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.

Rating: 8/10


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 destabilize 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 despicableness. 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 an eye-opener that will appeal to Chiba fans, Yakuza fans and general 70s style Japanese action enthusiasts alike.

Rating: 8/10

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. 

 Rating: 8/10

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Big Land Flying Eagles

Director: Ulysses Au Yeung
Starring: Wong Goon Hung (Champ Wang), Lin Yung, Paul Chang Chung, Shi Feng

 Here we have an interesting, well crafted and visually unique wuxia film.

The complicated plot centers on traveling swordsman supreme, Xiao Fong ( the awesomely labeled Champ Wang). Xiao killed the son of local warlord, Lee Sang. Lee was charged with the delivery of 3,000,000 in gold which has mysteriously vanished. Lee marks Xiao for death, but Xiao finds himself in an unlikely alliance with another reputable swordsman, Killer Eagle as well as a band of traveling Mongolian warrior/traders. Despite his target's new found comrades, Lee sends all manner of esoteric assassins out after him. Xiao for his part, gets involved with a mysterious woman who has manged to make many an enemy in her own right.

I'll admit that I've not seen as many classic wuxia movies as I have other types of Chinese martial arts/action films. Part of the reason is that many of the ones that I have seen tended to be overly complex and narratively confusing, at least to this Westerner.  'Big Land Flying Eagles' could easily have succomed to these same problems, but thanks to some sharp direction from Ulysses Au Yeung (a favorite independent 70s director responsible for several gems, most notably the previously reviewed 'Thou Shall Not Kill... But Once), I had little problem dissecting the complex story and characters. This is also one of the most visually striking martial arts films I've seen from this period. Shot entirely in the desert, the film creates an epic feel in spite of it's low budget. Almost a kind of 'Lawrence of Arabia'-lite (O.K. extremely lite). It's very pleasing to the eyes and creates a wonderful semi-surreal atmosphere throughout. It's quite a quirkily plotted film as well, including one of the most strikingly bizarre dramatic sequences to be found in any genre film; Xiao Fong and his mysterious squeeze are hiding out in a deserted shack when they find themselves surrounded by Lee Sang's gang. Xiao realizes that since he killed Lee's son, Lee wants the two young lovers to procriate (as in right there in the shack) and will wait one year for their child to be born and then have it killed in order to exact revenge. The shack is then ripped down by the unseen assassins so that they could see what they're doing! Xiao and the woman do not react to their sudden lack of shack. They continue to lie there in the night time forest and smile at the silliness of this failed plan. It plays just as outrageously matter-of-fact as it reads.

Featuring a terrific action sequence finale, 'Big Land Flying Eagles' is a wonderful min-epic of 70s martial arts cinema and comes highly recommended.

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Marked for Murder

Director: Lee Chiu, Tenky Tin Kai Man
Starring: David Lam Wai, Ben Lam Kwok Bun, Liang Chia Jen

This appears to be a peace offering from Hong Kong to the Mainland due to the up and coming change of ownership. Judging by the several unfamiliar faces and two directors, this may even be a Hong Kong/Mainland co-production. Whatever the case may be, it's a little seen pic that combines unfortunate and unnecessary comedic characters with some of the most blistering 80s style action to be had in the 90s.

A bank employee witnesses the murder of his boss at the hands of a powerful Yakuza gang and it's nearly invincible leader (Ben Lam). On the run, he is guarded by a male and female member of a Mainland Task Force who in turn, must cooperate with a bumbling Hong Kong detective (David Lam).

Assuming that this production is indeed Hong Kong's attempt to make nice with China, then it represents a fair amount of overkill in that department. The two Mainland operatives are portrayed as calm, smooth and highly efficient while their H.K. counterpart (the usually reliable David Lam who is miscast here) is in the words of his superior, kind of dumb. That he has also an annoying, shrewish wife certaintly doesn't help matters. In fact, when said wife is ultimately kidnapped by the Yakuza, I was hoping that would be the last we heard of the character (no such luck). The goofiness also extends to our hero's superior/ brother in-law (a thankless non-fighting role for "Beardy" Liang Chia Jen who perhaps tellingly, is clean shaven for the role). Is is a credit to both Lam and Liang that their characters still manage to retain their charm and likeability (if less so, their dignity) throughout. Always relaible Ben Lam is suitably menacing and imposing as the head Yakuza.

Despite the uneven treatment of it's characters, the film really comes alive when it counts in the spectacular and plentiful action scenes. After personally suffering several years worth of wire fu films, 1994 turned out to be quite a renaissance in the stay on the ground and fight department. So fantastic is the action here that I can forgive much (but not all) of what goes on in between. There are others who might be less forgiving.

Rating: 5/10


Friday, August 23, 2013

Pendekar Liar

Director: Dasri Yacob
Starring: Willy Dozan (Billy Chong), Winnie Aditya Suherman, Sutrisno Widjaya

 Billy Chong, the kung fu superstar that almost was. I became an instant fan of the Indonesian born actor ever since my first T.V. exposure back in the mid 80s. One of the most accomplished fighters the martial arts film world has ever seen coupled with natural charisma and strong screen presence, I was always curious why his star never rose beyond the also-ran group. Depending on my mood, I might even go so far as to say he is my favorite fighter/actor not named Bruce Lee. Unfortunately until only a few years ago, I had zero knowledge of Billy's post HK work (to the point where I wasn't sure he even had any). That however, didn't disuade me from penning an embarsassingly incomplete article about him in an old issue of Asian Cult Cinema magazine, circa 1999. I have since discovered that the reason (the given reason, anyway) for his abrupt departure was the disappointing commercial failure of the big budgeted, Sun Chung directed epic, 'Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain' (aka A Fistful of Talons). He returned to his home country and did indeed resume a movie and T.V. career there under his birth name, Willy Dozan. 'Pendekar Liar' I believe was the first of them.

For the second time in a row, I'm attempting to critique a film that does not contain English subtitles. The previous blog entry, 'Jiu-Jitu' was relatively easy since the storyline was so simple and straightforward. 'Pendekar Liar' proved to be a tad more difficult. Fortunately, I just recently came upon a plot rundown that I was able to translate into very broken English. Hey, better than nothing...

In the film, Billy plays an orphan named Annga (which somehow translates to "CyberNet"!) who has been raised since birth by an old martial arts expert named Cokro and taught the the martial art, Silat (I think). Time and time again Annga attempts and fails to defeat Cokro (reminicent of the teacher pupil scenes in Drunken Master and Chong's own Crystal Fist). Nevertheless, Annga is sent away (with Cokro's loving daughter in tow) to seek out his mother (it has to do with the necklace he's wearing) and solve the mystery of who killed his father.After many adventures (which allow Chong as many chances to fight as possible, most notably taking on a karate school and their ringer, a nearly indestructible fat woman). Annga discovers that it was Cokro himself who caused his family's death... or so he thinks. Cokro as it turns out, has an identical twin...

I've seen my share of Indonesian action/martial arts films of this vintage and entertaining as they are, the actual fight scenes tend to be below the level of those found in Hong Kong. 'Pendekar Liar' for the most part, bucks that trend with some well above average choreography and this is almost certaintly due it's established star. I'm not certain if Chong's participation extended to choreography but judging the heightened level of combat here, I think it's safe to assume that it did. The fights may not quite be as lightening fast as they were in his Hong Kong pics like 'Super Power', 'Kung Fu From Beyond the Grave', 'A Hard Way to Die' and  the aforementioned 'Fistful of Talons', but they're close. Sure, Billy still appears here as a man amongst boys, but it's clear that his incredible martial abilities rubbed off on the production.

If there was a letdown to be felt, then it was in the finale. Though it does work on a dramatic level regarding the dual identity revelation (if anything, the drama and comedy are both handeled with more subtle flare here than in it's H.K. counterparts), it falls somewhat flat in the action department (the big deal being Billy's newly mastered technique which causes him to give off a strobe effect similar to Bruce Lee's famous arm movments vs Petrov in 'Fist of Fury' or Nemuri's Full Moon Sword stance in the later 'Son of the Black Mass' films). But it became clear that Billy had to ease off against his opponent (picture Jackie Chan having a final confrontation against Yuen Siu Tien's evil twin rather than Hwang Jang Lee for the climax of Drunken Master and you'll get the idea) making it feel less exciting than it might have.

That aside, 'Pendekar Liar' is a great find for we Billy Chong fans among who had precious few H.K. vehicles to choose from. Now I'm off to hunt down the rest of Billy's homegrown product...

Rating: 5/10

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ju-Jitu (aka Jiu-Jitu vs Karate)

Director: Hiroki Asai
Starring: Ryohei Sakai, Koji Nakamura, Chikaomi Miyamoto, Yi Nan, Yasuaki Kurata

A no-budget, shot on video pic from Japan that just happens to contain some of the finest and most realistic empty handed combat sequences ever lensed.

The story is one big, hoary cliche about a nasty karate school challenging a noble jiu-jitsu dojo. Compounding the over simplistic story is some embarassing overacting from the villains and bland, near non-acting from the heroes, leading to some unintended laughs where there should have been tense drama. This however isn't surprising when you realize that real martial artists were used for all the main parts and they quite obviously never went to a thesping class.

But never mind any of that, 'Jiu Jitu' is all about the plentiful fighting and training scenes and are they ever an eyeful. Long time genre vet Yasuaki Kurata oversaw the project, producing and choreographing it as well as playing the wise jiu-jitsu sensei. Even in his 60s, Kurata has lost none of his physical prowess or screen presence. Star Ryohei Sakai may not quite cut it in the dramatic scenes, but once the combat comes into play, he "switches on" like the best of them and you believe he's the real deal (which essentially, he is).

The action is at a consistently high level throughout, but Kurata and director Hiroki Asai save the best for the finale. The near fifteen minute (!) showdown between Sakai's jiu-jitsu style and the karate school's top student (played by Koji Nakamura) is an absolutely blistering, exhausting tour de force that just may be the single finest one on one bout ever commited to film (er, video). So btutal, so thorough and so  draining is this bout that it left me gasping... and then rewatching it just to make sure it held up on repeat viewings (it most cetaintly does).

For all of the film's shortcomings, the final bout in 'Jiu-Jitu' automatically elevates it to recommended status.

Rating: 5/10

Here you can watch the final bout and judge whether or not I exaggerated about just how incredible it is:

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Punch to Revenge

Director: Lee Chiu
Starring: Ben Lam, Yukari Oshima, Eddy Ko, Chan Ging

Along with 'Close Escape' (reviewed elsewhere in this blog), this was another early Yukari Oshima vehicle I first rented at a Korean-owned store, circa 1990. Yet unlike the previous film, my memories of this one were not as sharp. Perhaps it was the melodramatic story (compounded with the expected giant Korean subtitles which obscured the english ones) that turned me off. Or perhaps it was that The Osh was not involved in the finale (hopefully that isn't too big of a spoiler) or maybe that my brain was on overload with this stuff at that point. Whatever the reason, I was pretty dismissive of this one at the time. It wasn't until I nabbed a better print a few years back (with legible subs) that I was finally able to appreciate 'A Punch to Revenge' and now consider it one of the better examples of late '80s HK action.

Fan (Yukari) is a HK social worker (!) who's client, Tsang (Eddy Ko) is a cripple who lives a humiliating life with his wife who must loan herself out as a prostitute in order to pay the bills. In an attempt to better this situation, Tsang enlists his cousin and three cohorts from the Mainland to work for notorious ex-HK detective Ma (Chan Ging). They commit a jewel heist, but are double crossed by their would-be employer. Sergent Lee (Ben Lam) once Ma's protege, investigates and a chance meeting (and subsequent romantic involvement) with Fan provides an unexpected break in the case.

 One of the the things that really struck me about 'A Punch to Revenge' (honestly, no pun intended) was it's utter unpredictability. Although it essentially revolves around it's two leads, this is an ensemble piece; one with layers of characters (particularly villains) who's importance seemingly are always on the increase or decrease as the film's lucid story unfolds. More often than not, this sort of thing yields murky and unfocused results so on the occasion where it's done correctly, it's all the more rewarding. The film is not exactly action packed but when the action does come, it is intensely gritty and nasty. In each skirmish, the outcome is always in doubt, making for some of the more white knuckled moments the genre has seen. The gore filled finale in particular, is about as uncomfortable (and yes, unpredictable) as it gets.

In the unlikely role of Fan the ass kicking social worker, Yukari Oshima is allowed one of her meatier roles. This was an attempt at softening her image a bit and she proved more than up to the challenge. The Osh displays genuine sweetness and vulnerability heretofore unseen in her previous work. It's also significant that of her three excellently staged fight scenes, only one (where she angrily trashes Ma's office and everyone in it) did she truly prevail and this allows a genuine concern for her character's well being throughout (though that said, there is nothing I enjoy watching more than my fave femme fighter in total control, mopping the floor with any and all wood-be opponents). Taking the lead in the film is the always reliable Ben Lam. An impressive kickboxer, Lam has been consistently effective whether playing Moon Lee's naive boyfriend in 'Dreaming the Reality' or as Stephan Chow's nearly indestructible rival in 'Love on Delivery' (to name just two). Here as the reckless police chief, he displays a quietly commanding demeaner and plays quite well off Yukari. They actually make for a charming and believable couple, here. Eddy Ko is also quite good in the sympathetic role of  Tsang who must endure his wife sleeping with clients for money (in their own apartment yet!) as well as the burden of caring for a severely retarded child (shockingly played by a  young boy obviously stricken in real life with cerebral paulsey). That such potentially heavy melodrama is handled so delicately and with such a casual lack of sentimenatality is a credit to director Lee Chiu who managed to avoid such potential pitfalls. This is an action film first and foremost and Chiu thankfully never lost sight of that.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Zen Master 6

Director: Lo Lieh
Starring: Suen Gin Ming, Meng Chuan Sheng, Lok Yun, Fang Hua, Diang Wing,

I have always been a great admirer of Lo Lieh. One of the best and most dependable screen villains in the history of Hong Kong cinema (he was afterall among many other things, the original white haired villain, Pai Mei), it is extremely ironic that most viewers here in the West were first introduced the intense Indonesia native in the classic King Boxer (5 Fingers of Death) where he played the righteous and chaste hero. His list of screen credits is astonishingly long and varied, nearly encapsulating the whole of the genre itself. Not nearly so impressive is his scant list of directing credts. Starting with 1973's 'Devil and Angel', Lo has a mere nine titles in a twenty year span. This includes the cult favorite, 'Clan of the White Lotus for the Shaw Bros. and the curious brain horror flick, 'The Black Magic With Buddha. In 1987 he delivered his best effort, 'Zen Master 6'; a Hong Kong/Mainland co-production that melds the best of both territories.

In the film, the Abbott of Shaolin is dying and must name a successor among his young disciples. The short-tempered San Sau (Meng Chuan Sheng) seems the favorite, but the Abbott chooses the  more thoughtful Wai Nam (Suen Gin Ming) and sends his prized pupil out to find enlightenment. The furious San Sau recklessly sends his brothers out to track him down. Meranwhile on his travels, Wai meets a potential love interest (Lok Yun) and helps a small costal village fend off invading pirates.

I had very limited info on this rarity (what little I had heard was positive) so I approached it with cautious optimism. What I came away with was one of the best Shaolin films I'd ever had the pleasure of watching.  While hardly original (it's basic story right down to the outcome of it's proposed love story was lifted wholesale from 'The Shaolin Temple' starring Jet Lee), never have all the familiar elements come together quite so sharply as here. From the strong, understated performances to the swift and assured pacing (particularly in the oddly placed, yet totally agreeable pirate segment) to the excellent, creative, state of the art fight choreography, there is nary a false note struck through any of it's economic 93 min running time. The finale in particular where Wai Nam and San Sau settle their differences once and for all, is one of the best and most satisfying one on one duels in all of kung fu cinema.

'Zen Master 6' was obviously a labor of love for Lo Lieh (he also produced the epic) and it payed off with a derivitaive, yet thunderously satisfying  martial arts epic that has thus far gone criminally underseen.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ac Kartallar (Starving Eagles)

Director: Cetin Inanc
Starring: Nihat Yigit, Mecit Yavuz, Nilgun, Sarayli

 Another of director Cetin Inanc's no-budget whacky wonders, this one designed specifically to showcase the talents of Bruce Lee lookalike (yes, a Turkish Lee-alike) Nihat Yigit. From what I know about him, Yigit was a Bruce Lee fan and took up martial arts in 1973 (the year Lee died). He apparently studied all manner of fighting arts including Kung Fu, Karate and Tae Kwan Do. After competing in various tournaments throughout Europe, he drew the attention of Inanc who saw strong possibilities in him as a screen fighter. His uncanny physical resemblence to Bruce at the time also could not be ignored (all the more remarkable as Yigit isn't Asian; perhaps Lee's few German genes made more of a difference than initially thought?). After featuring him as the main villain opposite Cuneyt Arkin in Olumsuz and Son Savascisi (he was shown a fair amount of respect in both as he was the only opponent to have ever even remotely given Arkin a tough time of it), Inanc decided it was time to star him in his very own Lee-clone epic (never mind the fact that the subgenre had died many years before).

The story; while visiting Turkey from Japan, a noted martial arts master is murdered by a rival clan that also happens to heroin smugglers. The slain master's top three students get to the bottom of things and take revenge. That's a about it.

Inanc does his best to meld the typical kung fu revenge story with his own patented sense of sheer insanity and it ultimately makes for a mixed bag of entertainment. On one level, you have bad nartial arts moviemaking at it's finest and funniest what with exaggerated closeups, swiped music from Enter the Dragon (and in the finale, Raiders of the Lost Ark) bewildering edits, overracting villains and some hilariously awkward fight choreography (one moment in particular had me on the floor as Yigit attempts to swing two men around ala Lee in Fist of Fury, but doesn't quite pull it off). Yet as entertaining as it all is, there is also a slight feeling of frustration since genuine martial artists were used and several fight scenes tend to be unnecessarily sped up (and i'm not talking slightly as in Sammo Hung's preferred method, I'm talking about full blown Benny Hill-like shenanigans). In the typical Inanc/Cuneyt Arkin epic, this is fine, but here it and the poor choreography tend to take away from the combatants considerable talents. Fortunately, this "technique" is for the most part eliminated in the second half, as if Inanc realized halfway through that severely undercranking his fighters wasn't necessary here.

At the center of it is a very entertaining performance from Yigit. His Lee impression is spot-on, more so than many of his Chinese counterparts and his excellent martial arts skills are placed on full view here. Watching Yigit do his thing, one wishes that he were given more opportunities, perhaps in a Hong Kong lensed production with top flight fight choreographers. 

Overall, Ac Kartallar is a fun time and will appeal to both Turkish Cult fans and Bruceploitation enthusiasts alike.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Magnificent 3

Director: Men Yu Ting
Starring: Yasuaki Kurata, Tony Poon, Tadashi Yamashita, Luk Chuen

After getting into a brawl in a Discotech in Dominica, three strangers; a Japanese tourist (Yasuaki Kurata), a Chinese resteraunt worker (Tony Poon) and an American (!) painter (Tadashi Yamashita)  find themselves thrown in jail together and left to rot there. Just when things seem their grimmest, the three are released, their bonds posted by an ex Army General. His intention is to put their supreme fighting skills to use against his famaly's black sheep, a powerful mafioso who employs top fighters from all over the world as protection.

This extremely quirky and mostly lighthearted curiosity is credited to one Men Yu Ting, a name I'm personally unfamiliar with and have found no info on whatsoever. This appears to be his lone directorial work, though he may well be an alias for longtime action choreographer Luk Chen. Either way, this is one fun and funky little martial arts flick. Though ultimately the storyline is revealed to be simplistic, I was really taken aback by the film's successful attempts at breaking from tradition. Of the three main leads, two are Japanese which is unheard of for a Chinese action movie of this vintage. It was a real blast to see Yasuaki Kurata and Tadashi Yamashita (here billed under his alter ego, Bronson Lee) in such unusual surroundings (Dominica?!) and able to yuck it up when called upon (the sequence where they go undercover dressed as cleaning ladies is a howler). Tony Poon lives up to his billing as "Kung Fu's hidden treasure". He fights not unlike Bruce Liang (a regular Kurata co-star) and this is a good thing as his spinning kicks and acrobatic antics are a lot of fun and nicely counterbalance the other two's karate style moves.

Other than the discotech (?!) brawl, most of the fighting is saved for the second half. After the henchmen are systematically taken care of (including a pair on roller skates!), we get to the tournament style battles, all against American opponents. After defeating in one-on-one bouts the likes of "Full Contact Karate Fighter from California, Alan Colavito" (Poon defeats him), "U.S. Full Contact Karate Champion, Howard Jackson" (Yamashita dispatches him) and the decidely goofy antics of "Full Combat Karate and Tae Kwan Do Fighter from Los Angelas, "Richard Kenton" (Kurata defeats him... after figuring out just what the hell kind of fighting style he's using), our three heroes must face the ultimate challenge, the Hercules-like "Mr. America, Nathan Le Blanc III" in an announced battle to the death. In each instance, the choreography is excellent, some of the best and most exciting (and again, most unusual) I've seen from this time period.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the surprisingly straight forward approach used in relation to the heroes' employer. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I fully expected some sort of evil doings on his part that would cause the three to turn against him or perhaps the General would attempt to dispose of them once the job is finished, but no such hackneyed plot device was forthcoming. He grew to genuinely care for their well being and even goes as far as to ask them not to accept the final challenge for fear of one or more of them getting killed on his behalf! After watching so many cynical and downbeat martial arts films, I found this approach refreshing.

'The Magnificent 3' turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in a while. Though it's  low budget is sometimes a hindrance, it's unique setting combined with it's most unusual combat (and combatants) make for extremely agreeable viewing. It's quickly become a favorite and one that I'm sure I'll be revisiting often.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Farewell "Pops"

The martial arts movie world just lost one of it's greatest and purest filmmakers with the sad passing of Liu Chia Liang aka Lau Kar Leung (July 28, 1936 – June 25, 2013). Far and away my favorite of all Shaw Bros. film directors, Lau was responsible for some of the greatest that the studio has ever produced such as The Spiritual Boxer, Executioners From Shaolin, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Heroes of the East, Dirty Ho, My Young Auntie and my personal favorite, Legendary Weapons of China. Of the hundreds of kung fu movies that I taped off T.V. broadcasts during the 1980s, his were by far the most watched. For me, Lau WAS Kung Fu. He embodied it's essence more completely than any other screen actor/fighter that has ever lived. A master of Hung Gar, Lau learned the style under Lam Sai Wing who in turn was a student of the legendary Wong Fei Hung who has been portrayed in countless films including two of Lau's, Challenge of the Masters and Martial Club. Along with his younger brother, Liu Chia Yung aka Lau Kar Wing and his pupil and adopted Godson to his father, Gordon Liu Chia Hui aka Lau Kar Fai, Liu's importance to the genre cannot be overestimated.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Men From The Gutter

Director: Lam Nai Choi
Satrring: Jason Pai Piao, Wong Yung, Lo Mang, Michael Miu Kiu Wai, Chen Pei Hsi

This is an early effort from noted director Lam Nai Choi (he who lensed many Hong Kong cult favorites such as The Seventh Curse, Killer's Nocturne and the now legendary Story of Ricky) and while it may not feature the sheer outrageousness that dominated his later work, it is still quite an eye opening piece of late period Shaw Brothers action.

Racing ahead at full throttle, 'Men From The Gutter' features no less than three seperate and somewhat disparate storylines. We are first introduced to a trio of down on their luck ex-cons (one with a pregnant girlfriend in tow) who are planning an armored truck heist. Our second group of protagonists are an on-edge police unit and their attempts to take down a druglord. Our third participant is an assassin (Jason Pai Piao) who is returning to settle a score with an old rival.

Director Lam even at this early stage in his career (this I believe was only his third film) displayed his fearlessness at trying something different. That we have intertwinding stories is not unusual, but how little they are actually intertwined certaintly is (one of our three scenarios ends early on and is barely reated upon). That we never once feel as though we are watching separate films (ala Godfrey Ho cut and paste epics) is a real tribute to Lam's skills. Everything feels organic, assured and correct. Lam also shows here that he was already a master of brutal carnage. As with his later entries (particularly Killer's Nocturne) you really feel it when the action comes. The early squash match between Pai Piao and the ever dangerous looking Lee Hoi Sang is positively wince inducing.

Among the cast, Jason Pai Piao gives one of the most subtle yet intense oerformances of his lengthy career. 'Venom' fave Lo Mang is always entertaining and his perf as a hot headed cop siuts him well. As the pregnant girlfriend, I barely recognized Chen Pei Hsi. So memorable as the mata hari-like female ninja in the previous year's 'Five Element Ninja' (aka Super Ninjas), she has sadly little to do here. It seems her career never took off after such a promising start.

As with 'Hong Kong Godfather' (reviewed earlier in this blog), 'Men From the Gutter' proves that the mighty Shaw Brothers were both willing and able to keep up with their contemporaries who were leading the way in the modern action uprising in the '80s. That such a strong an entry as this was virtually ignored upon release was a greater crime than any committed within it's reels.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fantasy Mission Force

Director: Chu Yen Ping
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Jackie Chan, Bridgette Lin, Chang Ling, Adam Cheng

Yes, I am a fan of 'Fantasy Mission Force' and I'm not afraid to admit it. I wasn't always quite so enamored with it, though. I first rented this on vhs way back in 1987. With no point of reference whatsoever, I was unprepared for the unprecedented whackiness that I was about to experience and I immediately rejected what I was watching. It wasn't until years later when I familiarized myself with the cockeyed visions of director Chu Yen Ping that I revisited this film. Seeing it again through more educated orbs, I was able to appreciate the extreme fun that this and the director's other films brought

Near as I can tell, the film is set somewhere between the late 1930s to early 40s; Japan is attempting to take over the world and the united forces are... well, trying to stop them. When four top Chinese generals are taken hostage, a small ragtag group of mercenary soldiers are gathered as a commando squad under the leadership of Captain Don Wen (Wang Yu) and sent on a suicide rescue mission. Wen is gunned down, but the rest decide to continue the mission with the aid of ex-wrestler, Sammy (Jackie Chan) and his former manager, Emily (Chang Ling) who basically tail the group and intervene when necessary. However as things unwind, all is definately not as it seems...

The above plot synopsis does zero justice in revealing what an utterly bizarre experience 'Fantasy Mission Force' is. As with Chen's previous work (Island Warriors, Golden Queens Commando, Pink Force Commando), he presents material that seems to come out of someone's lucid dream. We have characters that don't seem to be acting in the same film, a bizarre musical number, ghosts and other such things that seem to be thrown in at the director's whim. And just when you think you have the extreme goofiness figured out, Chen pulls a major switcharoo by throwing in a dead serious and downbeat finale. That he makes the proceedings so entertaining is a tribute to his directorial clarity. As crazy as it all is, it is also quite clear that the man has a vision mapped out and sees it through to it's (il)logical conclusion.

Though top billed, Jackie Chan's role is really little more than a glorified cameo, amounting to about as much screen time as he had in Sammo Hung's 'Lucky Stars' features. Reportedly, he appeared in the film as a favor to Wang Yu who was instrumental in keeping the Triads away early in his career (he would do so again a decade later in Island of Fire). He and Chang Ling's characters' floating in and out of the film is no odder than anything else that goes on here. Wang Yu is typically tough in the role of the sqaud's leader. His final battle with Chan (at the risk of giving away the film's spoiler here), is gritty and intense, far more satisfying than their previous duel in 'Killer Meteors'. Bridgette Lin Ching Hsia is always a welcome addition, though she has far less to do here than in Chu's two '...Commando' films. Chang Ling is as always. spunky and endearing and does well as Chan's manager/partner.

'Fantasy Mission Force' may not be quite as endearing as 'Golden Queens Commando' or 'Pink Force Commando' and should not be seen as a Jackie Chan vehicle (lessen learned), But if viewed in the right frame of mind (and with prior knowledge of Chu Yen Ping being an essential tool), then you will find it's pleasures to be many and varied.

Rating: 6/10


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Golgo 13

Director: Junya Sato
Starring: Ken Takakura, Pouri Baneai, Mohsen Sohrabi

One of Japan's greatest and most popular mangas, Golgo 13 (the name meaning Golgatha plus the thirteen diciples depicted in Jesus' last supper - but you already knew that, right?) also would be one of the more difficult to translate to the screen, what with it's complex characters and twisty storylines, to say nothing of it's always exotic locales which in many cases would prove cost prohibitive for any proposed live action interpretation. Regardless, Japan gave it a try in 1977 with 'Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment'. Starring a game Sonny Chiba, it was a middling affair at best (though one I've grown to appreciate slightly more after having seen a widescreen, subtitled version). For decades, I had assumed that this was the only live action treatment of the manga. I found out how wrong I was just last year when I started to hear murmurings of an earlier version starring non other than Ken Takakura. Now thanks to a fan subbed edition of the Japanese dvd, I finally had a chance to watch it.

This version of the film posits our sharp shooter assassin in Tehran, Iran (the location being made possible due to the recent oil agreement between Japan and Iran). Golgo's (real name: Duke Togo) mission; to hunt down and terminate international do badder, Max Boa, an untouchable weapons/ drug smuggler and flesh peddler (you know the type).

Considering it was made in 1973 which was the peak of Japan's wild anything goes period, 'Golgo 13' is a notably restrained production. This is probably due to Iran's restrictions. There is no nudity on display and little in the way of bloodshed. The whole production has a very straightforward, almost episodic feel as if everyone just wanted to be on their best behavior. The first half tends to suffer a little because of this as it seems director Sato was too content to merely introduce it's many characters and basic storyline. It could have used some spruicing up, to be honest. Yet despite that bit of negativity, there is much to like about the film. The Iranian locales are pleasingly exotic and well shot (though it was a minor distraction for me that all of the locals were dubbed in Japanese). The action (when it does arrive) is lively and suspensful with a truly nail biting climax. At the film's center is the towering presence of one Ken Takakura. His natural screen persona (he is afterall known as the man who never smiles) makes him a perfect Golgo.  The it ain't over 'till it's over finale was one of the more satisfying I have experienced, displaying a welcome sense of humor as no one and no thing is safe from our protagonist's wrath.

While certainly not on the level of other live action manga adaptations such as the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' and 'Female Prisoner Scorpion' series, 'Golgo 13' did at least prove that an effective live action version of the popular character could be done. For those who were disappointed with the Chiba vehicle, give this one a try.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, April 19, 2013

Odd Couple (aka Eternal Conflict)

Director: Liu Chia Yung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Liu Chia Yung, Liang Chia Jen, Dean Shek, Mars

Easily one of the best kung fu comedies of the late '70s, it's also one of the cleverest that I have ever seen.

Two aging kung fu masters, The King of Sabres (Sammo Hung) and The King of Spears (Liu Chia Yung) have a yearly encounter to decide who is the er, greatest in all the land. Unfortunately for them, each duel ends in a draw. After years and years of this, the two of them decide to recruit and train young pupils to continue the battle for them. In a brilliant move, Liu's student is played by Sammo and Sammo's by Liu. After rigorous (and largely unappreciated) training, the two students prepare to face off, only to be kidnapped by a gang led by Old Yellow Dog (Liang Chia Jen). Seems Old Yeller (sorry, couldn't resist) was previously defeated by both 'Sabres' and 'Spears' and has been looking to get even with them ever since.

Starting with 1977's 'He Has Nothing But Kung Fu', Liu Chia Yung has proved to be an excellent director of kung fu comedies. He never quite reached the level of excellence in this department as his older brother Liu Chia Liang, but he was able to carve quite a niche for himself in his own right. 'Odd Couple' is one of his best, maybe his very best. It is one of the few from this time period that can stand alongside the work of his elder sibbling as well as those directed by Sammo himself (the film to be honest, more resembles Sammo's work than Liu's causing me to question if this weren't actually a joint directing job), not to mention those of Jackie Chan.

Both Sammo and Liu look to be having the time of their lives here. The enthusiasm each shows in their dual roles is infectious and permeates the entire production (though it must have caused some major headaches for the editor when 'all four' of their characters are required to share the same sequence). Liang Chia Jen is intimidating as the scarred (both externally and internally) villain, showing he can play this type of role with equal intensity to his more common heroic turns. If you're looking for a sour note here, then look no further than Dean Shek. Watching Shek is akin to sitting through a Jim Carey comedy. You realize that the talent's there, but he plays each of his comedic roles so far over the top, that it becomes eye rollingly awful.

From the amazing opening credit sequence (which suspiciously resembles that in big brother Liang's masterpiece, 'Legendary Weapons of China', made three years later), to the well timed comedy to the absolutely incredible weapons and hand to hand duels, 'Odd Couple' is about as good as kung fu comedies get.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kill the Shogun

Director: Lee Doo Yong
Starring: Gang Dae Hui, Choi Chong Ming, James Nam, Bae Soo Cheon

O.K. where has this wonderful all-out fight fest been hiding? Apparently, it was hiding in plain view as I had it in my collection for several years after having bought it on Amazon for next to nothing. It just sat there collecting dust as I had no idea what it was I so casually obtained. Not until I started to read up on it did I discover that this was one of the top Korean martial arts movies of it's time... and it supposedly featured a cameo by non other than the baddest super kicker of them all, Hwang Jang Lee! After beating myself up for not having watched it sooner, I promptly put the thing in my dvd player. I was not disappointed.

The film is set in 1904 during the Japanese occupation of Korea in which it's populance found themselves brutilized, humiliated and kept in makeshift camps. A pair of heroic locals (Gang Dai Hui and James Nam) decides to fight back, setting off a brutal series of battles that ultimately threatens the entire Japanese army. After Nam's character gets captured, he is convinced to switch sides with the promise that his friend will be spared. Things don't go quite as expected...

I was really taken aback at just how much fun 'Kill the Shogun' was. O.K. the drama was uneven to say the least (early melodrama quickly giving way to mildly goofy shenenigans and featuring a raw fish eating main villain that is as crazily over the top as could be imagined), but I think this was the correct way to go. Director Lee Doo Yong gave me the impression here that he felt the over seriousness could sink the production and went with a livlier approach. Perhaps Lee wasn't capable of handling the material any other way. Regardless, he does manage to keep things moving at a quick clip and in this type of film, that tends to be more important.

Then there are the plentiful fight scenes. I've been critical in the past of Korean choreography being inferior to that in Hong Kong films. Well, that theory gets kicked to the curb big time here. Simply put, what's on display is some of the most exciting hand to hand (and foot) duels that I've ever seen in a 70s martial arts film. For once, the choreography does juctice to the supreme Tae Kwan Do fighter/actors. The battles are all fast, crisp and built up for max impact, culminating in a twenty minute tournament (of sorts) finale that is as ferocious and hard hitting as it gets. I am completely unfamiliar with star, Gang Dae Hui (the only other credit I could even find for him was another Korean film called Jailhouse, released the same year) but whoever he is, he's a very strong presence who lends equally well to the head bashing and thesping scenes. If these are in fact his only two screen credits (and they may well not be), then it's a damn shame. I've been a fan of James "mr. Rage" Nam ever since first seeing him as the complicated villain in 'King Boxer'. He proves here to be just as adept at portraying complicated heroes.

Despite my minor hesitance with the film's drama, 'Kill the Shogun' makes for a frentically fun old school martial arts experience, one that no self respecting aficiondo should miss.

Oh, and as for the Hwang Jang Lee cameo? He can be spotted during the finale, getting his rear end handed to him by Gang (Hwang's the one dressed in red). It took a second viewing before I even recognized him.

Rating: 7/10