal bugbear. Androids in films, almost without exception, make that annoying servo-motor sound whenever they walk, turn their heads or do pretty much anything. Firstly, movies, WE GET IT! We aren’t going to forget halfway through that the guy who can throw people through walls is more than human. Secondly, wouldn’t they have invented something silent by “the future”? Also, there are two androids in this film who don’t know they’re androids, and they can move without making an annoying noise constantly, so what’s up with that? Is it an affectation?

For a mockbuster, this film is alright. It’s good to see a film with a primarily black cast where it’s just not an issue – as well as Michael Jai White, Kadeem Hardison is the obviously-a-baddie cop, and Charles S Dutton is the Mayor (with a heavily accented Hispanic daughter). They’re steady hands, even if the rest of the acting isn’t up to much. Special effects are absolutely fine, they’ve found some suitably broken-up scenery, and it looks like it cost more than it probably did.

It’s just a bit pointless. Like I said, watch any two episodes of “Almost Human” and you’ll have a better time than with this film. The stakes are fairly low, the cheapness of the film shows through in the almost complete absence of supporting characters (and the police station is pretty much one room) and the Asylum format of knocking em out, never mind the quality tends to result in flatness like this. So, in other words, the perfect mockbuster. Very slightly entertaining and entirely forgettable.

Rating: thumbs down

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