Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bloody Mafia (aka Red Mafia)

Director: Ca Sa Fa (Casanova Wong)
Starring: Ca Sa Fa
Ca Sa Fa (birth name, Kim Yong-Ho but better known around these parts as Casanova Wong as I'll be referring to him from this point on) has always been one of my favorite screen kickers. Many consider him second only to Hwang Jang Lee and I'd certaintly concur with that. There are times where I think he's even Hwang's equal. The Korean super kicker (and ex Marine) was featured in many a Hong Kong martial arts pic of the late 70s and early 80s where his amazing skills were put to good use (see The Master Strikes elsewhere in this blog). I was aware that he worked onscreen in his native South Korea as well, but was completely unaware of this nasty little number, Bloody Mafia until recently. It was to be his last screen appearance (to the best of my knowledge) and on top of that, he sat in the director's chair for this one as well.

Normally here is where I'd give you a brief rundown of the plot. Unfortunately, this is one of those films that came sans any kind of english friendly translation; no subs, no dub, nothin'; just raw Korean and unfortunately I don't speak the language. Your fearful er, fearless author here was going to press on regardless as it seemed a straightforward enough story UNTIL I came across an actual plot description from the website "Rare Kung Fu Movies" which I'll share here assuming (hoping) they don't mind;

"Kang-ho is a man who believes loyalty is the highest human virtue. He befriends Geo-ryong who takes him into the mob led by Chung Dong-nam. Kang-ho becomes an underworld celebrity when he infiltrates and destroys a powerful international drug cartel. Geo-ryong falls for Kang-ho's younger sister Hye-rim. Meanwhile, Kang-ho and Geo-ryong try to mentor Oh-bong who tries to leave the organization but the organization attacks him before they can take him under their wings. He narrowly escapes death and is moved by their friendship. When the two friends realize that Dong-nam has been using his men for his own gain, they are angered beyond words and decide to attack him on Geo-ryong and Hye-rim's engagement day. But tragedy befalls them when Geo-ryong is killed. The sight of Geo-ryong's body devastates everyone at the party. During the final confrontation between Kang-ho and Dong-nam, Oh-bong sacrifices his life to save Kang-ho. Kang-ho deals the final deadly blow to Dong-nam for Oh-bong and Geo-ryong."

Drawing inspiration from several gangster genres (the horse's head gag from The Godfather is recreated here using a pig's head... with intestines added for good measure), Wong's direction is ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious for the film's obvious miniscule budget.This tends to give off a level of cheesiness that seems to be at odds with the dead serious and sometimes melodramatic tone of the film. Adding to this are several long soft core sex scenes. I get it, it comes with the territory. But it felt like there was at least one too many and they each went on for several minutes. Even Wong himself has a randy sex scene with a nightclub singer and soon to be girlfriend... and eventual ex-girlfriend. True, he finally lives up to his Casanova moniker, but this isn't exactly the kind of "action" I want to see our director/star involved in. I want to see Casanova Wong, the boot master, not the booty master. Fortunately, there's plenty of the more traditional action as well as there are a half a dozen or so fights scenes (possibly more, I lost count) on display and they are nothing less than spectacular! These are probably the best fight scenes I have ever seen in a Korean production and that alone makes this film a must-see. Wong may be a bit older, but he shows no signs of aging as he and his co-stars (including one who fights with crutches!) all show amazing form and lightning fast speed combined with choreography that matches the best of that in Hong Kong movies of this vintage. Only some choppy editing takes away from it just a tad. There's also a fair amount of gore on display, particularly the gruesome moment where Wong chomps part of a rival's nose off!

I need to mention one particular moment that may have been the single cheesiest thing I have ever seen in a movie (let that set in for a second); Wong's introduction to his would be squeeze takes place in (appropriately) a nightclub. In the background, you can hear Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You playing and I at first assumed it was being used for mood music. But nooo, as the camera drew closer it became obvious that the nightclub singer herself was supposed to be singing this to Wong! Never mind that the song sounds like it's coming from another room rather than from her vocal chords and never mind that it was obvious she didn't know the english lyrics (I have no idea what she was actually singing)... The final effect was truly an out of body experience that nearly had me on the floor laughing. My goodness...

Did I mention that the plentiful fights are spectacular?

* * * 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lethal Hunter (aka American Hunter)

Director: Arizal
Starring: Chris Mtichum, Bill Wallace, Ida Iasha, Mike Abbott

When it comes to heaping helpings of mindless action fun, few director's aim to please like Indonesia's own Arizal. One of that country's most noted and productive filmmakers, Arizal (gotta love that single name moniker) directed over fifty films and countless t.v. episodes dating back to 1974. Among his most noted pictures here in the West are the wonderfully goofy and full throttled cheese fest, The Stabilizer (which incredibly recieved an official U.S. dvd release via Troma) and the gory, freaky action/horror pic, Special Silencers (starring Barry Prima). Seeking more international appeal, the director was able to lure B-action film fave Chris (second son of Bob) Mitchum. The pairing seemed to have brought out the best in both. They first merged their talents in the 1986 nasty, downbeat, yet outrageously over the top revenge epic, Final Score. Two years later, they re-teamed for Lethal Hunter (re-titled American Hunter outside of Asia). This time, Arizal mostly ditched the dark atmosophere for a more devil may care approach and added heaping helpings of martial arts mayhem.

Mitchum plays Jake Carver; lethal hunter of badguys... and all 'round cool-cat. Jake finds himself at odds with a nasty gang who are trying to get their hands on a microfilm which contains sensitive information that can wreak havoc on Wall Street and could concievably bring a total collapse to the western world.

The basic plot setup serves as an excuse for what is really just one long chase and fight sequence. The film hits the ground running a mere two minutes in as a flabby local crashes his motorcycle through an office (guns a blazing) in order to steal the all-important microfilm. From there, the chase is on. There is scarcely a moment that goes by when there isn't some form of exciting and/or humorous mayhem occuring on screen. Awkward, yet energetic bouts that often give way to some painful looking stunts (the influence of 80s style of Hong Kong action on full display) as well as some really dangerous car stunts and even an unbelieveable mid film helecopter chase and bout (though admittedly, this sequence was a bit more exciting in concept than in execution). Arizal for the most part paces the proceedings well, never allowing it to become tedious and dull. Just when you think the chases may start to become repetitive, a major martial art bought or two is inserted.

As for Chris Mitchum; like his older brother Jim, Chris acclimated himself well to the B-movie action scene of the late 70s and 80s. He's not the iconic actor that dear old dad was, but he really gave it his all in each of his many films and this must have sat well with Arizal as he had young Mitch perform several of his own dangerous stunts like hanging on to the top of a speeding car and shattering through a window bare chested. The exception being when it came to the stunts he simply couldn't physically do (no more hilarious an example than in his first scene where his double had to do a back flip to avoid a bullet). He obviously is not an accomplished martial arts fighter (on screen, anyway), but the various local extras certaintly did their best to make him look convincing. For a ringer, Arizal brought in mega-kicker, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. A dependable bad guy (one exaggerated sneer from him is all it takes), Wallace was given a lot of respect here by not only out dueling Carver's sifu, but for the most part, Carver as well (their penulimate bout on a train serves as a highlight). Mike Abbott (star of many Joseph Lai/Godfrey Ho films of this period) is effective as the beefy muscle headed co-conspirator. Peter O'Brien is known for playing the lead in Arizal's The Stabilizer as well as Rambu (yes, as in Rambo) in the infamous, The Intruder. Here he is playing of all things, a whimpy bad guy whom Carver eliminates early on. Ida Iasha plays Carver's love interest (she's the one whom the bad guys are after for the all important micro film) and proves to be a good sport as she is kidnapped not once, not twice, but thrice by the baddies! Repeatedly roughed up (including a torture by shaving cream sequence that was alo used in the Hong Kong hit, Tiger on Beat released the same year) and under almost constant threat of violence of some sort, she is perhaps the ultimate damsel in distress character. It reads horribly, but like the rest of the film, is so over the top that it becomes more comical than anything else.

If you're a fan of cheesey over the top 80s style action, then Lethal Hunter is all you could ask for and then some. Highly recommended!

* * * 1/2

A special thanks to Jack J. and his wonderful blog, Backyard Asia for uploading this trailer:


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Monster Snowman (aka Half Human)

Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada, Akemi Negishi, Sachio Sakai, Nobuo Nakamura
Toho's second ever Kaiju film and until fairly recently, one of the hardest to view in it's original incarnation. As had been reported ad nauseum, the film was part of a self imposed ban on Toho's part as it allegedly equated the films native populance with the Burakumin; lowly outcasts who have been linked to among other things, inbreeding. Though it was never made explicit, it was felt that it was close enough to be considered offensive and thus the ban hammer was lowered on the proceedings. Fortunately in recent years, a dupe started floating around the grey markets with a fan subbing following suit so we hard core collectors can finally see it as initially intended.
The story is told via flashback to a reporter by five members of a mountain expedition that came upon a primitive tribe who worship a a Yeti-like creature and his offspring. When a circus hears of the legend, they capture the passive and peace loving creature. When it's son attempts to free his father, it is shot dead causing the benevolent beast to become understandably enraged and quite vengeful.
Though not quite on par with the best of Toho's 50s output, Monster Snowman is well made and at times quite gripping. Honda does well to continually shift our sympathies; first towards our innocent snow beast who loses everything through the greed and callousness of man and then towards our adventureres who find themselves on the wrong end of the monster's blind rage. There are some really nice atmospheric sets on display and the design of the snowman and his son are excellent, by far the best ape design effects man Eiji Tsuburaya ever created (causing me to wonder just what the hell he was thinking with his various Kong designs some years later). Unfortunately because of the scale of the creature (roughly nine or ten feet tall), there were some issues when it came to scale. Most of the time it worked well but there was at least one instance that displayed a terrible traveling matte in order to make the suitmation appear larger than it actually was (traveling mattes were never among Tsuburaya's fortes). Fortunately, the effect was used sparingly. It was nice to see the stars of Godzilla reunited here. Akira Takarada was was in fine understated form though he got better in later years when his characters were allowed to loosen up a bit (particularly in Monster Zero and Godzilla vs the Sea Monster). Momoko Kochi allegedly was not happy working in the Kaiju genre and later would pursue and excell in a stage career. An intense actress, she brought a level of class to each of her too few film roles. 
As with the original Godzilla and later Varan, American distributors got hold of Monster Snowman and eliminated much of the Japanese actors, opting instead to insert a home grown lead. In this case, it was John Carradine playing a scientist who also becomes our new version's narrator. He and his cohorts never leave the single tiny lab room in which they discuss and discuss... and discuss things we see in the film. Retitled Half Human, it is an exercise in deadly dulldrom that even the original footage can't fully enliven.
Regardless in it's original form, Monster Snowman is if nothing else arguably the best of the surprisingly numerous Yeti films of the 50s (ranking just ahead of Hammer's The Abomidable Snowman of the Himalayas). In it's US form as Half Himan, it's not completely without interest, but it's definately the worst of the Toho American re-edits (and those who have seen what was done to Varan will know just how weighty those words are).
Monster Snowman ***
Half Human *1/2

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Champion Operation

Director: Lau Hing Chuen
Starring: Suen Kwok Ming,  Tang Ho Kwong, Norman Tsiu Siu Keung
 First saw this little spitfire of a film back in 1990 on an Ocean Shores vhs dupe (dubbed in English, no less) and I wasn't overly impressed with it. At that time, I was so enamored with the John Woo romantic slo-mo style of gun action that I just couldn't adjust to this type of thing which bore more of a resemblance to Johnny Mak's groundbreaking 1984 exercise in cold, gritty realism, Long Arm of the Law (a film I hadn't yet seen). It was a case of one-and-done. I stashed the thing away, forgot about it and eventually lost it (an unintentional casualty of my vhs purge of about ten years ago when I needed space just to walk around in my bedroom). Having gotten ahold of another copy recently, I now realize that sometimes when it comes to watching genre films, timing can be everything.
This tale of a running battle between cops, high profile gangsters and low profile Mainland immigrant criminals may be of slight budget (nowhere more apparent than in an early boat explosion that was quite obviously lifted from another film; reminding me of many a no-budget Turkish action epic from this period) and contains the absolute cheapest, cheesiest english credit sequence I have ever seen in a movie, but it has guts and energy to spare. Though the action comes fairly infrequently when it does come, it never ceases to shock and amaze. To wit; a mid-film police raid that feels almost hysterically out of control, a sudden and very nasty broken bottle shoved into a happless femme's face, several stunning chases including an extended car stunt which rivals anything done in the 80s (yes, Jackie Chan insanity included), solid 80s-style fight scenes (though not enough of these for my liking) and a properly explosive finale where no one is spared. In other words, when it's on, it's on.
It's interesting to see Suen Kwok Ming and Tang Ho Kwong together as they look so much alike that they could have switched characters mid-film and I may not have noticed right away. Both give energetic perfs and have just enough charisma to keep you interested in the proceedings when the action lets up. Norman Tsui however, is wasted in the role of the Godfather-like crime lord. I kept waiting for him to spring into action (something, anything), but his role is limited to essentially deep thoughts and heavy coughs. That's about it. His appearance alone is enough to give the character the proper amount of weight, but it really is opportunity lost, here.
Despite it's shortcomings which includes an extremely confusing final shot (did the events in the movie actually take place or was it being watched on T.V.? Huh???), Champion Operation shapes up as a grungy good time for the undemanding fan of Hong Kong action during it's peak period.
* * *

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Techno Warriors

Director: Phillip Ko Fei
Starring: Darren Shahlavi, Kwang-su Lee, Monsour Del Rosario, Tamara Guo, Winston Ellis
I nearly didn't bother with this movie. About a year ago, I tracked down a 1999 sci fi/action film called Digital Warriors (aka Lethal Combat) soley because it featured Yukari Oshima (in case I haven't made it abundantly clear in this blog, absolutely anything that features The Osh is a must-see). Well that film turned out to be a turgid little mess as are most films directed by Phillip Ko. The best scenes (other than Yukari's) I later found, were actually lifted from an earlier film called Techno Warriors. Since that film was also directed by Ko and doesn't feature Yukari, I initially had zero interest in seeing it. Still, that swiped footage WAS entertaining and when a trailer finally popped up on Youtube, I decided to ignore my gut and check it out. As it turned out, that was a good move as Techno Warriors surprisingly wound up providing me with big time low budget fun. 
An inversion of Tron by way (visually) of those wonderfully cheesey low budget Italian Mad Max ripoffs of the previous decade, our story tells of a group of outlaw techno warriors (with names like Black Ninja and Dinosaur) fighting in the video game realm. They are anti technology (for whatever reason) and are hunted by high tech police. The techno warriors' goal ultimately is to kidnap a nerdy video game player and take him to their realm. Since he is able to consistently defeat them in the gaming world, they want to probe the secret of his gaming skills to control the gaming network... or something close to that.
The plot is about as irrelevant as it gets. Shot in the Phillipines, the purpose of this fun flick is to show off as many battles in as many exotic locales as could be found and to that end, it works quite wonderously. This film is exactly what the disappointing Mortal Kombat series should have been. In fact, it may be the best realized video game film ever made. The low budget (which includes minimalistic costumes and cheap laser effects) actually adds a level of wide eyed innocent charm that more expensive CGI enhanced epics can't begin to grasp. The group of fighter/acters (led by the talented Darren Shahlavi, going against type as the main hero) give it their all without a hint of self concious parody. They treat the material seriously and the film benefits greatly from it.
By far the best thing Ko has ever done as a director, Techno Warriors is pure untaxing entertainment and a joy to watch.
* * * 1/2

Monday, December 9, 2013

Okinawa Yakuza War

Director: Sadao Nakajima
Starring: Hiroki Matsukada, Shizumi Shindo, Sonny Chiba, Tsunehiko Watase, Isao Odo
What's this? A 70s ultraviolent Japanese Yakuza pic that opens with an over the top Sonny Chiba karate smackdown? Cinema nirvana achieved? Well not quite, but damn close...
The premise; a grand yet unstable alliance is formed by various feuding Okinawa gangs in order to fend off a new and aggressive Mainland mob that is encroaching on their collective territories. This fragile allegiance finds itself shaken by volatile (to put it mildly) right hand man (Chiba) who along with having an apparent death wish, deeply resents the new civil ("cowardly") ways of his associates and seeks (with fist and foot) to destabalize all involved.
Into this volcanic situation, director Sadao Nakajima crafts a visceral and emotional roller coaster ride of comic book-like carnage. On display, we have a particularly agonizing castration scene (like there's any other kind), a rival gangster getting run over and backed over... and back and forth and back again... and forth again, blood squibs galore, double and triple crosses that cause one to rethink whom they should be rooting for (if anyone) and a terrific and emotionally satisfying speedboat shootout finale. At the center of it all is Chiba who despite not being the main character, steals every frame he's in while giving what may be the most animalistic perf of his career. Picture the Terry Surugi character if he were to willingly dive into the abyss and you have a fair idea of what to expect here. Always intimidating and willing to get into anyone and everyone's face (including doing karate forms in a nightclub in front of rivals, just DARING them to do something about it), he achieves a certain nobility despite his inherent despicability. It is to Chiba's and Nakajima's credit that one feels just a slight bit of sympathy when this character is ultimately betrayed and ambushed. It is almost akin to watching King Kong get shot off the Empire State Building.
Okinawa Yakuza War is a wow of a film that will appeal to Chiba fans, Yakuza fans and general 70s style Japanese action enthusissts alike.
* * * 1/2

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Mummies of Guanajuato

Director: Federico Curiel
Starring: Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, El Santo, Elsa Cardenas, Patricia Ferrer, Jorje Pinguino
One of the best of the Lucha Libre films as well as the single most popular and profitable. It's not hard to understand why as it teams no less than the three most popular masked Mexican wrestlers of all time and pits them against an army of monsters (a creepy, real life tourist attraction come to life) that really hit home with the local population.
As most Lucha Libre fans know, 'The Mummies of Guanajuato' was originally planned and scripted as a two player co-starring Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras. Then just as filming was about to begin, El Santo was brought in and the script was changed to allow him to come in in the final reel and be the main hero. Mil didn't mind this at all as he saw more money being made with this move, but Blue was furious. The bitter rivalry that he and The Man in the Siver Mask shared in the ring finally poured out behind the Silver Screen (though fortunately not in front of it). For the duration of the movie, Blue and Mil were repeatedly defeated by the army of rampaging mummies (even going so far as to have one of them knock Blue out cold and steal his mask and costume so that Blue would mistakenly be blamed for it's crimes; oh, the indignity!) only to play final reel second bananas to Santo who not only fared better fighting the mummies, but is the one who figures out how to ultimately destroy them (always convenient to carry a trio of flame throwing pistols in your car!). It's easy to understand Blue's resentment.
That aside, the film is terrific fun. It may be a slow go in the early reels, but it gets cracking when it needs to. The mummies themselves are merely wrestlers with pull over fright masks, but director Federico Curiel utilizes them for maximum impact and they truly are an intimidating bunch. Said mummies are also helped by a welcomed unpredictable script that allows them to kill off characters that normally would survive in these genre outings which when combined with the fact that they are based on a real life exhibit, must have lead to a genuine feeling of insecurity for first time audiences. The finale in which our heroic trio makes a final stand against the seemingly invincible army of the undead, is perhaps the single most memorable Lucha Libre moment on film. It's a sequence that's aided by a matador-like theme that puncuates the action perfectly (though sadly, it can't take away from the absolutely awful organ theme that's inexplicable used for the opening and closing credits). Speaking of odd music, there is a particularly bizarre mid-film musical number in which Blue and Mil are serenaded by what can only be described as a group of Robin Hoods playing mandolins! Isolate this one sequence and you have a music vid clip that will leave you speechless. 
Despite being incinerated, the Mexican mummy army proved to have great staying power (especially when the box office warrants it) and they returned in several increasingly horrific (and decidedly more adult) sequels. This first entry however, remains the most memorable and the most fun. 
* * * 1/2