Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Strike Commando

                                                  Director: Bruno Mattei
                                  Starring: Reb Brown, Christopher Connelly

This so-called film critic was never the biggest fan of the Rambo series. Yet the funny thing about those films was that in their wake came a gazillion remake/ripoff/imitations, many of which came to us from places like Italy and the Far East. The majority of these low budget wonders were pretty listless affairs. However if you dig around long enough in this sub-genre and enjoy a large dose of cheese in your over the top action, there are some real prizes to be had. The grand prize here is this action packed, laugh riot from Italy's notorious hack, Bruno Mattei.

The son of a film editor, Mattei found himself initially following in his father's footsteps before eventually learning to direct under Jess Franco and then quickly striking out on his own. He tackled many genres (w.i.p., zombie, cannibal, action) always with the same reckless enthusiasm combined with his trademark bad dialogue, bad acting, fast pacing and a genuine air of "anything goes"(which includes stolen soundtracks, scenes lifted from other films and often scenes that just don't make much sense in the context of the story) that has made him a top cult schlock figure both at home and abroad. During the latter part of his career, he made a habit of ripping off American blockbuster hits, usually on one/one hundreth of the budget. Amongst these are "Cruel Jaws", "Robowar" (a Predator ripoff) and "Terminator 2" (which despite the title, is a take on Aliens; I don't get it either). His most entertaining feature just may be Strike Commando, his first of several Rambo clones and one of the most deliriously entertaining low budget action films ever made.

Much of the credit for the film's popularity has to be attributed to it's star, Reb Brown. Reb Brown is an American actor who made a habit out of starring in many low budget Euro action flicks throughout the 80s. He has been immortalized in the minds of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans for his waaay over the top portrayal of "Big McLarge Huge" in Space Mutiny. Fans of that film will find more of the same from their hero here. MUCH more in fact as he yells, screeches and bellows his way into the record books. When it comes to high pitched macho antics, Brown has few peers. Mattei could not have found a better star for his er, unique  brand of filmmaking.

The film is truly a giddy wonder to behold as Brown plays Sgt. Michael Ransom, THE best soldier ever (of course, he is) who while on assignment for the devious Col. Raddek, finds himself behind enemy lines, helping a small Vietnamese village. Unfortunately, he runs afoul of the crazed evil Russian, Jakoda (who continuously refers to Ransom as the Amerikanski). Jakoda lays waste to the village, killing everyone. Ransom happens upon the aftermath and (in a scene that's both moving and extremely awkward) comforts a dying child he earlier befriended by telling him of the wonders of America's Disney land ("popcorn that grows on trees..."). Then in a fit of rage ("Jakoda!!!!!!!") Ransom decides it's massacre time.

Despite the nearly constant over the top (and completely looney tunes) guns ablazing on display, the highlight of the film has to be the one on one, hand to hand duel between Ransom and Jakoda. This is easily one of the most hilariously choreographed fights I have ever seen. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard during a fight scene (and this includes Leslie Nielson's epic 'battles' in the Naked Gun series). And despite the way it ends, it truly ain't over 'till it's over. The final shot in this film is so insanely ridiculous that it actually dwarfs the madness that came before it. You will not believe it. In fact the entire final sequence (where Ransom returns home to settle the score with the ones who left him behind to die; a VERY different resolution to the one found in Rambo) is sheer bonkers filmmaking.

Strike Commando is absolutely essential viewing for cheesy action fans and bad movie buffs alike.

                                                                 **** / ****

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Soul of Bruce Lee (aka Soul of Chiba)

                                                   Director: Yukio Noda
               Starring: Sonny Chiba, Tadashi Yamashita, Etsuko Shihomi, Yang Sze

Sonny Chiba and crew go to Thailand to shoot this disjointed, no budget spectacle.

Chiba plays Yamashita who as an orphan, learned kung fu under Master Shing Chi Kan. By adulthood, Yamashita has mastered it and has become Shing's fave student. Out of nowhere, Shing is gunned down by another student, a jewel thief named Sam Wan. Confused and enraged, Yamashita tracks Sam Wan down but is defeated and tossed over a cliff. Realizing his skills are not yet good enough for the task at hand, he decides more training is necessary. Chiba's Yamashita character then disappears for a large portion of the middle section. We are introduced to an undercover cop played by Tadashi Yamashita. He is investigating Sam Wan's gang and it appears that Master Shing may have been involved with them as well...

It's actually a fairly complex story, more so than is usually provided in this sort of thing. Unfortunately, Yukio Noda directs the proceedings in a fairly blase manner which coupled with the crippling non budget, makes the film lurch along pretty tediously. This is especially true of it's first half where you aren't sure what direction it is going in. The saving grace here is the fantastic martial arts battles to be found. They get better and more numerous as the film progresses and are among the best ever shown in a Chiba pic. Sonny gets the best fights (naturally) and this may be the first time where the technique of slow motion fights with the moment of contact being sped up was employed (it later became a staple of many a Japanese Tokusatsu series). The highlight here is Chiba's battle with a quartet that are possessed by monkeys (!). Etsuko Shihomi makes an always welcome cameo as a femme fighter who nurses Chiba back to health. For this critic, she tends to be the highlight of anything she appears in. Also appearing in the film is Yang (Bolo) Sze as a villainous henchman. He gets to have a pretty cool late film fight with Yamashita, but sadly not with Chiba.

Overall, The Soul of Bruce Lee is a pretty plodding effort that is recommended for it's terrific fights and impressive cast of fighters. It is for this and this alone that I'm giving it as high a rating as I am.

As a sidenote, the only reason that I can figure out why Bruce Lee was used in the title is in it's depiction of Chiba's character wiring himself with electric current in order to speed up his reflexes. Bruce supposedly did this in real life (as has been documented in various bio pics). Other than that, the title makes no sense.

                                                                **1/2 / ****

Monday, March 5, 2012

Violent Streets

                                                Director: Hideo Gosha
                         Starring: Noboru Ando, Akira Kobayashi, Isao Natsuyagi

In 1971, director Hideo Gosha released his Yakuza epic, The Wolves. Bloody brooding and revealing, it is considered one of the key films in both the director's cannon and the genre it represents. Three years later, Gosha returned to the subject matter and unleashed Violent Streets. In many ways the polar opposite of it's predecessor, Violent Streets is one of the wildest, bloodiest and most visually stunning Yakuza yarns ever made.

As the opening credits role over a nightclub scene that features a suggestively filmed flamenco dance performance, we are introduced to the club's nearly somnabulist owner (terrifically underplayed by Noboru Ando). Ando is a retired Yakuza who now uses the club to run a legit business and to help out his wayward pals who also wish to go legit. However, remnants of his past present thmselves in the form of his buddy (Aklira Kobayashi) who representing his old gang, wishes to buy him out. They also wish to go straight and leave the old ways behind them once and for all. Of course, this is much easier said than done. For starters, Ando refuses to sell, despite the pleas and warnings from his old friend soon to turn foe. Infighting begins to rear it's ugly head as well. Matters are further complicated by a rival gang who kidnap a female pop singer under the old gang's employ. They hold her for ransom, but accidentally kill her during a rape attempt gone wrong. This sets off a brutal chain of events which ultimately ruin all involved.

Ever the resourceful eccentric, Gosha (who's style always seemed to hover somewhere between the two Sams, Peckinpah and Fuller) loads the admittedly generic main story with one amazing visual after another. From Ando's violent sex scene with his alchaholic girlfriend intercut with the club's flamenco number to the monster masks worn by the bumbling rival gang to the odd pair of assassins employed (one a bald guy with a pet parrot, the other a psychotic, bloodthirsty transvestite) to the chicken coop used as the backround for both an excrutiating midfilm battle as well as the final showdown to (most strikingly of all) a junkyard execution scene that's littered with mannequins (filmed in such a way as to make the increasingly blood smeared statues appear to stare at the protagonists with a perverse, mocking leer), there is not one scene that does not positively drip with seedy atmosphere.

As if this film weren't rich enough, Gosha includes cameos by a pair of ringers. The first is Bunta Sugawara (the top Yakuza movie actor and one of the coolest cats you will ever see on celluloid) who plays an old contact of Ando's. A retired weapons supplier, Sugawara goes along for the ride (literally) in a mid film shootout (one last hurrah, it seems). Sitting in the back seat of Ando's' car, eating a sandwhich and with headphones in use (!) Bunta blasts away with a "been there, done that" casualness. The second is by the "Empreor" himself, Tetsuo Tanba (possibly the most ubiquitous of all Japanese actors) as what amounts to a modern day Godfather. Perched high above the city in his helicopter late in the film, Tanba contemplates running all of Japan through his "honest" businesses while allowing the "dogs" (warring gang members) to basically eat each other, thus ridding them of the old ways. It is a humbling revelation considering the (increasingly pointless) carnage that had been on display.

Violent Streets is a masterpiece, plain and simple. One of Gosha's best (just maybe his very best) and one of the crowning achievements in Japan's Yakuza cycle of the 70s. A must see.

                                                            **** / ****