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Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge May 18, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

This third outing for Sonny Chiba’s Takuma Tsurugi comes as something of a letdown. Gone are the insanely gory deaths of the first two films, replaced by a lot of ridiculous leaping about. The fight scenes feel watered down too, with director Teruo Ishii more intent of finding interesting angels to shoot from than actually making the fights exciting.

Shigehiro Ozawa, who directed the first two films, seemed to take great delight in making Tsurugi a character who was hard to like, but Ishii wants to turn him into some kind of Japanese James Bond, rather than the cold blooded mercenary we’ve come to know. He even gives us a totally bizarre bad guy who dresses like a Mexican bandit and fires laser beams.

A sad end to what had been an enjoyable series.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Zatoichi the Outlaw April 20, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

This was the first Zatoichi film produced by Shintarô Katsu’s production company and it’s trying a little too hard to be a blind swordsman epic. The storyline is more complex than normal and there are a lot of characters to keep track of, all of whom have a significant part to play.

As is the norm for the series, Zatoichi comes into a town and sorts things out before going on his way. This time he leaves the workers with a benevolent boss (having killed the previous one) and a sword-less samurai looking out for their wellbeing. Or so he thinks. Months later he returns to find the boss was not as benevolent as he appeared and the sword-less samurai has been taken prisoner for trying to organize the workers (and inciting them to give up gambling and whoring and get to work in the fields). Of course Zatoichi puts things right, or as right as he can given some of the characters have already died, slicing up the bad guys before once again leaving town.

Zatoichi the Outlaw has all the things that have become familiar through the series, and I do mean all. The film feels like a compilation, sort of a Zatoichi’s greatest hits. We get the decent woman forced into prostitution, the noble samurai looking to make up for past deeds, the evil boss (in fact more than one), the crooked gambling den, and of course Zatoichi’s usual tricks, one of which starts the film, as he’s challenged to hit a target with a bow and arrow but asks for a smaller target first.

Apart from the sprawling nature of the story there’s something else that sets this apart from the rest of the series – the blood. Previous Zatoichi films had been pretty bloodless affairs with the sword fights memorable for the choreography rather than spurting arteries, this time we get severed arms, severed heads and blood aplenty, and yet the fights are far less exciting than before.

I’d have to say that this is probably my least favourite Zatoichi film so far but it may improve with future viewings, as it becomes easier to keep track of who’s who. Shintarô Katsu is, as always excellent, but he gets swallowed up by the film here, seeming more like one part of an ensemble cast rather than the star of the show.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Return of the Street Fighter April 12, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Martial Arts , 2 comments

Sonny Chiba returns as Takuma Tsurugi for the orgy of violence that is Return of the Street Fighter. Chiba’s character may not be quite as cold and merciless as he was in the first film but he’s still one mean badass.

The movie ties in directly to its predecessor, with a couple of characters making return appearances, one of which is decidedly unexpected.  The frequency of the fights has been upped from the first film, to such an extent that there’s barely enough space between to tell a coherent story. Basically Tsurugi finds himself on the wrong side of the Mafia when he turns down an assassination job and the Mafia don’t take his refusal lightly. Early in the film we see several martial arts masters displaying their mastery of various weapons, from nunchucks to a samurai sword, and you know it’s a safe bet that Tsurugi is going to be facing off against them at some point. Sure enough it’s these men that the Mafia send against him.

Tsurugi takes on many of these weapons masters in a fight in the snow, in which he wears not only his trademark black outfit but also, amusingly, a white woolly hat. The film is packed with memorable confrontations, including one in a massage parlour that allows Chiba to show off his impressive physique while taking on multiple opponents. And, just in case you thought he was going soft, he eliminates a beautiful assassin with cold efficiency…but only after, James Bond style, he samples her ample charms.

The over the top gory deaths are still here, from fingers in the throat to sticking a gun in someone’s gut. The highlight is the back of the head punch that results in the victims eyes popping out  of his head cartoon style (you almost expect them to go “boing”).

The final confrontation sees Chiba take on a veritable army of killers. He kicks, punches, stabs, and even shoots his way through them. By the time the credits role they are all maimed or dead and Tsurugi, bruised and battered, sports an evil smile on his face, like he’s just had the best time of his life. My smile wasn’t quite so evil but I’d had a fine old time too.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: SPL April 6, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Thriller, Martial Arts , 2 comments

Director Wilson Yip seems to have fooled himself into thinking he’s made a serious crime movie along the lines of Infernal Affairs but beneath the films highly stylised look is a decidedly simple story. When Wong Po has the key witness in a case against him murdered, Detective Chan dedicates his remaining time on the force to bringing him down. With his time running out and Inspector Ma set to replace him he decides to frame Wong for murder. But how far will he go to make sure the case is airtight?

 Simon Yam is good as Chan, although the story throws a little too much at the character (he’s got a brain tumour that’s killing him and a daughter he adopted from the witness Wong had murdered) instead of giving us a little more insight into what makes him tick. He clearly had a beef with Wong Po even before the witness is murdered but the script gives us no inkling as to why. Yam a great actor but he’s not given enough here to create a fully rounded character. His crack crime fighting team fair even worse, reduced to mere ciphers for the bad guys to pick off. Any attempts to make us care about them are so heavy handed that they almost have the opposite effect.

Yam is there to give the film some acting gravities while fellow headliners Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen dish out some action. Sammo Hung is excellent as the evil Wong Po, imagine a Chinese Kingpin and you’ll have some idea of the intimidating figure he presents. Yen on the other hand is the films most righteous character, as Ma he’s a man who takes responsibility for his actions and when he finds out about Chan’s plan to frame Wong he’s torn between two evils – letting a killer go or perverting justice.  Apart from a brief brawl early on though, anyone wanting to see the two martial arts legends going at it will have to wait for the action filled climax. In fact the film is heavy going at times as it edges to that inevitable confrontation and you start to wonder if it will be worth the wait.

Thankfully when the action finally kicks in it really delivers the goods. Before Donnie takes on Sammo he has to take out his murderous assassin played by Jacky Wu and their fight is one of the best martial arts scraps I’ve ever seen in a Hong Kong movie. Yen was the action director on the film and credit goes to him rather than Yip for this memorable face off. The Ma, armed with a police baton, takes on the blade wielding assassin in a stunning display of fight choreography and clever direction.

With Wu out of the way it’s time for the films main event – Sammo vs. Donnie. I’ve seen several Donnie Yen films but I think he looks better here than ever before, not bad for a guy in his mid-forties. He’s got ten years on Sammo though but the big guy still has what it takes. The pair deliver a bone crunching, furniture shattering fight that rounds the film out nicely but it doesn’t quite overshadow the previous battle between Yen and Jacky Wu.

The film throws in a surprise ending that’s completely unexpected, yet not inappropriate. It’s that ending, along with the two fights at the end of the film that make this a must see. If Yip hadn’t been taking things too seriously we might have had a better film instead of just a great final act.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Zatoichi’s Cane-sword March 30, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

Skipping number 14 in the series as it has yet to receive a DVD release with English subtitles (I’ve got an ‘unofficial’ DVD but decided to hold off reviewing it in the hopes that one day we’ll see a proper release) we reach Zatoichi’s Cane-sword. By now the series had established its formula and that formula has much in common with the American Western.

Zatoichi’s like the weary gunfighter who comes into town hoping he won’t have to use his gun again but, when he encounters a damsel in distress, he knows he’s going to have to take on the local cattle baron (or in this case Yakuza boss) . Of course gunfighters aren’t normally blind and they tend to leave fewer corpses behind than Master Ichi but you get the idea.

This time around Zatoichi’s got sword troubles. An ageing alcoholic swordsmith tells him that his cane-sword is on its last legs – one more fight and it will snap. What’s a blind swordsman to do? Hang up his gun sword of course. Ichi tries to live a normal life in a boarding house, taking a job as a live in masseur but when a Yakuza boss attempts to take over the town after murdering his rival, Zatoichi steps in to defend the murdered boss’s daughter.

There’s a little more blood this time around, but not much. Considering the amount of slicing and dicing that gets done you’d expect to see ketchup everywhere but the Zatoichi series is surprisingly bloodless (another thing it has in common with old westerns). This doesn’t stop the fights being exciting and this time out, with Ichi bereft of sword for much of the film, it saves most of the action for the finale when we get a seven minute showdown as Zatoichi takes down the Yakuza boss and ALL his men.

While all the performances are good it’s the wonderful Shintarô Katsu who shines brightest once again. He’ll make you laugh at times but there is a core of sadness and loneliness to Ichi that is never far beneath the surface and Katsu plays it with just the right balance. It’s testament to how good he is that, even after fifteen films, his performance doesn’t feel stale of clichéd.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter March 23, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , 5 comments

No not the Van Damme movie but rather Sonny Chiba’s first outing as Takuma Tsurugi, the badest of bad asses. Bruce Lee’s characters may have been tough but they had a moral compass, so long as you stayed on the straight and narrow you’d be okay. Tsurugi would think no more of killing you than he would of stepping on a cockroach. And he won’t just kill you either, he’ll kill you in the nastiest way possible, throats are ripped out, balls are ripped off, skulls are cracked open…even by today’s standards this is one violent flick.

Tsurugi is basically a hired gun (just without the need of the gun) and early on we see what kind of guy he is. When he breaks a man out of prison and the man’s siblings are unable to pay he kills the male and sells the female as a prostitute to a crime lord. He’s a psycho with a black belt whose only interest is the money and the violence.

Chiba commands the film, sporting a perpetual sneer he’s super-cool. He may lack the grace and style of Bruce Lee but he makes up for it in brute force, and the fight scenes have a gritty, down to earth feel to them, with unfeasible gymnastics kept to a minimum. Sonny’s gurning during the fights is at times amusing but the bone crunching action and copious amounts of ketchup splashed about ensure that he’s never a figure of fun.

Watching the film in the original language (Japanese) for the first time makes a huge difference, as does seeing the full uncut version (I’m pretty sure the dubbed version I used to own missed out on some of the more extreme violence). I’m not sure I’d agree with Clarence (in True Romance) that it’s a perfect first date movie but it’s bloody good fun…and often just plain bloody.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Ninja in the Dragon’s Den February 3, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Martial Arts , add a comment

I must confess that I prefer my martial arts movies sans wirework but there are exceptions, Iron Monkey and Once Upon a Time in China are two that spring to mind. Sadly Ninja in the Dragon’s Den isn’t going to be joining that list.

Things don’t get off to a good start, with the opening credits featuring some synchronised ninjitsu to a very eighties ninja song. Clearly we weren’t going to see scary killer ninjas here, what we get instead is an action comedy with a somewhat uneven tone.

The problem with Honk Kong comedies is that the humour doesn’t always translate, or when it does it’s often too broad and unsophisticated for a western audience. Most feature a goofball character who’s there as a comedy fall guy, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den has one of these and he’s as funny as such characters usually are , which is to say not very funny at all.

If most of the comedy misses the mark at least the action is well choreographed and inventively filmed. It suffers though from the uneven tone of the film, switching from slapstick comedy to one of the heroes violently garrotting a lead bad guy in the space of a couple of minutes, and it doesn’t help that the reason for this switch turns out to be a hoax.

The plot contrivance that pits the two heroes against each other at the end is the oft used “misunderstanding” that gets resolved in time for them to unite for a showdown with an evil bad guy and his band of men. That neither of the leads has much in the way of screen charisma means it’s hard to care who wins, in fact I was actively hoping one of them (Conan Lee) would get taken down a peg or two before the credits rolled.

Some good action scenes are outweighed by silly comic moments and an overly sentimental story. In the films favour is its portrayal of a Japanese character as a hero, although that probably had more to do with Ninjas being hot at the box office in the ‘80s than anything else.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting: Zatoichi’s Vengeance January 27, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, Martial Arts , add a comment

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of the Zatoichi films and with half the series still waiting to be discovered I though it was about time to renew my acquaintance with the blind swordsman.

This is the thirteenth in the series and features everything I’ve come to expect – a beautiful woman fallen on hard times, a masterless samurai, an evil Yakuza boss with a seemingly endless supply of henchmen, superb swordplay (with a trick or two from Zatoichi) and plenty of eating and drinking. If there’s one thing our blind masseur enjoys it’s filling his belly.

They say it a fine line between comedy and tragedy and Shintaro Katsu straddles it brilliantly in these films. He’ll make you laugh one minute and bring you close to tears the next, not to mention displaying his own unique sword fighting style.

While Ichi leaves a trail of dead and wounded in his wake the fight scenes are oddly bloodless. This film features a rare (at least up to this point in the series) glimpse of the red stuff, not as you might expect, as Zatoichi slices and dices his way through the bad guys, but from a nose bleed he suffers while taking a beating.

While the films may be as formulaic as the Bond movies in the west, they are always watchable thanks to Katsu as the downtrodden blind man who always wins the fights but can never seem to find happiness.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The New Big Boss aka The Legend of the Wolf January 19, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Martial Arts , add a comment

Donnie Yen is one of my favourite martial arts stars; he was a memorable villain in Once Upon a Time in China 2 squaring off against Jet Li, as well as staring in one of the best modern kung fu movies, Iron Monkey. Yen is a Bruce Lee fan, his credits include a TV version of Lee’s Fist of Fury, and this films title is a reference to Lee’s first starring vehicle, The Big Boss (I’ve no idea if the title was Yen’s choice though).

Yen gives us his best Lee imitation as Fung, a guy who returns to his village and the woman he loves with no memory of where he’s been for the past seven years. He’s got the poses and the noises down pat and he’s no slouch in the moves department either. It’s not Yen the star but Yen the director who lets the film down.

For his directorial debut Donnie must have wanted to show what he could do, unfortunately he shows us a little too much. The film is over stylised, from slow motion to filters to skewed camera angels, Yen bombards the viewer with everything he has. The fight scenes are also a little too fast and frenetic, speed isn’t everything – onscreen fights aren’t just about how fast you move but how good you look doing it. All too often the camera gets a little to close to the action and you’re left wondering why Yen the director is focusing on Yen the actors head when what’s happening with his extremities is far more interesting.

For all these complaints this is still a fun film but Donnie’s behind the camera talents are best employed as action director rather than having full creative control.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: King Boxer aka Five Fingers of Death January 13, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Martial Arts , 2 comments

This is the film that gets credited as starting the Kung Fu craze of the ‘70s; although I’d argue that it merely cashed in on the success of the Kung Fu TV series that was on the air six months before this reached US cinemas. It did show there was a big screen market for this kind of thing and it opened the floodgates for the Asian movies that followed.

It’s the old rival martial arts schools story that features some spectacular fight sequences, although many have an over reliance on wire work. The editing is a little choppy at times, not so much in the fights, which flow quite nicely, but in the scene transitions. There are times where it takes a minute or two before you realise what character you’re with and where they are.

The film features an abundance of cool bad guys, from the evil martial arts master and his son, to some particularly nasty Japanese hired assassins. They all get there comeuppance by the end of the movie, most at the hands of the hero. The best scene though is a fight in the dark that doesn’t even feature the good guy. It’s a scene that is superbly atmospheric and also manages to do the impossible and humanise the previously insidious villain.

The film had a big influence, not just on Hong Kong cinema but also on certain American filmmakers (anyone who’s seen Kill Bill will know the influence this film had on Mr Tarantino the minute the opening cords of the score start). It’s doubtful though that the Kung Fu phenomenon would have lasted as long if this hadn’t been followed by The Big Boss. King Boxer is a quality film without doubt but it lacks an iconic star, Lieh Lo looks good in the action scenes but he’s no Bruce Lee.

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