Monday, February 27, 2012

The Game of Death

                                                 Director: Jun Gallardo
                      Starring: Ramon Zamora, Evangeline Pascual, Eddie Garcia
Ramon Zamora (birth name San Jauz Rizal) started his career in the 1950s as a stage actor and stuntman, before eventually finding a niche as a  sketch comedian on T.V. in the 1969 comedy show, Super Laff-In (The Pillipino version of Laugh-In, like I needed to state that). When the show's network, ABS-CBN was closed in 1972 due to the declaration of martial law, he found a another life as a film actor. His breakthrough part was as the popular local comicbook character, Pedro Penduko in the 1973 fantasy film, Celso Ad Castillo. The success of this film made Zamora an instant movie star. After this, he went on to his greatest commercial success, that of the "Phillipino Bruce Lee". Hong Kong Kung Fu movies hit like gangbusters there and local audiences craved a homegrown counterpart. Zamora proved more than up to the challenge by starring in a long lasting series of Lee-alike films throughout the decade, often going as far as stealing the original titles. I personally have seen two of his Brucesploitation epics, 1977s Return of the Dragon (aka Revenge of the Dragon) and this one, 1974s The Game of Death which of the two, proved to be by far the more blatantly Lee inspired pic.

Though titled after Bruce's unfinished final film, The Game of Death is actually a scaled down Enter the Dragon clone. Zamora plays Charlie, an undercover agent for The Phillipino government. The opening scene features Charlie initially losing a match in order to increase the odds in his favor (ala John Saxon's character in Enter...). Afterwards, he and his decidedly goofy manager are invited to an Island tournament hosted by the mysterious Col. Von Stauffer (not completely sure about the name as the audio was slightly muffled). It seems Stauffer (who looks uncannily like Ed Parker on a bad hair day) has been kidnapping women and Charlie's mission is to infiltrate the tournament and get to the bottom of things. The film mostly follows Enter"s basic plot, except it focuses exclusively Zamora's Charlie (as opposed to sharing time with Saxon and Jim Kelly). The film shifts gears late however and becomes a carbon copy of "The Most Dangerous Game" (the Game of Death of the title). as Stauffer using a crossbow, hunts down Charlie, the women and several defecting tournament fighters whom Charlie has convinced to help in his cause.

The film is rather sluggishly paced and uninvolving in it's first act, but does eventually get in gear and the second half is pretty lively. Zamora proves to be a good martial artist with strong screen presence. His Lee imitation is quite good and trumps several of his Hong Kong counterparts. He is paired with the tall and beautiful former Miss Phillipines/Miss World. Evangeline Pascual who makes her feature film debut here. She shows some acting ability to go along with her real life Karate moves and is definitely a treat to watch in action.

Ultimately, The Game of Death is a decent Brucesploitation pic and a sure bet for Zamora fans.

                                                             ** / ****

Monday, February 20, 2012

Black Panther

                                                   Director: Cheng Hou
                               Starring: Chen Sing, Yasuaki Kuratta, Nancy Yen

Chen Sing produced as well as starred in this 1973 modern day Basher that exists as much as a police drama as it does a revenge picture and features several unusual plot devices that manage to keep things thankfully unpredictable.

Chen Sing plays a man who is framed by his two friends (the exact reason is never made clear) who stash contraband in his briefcase for the authorities to find. He spends three years in prison not uttering a word other than proclaiming his innocence. The warden believes him as he has been investigating a Japanese crime lord (Yasuaki Kurata) and discovers that Chen's two "friends" are now working for him. After breaking out of jail due to false information given by a visitor who claimed his main squeeze (Nancy Yen) was now with Kuratta, Chen goes on a path of revenge. The warden while still piecing things together, follows his trail.

While it's true that any Basher that stars Chen Sing is worthwhile, Black Panther is a particularly strong entry. Thanks to some sharp direction on the part of Cheng Hou, Black Panther's plot feels fresher and more original than it actually is. An interesting conceit here is that Chen's much put upon character is never once allowed to exact his vengeance on Kurata or (for the most part) anyone else! His battles (the ones that count, anyway) end with him either being knocked out or having his adversaries assassinated or ultimately broken up by the police. It's a brave move on the part of the filmmakers and the fact that the movie's tone does not feel overly cynical is quite an accomplishment.

There is also a bit more character depth than usual for this sort of thing. The warden is given a three dimensional portrayal. Though our sympathies do not slide towards him (he is after all, merely using Chen to involuntarily help in his investigation), his motives seem logical and do not feel villainous (something a lesser kung fu film would have done). As the doomed girlfriend, Nancy Yen is given enough screen time to make her character something more than eye candy standing on the sidelines. Her character is tough, yet feminine and she is afforded a couple of decent fight scenes (certainly this is a more interesting character than the one she played in Tiger From Hong Kong). Chen's two treacherous ex-friends are even given a little bit of depth. When it comes time to killing Yen's character, one of them objects, "I won't do it, she's always been nice to me". A small and simple touch, but a welcome one. Kurata isn't given enough to do, but as always, makes for a suavely sinister lead villain. His final battle with Chen is terrific (as are all of their many celluloid smackdowns) even if it is not allowed to reach it's expected conclusion.

The thing that truly sets this film apart from others of it's ilk however, is it's bewildering stunt work. There are two absolutely amazing moments here. The first involves a mid film chase that has Chen being pursed on foot by an automobile. Cornered, it looks like our hero is about to become roadkill. That is until he turns and in a fit of rage, jumps feet first through the windshield, killing his pursuer. This was many years before a similar (and less spectacular) version was performed in Chuck Norris' Good Guys Wear Black and it literally caused me to jump to my feet thinking "Did he REALLY just do that?!". The other stunt has Nancy Yen being pursued on the roof of a building. Attempting to fend off her attackers, she quickly finds herself hanging off the edge of the building, her hands holding on for dear life to a flimsy fence as the two men attempt to shake her off. The entire thing is shot in such a dizzying way as to make it seem as though there were no safety precautions taken (though I'm sure there had to be... right?). It is a fairly nervewracking series of moments that is matched only by her crazy, last second rescue by Chen. For those who mistakenly assumed (like I did) that major stunts in Hong Kong movies began in the 80s, this film proves to be a rude awakening.

Black Panther shapes up a particularly strong entry. It is one of Chen Sing's best starring vehicles and one of the more memorable martial arts movies of the early 70s.

                                                             *** / ****

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Samurai Wolf

                                                   Director: Hideo Gosha
                             Starring: Isao Natsuyagi, Yoshiro Aoki, Tatsuo Endo

Here's an early film (circa 1966) from renowned director, Hideo Gosha. This being only his fourth film, Samurai Wolf (clocking in at a mere 73 minutes) doesn't have the epic sweep or profound  philosophical attributes that are to be had in his followup epics, Goyokin and Hitokiri. Instead this is a light (relatively speaking), action packed film that seems influenced not only by Kurosawa's Yojimbo, but also of the Italian Westerns that came in Yojimbo's wake and were so popular at the time.

The film opens misleadingly as our hero, Kiba (played by a perfectly cast Isao Natsuyagi) grunts and yells ferociously into the camera over the freeze framed title. Then as the credits continue to role, we are revealed a decidedly goofier character shoveling rice into his mouth (and on his beard). When he admits to the Inn keeper (an old woman) that he has no money, he offers to do chores to pay for the meal. The next shot shows him merrily fixing the roof, much to old woman's delight. In the first few minutes, we realize that we are watching a protagonist nearly unique to Chanbara cinema. This is not the tortured, damaged hero to be found in most of these films, nor is this the cynical and often nihilistic character that became popular starting with Yojimbo. What Gosha went for here was the seemingly unthinkable; a happy, good natured guy who wore much of his emotions on his sleeve and just happened to be a Ronin.

In the story, Kiba finds himself helping to defend a relay outpost that's being run by a blind woman. The first part plays like a straight foward adventure, maybe a little too straight forward as soon enough, double and triple crosses abound to the point where it becomes difficult for Kiba (and in turn, the audience) to figure out whom to trust. Matters get further complicated when a group of ronin assassins (who among them include a fighter who has a pet monkey) in a bid to defeat the seemingly unbeatable Kiba, hire a ringer to challenge him. But this fighter has a secret past involving the blind woman that's only exasperated by the fact that Kiba has fallen in love with her...

Gosha has a reputation for grim, heavy handed productions. It is quite an accomplishment then that he displays the very antithesis of that type of filmmaking here. This is a wonderfully enjoyable little film and in it's own way, can take it's place among his more well known and more revered works. That isn't to say the film doesn't know how to get down and dirty when it wants to. The swordplay in this film (much of it in supremely filmed slow-mo) is some of the finest and most savage that I have ever seen in a Chanbara pic of this vintage (the blood sprays and oozes most convincingly and frequently). That the film manages to introduce so many interesting and colorful characters and provide so much character depth in such a short span of time is breathtaking.

Samurai Wolf was popular enough that the following year Gosha filmed a sequel, the equally brief, though darker and yet not quite as memorable Samurai Wolf  2 (which may have hinted at what was to come from this director). 

                                                               **** / ****

Monday, February 6, 2012

A*P*E (aka The Great Counterattack of King Kong) (aka Attack of the Giant Horny Gorilla) (aka Hideous Mutant)

Director: Paul Leder
Starring: Rod Arrants, Joanna Kerns (Devarona), Alex Nicol

In 1976 Dino DeLaurentis unleashed his mega crap remake of King Kong. Thanks to a Kong sized publicity campaign (and lots of gullible moviegoers), it became the hit of the year. Suddenly, filmmakers from all over the world saw the possibilities of box office gold in the form of their own suitmation simian stinkers. Among these, we had the Hong Kong Shaw Brothers variation, Mighty Peking Man and the Italian/Canadian coproduction, Yeti - Giant of the 20th Century. All were poorly made, yet all were much more enjoyable than Dino's original local loser.  One of the very worst of the ripoffs was this U.S./South Korean coproduction, A*P*E. Shot in 3-D (which is how I saw it theatrically as a wee 9 year old), it actually beat Kong into theaters by several months.

A*P*E (as in M*A*S*H?) starts awkwardly with a shot of a ship at sea which is the phoniest looking toy boat I've seen since Danger, Deathray. Out of the ship pop the captain and first mate, two of the worst non actors ever. They talk about their prize captive (the whole Skull Island thing having been eliminated in an obvious cost cutting measure), each acting like they are reading their barely legible cue cards for the first time. After several hilarious moments pontificating, our hero awakens prematurely and just like that, the toy ship blows up. After bobbimg in the water for several awkward moments (awkward being the catchphrase with this movie) a giant shark appears (cleverly ripping off Jaws from the previous year). The two battle (if you want to call it that) and A*P*E wins! He not so quickly heads to shore and begins his less than ferocious attack on the Korean countryside. The army is called in, but will they be any match for the awesome might of A*P*E?

I won't mince words, A*P*E is a bad, bad movie. It is one of the most incompetant that I have ever seen. Others who have viewed this epic have hated it. Many felt insulted by it. I on the other hand, thought it was a laugh riot from start to finish. Yes it's terrible, but hilarious in it's awfulness. I would rank this stupid movie right up there (down there?) with 1934's Maniac, Robot Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror and Massacre Mafia Style as one of the most entertainingly awful movies of all time. Highlights (cough!) include A*P*E interfering with the filming of a martial arts picture, A*P*E fighting a giant snake (which he hurls right into the camera for a would be nifty 3-D effect except the snake hits the camera tripod causing the frame to drop), A*P*E having a "playful" encounter with a man on a hang glider and (most memorably) A*P*E flipping the bird to the camera after dispatching a pesky helicopter (no, really)!

Nearly stealing the film from our beloved anthropoid is veteran actor Alex Nicols as the venerable (cough!) Col. Davis. The Col. is a tough guy, but also clueless and susceptible to throwing hissy fits. To wit: "Now what kinda bullshit you tryin' to hand me?", "What are you looking at, is my fly down or something?", "Let's see him dance for his organ grinder now!", "Screw the logistics!" and my favorite, "The hell with the press, I'm gonna smoke this Goddamn cigarette!". The Col. is not one to be messed with and Nicols plays it to the hilt, seemingly basking in every ridiculous moment.

A*P*E is an acquired taste to be sure and it's definitely not for everyone, but for those select few who relish such extreme nonsense (you know who you are), this film will prove irresistible... or maybe not.

                                                                 ***1/2 / ****