Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Deadly Farce: STONE COLD 2: HEART OF STONE (1997)

I can't explain why, but for some reason I have a real soft spot for football players turned actors. Jim Brown was a record-setting fullback who lead the league in rushing eight times then made some of the best action movies of the '70s. It seems that if the player is a record breaker, the better the movies. That's my theory anyway.

Brian Bosworth, in 1987, was the highest paid rookie in the history of the NFL at $11 million (as opposed to Sam Bradford of the Saint Louis Rams weighing in 2010 at $76 million). In 1988, like most football players that move into acting, he suffered a career-ending injury that forced him to retire. His screen debut was in the Craig R. Baxley directed STONE COLD (1991), which not only delivered insane action, but put together a solid supporting cast of William Forsythe, Sam Elliot and Lance Henricksen (back when he was cool). No football player could topline this movie and not come out looking good. Even Ray Rice could walk away from STONE COLD smelling like an entire flower stand. Unfortunately The Boz wasn't as careful picking out scripts as he was picking out teams in the draft (yes, he pulled an Eli Manning while Eli was still in diapers) and subsequently his acting career fell on hard times. He also sued the NFL to use his college numbers. No ego there. Come to think of it, maybe he was just a pain in the ass to work with.

HEART OF STONE, also known as BACK IN BUSINESS, is later era Brian Bosworth flick (like his gridiron career, his movie career was short too). It sure seems like a slick action outing at first. A fast-talkin’ brotha named Little Train (Guy Torry) desperately tries to warn undercover fed Tony Dunbar (Joe Torry) about a big heroin deal going down between mob boss David Ashby (Alan Scarfe) and dirty fed Emery Ryker (Brion James), before being thrown down an elevator shaft. Now Dunbar sets out to settle the score.

What? Oh yeah, Bosworth is the star. After the opening couple of minutes which make the film seem like a brainless but fun action movie, we are introduced to The Boz. 

Meet ex-cop Joe Elkhart (Boz). He’s a mechanic that likes to listen to a talk radio psychology program and discusses self-help with his overtly Jewish boss who rips off clichés like “Jews know from suffering!” just in case the dimmer bulbs in the audience don’t get it from his stagy Yiddish accent. While cheerfully dealing with his inner demons (by buying his ex-wife an expensive wedding present)  he decides to seek out his former partner Dunbar. Dunbar is now living the life, quaffing Dom and smoking cigars (that he does not keep in a humidor – poser!). Elkhart meets Dunbar to play a pick-up game of hoops on the street. This is pretty much presented in real time and at one point I started thinking that I was watching a sequel to WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP (1992). Not only is the sequence unfathomably long, but the filmmakers decided that it would be a great idea if Boz showed up unprepared and was talked into stripping down to his boxers because he doesn’t have any proper shorts. No, I’m not making this up and have the screenshots to prove it.

After the b-ball game, Dunbar takes him out on his yacht and tells him that his life of opulence is merely his guise in an undercover operation to set up Ashby. Once on the docks they meet Dunbar’s neurotic female mechanic who is also into therapy and bonds with the Boz instantly by telling him that she is exploring her masculine side and that they should sleep together first, but not in a sexual way because “fucking can be so fucking disappointing”. Jeezus lady, did I go out with you in high school?

A full 30 minutes of buddy-buddy later, Dunbar gets his plan in gear by getting in a shoot-out in the police evidence locker with some balaclava-wearing hoods in cop uniforms, Dunbar steals a couple of keys of smack in the fray in order to set up a deal with Ashby, who in spite of being a big-time crime boss, always comes to make small-time deals in person. If anyone in this movie is in need of self help, it’s this guy. I mean seriously, you need to get over those trust issues pal so that you can manage by delegation.

One of Ashby’s goons makes Dunbar for a fed and a really well executed fire-fight breaks out (finally!). For no immediately apparent reason, Ryker shows up on a harbor dock and has his partner bust out a giant surface to surface rocket launcher to blow up Dunbar’s boat. Hey, these guys aren’t CIA, they haven’t been trained in clandestine ops. Fuck it, we’ll just blow up the boat with an anti-tank weapon in broad daylight in a public place. This makes about as much sense as a later scene in which Dunbar and Elkhart get back together after the fiasco and are jumped by two corrupt feds, who the guys shoot to death in the back yard of Elkhart’s ex-wife’s lavish house in the middle of a posh residential area at night! Not only do the neighbors not call the police, but Dunbar and Elkhart don’t even bother to vacate the premises until after they’ve gotten hammered on beer while cracking jokes from lawn chairs that overlook the corpses in the pool. No, really. Dunbar quips things like “fat-ass floater”. I dunno, maybe that would get a laugh in Ferguson.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I can, have and will sit through dialogue that's about as sharp as a bowl of jello, but if you throw me some explosions, shoot-outs, fights or chase scenes on regular intervals you won't lose my vote. I’m not hard to please. Hell, I’ve watched damn near every Cannon movie made in the ‘80s and I can’t even count the number of Godfrey Ho flicks I’ve sat through, Obviously, I'm not a picky man. This all gets us back to the main plot of the movie in which Elkhart and Dunbar dress up in a tux and an Arab outfit so they can go to an auction and outbid Ashby on a rare Shelby that Ryker has packed full of heroin. It has to be the most convoluted drug deal in the history of crime and it is every bit as entertaining as it sounds, complete with Dunbar keepin' it real by talking pidgeon Arabic and offending pretentious white people.

Of course two words should have tipped me off to the movie's potential for badness: Philippe Mora. A name that roughly translates from the French as “cinematic mess”. I haven’t seen all of Mora’s films, but I’ve seen enough to know that his name is a bad sign unless it is followed by the name “Sybil Danning”. While the film looks great and is shot 2.35, the script, by first and last timers Ed Decatur and Ash Staley, seems to think that it is a 48 HOURS-ish buddy comedy first and foremost with long stretches of unfunny dialogue that the actors are desperately trying to rise above. Adding insult to injury, Brion James is woefully under-utilized, perhaps due to his diminishing health (in one scene he is clearly having trouble walking) as a straight-forward suit and tie bad guy who really only has a handful of short scenes. The interesting thing is that the German DVD features some extra shots of violence inserted from a workprint. These help boost the main action sequence, but do little to help out the movie as a whole. Obviously Mora was short on cash (as usual), but with some better editing and maybe cutting some of the locations to divert funds to additional action scenes, this one would never stand up to STONE COLD, but could have been a decent outing for The Boz. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fangs for Nothing: NIGHT OF THE CHUPACABRAS (2011)

In the realm of legendary creatures such as vampires, werewolves and even monsters that may or may not be in possession of a soul, composed of body parts salvaged from executed prisoners, they all tend to date back into the days when stories were used to frighten children and explain away inconveniences like serial murders. Hell, even Bigfoot dates back to the 17th century, probably earlier as it was perhaps an imported version of the mythical Yeti of the Himalayas. So where is a monster for our generation? We don’t want hand me downs! This is the “me” generation, and we demand our own ridiculous superstition! In 1995 that wish was granted by Puerto Rican farmers who were looking for an explanation of why their livestock was being found drained of blood from two wounds. It only made sense that a bipedal, spiny lizard that has the face borrowed from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, was sucking the blood out of goats. Yep, no other explanation. Soon the sightings of chupacabras were being reported in South America, Mexico and, of course, Texas because they need another reason to be elitists.

So now that we have our very own monster for our generation, how should we exploit it? Well, by making crappy home movies, that’s how! The first, to my knowledge was EL CHUPACABRA (2003), a DTV effort set in Los Angeles, that one viewer described as “89 minutes of mental violation” and BLOODTHIRST: LEGEND OF THE CHUPACABRA (2003). Following that in 2005, we had another DTV effort, CHUPACABRA TERROR (2005) which featured John Rhys-Davies in a role that won’t surprise you, and then we have the Brazilian SOV film NIGHT OF THE CHUPACABRAS. I was thinking that we may finally see something entertaining done with the creature that has become the butt of jokes on every prime-time animated show ever, but then I discovered it is from the “creative” team that brought us BLACK MANGUE (aka MUD ZOMBIES; 2008). Oh jeezus, what have I gotten myself into?

Set in the rural parts of Brazil, a barking dog wakes up a farmer (Markus Konká) who discovers his goat dead, he is certain it was killed by the devil and sets his dog loose on it, as dogs are well known for their power to stop corporeal manifestations of fallen angels who are the embodiment of all evil and who have nothing better to do than to kill a goats in the middle of nowhere.

After his city-slicker son Douglas (Joel Caetano) and his pregnant fiancée Maria-Alicia (Mayra Alarcón) come to visit, we get to meet his slightly deranged family, the Silvas, who have been feuding with the neighboring family, the Cavallos. While the father rambles about the devil, Douglas’ brothers decide to disobey their father’s wishes and bury only the dog, saving the goat to sell to the local tavern. Well, I say “tavern”, but it is simply a shack with some rickety tables that makes The Slaughtered Lamb look like Le Cirque. All of this inaction is accompanied by the flattest dialogue imaginable that appears to have come from asking 100 middle-schoolers what their favorite cuss words were. At least MUD ZOMBIES left you utterly confused by the lengthy passages of nonsensical dialogue. At least then, if you were so inclined, you could contemplate the possible meaning behind the rambling verbiage. Here it's pretty obvious that there is none.

After an inconceivably long scene of the brothers haggling with the owner, the Silva brothers silently drink in the tavern. Suddenly the Cavallo brothers take the other table and start drinking. Uhhh, yeah, it was about that exciting in the movie too, except they used a bunch of close-ups and dramatic music to heighten the tedium. Of course since the goat has been rotting for a day and has been bitten by the still unseen chupacabra, when everyone eats it, they suddenly transform into giant mutant chupacabrae and go on a rampage that… Oh no, sorry, that’s what I really wanted to happen. What does in fact happen is that the Cavallos commence to projectile vomiting streams of green liquid that is obviously not coming out of their mouths, but from the side of their heads. If you are the kind of person that thinks several long minutes of cheap vomit gags are hysterically funny, this your movie. Naturally the Cavallos use this as an excuse to start a brawl which literally takes up the next 70 minutes of the 100 minute movie. Two things here. One, I thought this movie was supposed to be about chupacabras and two, why in christ’s name does your low-rent SOV movie need to be just shy of two hours long? Just because you don't have to pay for filmstock, doesn't mean you should produce Oliver Krekel-esque epics.

The four-minute long brawl spills out of the tavern into the jungle and finally ends up back at the Cavallo house where the groups of brothers get into an extended shoot-out that leaves most of them dead and half of the audience asleep. To break up the monotony of the toy-gun fire-fight, the Cavallo women are suddenly attacked by a chupacabra! I know, who’d have thunk it? There must be a shortage of goats in the area. The fire-fight is particularly tedious due to the fact that the filmmakers didn't bother with foley work. The guns sound like they are powered by bang snaps and even the pop of the squibs are left in. Clearly nobody is really paying attention or they are trying to play it off as an intentionally "bad movie". Near the end of the shootings the Cavallos are sorting out what weapons they have left and one says "I've got a shotgun with two shells," even though he is clearly wearing a bandolier that has at least a dozen in it! Did he accidentally grab his Spencer's Gifts costume bandolier on his way out of the house?

When only a few people are left alive, we get another non-sequitur scene in which Douglas, bloody and wounded, is captured by a giggling lunatic who practices black magic and cannibalism to keep a youthful appearance. No really. Then suddenly he’s dead and it’s back to the fighting! Finally in the last 10 minutes the chupacabra joins in the death-struggle between the last two members of the families. Oh and there is a stinger ending that makes no sense in the context of what we have seen already. The real shame of this is that director Rodrigo Aragão actually sports a few nice camera angles this time out, but for the most part directs completely flat except when he's giggling the camera around during fight scenes. He also has a couple of cool latex effects that, once again, he completely obscures with darkness and a camera that can't stay still. An odd and annoying contrast to the rest of the movie.

If you have seen MUD ZOMBIES, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the upgrade in production values. This is not to say that they are particularly good, but MUD ZOMBIES was barely a notch above your garden variety German back-yard zombie video. That sense of good will rapidly diminishes when you see that Aragão does a 180 from his so-dark-you-can’t-see-anything cinematography of ZOMBIES and opts for a completely flood-lit approach that not only makes the digital medium look bad, but results in everything looking cheap and fake. Then again, nothing will help those embarrassing cap-gun-esque shoot outs. Worst of all, when they do finally bring out the chupacabra, this bright lighting highlights the flaws in what is a great looking latex costume for a low-rent SOV movie. With some more dramatic lighting, a shorter running time and oh, I don’t know, a script that made the monster the central focus, this could have been a real sleeper.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Gweilo Dojo: ALLEY CAT (1984)

Even with all the damn movies we watch, there is still a ton of ground left untouched.  Case in point: the ‘80s trash actioner ALLEY CAT.  I (William) had never heard of the damn thing until Scorpion Releasing announced it for a DVD release.  Not I (Thomas) was familiar with the poster and VHS back in the day, but he was too busy renting DEATHSTALKER (1983) over and over to give this a look.  So a special thanks to our buddy Erok at Theater of Guts for getting in my ear and recommending this wild flick.

The film focuses on Belinda “Billie” Clark (Karin Mani), a karate hottie who lives with her grandparents.  She earns that description quickly as the first three minutes shows her topless and then beating the crap out of some guys trying to steal the wheels off her car. Apparently this angers the guys she emasculated so much that they go to complain to their gang leader, William “Scarface” Krug (Michael Wayne).  When underling Tom complains she was a karate “tiger,” Krug says, “When I get done with that tiger, she’ll be nothing more than an alley cat.”  Hmmm, a film where a guy named Tom has a boss named William?  I could get into this.  Krug and his crew decide the best course of action for revenge is to beat up Billie’s grandparents.  They do this in rather quick fashion, resulting in granddad and grandma being beaten and stabbed while walking home with groceries at night.  Oh, by the way, this all takes place in the first ten minutes of the film.

While looking for her grandparents at the hospital, Billie opens a door into the face of police officer Johnny (Robert Torti).  In a film this cheap, that can only mean one thing – love interest! Soon they are dating and she informs him that grandpa spotted the guy who assaulted them in police mug shot photos.  Alas, the cops don’t care.  To work out her frustration, Billie goes jogging at night but only after grandpa insists she take his gun along. Amazingly, she stumbles upon two guys attempting to rape a woman in the park.  Even more amazingly, these are the same two guys who tried to steal her tires.  Now either this lady is cosmically entwined with these dudes or the crime element is really small (and highly recidivist) in Los Angeles.  Of course, she puts an end to the attack with some karate chops and bullet ballet.  The cops leisurely arrive (“What the hell took you cops so long to get here? Do you know we’ve been waiting almost two hours?”) and they are Johnny and his corrupt older partner, who decides Billie is in the wrong and arrests her for firing her weapon within city limits without a permit.

After being bailed out, Billie decides to combat the stress of this bureaucratic red tape by…going jogging at night in the park again!  Even Charles Bronson knew never to go back to the park.  So guess who she runs into?  Yep, another rapist.  She must be in Echo Park (haha, get it?). Anyway, she lets this guy meet her fists and feet of fury.  Perhaps she had some pent up anger due to her upcoming court date.  It is warranted as Judge Taylor (Jay Walker) gives her a $500 fine and one year probation for preventing that rape.  He also warns her that if he ever sees her in his court again, she’ll be in big trouble.  To blow off some steam, Billie and Johnny head to a local dojo to throw each other around.  They then head back to his pad where he woos her with champagne served in regular old drinking glasses.  What?  The fancy McDonalds glasses were dirty?  Meanwhile, Krug breaks into the apartment of the intended rape target and intimidates her into not testifying against his pals. With the star witness unavailable, the defense attorney asks for the rape charges to be dropped and his defendants will agree to lesser charges of public intoxication.  They end up getting a $250 fine and thirty days in jail… suspended!  This sends Billie, who has just decided to show up and watch the trail with Johnny, into a rage and Judge Taylor sentences her to thirty days in jail.  Hey, he said don’t show up in her court again, right?

While in the county poke, Billie learns the hard way that these are tough broads. How?  She gets shoved during a volleyball match.  My God, the horror, the horror. This gives us the film’s best line as Billie’s new “friend” Sam yells, “You did that on purpose. That’s a foul!”  It seems Sam has ulterior motives, which are clearly stated in the requisite women-in-prison shower scene where she tells Billie she has nice hair and lets her use her shampoo.  Billie puts an end to these unwanted advances that night by punching Sam out and telling her to not do that again.  Out in the free world, Johnny is campaigning for Judge Taylor to release Billie because her granddad has like thirty days to live, but he deems her “an incorrigible.”  What is this?  1929?  So Johnny resorts to blackmail and tells the judge he has a file on his “kinky” habits.  Yay!  Our incorrigible is back on the streets and celebrates as she only knows how.  Yes, by going jogging in the park at night!  Naturally she is accosted by two rapists.  Well, one rapist hopeful and his chunky friend who has a hard enough time keeping up on foot.  She nullifies the nuts of the would-be rapist and sends his seemingly innocent friend down a hill and then screams, “Don’t mess with girls in the park!  That’s not nice!”  His muffled reply is, “Shit.  Crazy bitch.” Anyway, it seems Billie is enjoying this kicking dudes business.  After Johnny interrogates a hooker with ties to Krug to find the gang’s address, Billie heads out to get her ultimate revenge.

ALLEY CAT is definitely one of the more straightforward entries in the vigilante subgenre. It is like DEATH WISH (1974) minus the brains. The film doesn’t bother with the elaborate nuances like plot dynamics or character arcs. You get the basic outline very early on and it is very simple – Billie is good and nearly everyone else is bad.  The film is pretty segmented so that it almost seems like a series of vignettes or an old cliffhanger serial slapped together.  “See what mess will Billie get herself into this week!”  This cobbled together cheapness also results in major plot points being given by voice over.  For example, we don’t learn that grandma passed away until we see Billie and grandpa in the back of a car and Billie on the soundtrack talking about the unseen funeral. Even better, some stuff just gets completely forgotten.  Are you still wondering if grandpa lived or died?  Me too as the filmmakers never let us know.

ALLEY CAT appears to be the brainchild of writer and producer Robert E. Waters. He put an ad in Variety for casting the film (under its original title DRAGONFLY) in November 1980, where it was described as “modern action adventure” to begin filming in January 1981.  The film must have run into some trouble somewhere along the line, given that it lists three directors in the end credits; when it was shot and advertised in Variety, only Edward Victor (aka Ed Palmos) was listed as director.  Regardless of behind-the-scenes chaos, the filmmakers ended up with an enjoyable as hell product.  Lead actress Karin Mani is kind of a like a sexier Kate Jackson.  Or, as Tom said, Kate Jackson as re-imagined by Hugh Hefner. She is quite capable for her role, showing some real prowess when it comes to her kicks. Matching her high kicks with hysterics is lead baddie Michael Wayne, which may or may not be a pseudonym since this is his lone credit.  Looking like a cross between John Philip Law and AMERICAN PICKERS’ Mike Wolfe, Wayne appears to have abandoned Stanislavsky and drawn from the time honored bug-eyed, over-the-top psycho category of acting.

Of course, in a film as deliciously cheesy and trashy as this one, it only serves to make things better.  You also have to love stuff like Billie getting all prettied up in this glittery one suit…only to show up at some dive bar to kick a guy in the face.  Did she need to get all dress up for that? Or how they establish the gang as bad guys by having them drive over a homemade soccer goal some kids are using. It was definitely the right formula at the time as the film made distributor Film Ventures International some money.  A box office notation in the March 27, 1984 issue of Variety notes, “ALLEY CAT snares decent $101,000 in opening round at 17 locations, including $11,000 at Hollywood Pacific 3.”  Just knowing that Billie was able to punch and kick money out of wallets like that back in the day pleases me.  Of course, it probably pleased FVI head Edward Montoro more as he disappeared with all the cash later that year.  If Billie ever found him, she’d give him a real ass kicking.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Newsploitation: Kickboxing the Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is for a film now considered a martial arts semi-classic – Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KICKBOXER, which was released in the U.S. on September 8, 1989.  Deep in martial arts clichés and histrionics, KICKBOXER tells the story of Kurt Sloane (Van Damme), a young martial artist who seeks to avenge the in-ring paralysis of his brother, Eric (Dennis Alexio, a real life kickboxing champ).  The executioner of his kin is the evil Tong Po (Michel Qissi) and to learn how to defeat him Kurt must endure the punishing training of Xian Chow (Dennis Chow) in the jungles of Thailand.  It all culminates with a showdown where the contestants have broken glass glued to their hand wraps.  You know, just like in real life.

KICKBOXER was the third theatrical headlining vehicle for the Belgian Van Damme (born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg).  After co-starring in villainous roles in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (1986) and BLACK EAGLE (1988), Van Damme caught on with the release of BLOODSPORT (1988) in February 1988.  What was essentially a throw away release for Cannon (its widest theater count topped off at 124 theaters) ended up making them $11.8 million dollars at the box office.  They quickly threw him into another starring vehicle and we got Van Damme in Albert Pyun’s CYBORG (1989). That came out in April 1989 and made just over $10 million, so Van Damme was now a proven box office commodity.  KICKBOXER proved his growing popularity even more when it debuted at number 3 at the box office that following September in 973 theaters (by comparison, the number 1 film UNCLE BUCK, in theaters for a month already, was still in 1,800 theaters).  It grossed just over $4 million its first weekend and went onto pull in $14.6 million.

KICKBOXER is one of those films that has a special place in my heart as Van Damme was one of the first action heroes whose entire career I got to see unfold theatrically (“Yeah, until STREET FIGHTER came out,” says Tom).  Bronson was way before my time; Norris a bit too early for me too; I missed Stallone’s first two ROCKY films and FIRST BLOOD theatrically; and Schwarzenegger’s first CONAN only got to my eyes on VHS.  Starting with BLOODSPORT, I got to see Van Damme’s progression on the big screen and watch as he went from little guy to international superstar.  Each subsequent theatrical release after KICKBOXER saw his box office standing kick higher and higher – DEATH WARRANT ($16.8 million) to LIONHEART ($24 million) to DOUBLE IMPACT ($30 million) to UNIVERSAL SOLIDER ($36 million).  It would peak with TIMECOP ($44 million).  As Van Damme would later admit, he was full of himself (and cocaine) and flatly rejected a huge deal with Universal Pictures at the time.  Instead he went his own way and things were never the same.

Not surprisingly, Van Damme didn’t sign on when KICKBOXER 2 (1991) was announced. Rather than be an in-name-only sequel, this follow up from Albert Pyun continued the Sloane/Tong Po feud with a heretofore never known third Sloane brother, David (Sasha Mitchell).  Writer David Goyer (I hear he went on to do some other things) cleverly opens his sequel with a Van Damme double being offed by Tong Po. Mitchell headlined two more sequels, while the fifth film featured up-and-coming Mark Dacascos.

While I haven’t seen the film since the theater, KICKBOXER still holds some name power as plans for a remake have been off and on for the last 5 years.  The latest incarnation was announced earlier this year with Hong Kong director Stephen Fung attached.  Names such as former UFC fighter Georges St. Pierre, Tony Jaa, Dave Baustita and VJ fave Scott Adkins have been attached to the project.  Here’s hoping they might get to work in Van Damme in a role somewhere.  If that happened, we’d totally do this dance.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Double Shot: QUICK (2011) and THE SPY (2013)

I have lamented in the past about the untimely death of the Korean new wave and for the most part, I still find most of their movies slickly executed but utterly derivative. This is funny because the last two Korean movies that I've seen are both slickly executed and derivative, but a whole hell of a lot of fun.

QUICK (2011): A fast living member of a motorcycle gang, Han Gi-Soo (Lee Min-ki), tears through downtown Seoul with his posse, while being chased by his ex-girlfried, Chun-Sim (Kang Ye-won), and a pizza delivery guy, (Kim In-kwon), who is obsessed with Chun-Sim. While racing through the streets with the cops in hot pursuit, Gi-Soo causes a massive orgy of vehicular destruction.

Flash forward and Gi-Soo is now using his suped-up bike and mad racing skillz as a courier. After delivering a package that, unbeknownst to him, blows up an office building, he is given the job of delivering a passenger. This passenger turns out to be his ex-girlfriend Chun-Sim who is now the member of an all girl supergroup (amusingly named "The OK Girls"). As if this wasn't bad enough, after insisting she wear his helmet they are contacted by a stranger who informs Gi-Soo that there is a bomb in the helmet that will detonate if it is removed and if he does not deliver several small packages to their destinations on time. These packages, of course, are bombs that are meant to kill the anonymous caller's enemies. Naturally the cops, lead by Detective Seo (Ko Chang-seok), are hot on his tail because they think he is the mad bomber.

Yes, it is definitely derivative of SPEED (1994) and THE BULLET TRAIN (1975), there is even a direct homage to BULLET TRAIN in the final act, but director Beom-gu Cho brings so much manic energy to the film that it's hard not to get caught up in. Asian films love making their cops complete bumbling fools for comic relief, here the cops are play for a few laughs, but they are not stupid. They organize their resources and set up blockades and actually start unraveling the identity of the bomber.

This is about as close to a Hal Needham film as you are going to get these days. Yeah, I said it. Sure there is some green screen compositing during some of the action sequences, but I think this is a fact of life that we have to live with in this modern age. Plus, the compositing is so well done, that it is unnoticeable in many cases and sometimes you will swear that one thing is fake and other thing is real, only to find out you were wrong on both counts. How will would you know? The film even features outtakes and a behind-the-scenes stunt reel during the credits. It may not sound like much, but for die-hard stunt movie fans, this is like the icing on the cake, the olive in the martini, the money shot in the... err, well you get the idea. You may argue that the movie has more in common with a videogame as all it really consists of is racing from one orchestra of explosions and crashes to another, occasionally with gross lapses in logic and physics, but then again I would totally play that game. This movie wrecks so many cars that if H.B. Halicki were still alive, he would be brushing away a tear.

With a poster that promises explosions, motorcycles and people screaming, I have to admit, the film delivers on all counts... which brings us to the screaming part. If you are expecting a Korean movie that doesn't have pratfalls, screaming and wild gestures, you are going to have a long wait. In spite of the over-the-top antics, there is enough mayhem to feed your inner ADD child to the bursting point.

THE SPY (2013): Nobody does it better than Bond. Or at least that used to be true. Now everyone does Bond better than Bond. The Swedes did it with the straight faced HAMILTON (2011), and now even the Koreans are doing it with this tongue-in-cheek actioner.

Opening with top secret service agent Cheol-soo (Sol Kyung-gu) walking into a meeting with Somali pirates to negotiate the release of Korean hostages, the tension ramps up when, during negotiations, his cell phone keeps vibrating. It's his wife who is furious at him for working late and missing his mother's birthday party. This results in a things breaking down into a massive firefight. The scene plays out better than I made it out, but it gives you an idea of the kind of skewering to expect.

After some terrorists shoot a jet out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile, Cheol-soo is called into action by his section chief (Ko Chang-seok again) while in the middle of trying to give a sperm sample at a fertility clinic. Ok, stick with me here, this plays out a lot better than it sounds due to some great casting.

In one week there will be a six-party meeting in which Korea's leaders will organize a nuclear disarmament and set up the re-unification of the North and South. The man who was assassinated on the jet, was a high-ranking North Korean official who's daughter is a nuclear physicist who is looking to defect. Chul-Soo's mission, which he is forced to accept in spite of the wife's fury, is to go to Thailand and extract the way-too-hot-to-be-a-scientist daughter from the grip of the North Koreans before the terrorists or the CIA get their hands on her. Naturally things do not go according to plan. In addition to the fact that the CIA beats everyone to the punch, Kim's wife, an airline hostess (Moon So-ri), is staying at the same hotel that is overrun with agents and terrorists. Even worse, one of the terrorists, Ryan (Daniel Henney), who we know is evil because he graduated from Stanford (go bears), has the intel on Kim and his wife and puts the moves on her to eventually use as bait for Kim.

If the plot sounds familiar, it should, it is essentially a reworking of TRUE LIES (1994) into a fun, funny and genuinely entertaining film. How is it better, I hear you ask? Well, no James Cameron, no Tom Arnold, and no cringing it-could-be-your-mom stripping scenes. Better still it really fills the need for a lightning-fast paced, action filled James Bond outing, the likes of which we just do not see any more. This is everything JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003) and GET SMART (2008) should have been, without the added mugging and buffoonery in both films.

The casting is dead-on, the score is perfect and we have plenty of gadgets that are likely based on real life items. There is also a nice attention to detail with great production design that really brings home the Bond. Additionally, the script deftly parodies the formula, with bits such as the old lady who appears to be selling yogurt drinks, but who is in fact a spy who delivers secret messages. It is pretty damn funny, but as they say, it's all in the delivery.

There is some CG compositing going on in some of the scenes, but there is plenty of genuine action to keep your attention. First-time director Lee Seung-joon-I has not only a great sense of spectacle that Bond should have, but he knows how to construct the elaborate action sequences that we expect of the genre. One in particular is a lengthy scene taking place in a fine dining restaurant that is secretly the CIA headquarters. Beginning as a clandestine sting operation, the Seoul agents quickly discover that every secret agency in Asia is also represented and things quickly devolve into a beautifully composed frenzy of brawling and fire-fights.

While the some of the comedy comes from Kim trying to alternately keep his cover and protect his wife who chews his a new ass any chance she gets (she is Korean, after all), like Kim, it is kept on a leash and never overshadows the action which includes subtle in-jokes for fans of the genre. Highly entertaining from beginning to end.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Listomania: August's Non-Kamen Rider Viewings

Looking over my August viewing list, you’d think I was a Japan-o-phile.  Nearly half of my viewings were from my latest addiction, Kamen Rider, and the source who got me hooked is that nefarious (movie)drug dealer, Mr. Sueyres.  Thankfully, I was able to pull myself away from the Land of the Rising Sun on a few occasions and get in a couple of non-tokusatsu flicks here and there.

ARIZONA ROAD (1991):  Larry Ludman…Arizona…Antonio Sabato, Jr.?  Sold!  If two of those three things make you start salivating, I’m guessing you are a fan of the THUNDER WARRIOR series.  An Italian bent on FIRST BLOOD, that trilogy featured Mark Gregory as the Native American kid Thunder, who is constantly being put upon by the local law enforcement (essayed by Bo Svenson, Raimund Harmstof, John Philip Law, and Werner Pochath over three films).  Under the Ludman pseudonym, director Fabrizio De Angelis captured the U.S. Southwest in his own unique way and I was hoping for more of that with ARIZONA ROAD.  Sadly, that was not the case.

Truck driver Emiliano (Sabato, Jr.) is a good guy and we know this because in the first five minutes he saves Aurora (Teresa Leopardi, billed as Therry Turner), a nun being sold into white slavery to small town big shot McDonaldson (Lou Castel).  Okay, things are a bit different in Arizona.  A few years later, Emiliano returns to the area in his own plane to meet up with his old timer buddy Ben Morris (Donald Hodson).  Now why his only friend is a kooky drunk gold miner is beyond me.  To show that Emiliano is still a good guy, we see him get in an unsanctioned boxing match in a bar (which is showing a THUNDER WARRIOR flick on TV) and take a dive so some kids can think their dad is a badass.  Awwwww.  Also working at the bar is Aurora and this pisses Emiliano off as he doesn’t like women who are hussies!  Seriously, half the film is him thwarting her advances. Naturally, word gets around town that Emiliano is back and McDonaldson gets the sheriff he paid for make this kid’s life hell.  And it is bad timing because Morris just found a shitload of gold in his mine and made Emiliano the sole owner.

Damn, I went into this hoping for some THUNDER WARRIOR-esque stuff and instead I got…what I got was...I don't know.  ARIZONA ROAD is kind of like FIRST BLOOD mixed with ROADHOUSE if you have zero action.  No joke, after the first car chase where Emiliano rescues Aurora, nothing happens for an hour. When Sabato, Jr. finally gets his revenge plan against the town big shot in action by breaking out of jail he heads straight for...a lawyer to talk it out.  What the hell?  You keep expecting action to start and, when it finally does, the film is over.  It was shot in the same town as the THUNDER WARRIOR films, but it shows how far the Italian industry had fallen from early '80s to early '90s.  I guess the film is notable for being one of Sabato, Jr.’s first films (he made his debut in De Angelis’ KARATE ROCK the year before), but it is a far cry from the De Angelis-produced ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983) that co-starred Antonio Sabato, Sr. alongside future THUNDER WARRIOR Mark Gregory.  Fans of David Warbeck hoping that reliable thespian will bring something to the proceedings will be disappointed as he is only in this for five minutes.  To the film’s credit, they do capture some beautiful scenery in the Arizona desert, but no one comes to a Ludman/De Angelis flick hoping for pretty postcard images.  We want action and funny dubbing, dammit!  I will admit that this scene did make me laugh though:

C.H.U.D. (1984): I actually had a friend once ask me what C.H.U.D. meant.  I puffed out my chest and said, "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers."  He countered with, "But what is the real meaning in the film?"  I didn't know and promptly hung my horror geek head in shame. Turns out the official meaning is "Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal," the name stenciled on the side of the toxic waste containers. Remember that kids, as you don't want to find yourself cornered by C.H.U.D. trivia and look like a fool.

C.H.U.D. actually celebrated its thirtieth birthday on August 31, 2014.  The film wasn't a huge success by any means when it opened in August 1984 (it debuted in ominous 13th place) but still got New World just over $4 million with its quick few weeks run at the box office.  I honored this anniversary by dusting off my Anchor Bay DVD and giving it a revisit.  Afterward, I couldn’t help feeling that old person adage of, “They don't make 'em like this any more.”  And, honestly, it’s true.  It tells the story of a NYC photographer (John Heard), a NYC cop (Christopher Curry), and a NYC bum (Daniel Stern) teaming up to uncover a NYC conspiracy of radioactive mutants under NYC.  That’s a lot of NYC.  With its slimy latex monsters, serious "real" actors, and fantastic underground locations, C.H.U.D. is something to behold and still is as awesome today as when I first saw it on VHS.  One of the great things on the DVD is an audio commentary featuring the three aforementioned actors alongside director Douglas Cheek and screenwriter Shepard Abbott.  All five guys have a grand time on this commentary, which was recorded about 20 years after they made the film.  The nice thing here is they don’t talk down the film (well, Stern does goof on some of the make ups) and point out that even though it was a B-movie, they still gave their all.  With anything and everything horror from the ‘80s being remade, I’m shocked this hasn’t hit the reboot block yet.

THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014): More slam bang action for the middle age set!  THE EXPENDABLES 3 opens with Barney Ross (Stallone) and buddies Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) breaking out a prisoner from some death train on its way to some fictional Eastern European country gulag.  Their prize is Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), one of the original members of The Expendables.  When asked what he did to get locked up and tied down like Hannibal Lecter, Snipes responds, “Tax evasion.”  Wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaah!  Hooking up with Caesar (Terry Crews), the team has little downtime as they jump (literally) right into their next mission, something involving a shipment of weapons to some bad guy.  Turns out the supplier is one Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) and this is bad news because he is also a former original member of The Expendables…who was presumed dead because Barney killed him.  Dun, dun, duuuuuuuuuun!  To show he holds a grudge, the escaping Stonebanks shoots Cesar a few times.  Somehow this makes Barney feel this work is too dangerous for old guys (or he is tired of paying their insurance premiums) so he lets his old team go when Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), his new CIA contact, gives him the okay to snag Stonebanks.  With the help of Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Barney picks a new team of young ‘uns – including an energetic Antonio Banderas, boxer Victor Ortiz and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey – to be his new recruits.  I bet you can come up with what happens next faster than Stallone can write a cheesy character name.  Yes, the new team gets captured and it is up to the old guys to save the day.  Will they?

I saw someone online ask, “Who is the target audience for these films?” and, sadly, I knew the answer.  The third entry in Sylvester Stallone’s Jurassic action-hero series isn’t as good as the second one (they should have brought Jean Claude Van Damme back as an evil twin, dammit!), but it is still better than the first flick. Well, unless you are a Jet Li fan as he is only in the film for five minutes.  Yes, seriously.  Stallone made a lot of noise about selecting Aussie Patrick Hughes to helm this entry and I’m not really sure why.  Hughes presents some of the action well, but a lot of it is the same shaky cam nonsense that plagues modern action cinema.  I thought that is what these EXPENDABLE films were battling back against.  Young know, giving us “old school” action versus CGI madness.  If Stallone really wanted to make a badass action flick, Isaac Florentine would have been warming that director’s chair.  Then again, Florentine might make the actors actually do some of the heavy lifting and we can’t have that.  A lot was made about he new additions to this entry and it is a case of good (Banderas brings some welcome energy to his role; Robert Davi pops up), bad (Snipes is just picking up a check; Li and Crews are underused), and ugly (Ronda Rousey’s “acting”).  The biggest shock for me is this is the first time I’ve recognized Harrison Ford being a man of his age.  Just a few years younger than my dad, the 72-year-old Ford looks frail, leading my buddy Sherm to say, “No wonder he broke his leg on the new STAR WARS.”  It is a stunning realization (especially after how well they covered up his age in the last Indiana Jones flick) and provokes a sentiment that could probably be applied to this series.  It was a fun ride, but it is time to retire into the explosion filled sunset.