Kickboxer 4 (1994)

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Albert Pyun is the director hired to clean up other peoples’ partially shot messes, being cheap and quick, but with his own movies he’s given us gems like “Cyborg”, “Dollman”, all four “Nemesis” movies and a few of the “Kickboxer” sequels. His IMDB page compares him to Ed Wood – unusual sexual fetish that shines through in his films – check; rubbish movies – check; but Pyun is nowhere near as down-to-his-bones odd as Wood was.

He tries, though. Sasha Mitchell returns for a third film as David Sloane, and he’s in prison. What? Writing a letter to his wife Vicky gives us a swift recap of the first two movies (Zian, his trainer / sidekick, is written out of the timeline, and part 3 is ignored completely), and it turns out that Tong Po is an exceptionally sore loser. After killing JCVD off after part 1, then forcing David to fight in part 2 before getting his ass kicked yet again, Tong Po became a Mexican drug lord and had David framed for murder. Oh, but that’s not all – he then kidnapped Vicky, raped her and had her imprisoned on his compound – remember, all this is about “regaining honour”. This paragraph pretty much sums up Albert Pyun’s directing style.

So, David is offered a deal by the FBI – infiltrate Tong Po’s compound by entering his yearly $1,000,000 martial arts tournament, put a stop to things, and rescue Vicky. The subject of disguise is brought up, and David says he’s had some hard years since then and there’s no way Tong Po will recognise him. Dude, you’re his most hated enemy! And you look exactly the same! Sunglasses are not a disguise!

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So, after kicking some ass he gets himself an invitation to Tong Po’s compound, and the film turns into “Enter The Dragon”, pretty much. But only if “Enter The Dragon” were made by a lunatic. Michel Qissi (Tong Po in parts 1 and 2) wasn’t brought back, and was replaced with Kamel Krifia – weirdly, both Qissi and Krifia were childhood friends of Jean-Claude Van Damme. His make up job in this is really hideous, though, and I was wondering if I’d missed a line of “burned in a fire” dialogue.

As well as makeup, I want to salute the sound effect people in this movie. While doing a kata before the fights, every movement seems to break the sound barrier and during them, there’s one groin kick in particular that sounds like a bomb went off.

Pyun’s movies certainly aren’t laid out like normal directors’. At the compound is, incredibly coincidentally, Lando, the kid brother of a former student of David’s who’s now a DEA agent. He gets the romance subplot and way more screentime than you’d expect from a supporting guy; so does Michele “Mouse” Krasnoo, a world champion martial artist, as Megan, one of the other competitors.

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But the logic of it all is what we love about this guy’s movies. If David was in prison for murder, what was Tong Po’s plan with his wife? Keep her chained up forever? Also, the later rounds of the tournament are “to the death”, and all the people who choose to leave at that point get shot. Given that the winner still has to face Tong Po for the money, no-one has beaten him in 6 years, and your chances of death are pretty much 100%, who is going to these damn tournaments?

Add in a magnificently pointless three-way sex scene featuring people we don’t see at any other point in the movie (David hides near them while trying to sneak round the compound) where the women are naked but the guy contorts himself so you don’t see “anything”, and you’ve got yourself the weirdest of the “Kickboxer” series. It’s hilariously wretched – just see how one-sided the final fight is – even while being technically competent (heck, there are a few shots here and there I’d even describe as “good”).

Now onto part 5, with no involvement from Sasha Mitchell, Albert Pyun or Tong Po (either incarnation), which looks like some standalone Mark Dacascos film they renamed. Hurrah!

Rating: thumbs down

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Kickboxer 3: The Art Of War (1992)

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By the second “Kickboxer” sequel, Sasha Mitchell had visibly relaxed. The dedicated, sort of humourless character from part 2 has disappeared…actually, aside from his mission to save all the kids, he might as well be a different guy. No longer a hard-working gym owner, he’s now David Sloane, wisecracking international kickboxing superstar; and Zian, who was a hermit in part 1, is now his ring-second and general sidekick. Given that both films were made back-to-back, this indicates movie-making quality I would not have expected.

Brazil’s street kids are the issue here, and after being robbed by Marcos and Isabella, David and Zian end up befriending them; but we know that Isabella has a 100% chance of being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery by the guy who, coincidentally enough, is also the promoter of the kickboxing event. When she eventually does, it’s up to our two heroes and Marcos to kick a whole bunch of ass and then win the big fight.

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It’s an oddly laid out film. To ensure that David competes but loses, evil guy Frank kidnaps him and forces him to do dangerous backbreaking physical labour for a few days. In terms of successful plans, it’s right down there with tying James Bond to a table with a laser beam slowly moving towards him; and it takes so long! The movie just grinds to a halt at this point – it’s the sort of thing that’d normally be dealt with by a montage in 90 seconds or so.

Because kickboxing is apparently not exciting enough, we’re treated to a gun battle in the middle too. I liked it because it was about 5 minutes after there’d been a whole speech about how killing someone actually kills you a little bit – so seeing David’s cheeky grin seconds after kicking someone out of a window to their death is especially great.

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There’s lots of genuine Brazilian favela on display, and an interesting point is actually raised by Frank, as he’s about to lose everything by betting on the wrong guy at the end. He says, about the girls he kidnaps, that while they earn their keep, he treats them better than they’d be treated on the street. While he’s wrong – you know, being a sex slaver and all – the appalling state of Brazil’s street children, and how happy the “trainees” look when they’re not being chased, shot and killed, indicates that it’s not absolutely black-and-white. Their quest to save one girl, while noble, is also a drop in the ocean, as Frank correctly identifies too. What can you do in a situation like that? Perhaps the film did not intend to pose these questions, and just wanted a backdrop to the fighting, but it’s certainly more food for thought than I’ve ever had with the third volume of a martial arts movie franchise before.

There is a great last bit to the championship bout, where the two competitors go full pro wrestling and start brawling in the crowd with chairs, buckets and so on, and seeing the absolute and complete annihilation of the villain is, while perhaps a bit drawn-out (again), quite a change of pace from your average bullet to the head. Other than that, I can definitely say that this film happened, and that I like Sasha Mitchell, and that it’s fading very rapidly from my memory. It’s an interesting looking film – few Western movies film in the real favela – but an unforgivably slow one.

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Oh, at one point fairly early on, David stops one guy from killing another in the middle of the ring, and even gets in a few licks himself before the bad fighter is dragged away. Zian says wisely, “wrong time, wrong place”. Well, the time I can give him, but wrong place? He’s a kickboxer in the middle of a kickboxing ring!

Rating: thumbs down

Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991)

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How do you know when Jean-Claude Van Damme has really annoyed the producers of a franchise? When they hire an unconvincing lookalike so they can have his character shot and killed by the guy he beat in the first movie (his brother and girlfriend don’t even get an onscreen death). A previously unmentioned brother gets called up from the bench, and on we go.

There are a number of signs this isn’t your average martial arts movie. A bad sign is the director, Albert Pyun; but good signs come thick and fast. We’ve got writer David S Goyer, waiting around for that big break that would take him to the very top of the A-list of screenwriters; plus some strong acting – Peter Boyle must have owed someone a favour, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa does “evil” like few other actors; Matthias Hues pops up for a rather odd little cameo too. Plus there’s the star, Sasha Mitchell.

We last saw Mitchell in “Slammed!”, the sadly not great wrestling comedy – he’s great at playing those “goofy jock” types, but it’s interesting to see him take on a completely dramatic role. He’s David Sloan, brother of Kurt and Eric from the first movie (his parental status is never mentioned, as those two were brothers from other mothers, perhaps Papa Sloan was married again), and he teaches at a tiny run-down gym where he not only trains top-level fighters, but gives the kids from the very poor neighbourhood something worthwhile to do. Basically, he’s a saint. When the UKA, a hot new kickboxing league, starts buying up gyms and booking all the good fighters, their boss (Boyle) and his moneyman (Tagawa) come into conflict with David.

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The plot is really predictable, like, more so than even your average straight-to-video kung fu film. You’ll be able to predict every success, roadblock and twist in the story from a mile away – the trainee who’s going to turn to the dark side; the “surprise” entrance of part 1 villain Tong Po; the tragedy that’s going to strike; and so on. It doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, but if a dummy like me can call every major bit of your movie from the first ten minutes, then you might be in a bit of trouble.

So yes, Tong Po (Michel Qissi) is back, and the rather convoluted way they bring him and David together is all about honour, and restoring it. Reference is made to the national honour of Thailand, after Kurt took it away by winning at the end of part 1, so to defend their national honour they’ve sent a Japanese guy (Tagawa) and a Moroccan (Qissi), neither of whom look remotely Thai. Ah well! Tong Po is still invulnerable to everyone but the guy he fights at the end, which looks sillier and sillier the further martial arts cinema moves away from the “mystic powers” era and grounds itself, at least a little, in reality. Also, he’s really not that scary-looking. He’s not ripped, not particularly big or tall or fast, so it’s on the tough side to buy him as the monster he’s supposed to be.

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There’s fun stuff in this movie, though. Zhin from part 1 comes over from Thailand to train David and help him recover from being shot, and he has fun adapting to American life (the training scenes are a clever spin on the same sequences from part 1); there are some magnificent sadness montages with the most hideous 80s soft rock imaginable over the top; and “Judo” Gene LeBell, the man “famous” for beating Steven Seagal (a good 25 years younger than him) so badly in a real fight he ended up shitting himself, pops up too. If you can accept that a large, commission-regulated, TV-broadcasting martial arts league could replace one side of their main event with an unlicenced Thai lunatic who murdered a bunch of people, then you’ll probably have a good time with this one.

There’s precious little evidence that this was written by the man who’d go on to pen the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies, but quite a bit of evidence it’s directed by trash-master Pyun. Mitchell is fine, but he’s wasted doing a straight role when he’s so good at comedy…it’s an okay film, I guess?

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Slammed (2004)

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Wrapping up our mini-season of movies starring people much better known for TV, and starting a season of wrestling based movies, comes “Slammed”. And, even though this isn’t from Full Moon, it does have one of their most regular contributors in C Courtney Joyner, who as well as writing this has credits for the ISCFC-covered “Puppet Master 3”, “Puppet Master: The Legacy” and “Lurking Fear”.

Despite the 2004 release date, “Slammed” was actually made in 2001, right at the end of the humungous popularity surge pro wrestling had in the late 90s. So, to leave it that long, by which time wrestling was no longer the pop culture phenomenon it had been, it must have been really bad, right? Well, not really! It’s a surprisingly mellow comedy about finding love, growing up and facing your fears, with a great mix of realistic and cartoony characters. That’s not to say it doesn’t have problems, but more on them later.

Jeff and Derek are busboys at a sports bar, which hosts a thriving underground wrestling league in its back room. Derek is in love with Gina, one of the servers / “buckle girls”; and Jeff is in love with Shane, whose boyfried Rick is an up-and-coming “heel” wrestler (baddie, basically) who treats her awfully. Jeff wants to be a pro wrestler and Derek is his manager, so when there’s an extremely convenient competition to win a week’s free tuition from The Slammer (the champion of Back Bar Wrestling), they make sure they win.

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Best not to overload you with too many more names. The film is packed with people you’ll recognise, though – Jeff and Derek are Justin Whalin and Zachery Ty Bryan, best known from “Lois & Clark” and “Home Improvement” respectively; The Slammer is Sasha Mitchell, from “Step By Step”; and Gina is Lake Bell, from “Childrens Hospital” and now a director in her own right. Plus, there are people from “Seinfeld”, “That 70s Show” and a fair few real pro wrestlers too.

This film is difficult to track down. The only DVD I could find was German, and I’m going to choose to believe that the rotten treatment of women is the reason it’s never been given a proper release. The camera focuses on boobs, a LOT, and Lake Bell is the only woman in the movie who doesn’t either take her top off or have it soaked as part of a wet t-shirt contest; still, she does jiggle in her bra on top of a washing machine for a few minutes. The women are either stupid and easily manipulated or clumsy and are barely characters, just plot devices or adornment for the men. That there’s one successful, competent woman introduced with ten minutes to go does not excuse them being treated as nothing but sex objects for the first 90%; their feelings are so irrelevant that the film leaves in their shocked unhappy faces when they get the buckets of water thrown at them for the wet t-shirt contest.

Because it’s important to not just demean women, gay people get it too. The Slammer is seen doing ballet, and despite it being stupidly obvious that he’s just doing it to keep limber, Jeff and Derek immediately assume he’s gay, and treat it like the worst news possible. He demonstrates some moves to them that have crotch / face closeness, and they act like he’s a hair’s breadth from raping them. You could not ask for a more obvious example of gay panic, and for a film from the last decade, it’s absolutely disgusting that it was still being used for comedy. As the film is 100 minutes long, there’s a good argument to be made that cutting that out completely would have improved both the attitude and length.

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All the main storylines are wrapped up by about 1:10, so the last half hour is the build up and resolution to the big fight between Jeff and Rick – on the line, Jeff’s uncle’s scrap yard, as it owes taxes and Rick’s dad is a scumbag property developer. I have been very negative towards some of this film, with good reason, but the really annoying thing is there’s a heck of a lot to like. Sasha Mitchell, looking ripped from all the martial arts movies he was doing at the time, has a genius for comedy, the timing and delivery of a line, and he’s far and away the best thing about this film. Despite this probably being her first on screen appearance, Lake Bell is fantastic, and it’s only a surprise it took so long for her career to really take off. John O’Hurley (better known as J Peterman from “Seinfeld”) has one of the all-time great voices and is funny too, plus “Tiny” Lister, a former pro wrestler himself, has a great bit-part as the cook at the bar.

So, it’s a hugely frustrating film, and the only comfort I take is knowing that you’re unlikely to just happen upon a copy. It also seems to have killed the career of both director Brian Thomas Jones and writer Joyner (neither worked again after 2004), and Mitchell’s career seems to have ended in 2005, so I wonder if there’s an interesting story behind it? If you do want to watch it, and there’s a lot to enjoy, just be sure to have a conversation with any impressionable co-viewers about how rotten some of the attitudes are.

Rating: thumbs down

This film in a nutshell

This film in a nutshell