Monday, 30 August 2010

Hell'z Windstaff (1979)

This week I'm kicking it old school and reviewing the cult classic that is Hell'z Windstaff. Released in 1978, Hell'z Windstaff was one of those independently produced martial arts films that, while not really making a big mark on the Hong Kong box office, would go on to become a bona fide cult favourite among fans of the genre. It's cult status is cemented in the fact that rap group Wu-Tang Clan (Themselves huge Kung Fu movie fans) have a track on the album Liquid Swords named after the flick.

Based on the long running Jademan (A.K.A Dragon Tiger Gate) comic series the plot revolves around two young mischievous trouble makers Tiger Wong (Meng Yuen Man) and Stone Dragon (Meng Hoi) who discover the people from their home town are being sold into by local gangsters headed by the deadly Lu (Master kicker himself Hwang Jang Lee) when Tiger and Stone end up killing one of Lu's men in a fight, Lu himself retaliates by murdering Tiger's father and Kung Fu Master. The two friend then band together and improve their fighting skills and set out to get revenge on Lu.

Hell'z Windstaff has and always will be one of my all time favourite old school martial arts films. The film doesn't take itself too seriously and offers a copious amount of fist to foot action and painful looking training sequences. It helps that we have Meng Yuen Man and Meng Hoi in the leads as both of them get to show their skills and also show off that they're not bad actors. Unfortunately both of them never really managed to get leading man status later on in their career. Although Meng Hoi would go on to be a player in several Sammo Hung productions including Warriors Two and Pedicab Driver (Both of which, have, of course been ear marked for review at some point). Sadly Meng Yuen Man was forced to retire after suffering an almost fatal heart attack in 1982. Despite that Hell'z Windstaff is a great showcase of their talents as martial arts exponents. Moving from the leading men to the leading villain. Any self respecting Martial Arts fan knows who Hwang Jang Lee is.

For those not familiar Hwang Jang Lee is a Korean Tae Kwon Do expert and former martial arts instructor for the Korean and South Vietnamese military (Where legend has it he killed a man during a one on one fight) before getting involved with the movie industry. Early appearances in movies like Snake In The Eagle's Shadow and Secret Rivals made him much in demand and he would go on to appear in the some of the most popular and sought after fight flicks ever put on film. Here he gets to show his almost superhuman like kicking skills and also gets the rare opportunity to do some weapons fighting but it's when he's up against the heroes of the movie he goes into overdrive and we're treated to one of the most furious fights Hwang Jang Lee has ever recorded.

So, there's not much to Hell'z Windstaff, in fact most of the time movies of this period didn't offer a whole lot apart from some insane kung fu action and this flick maintains that status quo quite well. So, if you haven't check it out yet, get a hold of the DVD if you can cos this an absolute must see for any fan of old school kicks.  

Monday, 23 August 2010

True Legend (2010)

It's been 14 years since fight choreographer extraordinaire Yuen Woo-Ping has taken to the director's chair and True Legend sees Woo-Ping return to form. True Legend is beyond a doubt the most fight packed film I've seen this year. It seems Woo-Ping really wanted to give his audience their money's worth and he certainly delivers.

True Legend concerns Su Can (Vincent Zhao) a high ranking general who is tipped to be Governor of his home province after rescuing a wealthy prince, much to the intense jealousy of his adoptive brother Yuan (Andy On). Five years later Su is ready to open his new martial arts school with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun) and his son. Word arrives that Yuan will be arriving for the opening and Su's father (Leung Kar-Yan also known to hardcore kung fu fans as Beardy) is excited at the prospect of a family reunion. When Yuan arrives it's obvious he is a changed man and he murders Su's father using the forbidden Five Venom Fists technique. Su tries to stop Yuan but is defeated and is forced to go into hiding with his wife. While recovering, Su hones his skills in the martial arts in hopes that he'll be able to rescue his son and re-establish his name.

So the plot is something that's been done a million times over in hundreds of Kung Fu movies but it's never been that big a deal as long as the fighting is convincing and entertaining. Given the talent involved in this film it definitely meets both those demands and surpasses even my already high expectations I had for this particular film. The fights where over seen by director Woo-Ping, who has been involved with martial arts cinema since the early 70's and has worked with top stars such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen and has been involved with big Hollywood productions such as The Matrix Trilogy and the Kill Bill movies. So if anyone was more qualified to put the fights together, he certainly has the credentials.

Woo-Ping gives us a great blend of old-school style choreography with more modern and flashy film techniques but does it in such a way that doesn't distract one from the other. Something most contemporary action films have a nasty habit of doing (See Bourne Trilogy). It also helps that he's jammed in as many fights as he possibly could, it's a safe assumption that you'll be waiting at least no longer then ten minutes before you get to the next action and/or obligatory training sequence. Said training scenes are punctuated by nice supporting roles from Gordon Liu (Pai Mei from Kill Bill Vol. 2) and Jay Chou (Star of the upcoming Green Hornet) who provide our intrepid hero with the motivation to push his skills as a martial arts fighter. It's interesting as it was these particular scenes that were shown in 3D during the film's theatrical run in Hong Kong and it's pretty obvious given how they were filmed and placement of the visual effects but from what I've read the 3D was pretty underwhelming but it's nice to see a veteran such as Woo-Ping experimenting with the technology.

Moving from the top notch action onto the not so bad acting. Leading man Vincent Zhao does a decent job as Beggar Su, while he's certainly not the strongest of actors, he has certainly improved from his embarrassing face pulling he committed in The Blade 15 years earlier. Then again, he has had a long time to hone his craft as he's a popular TV actor in his native China. Zhou Xun by far gives the film's strongest performance, while her character doesn't develop any further then wall flower and damsel in distress, she gives it her all and makes Ying quite a sympathetic character. Villain Andy On, who's on-screen performances have been a bit of a mixed bag ever since he started his film career is surprisingly good, he gives the right level of menace while also giving him a touch of emotion and turns Yuan from stock villain to a man who wants to be ruthless but doesn't want to hurt his family, at least for the most part.

True Legend is one of the most fast paced, action packed and definitely must see martial arts films of 2010 as it offers a great Shaw Brothers vibe while also being able to stand head and shoulders above the recent efforts of a certain Mr. Donnie Yen, who's recent films seem to garner a lot of attention. Go buy the DVD or wait for the Blu-Ray but if you've yet to see this or if this review has convinced you to then what are you waiting for?

Monday, 16 August 2010

Ninja (2009)

Ninjas. whenever you hear the word ninjas you think of sneaky men in black pyjamas, carry big swords and don't get along with pirates. That last one is a scientific fact and  I defy anyone who thinks otherwise. The Ninja has always had a cult status in cinema, particularly martial arts cinema. During the 80's you couldn't move from one shelf to the other of your local video rental store without seeing a ninja film staring at you just begging to be rented and taken home to watched with a few beers and a good curry.

The ninja trend seemed to die a quiet death in the early 90's when the kick boxing fad came along and since then, apart from Japan, there's been very few attempts at bringing the genre back to contemporary action cinema but it would appear 2009 was the year of the Ninja when not one but two major ninja films saw release. The first one was the big budget and completely misunderstood Ninja Assassin (which will probably be reviewed by me at some point), the other is the film I'll be reviewing today which is the lesser know but just as good to watch Ninja, a simple and unimaginative title it may be but it sums up the film's content perfectly.

Raised in the art of Ninjutsu since he was abandoned by his parents as a young child, Casey (Scott Adkins) is chosen to return to his American homeland to protect the legendary Yoroi Bitsu (a chest which contains the weapons of the last Koga Ninja) from his mortal enemy Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara).

The plot is strictly by the numbers but it's just an excuse to cram as much martial arts action into the film as humanly possible. If you're looking for the film which combines intense drama with realistic depictions of the ninja arts then you're going to be very disappointed, however on the other hand if you're looking for a film which has lots of blood spraying and swords clashing then Ninja is right up your alley. That in itself is the film's greatest strength; it knows what type of film it is, what type of audience is going for and doesn't strive to be anything more then what it is. There's an admirable attempt at a romantic sub-plot between the lead actors Scott Adkins and Mika Hijii but it comes off a bit cheesy and predictable most of the time.

The cast in itself is very good given this is a direct-to-DVD action film. Leading man Scott Adkins, who is merely a bit player in big Hollywood movies such as Bourne Ultimatum and Wolverine, has garnered a loyal cult following from his lesser know works in which he has more substantial roles. Movies such as Special Forces, Undisputed II and Undisputed III have allowed him to show not only is he a capable leading man but also an incredible martial artist but Hollywood have yet to realise what an indispensable asset Adkins can be when he appears on screen. Mika Hijii who plays Casey's love interest and fellow ass-kicker Namiko proves she's better then the material given to her as she gives quite competent performances in both the acting and action stakes and she plays off Adkins well in the many dialogue scenes they have. What would an action movie be with a good villain? Tsuyoshi Ihara is clearly having lots of fun playing Masazuka as he gets to wear some pretty cool ninja gear and kill lots of people in different, bloody and stylish ways.

This being a Ninja film it's obvious that the action is the focal point and as I mentioned earlier it delivers in spades. Adkins goes through each fight sequence effortlessly and gets to show off his full repertoire of moves while kicking some serious butt. The fight which takes place in a temple toward the end of the film really encapsulates what amazing skill Adkins has as an action star. The film is already gaining a cult following and that's in no small part to the film's director Isaac Florentine, who's made a name for himself directing low budget action films that have some of the most intricately choreographed action seen outside of Hong Kong. He's one of the few director's to really have a grasp of how to shoot martial arts action on screen and make it look fast, exciting and bone crunching. Something which a few Hollywood directors can't seem to get their heads around.

Ninja is one of the best action movies of 2009 and showcases some breath-taking action and some solid acting. I totally recommend you go out and get this as I guarantee that you will not be disappointed in the least.

Monday, 9 August 2010

First Review - Tekken (2010)

Hello and welcome the first of what I hope to be many reviews right here on Chopsticks On Fire, a new blog dedicated to providing readers with reviews of martial arts movies and TV shows of the past, present and future. First up is a review of the big screen (or should that be small screen?) adaptation of the popular video game franchise Tekken.

The film takes place in the futuristic dystopian world of Tekken City (Yes, it's as stupid as it sounds) a world that has collapsed under the weight of corporate greed and countries are ruled with a (no pun intended) iron fist. Here we meet our hero, Jin, a guy who spends his time running from Jack Hammers (Basically guys in Hockey armour spray painted black) so he can spend money on pieces of fruit and Chocolate. Yes, it seems in the future nice things like fruit, vegetables and sweets are outlawed yet not so nice things such as tobacco and alcohol are readily available, curse you evil corporate bastards!

Anyway, aside from risking getting shot in the head for a Mars Bar he also finds time to bang his girlfriend Kara, who doesn't do much except stand around, pout and get plowed by our fearless hero. After we learn what a jammy little git Jin is we find out he lives with his mother Jun who taught him martial arts since he was a child. It's here we see that Jin has a strong desire to entire the King Of Iron Fist tournament, which is kind of like UFC but with the added theatrics of WWE. Naturally his mother forbids him and Jin goes away in a huff and get a quick shag from his missus. As he's busy getting his end away Jack Hammers (No matter how many times I type that it never sounds any less ridiculous) storm his mother's home and she ends up getting blown to bits. Feeling guilty over the fact he was busy getting his rod polished when he should have stayed with his mother, Jin enters the King of the Iron Fist in the hopes of avenging the woman who had the misfortune of giving birth to him.

And so began my viewing of the most disappointing movie I've seen this year. I'm a huge Tekken fan more so then any other fighting game Franchise and when I heard that a live action movie was being made I was understandably excited as the games themselves provided a really solid foundation for a really good story and could have made a solid series of action films, instead what we have here is Bloodsport written by a horny 15 year old. The cast range from not to bad to just flat out silly. Jon Foo proves he had what it takes to be an action star, he's not that bad an actor and he gets to show off his incredible skill as a martial artist but his characterisation is completely wrong, in the games Jin is a man who is tormented by his family legacy and the hatred he shares for his father, in the film he's a whingy little sod who spends most of the time getting his arse kicked and frowning a lot, not the most endearing of underdog heroes if you ask me. 

It's also worth mentioning that Jin seems to conveniently forget he has a girlfriend once he claps eyes in Christie Monteiro played by Kelly Overton but given the fact the first time you see her she's working up a slow motion sweat in the gym I think I'd probably have a lapse in memory as well. At first Christie doesn't want to have anything to do with our loveable scamp for a hero and makes it very clear but after she sees him in action she can't wait whisk him off to a rave and have him grope her backside like no tomorrow. Yes, it seems that Tekken is very much catering, rather unashamedly it seems, to the teenage male demographic, since Hollywood seem to think that people over the age of 18 don't play video games. It's this approach that turns the whole thing into a great big bloody pantomime.

The rest of the cast don't fair much better, Luke Goss cashes a quick cheque as Steve Fox, stock villain Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa looks constipated as head of Tekken, Heihachi Mishima and Ian Anthony Dake chews the scenery like his life depends on it as Jin's father Kazuya and believe me, I'm not spoiling anything major by mentioning that father-son connection. While we're on the subject of Kazuya it seems Jin picked up his rabid libido from his old man as we're treated to a rather awkward scene which sees his dad bang both Anna and Nina Williams. Yep. jammy sods, the pair of them.

Moving on from the mouth breathers we call the characters lets move to the action, which is one of the main selling points of the film. It's probably by the far the only good part of the film and the only time the cast really get to show what they can do. As I mentioned before Foo really gets to show his stuff but he spends most of the time getting his butt kicked you kind of feel sorry for him most of the time. Cyril Raffaelli, who in his own right has established himself as an action star in his native France provides the choreography and plays to each actor's strength and this arm chair critic hopes despite the finished product this film lands him more work in future projects. 

Usually a film that's high in bone crunching ass-kickery and curvy eye candy would be right up my alley but given that the film doesn't do enough with both to make it entertaining, the whole thing is just dull. The director, Dwight H. Little does nothing to really make this film stand out amongst the other video game movies to hit our screens which shouldn't come as any surprise since he directed such classics as Halloween 4 and Free Willy 2 yet looking at his credits on IMDb he seems to have made quite a success in television directing such shows as Dollhouse, Prison Break and Bones but I never watched any of those so I couldn't comment if he did any better on them. It's a shame as Tekken could really have been the first break out video game to make a solid franchise and cover up the box office stains left over from Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Dead Or Alive.

If you really want to see this train wreck of a film then I'm not going to stop you but it seems you'll have a long time to wait since the UK DVD/Blu-Ray premier isn't happening until sometime between January and June of  2011. The fact it's been pushed back that far should tell you how much faith the studio releasing this monstrosity, have.

Hope you liked reading my first review, I promise the next reviews will on films that I actually like.