Monday, 25 October 2010

No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers (1990)

And the hits just keep on coming with part 3 of my retrospective of the cult movie franchise No Retreat, No Surrender. This week I'm reviewing part 3 subtitled Blood Brothers. Loren Avedon returns along side fellow martial artist Keith Vitali as two brothers Will(Avedon) and Casey(Vitali) who just can't seem to get along. Will spends his time teaching Karate and by teaching Karate I mean showing amazing displays of Tae Kwon Do and beating the living snot out of his students in an attempt to teach what it's like "on the streets" and Casey spends his time foiling bank robberies and sleeping with any leggy blonde unfortunate enough to fall into his line of sight. No, Casey isn't a superhero, he works for The Company, otherwise known as the CIA, I guess doing desk work gets dull after a while.

The reason these two don't get along is they represent two completely different ideologies of the human condition. Casey is the straight laced conservative fighting for truth, justice and the American way and strives hard to maintain social order in a world on the brink of war between the U.S. and Russia. Casey embodies the liberal spirit of modern society, who has cast off such stifling things as a boring office job and having a mortgage and expresses his freedom by training his body in the ancient form of martial combat. So when these two champions of opposing ideals meet they clash like thunder.

Actually, scratch everything I just wrote, I just added all that stuff and nonsense to make the film appear deep when actually it's less shallow then a half dried puddle. The reason these two whingey little sods don't get along is, well, I suppose it was just to make the movie and the characters more interesting when all it really does is make you want to reach into the screen, smack both of them round the lug hole and tell them to get over themselves. After meeting our fearless heroes we're treated to a scene in which they visit their father John (Joseph Campanella) to celebrate his birthday. Barely five minutes go by and the two brothers are at each other's throats like two hungry dogs fighting over a steak. At this point I didn't find these two characters at all likable. Avedon is certainly the better actor, while Vitali grits his teeth and his eyes bulge out like they're trying to escape his skull in an attempt to make it look like he's doing some serious acting. Yet all this conflict just didn't make them particularly endearing.

After the two storm off, John is left alone. Not long after that the bad guys or as I like to call them the Bad Hair Brigade, as they sport some of the most embarrassing hairstyles in the entire franchise, show up and rather then do the sensible thing and just shoot him in the back of the head, they decide to throw him round the house with some impressive stunt work. When Will and Casey find their deceased father, they decide to go their own way and get revenge on the people who saved John from the torture that is these two arguing.

Yes, I like to think his death is a mercy killing more then anything else. So, will the two of them get the bad guys and also make amends in time for the final reel? if you're really wondering that then I suggest you take your computer monitor (or laptop for those people on the go) and lightly tap the top of your skull no less then seven times, make it eight just to be safe.

NRNS 3 maintains the status quo of thin on plot and thick on action and boy it is thick on action. It's probably the most martial arts heavy of the series so far. After the second movie Corey Yuen moved on and the directing reigns were handed to Lucas Lowe but to maintain the snappy Hong Kong action style fight choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung was brought on board. Like it's previous entries the fighting is where the film shines the most. Leung fighting style is quite different to Corey Yuen's. While Yuen often has a fast paced but slightly exaggerated style to his scenes, Leung brings a much more dynamic and hard hitting street style that works in the actor's favours. Loren Avedon spent six hours a day for six months intensively preparing for the movie it really shows. His movements are less stiff and much more fluid and he has a heavier build that makes him look more of a dangerous adversary then he did in the previous movie.

He's paired well with co-star Keith Vitali who had appeared in classics like Revenge of the Ninja and Wheels on Meals by this time in his career, so he was already seasoned in the ways of movie making. Yet unlike Avedon he only spent a month preparing for the movie and ended up injuring his arm for his troubles, so for the whole movie Vitali has his hand in a cast but you barely notice it and it doesn't really effect his fighting. Anyone who may have seen Wheels on Meals may already know how good Vitali is and while NRNS3 doesn't quite show off his flair for screen fighting, it's definitely one of his better films that he made in his short screen career.

As for as the series goes NRNS3 has been the strongest entry thus far, the story is half-way decent but the acting stinks, I've said before Avedon is a decent actor but he over acts just a little bit sometimes and it gets a little grating. The action is by far the best I've seen and is further testament to the work of Tony Leung Siu-Hung, who is probably one of the more underrated action directors to work the action film genre.

So, that's all I've got to say on No Retreat, No Surrender 3, join me next week where I'll be reviewing the next instalment King of the Kickboxers.

Monday, 18 October 2010

No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder (1987)

Welcome to my second week in my retrospective of the No Retreat, No Surrender series. Today I'm reviewing the second entry No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder. After the huge success of the first one Seasonal films were quick to put together a sequel to capitalize on it's huge success. Both stars Kurt Mckinney and Jean-Claude Van Damme had signed on and a script and locations in Thailand had been put together.

Unfortunately days before cameras were set to roll Van-Damme dropped out of the film, feeling it would not further his career and went on to star in Kick Boxer, which propelled the Muscles from Brussels into super stardom. Strangely, Mckinney would soon follow, thus leaving the film without it's principle actors. Producer Roy Horan was then forced to find replacements. German martial artist Matthias Hues took the place of Van-Damme and American Tae Kwon Do expert Loren Avedon was given the leading role.

The film opens in the stormy fields of Vietnam, here we see a group of people tied to posts ready to be executed by the military, here we meet Ty played by none other then Hwang Jang Lee, we can tell he's the bad guy cos 1) his face is partially obscured by shadow and 2) he has a mean looking scar on his face and nothing says evil like a big facial scar. Suddenly he barks an order and they proceed to kill their prisoners, quite why he's executed these people is never made clear but it serves the purpose of just showing just how evil this guy is, I guess a little t-shirt saying "I'm The Bad Guy" would have been a too subtle.

Next we meet Scott Wylde (Avedon), a martial artist who travels to Thailand to visit his college sweet heart Sulin. After a romantic meal consisting of deep fried insects and Tiger testicles he whisks her away to his flop house hotel room for a Bond style love scene, complete with slow motion disrobing and cheesy music. That Scott is a classy guy. Not long after their torrid love making they are attacked by some thugs. Sulin is kidnapped and Scott is arrested by the local police for killing some of the attackers. After an awkward interrogation in which he was told to inexplicably jump or maybe shut up I couldn't tell, Roy Horan shows up and tells him to bugger off to Singapore and never set foot in Thailand again.

As he's about to be shoved into a plane, Scott escapes on a motorcycle which culminates in a jump over a spitfire that would make Evel Kienevel piss himself laughing from beyond the grave. Scott soon finds out Sulin's kidnappers are involved with the Vietnamese army and Russian military, sadly I can't recall why these two armies had joined forces or why they kidnapped her but it's not all that integral to the movie. Scott then enlists the help of wise cracking Vietnam veteran Mac Jarvis (Max Thayer) and the hot tempered fighter Terry (Cynthia Rothrock) to go with him to Cambodia to rescue his girl and take down the bad guys.

So, yeah, the plot is very different to the Karate Kid cloning of the original, it seems that the producers were eager to push the series further and give the audience more bang for their buck. It's also obvious that Rambo II was a huge influence, with it's exotic locations and bombastic action sequences. There's a lot of martial arts action but there's also a few good gun fights thrown in which gives the film a really wild over the top tone. Corey Yuen returned for directing duties so as you'd expect the action is really solid for the most part.

I mentioned previously he really knows how to make people look good when their fighting, he has this incredible knack for being able to play to the actor's strengths and NRNS2 is a fine example of this. Avedon is a good martial artist, he looks good when he's throwing kicks and he handles himself well in the numerous action scenes he's in, Yuen choreographs his action that plays to Avedon's strengths really well. He's also not that bad an actor, growing up he starred in TV commercials and had a few bit parts in low budget action flicks but NRNS2 was his first full leading role, he may have been a little rough around the edges in the drama department but with a lot more exposure and some sure fire hits under his belt he could well have been a big a star as Van Damme and Seagal. It's just a shame that he never really got the recognition he really deserves.

He plays well off his co-stars Thayer and Rothrock. Thayer plays Mac with just the right level of world weariness that makes him likeable and Rothrock does well enough but it's when she's fighting she shines the most. By this time in her career she'd already made a name for herself in Hong Kong with appearances in Yes, Madam!, The Magic Crystal and Righting Wrongs so it was a natural for her to make the progression to American movies and this wasn't a bad place to start. She shares the distinction of having the one and only fight scene featuring Hwang Jang Lee (I should mention this film contains the only scene were he speaks English in a movie) and while the choreography itself is not as great as you'd expect it to be, it's a good opportunity to see these two action legends go toe to toe.

The finale has Avedon and Hues go at it and it's just as over the top as you'd expect. Matthias Hues is a large man, he towers over Avedon and when you get a heavily built man like Hues doing the action, it can come off as a bit awkward and it does a couple times but Yuen does a good enough job of hiding it and the choreography works in both actors favours. No Retreat, No Surrender 2 is a solid action flick and is definitely worth seeing as it gives a great debut from Avedon and as I said, the rare opportunity to see Rothrock and Lee fight each other.

Tune in next week for my review of Part 3 Blood Brothers!

Monday, 11 October 2010

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

In 1984, the seminal coming of age martial arts film The Karate Kid was released and was a huge success, with it's combination of spirituality, nicely choreographed action and memorable performances, the film made over $90 Million worldwide, making it a massive success. Unsurprisingly, film makers were quick to cash in. In 1986 Seasonal Films, mostly known for producing Jackie Chan's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, released their own spin on The Karate Kid formula with No Retreat, No Surrender.

Kurt Mckinney plays Jake Stillwell, a Karate practitioner who idolises Bruce Lee and hopes one day to reach the same level as the Martial Arts legend. After his father is injured in a fight with some local criminals, they move to Seattle to start a new life. Jake ends up butting heads with some members of a local Karate Dojo, so he starts training intensively (With the spiritual guidance of Bruce Lee no less) in hopes of becoming a Karate Master.

So, yeah, the film pretty much follows the story of The Karate Kid almost beat for beat, so much so that's kind of distracting as I found myself comparing the two throughout. It goes without saying Karate Kid is definitely the better movie because quite frankly No Retreat, No Surrender is a bad movie, really bad in fact. That mostly has a lot to do with the acting which is just down right awful. This was lead actor's Kurt McKinney's first acting role and it shows, when he gets angry, he gets really angry, he screams and shouts and throws his arms around like a three year old throwing a tantrum and it's just too damn funny most of the time. It's obvious they were trying to go for drama but the awful dialogue and bad acting performances just turn the film into a completely unintentional comedy.

Funny thing is, the movie does try to throw some humour in now and again, this is given to us in the form of Jake's best friend the skateboarding, break dancing, rapping RJ played by played by J.W. Fails and boy does he live up to his name. He comes off as Philip Michael Thomas' talentless, annoying and slightly retarded younger brother who has the strange ability of turning into a short, floppy haired Chinese man whenever he does any acrobatic stunts, you can tell he's having fun being around and making the movie but it doesn't really help his acting ability.

Familiar plot lines and annoying supporting characters aside, the films does offer up some decent action. Directed by Corey Yuen and choreographed by Meng Hoi, the fighting is the typical stylised hyped up kick boxing style that had become popular in Hong Kong action movies of this period. What I love about Corey Yuen as both a director and a choreographer is that he has this natural talent of making anyone look good when they fight on screen. Even someone as stiff as Mckinney, who is an accomplished martial artist, comes off looking like a total bad ass in the finale against a young Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays the movie's main villain, Russian Kick-boxer Ivan. Rocky IV had been a massive box-office hit the year before and evil Russians had become the stock villain during the 80's due to the cold war so it was an obvious ploy in order to make the film appeal to the audience. I can honestly say I've never seen Van Damme look better when he's fighting. Even in his more well know movies such as Kickboxer and Bloodsport, he's fast, his kicks are solid and accurate and he looks deadly.

Now, let's move onto a section of the film which people often talk about. After having his ass handed to him by another Karate fighter, Jake pleads at the grave of Bruce Lee to help him become a better martial artist. Oddly enough, his prayers are answered when Bruce Lee's ghost appears and helps train Jake. Bruce is played by Kim Tai-Chung, who had portrayed Lee before in Game of Death and Game of Death 2. Kim's performance is decent, he has the mannerisms pretty much down and he looks good when he throws the odd kick but the whole sequence just comes of really odd and maybe just a exploitative of Lee's memory, especially when he's spouting a load of convoluted guff as if he's reciting a really badly put together cliff notes version of Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

No Retreat, No Surrender isn't a great film, what we have is just downright awful but for some really odd reason it was a decent hit at the box office. The film cost $400,000 to produce and would go on to gross $16,500,000 worldwide, so given it's success, a number of sequels would follow. All of which I am going to review over the next few weeks. Why have I decided to submit myself to such cinematic torture? I really don't know but this is first and foremost a martial arts movie blog so I'm willing to subject myself to hackneyed stories, embarrassing acting and cheesy dialogue all for the sake of reporting to you, my faithful readers, the martial arts action contained within.

Now if only I could find a way to get paid for this sort of thing.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Drive (1997)

American martial arts movies very rarely get it right. Uusally the film suffers from poor choreography, uninspired camera work or an absolutely abysmal plot. Yet among all the crap, you will discover a gem that really makes you appreciate the art of martial arts movie making. Drive is one of those films. Released way back in 1997, Drive failed to make any sort of splash at the box office but like all movies of a cult nature Drive has gone on to have an incredibly strong fan following and has enjoyed numerous successful film festival showings as well as bagging some well deserved awards.

The plot revolves around Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos), a soldier on the run from the Red Chinese Army because he has a top secret prototype bio-engine heart that gives him increased speed, strength and agility. Along the way he enlists the help of struggling song writer Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison) who agrees to help him in exchange for half the money Toby will get upon delivering the bio-engine to an American tech company, meanwhile they are pursued by a violent assassin Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson) and his inept henchman Hedgehog (Tracey Walter)

Despite the plot, it's actually surprisingly well written, the characters all have nicely fleshed out personalities and the dialogue is pretty damn funny at times. It's obvious the cast were having a lot of fun making the movie and it definitely shows in their performances. Mark Dacascos is perfectly cast as Toby Wong. Decascos started learning martial arts at a very early age and got into the movie industry using his talent, he is an absolutely incredible screen fighter and he very rarely gets the opportunity to really show just what he's capable of. His stoic acting style and blistering kicking combinations make a really great mix and it's a shame Mark never really got to capitalize on the cult fame which Drive had given him. He plays off well his co-star Kadeem Hardison who gives a really funny performance. It's interesting as it pre-dates Rush Hour as portraying two minority actors in the leading roles (Dacascos is of Hawaiian/Japanese decent) and Rush Hour director Brett Ratner has gone on record to say if it wasn't for Drive, Rush Hour would never have been made. I don't know if that's true or not but it's a wonderful compliment to the film.

Every action movie needs a good villain and thankfully we're given one with John Pyper-Ferguson as Vic Madison, who chews the scenery with glee as he curses, shouts and shoots his way through the movie, his performance is absolutely hilarious and I've yet to see another movie with him where he's been allowed to really tap into that side of himself.

Yet the glue that really brings this film together is the action. Drive is a prime example of what I like to call kitchen sink film making. It's where the director throws in every idea they can think of and make it work to their advantage. Director Steve Wang really knows how to make a solid action movie, he knows how to film it, he knows how to edit it. It also helps that he has Koichi Sakamoto doing the fight choreography. Sakamoto has been working the movie industry for a number of years, he previously had worked with Wang on Guyver: Dark Hero, which is an excellent American adaptation of the Japanese manga/anime series. With it's combination of outrageous creature effects and intricate choreography, it made sense that these two would end up collaborating on another picture. Much like Yuen Woo-Ping, Sakamoto really knows how to bring out the best in the people he works with. He uses Dacascos to his full potential, allowing to show off his full repertoire of fighting moves.

The fighting itself is absolutely outstanding, you'll be hard pressed to find another American movie made around this time that has the same level of action Drive does. Each fight is expertly put together and each one has a definite Jackie Chan vibe to them with Dacascos leaping off the walls, jumping over tables and using whatever he can get his hands on to take down the bad guys. A real stand out scene happens in a small hotel room when Decascos uses a pair of rubber soled boots to deflect the attacks of electric shock rods and is a great way of showing the creative thinking behind the movie. Now, usually with this type of movie, they save the best for last and Drive is no exception. Taking place in a gaudy night club, the people who are after Toby's bio-engine show up and all hell breaks loose. At first Toby and Malik are trying their best to stop themselves from getting killed but then the rather stupidly named Advanced Model (Masaya Kato) shows up, he is called the advanced model because that's what he is, a faster, stronger, better fighter then Toby. These guys tear each other apart, it's like the finale of Drunken Master 2, it just keeps getting crazier and crazier and fighting just goes from strength to strength, it's one of the few movies outside of Hong Kong that will make make you go "Damn, did you see that!?"

Drive is one of the best martial arts movies to come out America, with it's combination of humour and excellent stunts and fight scenes, it is one of the greatest action movies of the 90's. Fans have been hoping for years that Steve Wang, Mark Dacascos and Kochi Sakamoto will reunite and set fire to the screen once again and it would seem their prayers have been answered with Dacascos making recent comments that he's gearing up to make another movie with him. If you haven't seen Drive yet then what are you doing wasting time reading my rambling excuse for a review for? get the DVD, sit back and enjoy the ride.