Monday, 27 September 2010

The Street Fighter (1974)

Following the tragic and untimely death of Bruce Lee in 1973, the martial arts film world was in turmoil. Various projects which the star had been attached went up in smoke and what was to be his magnum opus, Game of Death remained unfinished. Unscrupulous film producers rushed to find someone to take his place, mostly what audiences got were shameless imitators who aped Lee's filmography and sullied his great legacy. Meanwhile over in Japan, a film hit cinemas that struck a cord, not only with local audiences but with fight film fans world wide. That film was The Street Fighter. An action crime film starring Sonny Chiba.

Chiba had already established a foothold in the Japanese film industry with appearances in films such as Yakuza Deka and Bodyguard Kiba but he was yet to star in a film that would really propel him to being a major star. Upon it's release it was well received and went on to spawn two sequels, all starring Chiba in the lead. It wasn't until years later that Chiba admitted that he had turned down the opportunity to work with Lee on the film Way Of The Dragon and to this day remains one of the biggest regrets of his life.

With it's combination of over the top characters and brutal fight choreography, The Street Fighter has gained a cult following which includes famous admirers like film director and shameless film nerd Quentin Tarantino. The film True Romance includes a conversation between the lead characters in which they talk about Sonny's on screen persona.

Since it's release the film, along with it's sequels, have fallen into the public domain and have been released on DVD by various labels. It's worth mentioning that when the film was originally released in the U.S. it was given an X rating due to the level of violence rather then sexual content and was a first for a film of this nature. If that doesn't give you an idea of the type of movie this is, I don't know what will.

Sonny Chiba portrays Takuma Tsurugi, a mercenary for hire who ends up a target for the mob when they try and hire him to kidnap the daughter of a recently deceased oil tycoon but refuses when he finds out the people trying to hire him are part of a criminal organization specialising in assassination. The plot is shamelessly incidental and gives Chiba, who holds black belts in six different forms of Japanese martial arts, to show just what he can do best and that's bust people's head's open and rip a dude's nutsack clean off all the while grimacing like he's having an incredibly uncomfortable bowel movement.

Sonny's character doesn't screw around, he's very much the anti-hero, he'll help you out in a jam but only if you've got the cash to back it, mess him around and he'll have no problem breaking your face and selling your sister into sex slavery. The film does a great job of trying to differentiate Chiba's on screen persona from that of Bruce Lee, who often played the down trodden hero doing what was right for his fellow country men. If Sonny Chiba was in The Big Boss, he would have gone to Han Yin-Chieh in the first five minutes of the movie, ripped his throat out and then sold his cousin to the local whore house just for laughs. This type of down and dirty action hero worked well in Chiba's favour as it allowed him to do things in movies that no other action star could have pulled off.

The action is some of the most brutal I've seen from a film during this era. Chiba shows his skills as a martial artist really well, the moves themselves don't look as stylish or pretty as Chinese Kung Fu does but it's just as intricately choreographed and just as hard hitting. With every punch, kick and elbow he throws you actually feel it and gives the fight scenes just that little added touch of brutality. One of the defining moments in the film is when Tsurugi goes toe to toe with a karate master portrayed by Masafumi Suzuki, at first he's over confident and bragging how much he's going to beat him but when the fighting starts it's clear Tsurugi is outmatched but when that famous theme music starts playing away you know he means business and fight comes to an incredible stalemate.

That's one of the more interesting aspects of The Street Fighter, each fight feels different and looks different. There's a clever little fight in which Tsurugi goes against a blind swordsman (An obvious riff on the famous character Zatoichi) who blocks the bright sun behind him and moves so the sudden flash of light would make it difficult for Tsurugi to place just exactly when he'll strike, it's a nicely edited and tightly choreographed fight and further proves the maker's of this movie were really trying hard to make The Street Fighter stand out. Yet, all that just leads us to the the finale on board an oil freighter where Sonny tears through the bad guys, bodies fly, bright red blood is spilled and Chiba proves just what a complete bad-ass he is.

This film is a much beloved movie among fight movie fans for a reason and if you haven't seen it yet, you really owe yourself get your hands on the DVD but make sure the one you get is completely uncut cos you don't want to miss out on a single second of the brutal and bloody spectacle that is The Street Fighter

Monday, 20 September 2010

Descendant of Wing Chun (1979)

Inspired by a brief conversation I had with achillesgirl on her blog about the conventions of Kung Fu villainy, I decided to revisit an old school fight flick from 1979, Descendant of Wing Chun. It was a classic forms film that was made just before the Hong Kong film industry made it's transition into more contemporary movies in the 1980's and began to move away from the traditional martial arts movie. As it is Descendant of Wing Chun is not the must see fight flick it tries to be but is a good enough entry to recommend to fans of the genre. It's worth mentioning the film makes an appearance in the Chow Yun-Fat actioner Bulletproof Monk and is the film Sean William Scott watches in the Chinese movie theatre he works in, I'm guessing they couldn't get the rights to a more famous Kung Fu flick.

The Film is based around the Wing Chun self defence system. It is a concept based martial art that uses both grappling and striking at close range. Bruce Lee was known to have used it as a foundation when creating his own style Jeet Kune Do. The story centres around Leung Jan, a real life martial arts master who was known for using the Wing Chun style and has also been portrayed many times on screen, most famously by Yuen Biao in the absolutely astounding Prodigal Son.

Here he is portrayed by Melvin Wong making what was, at this point in his career, his second credited film role. Leung Jan ends up intervening in a fight between a bandit and local police. The bandit (Played by fan favourite Lee Hoi-San) vows revenge on Leung Jan, along with the help of a fellow bandit played by another familiar face Fung Hak-On. So, the plot isn't anything special, it was common for independent productions like this one to forgo character development and narrative structure in favour of putting together as much on screen fighting as possible with the hopes of making money not only on the local market but overseas as well, hence the plot revolving around the two bandits is put to one side in favour of another plot involving a rivalry between a heavy set martial arts braggart (Hong Yee-Sang) and a local money changer (Chui Siu-Keung) who end up being taken on by Leung Jan as his students.

This is where the film sags the most, had they concentrated more on the two bandits and gave the movie a more serious tone, Descendent of Wing Chun could have been held in such high regard as other films of this era but as it stands, it just interferes with the whole flow of the movie and almost renders the entire film unwatchable. However, I did say almost. There is one slightly amusing scene which I'm sure is meant to be a parody of the well known TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine, where Hong Yee-Seng's character goes to his Shaolin master for spiritual guidance only to have him spout a load of pseudo philosophical guff about an orange but when questioned about the meaning of it all, the monk simply shakes his head and says he doesn't know, all the while a wall of candles glow dimly behind him. Pop-culture references aside, the cast itself is very much a who's who of Hong Kong action cinema. I already mentioned Lee Hoi-San, Chui Siu-Keung et al so if you're a fan of any of the people appearing in this and haven't seen it yet, I would definitely recommend it.

Melvin Wong does well enough as Leung Jan, his strong jaw and serious demeanour work well in conveying this is a man who is to be respected and not taken for a fool, he also does well enough in the various fight scenes which is impressive given as Wong was never a serious martial arts practitioner, only performing it when required as part of a film. His moves do come off a little stiff some times but that is to be expected as he's never really had the years of training his fellow cast members had. Which leads me to talk about Chui Siu-Keung, who's career started as a young actor at Shaw Brothers and by this point in his career was well known from films such as 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Heroes of the East, here he gets to show off his flair for Kung Fu and does some pretty decent acting but as you'd expect the film doesn't really give him much to work with except smirk and beat the crap out of the bad guys. I'd talk about the rest of the cast but really they are the only two worth mentioning at any sort of length.

Now we can get to the good stuff, the martial arts action. Yes, it does have a few fights in it and yes they are good not great but good. The odd thing is, the DVD credits the fight choreography is credited to someone named William Cheung, who is apparently a real life Wing Chun master and the film's director Heung Ha (A former Shaw Brothers contract player and later action director) but when looking up the film on HKCinemagic the site credits the film's bad guys Lee Hoi-San and Fung Hak-On as the action directors, so it's difficult to tell who exactly had a hand in the choreography but it isn't entirely unbelievable that Heung Ha had anything to do with the fighting as he has done the action for a number of other films but the most interesting to note is that Descendant of Wing Chun is his only credit as a director and he proved to be quite a competent one (Who maybe didn't quite have a handle on the narrative of a film's story) and it's a shame he never went on to do any others and improve his directing. Going back to the hand to hand stuff as I said it's good, the moves are all varied and interesting and flawlessly executed by the actors but it all falls just a tad flat, while it's great to see these guys go at it on screen (Especially Lee Hoi-San and Chui Siu-Keung who share a rare one on one battle) the rhythm and pace in which it moves comes off a little limp. Yet it's nice to see the cast getting show what they can do.

However the film does make good use of the Wing Chun style, the actors pull off all the fast paced and quick hand and foot combinations well enough and if you like form films like this one then you may enjoy it but it still doesn't quite come close to other films featuring the style such as, again, The Prodigal Son and Warriors Two.

So when you couple together a meandering plot with some decent action, Descendant of Wing Chun isn't the instant classic that I feel it was reaching for but it's a good enough film that deserves at least one watch from serious fans of old school Kung Fu flicks.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The One (2001)

Jet Li. Now there's an action star. Having started a career in the motion picture industry in his native China, Li had become a bankable star to rival even the mighty Jackie Chan himself and like Chan, Li made the leap across the pond to work in Hollywood pictures. Since then they've ranged from pretty darn awful stuff like Cradle 2 The Grave to enjoyable and nicely crafted action films like The One, which I've decided to review today.

The One is essentially Highlander with a Sci-Fi twist. Li plays Gabe Law, a police officer who becomes the target of his doppelg√§nger Yu Law from another dimension, who is hopping from one reality to the next offing his counterparts in hoping he can become the titular One. A very basic premise but one that makes for quite a fun film and one (I feel I'm going to over-using that word through out this review) which all parties involved should be very proud of. The One doesn't try to be high art, it doesn't try and re-invent the Sci-Fi genre or take itself way too seriously like other hybrid films (See The Matrix trilogy) it's play very much to it's own strengths and those are Jet Li himself and the breezy, easy to watch pace it goes with.

Li has always made for a decent leading man, his straight faced demeanour and blistering martial skill made him a house hold name in his native china with the Once Upon A Time In China series and other films such as Fist of Legend. Here he takes that persona and tweeks it a little bit so to make his character Gabe one which you can root for. He plays well off his co-stars such as Carla Gugino, who plays the role of his wife and two share some nice chemistry (Something Jackie Chan seems to struggle with when he acts opposite a female lead) and I would have liked to have seen that explored more. Besides being the good guy we're also treated to him also playing the film's villain, Li tries his best to look mean and intimidating but his friendly face just makes it difficult to really make it all that convincing, not that he doesn't try of course but I think the writers should have tried a little harder to make the characters of Gabe and Yu complete opposites.

Having said that, it would appear when putting together the action scenes, Corey Yuen came up with the rather clever idea of giving both characters different fighting styles. Rather then giving them both generic martial arts styles, Gabe uses Baguazhang (The Eight Trigram Palms) which uses subtle circular movements while Yu Law chooses Xingyiquan (The Shape-Will Fist) which has more aggressive linear movements. Of course, as you'd expect Li pulls off both styles expertly and you can see he put a lot of effort into trying to separate the two characters, even if it didn't fully pay off. The fight scenes are great certainly not the best he's ever done but a definite step up from the likes of Romeo Must Die. Li makes it all look too easy as he throws kick after punch after kick and Corey Yuen's choreography always has that simplistic yet nicely timed aspect to it that I enjoy thoroughly and is a great addition to the many films he's been involved with. With it being a sci-fi film it does throw in a lot of effects and wire work but adds to the really fun comic book feel the film does really well in conveying.

A lot of people dismiss the film as taking itself way too seriously but it honestly doesn't. You can see director James Wong really wanted to make a kick-ass sci-fi action movie that fans of both genres could enjoy and while it does play a little fast and loose with the sci-fi aspect, that's to be expected as the spectacle of seeing Jet Li go toe to toe with himself is the main draw here. It's evident the cast also got what the movie was all about. Just listen to Jason Statham growl his dialogue and grit his teeth as he plays the hard boiled cop tracking down Yu Law, just watch the finale as both super strong Laws literally tear the house down as they go at it. All these things mix together to make a really underrated and unappreciated film that really deserves more credit then it's been given.

The One will never be held in high regard as Li's other films like Fearless but you know what? I'm totally okay with that . What we've been given is a great sci-fi action film that people should really sit back and enjoy and that's what movies are for, right? I thought so.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Ten Dead Men (2008)

Oh boy, where to start? this week I'm reviewing a movie made in my native UK. Ten Dead Men,  is a low budget gangster film that throws in some down and dirty martial arts action. Sounds good right? yeah, it does. Sadly the film, well, if you can call this a film, is one of the most dull and tedious films I've watched in a long time. The plot concerns Ryan (Brendan Carr), a former hit-man who goes on a one man rampage of revenge against the people who murdered his wife and left him for dead. Through out we learn of Ryan's life leading up to that day while being treated to him breaking people's bones like twigs.

Normally this type of movie would have me sitting back and having a great time but it fails so spectacularly in even making the characters remotely interesting and the plot dramatic that it ends up becoming a parody of itself. The script is diabolical and pretentious, the acting is so bad, anybody connected with it would be smart in deleting this from their CV and the direction is unambitious and pedestrian. The only saving grace and I mean, the only saving grace is the action scenes.

Yet even those were a test of my patience. Leading man Brendan Carr proves capable in the few fight scenes sprinkled throughout but the editing and camera work proves detrimental to the brutal fight choreography. Why is it so hard for some directors to shoot a martial arts fight sequence? They all claim to be influenced by the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan but they just do an awful job of actually making a fight scene have good pacing, rhythm and impact that they end up insulting rather then honouring their idols. There are one or two fights which are pretty damn good but the rest are just slow and unexciting. Director Ross Boyask does a okay job but sadly he's got a long way to go before he can be held in high regard among fans with the likes of Isaac Florentine. Who knows? with a bigger budget and much, much, much better scripts he could become that.

Which now brings me to the part I've been dreading. The Cast. Wow, this has some of the worst acting I've seen in a movie, ever. You know your lead actor can't act when he has absolutely no dialogue and there's a constant narration through the film. I mean, sure, Carr stands there, looks mean, moves his arms slightly and walks about a bit but to call what he does in this film acting would be like going to Gordon Ramsey's house, saying his food tastes like fried cat vomit and defecating on his dining table, the worst insult to the profession you could possibly imagine. The narration tries to cover this up but it gets so out of hand that not one scene goes by that we don't hear it. If I want a constant narrative throughout the story I'll read a book or watch a documentary, not in a god damn ACTION MOVIE!

The rest of the cast are just as laughable. That grinning sod from Steps turns up, you know the one who has a face you want to slap ever time you see it. Fortunately we're spared from him actually doing anything when he gets strangled to death by our intrepid hero. The other characters are two incredibly camp gangsters who wave their guns about and stare longingly into each other's eyes and another is a sociopathic torturer who displays as much menace as a slightly annoyed bank manager. I'd go into the rest of the cast but it would just make me fly into a rage and rest of the review would just consist of various expletives and poo metaphors.

Ten Dead Men tries hard to both be a gritty gangland thriller and a bone crunching action film and while the fighting is sort of interesting to watch, it's really not enough to recommend a rental let alone buying it. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you might actually do that, might I recommend you spend the money on some smack instead as shooting that garbage in your veins would be less damaging to your health then watching this poor excuse for a film.