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Hot Potato (1975) June 26, 2011

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Bad Films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Oscar Williams  Main cast: Jim Kelly; George Memmoli; Geoffrey Binney; Irene Tsu; Judith Brown  Territory: USA

By 1975, Warner Bros were struggling to find a vehicle to propel Jim “Enter the Dragon” Kelly into the big time, and Hot Potato is a rather transparent attempt to recreate Bruce Lee’s hit on a smaller budget and with a wider audience in mind.  And without Robert Clouse behind the camera…

Filmed entirely in Thailand, and with a deliberate variation on the Enter the Dragon score, Hot Potato is a sequel of sorts to the earlier Blaxploitation flick Black Belt Jones, although this is an entirely different animal.  Whereas the earlier film was a low-budget, gritty, urban action film, this has a mainly white (and Asian) cast, comedy sound effects, and family-friendly humour.

The plot features a Han-lite villain in Mr Rangoon, whose villainy is somewhat vague but, of course, ruthless.  He and his cronies kidnap a senator’s daughter for ransom, leading the US military to send in its top man – Jones (Kelly).  Thankfully, he is not once referred to as “Belt” in this instalment.  Jones recruits his team – a random pair of idiots – and heads off to find Rangoon and rescue the hostage.  Along the way, they encounter their contact, who is…gasp…a woman.

For years, Hot Potato and its predecessor have only been available on grainy, full screen, bootleg releases.  However, Warner Bros have now released these films, along with Black Sampson and another Kelly vehicle Three the Hard Way in their Urban Action Collection (sadly only available on Region 1 at present) and the difference is quite staggering.  While the audio is still shaky (some performers’ voices appear to be overdubbed – quite badly), the widescreen, remastered (I assume) presentation transforms the film, making it seem much more than a cheap action movie.  And for fans of Hong Kong cinema, you get to see Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying and Eric Tsang as stuntmen – although they reappear in virtually every action scene, making it seem like Rangoon has infinitely regenerating henchmen.

Sadly, it still doesn’t disguise the fact that it really isn’t a very good film.  While well meaning, the crude and corny humour and “zany” characters can often irritate.  The comedy isn’t particularly funny (and has dated very badly indeed) and the attempts at depth – Johnny Chicago (Binney) has a tragic secret, and falls for the senator’s daughter’s double - are entirely superficial.  In fact, it’s the latter’s death at the hands of Rangoon that provides the best laugh.  But don’t worry; the heartbroken Chicago gets over it very quickly.

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“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!  IT’S ALL HAPPENING AGAIN!!!”

Hot Potato is regarded very badly amongst genre fans – even more so than Black Belt Jones.  And while I’m probably one of its biggest supporters, even I have to admit it is sometimes a bit of an ordeal to sit through.  And what the title refers to is never alluded to – all of which means this particular potato is half baked indeed.

Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945) November 23, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Ryunosuke Tsukigata; Akitake Kono  Territory: Japan

In his autobiography, Kurosawa said of sequels that, like the Japanese proverb about the fish under the willow tree that hangs over the stream, just because you’ve hooked one there once doesn’t mean you always will.  Which is a beautiful way of saying that follow-ups just aren’t as good as the originals.  That, coupled with the fact that the director himself disliked the end result made me a little apprehensive about watching it.

The good news is that Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is not terrible.  However, it is fervently anti-British-American.  Made at the very end of the Pacific War, it appears Kurosawa decided to make some rather blatant racial statements with this film.  The western characters are boorish, arrogant and cruel, while the Japanese are cultured, humble and decent.  Sugata encounters a boxing match and is appalled at the barbarity and decadence of the sport (and its followers) in relation to the beauty and dignity of his beloved judo.

After demonising western pugilistic culture, Kurosawa then turns to karate as Higaki’s brothers vow to take revenge for his defeat in the first film.  The brothers, one of which is quite mad, are karate practitioners and challenge Sanshiro to a duel against Higaki’s wishes.  However, rather than taking a moralising stance on the two disciplines, the message here seems to be that both arts can co-exist, and presumably by extension, all Japanese martial arts should unite against the inferior western culture. 

 Sanshiro Sugata Part 2

Political and racial issues aside, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is fun if somewhat superficial.  There are moments where the viewer is treated to flashes of inspiration in Kurosawa’s camerawork and dramatic settings, but also a vague but undiminishing feeling that his heart just wasn’t in it.  His view was that the tale of Sanshiro had already been told, and while it’s true that seeing him well on the road to being a master of the arts is not as interesting as when he found enlightenment by watching a lotus flower blossom while standing in a pond overnight, the climax on a snowy hilltop is fairly gripping.  By no means one of the best examples of Kurosawa’s art, it is a testimony to his skill that even when firing on one or two cylinders, his work can be watchable and diverting.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943) October 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Yukiko Todoroki; Takashi Shimura Territory: Japan

Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut was made in something of a fit of enthusiasm – the script was written in one sitting and the director “was just excited” at getting his first proper directing job.  The tale tells the story of Sugata Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), a young headstrong jujitsu practitioner who comes under the tutelage of judo master Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) and falls in love with a rival’s daughter.  The girl’s brother, Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) quickly establishes himself as the villain (he is the only character dressed in western clothes – this film was shot during World War 2) and demands to fight the young man to the death.  

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The first thing I noticed upon watching Sanshiro Sugata is how familiar it all feels if you’ve seen even a handful of Shaw Brothers kung fu films from the 70s.  A casual viewer will feel right at home with Sanshiro Sugata – the philosophy of discipline, the teacher/pupil relationship, the fact that the hero is initially forbidden to fight the villain and the warring schools are all instantly recognisable staple elements of the genre.

The second surprise is that Kurosawa’s style is already much in evidence.  Already in place is his use of weather as a mood setter, transition wipes and dramatic camera set-ups.  Only the short montage scene of discarded shoes is clunky and forced.  Elsewhere, he seems totally at ease, effortlessly evoking tension and letting the characters propel the story along.  While judo is not at aesthetically pleasing as some more “showy” martial arts, Kurosawa does a fine job of making the bouts dramatic.

My highest expectation was to appreciate Sanshiro Sugata, not to like it.  Instead, I found it compelling and fun.  There are seventeen minutes missing due to wartime censorship – the authorities found too much in the movie that was “British-American”, but intertitles were added in the fifties’ re-issue of the film from the script (which survived) to fill in the gaps.  Although a complete cut of the movie would have been preferable, the surviving footage tells a complete, if obviously abridged, story.  And the climactic scene atop a windswept hill should be seen by all fans of Kurosawa to witness the birth of his genius.

Zatoichi at Large (1972) October 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Kazuo Mori  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Rentaro Mikuni; Hisaya Morishige  Territory: Japan

Ten years after the first installment of Zatoichi, we find ourselves on the twenty-second sequel.  That’s right, someone sure knew how to churn out a winning formula.  Having seen none of the intervening titles in the sequence (yet), I can’t comment on their quality, but you can see that the series had travelled quite far into cheap exploitation from their relatively classy beginning.

But while Zatoichi at Large occasionally relies on toilet humour and bizarre sideshows, there is still an element of his former chivalry and honour.  Ichi is wrongly accused of robbery and murder by a swordsman he admires while saving a town from a ruthless yakuza gang.  Instead of cutting his accusers to ribbons, he instead apologises and tries to pay back the “stolen” ryo. 

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Like a lot of Japan’s action cinema from this period, the film is superficial, throwaway but still strangely enjoyable.  And of course Ichi is still a draw.  But doubters to my “Zatoichi is gay” theory will be dealt a hammer blow at the scene where he disrobes a group of men with his sword and asks them to dance naked for him.  Yes, he might say to a woman that she has a beautiful body, but he is nevertheless blind and isn’t fooling anyone.  Well, not me anyway.

Here’s a small but important point for anyone wishing to check this film out – Zatoichi at Large has been released in the UK mistakenly labelled at Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage.

Connected (2008) October 11, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Louis Koo; Nick Cheung; Barbie Hsu; Liu Ye  Territory: Hong Kong

I have to confess right at the start of this review that I haven’t even heard of the US film on which Benny Chan’s Connected is based, let alone seen it.  It was called Cellular, apparently, and the remake quite refreshingly gives credit quite prominently for the fact.  Of course, at this point, alarm bells should start ringing with frequent viewers of remakes.  However, believe it or not, Connected isn’t half bad…

Grace Wong (Barbie Hsu) is kidnapped and held in a nailed-up shed with no contact with the outside world.  Luckily, she is an electronic wizard and manages to cobble a broken phone together, and, dialling a random number, manages to contact Bob (Louis Koo), a debt collector with family issues.  After convincing him that she’s not playing an elaborate hoax, and with a sceptical police force not willing to help, Bob gets embroiled in the plot and tries to help the damsel in distress.

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Connected should be a terrible movie, with over-the-top car chases, clichéd characters galore and so much misfortune heaped upon poor Bob at one point that the film seriously looks like it’s heading into spoof territory.  But taken at surface value (whatever you do, do not attempt to apply real-world logic to the events of this film) it is remarkably good fun.  Nick Cheung is a brilliant addition to the ensemble and his character (disgraced detective busted down to traffic cop, with a stupid boss promoted over his head, etc etc, rinse and repeat) is really easy to get behind.  Bob himself is never looks more than Louis Koo in oversized nerd glasses, but he does do his own stunts and some of them are particularly juicy.

While some characters’ decision-making abilities will have you screaming at the screen at their supreme dumbness and while the pace can be nothing short of exhausting, Connected is a fine no-brainer action thriller that should please anyone who wants to have a shot of pure adrenaline.

Connected is available on DVD now in the UK from Cine Asia.  Order your copy here.

Brother (2000) October 4, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Crime, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Takeshi Kitano  Starring: Takeshi Kitano; Omar Epps; Kurodo Maki  Territory: Japan

BrotherGangster Yamamoto (Kitano) flees Japan after a gang war and arrives in Los Angeles, where he regroups with his half brother and his friends (including a pre-House Omar Epps).  But soon, violence erupts again as a turf war breaks out and Yamamoto is marked for death.

It occurred to me as I started watching this that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film directed by Kitano before.  I’m going to try like hell not to let that put me off in future, but sadly Brother is not a good film. 

It may be a pet hate of mine, but when a non-English speaking director makes a film in English, you can be sure that badly delivered dialogue is not far behind, and Brother is no exception.  Thankfully, Kitano sticks to Japanese most of the time, but unfortunately his direction is also sloppy as well.  The scene where he encounters Denny (Epps) for the first time is almost amateurishly shot.

With a predicable plot, lacklustre script, directionless pacing and with several terrible performances, it’s hard to pick any good bits about Brother, but Epps gives a decent performance and the chemistry between him and Kitano is good overall.  Sadly, that’s the only bright point in this decidedly average gangster tale.

Brother is out today from Park Circus.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) September 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 5 comments

Director: Kenji Misume  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Shigeru Amachi; Ryuzo Shimada  Territory: Japan

Nineteen years into my love affair with East Asian films and I’ve just got around to Zatoichi, one of the most famous characters in the swordsman-with-something-wrong-with-them subgenre of martial arts thriller. 

The Tale of Zatoichi is the first of many films featuring Ichi (to give him his proper name – “Zato” is a kind of title) as the blind masseuse who is also a dab hand with a blade.  Employed as a heavy by a yakuza gang on the brink of war with a rival gang, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is drawn to his opposite number Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), a fellow swordsman living by a similar code of honour but who is working for the gang Ichi’s been hired to wipe out. 

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The surprise to me is how little action occurs during the vast majority of the film.  Rather, The Tale of Zatoichi is a dramatic character study of two honourable men who are doomed to fight to the death on the whim of intellectual inferiors whether they want to or not.

The relationship between Ichi and the ailing Hirate (who is plagued by consumption) is an unusual one.  To my mind, there definitely seems to be a strong sexual tension there, as seen in their curiously stilted and awkward dialogue and their mutual admiration, although Ichi trotting out the eternal pickup line “come here often?” when the pair first meet on a riverbank is probably unintentional.  I’m not normally sensitive to this (for instance, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing in least bit gay about the films of Chang Cheh*) but I just could not overlook the homoerotic overtones of this film and can only conclude that the pair are hopelessly in love with each other.  Of course, this only makes the fact that they have to fight to the death even more tragic – Edo-period man-love must have been pretty hard to come by.

Anyway, sexual issues aside, The Tale of Zatoichi is one of those classic action movies that I’m getting increasingly fond of as I grow older.  It’s not too quickly paced to allow an old-timer to get confused, looks all nice in classic black and white, and is a must for anyone who gets teary-eyed at tales of honour and sacrifice.  Yep, that’s me all over.

*Except for perhaps this one.

Shogun’s Samurai (1978) September 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Kenji Fukasaku  Starring: Hiroki Matsukata; Teruhiko Saigo; Sonny Chiba; Etsuko Shihomi  Territory: Japan

Notable for being the only film in history to have more than one million people named in the opening credits*, this film (which is also more accurately called Intrigue of the Yagyu Clan) is a feudal-era tale of backstabbing, warring brothers vying for the role of Shogun following the sudden and suspicious death of their father.

Epic and not a little confusing, Shogun’s Samurai is not a film to dip in and out of.  The ensemble cast is indeed massive, and features the legendary Toshiro Mifune in a relatively minor role.  The movie’s greatest strength is the character development, and the fact that you genuinely don’t know who is going to take the seat of power in the end.

Shogun's Samurai

But a rather unfair comparison springs to mind about halfway through and sadly just doesn’t go away: Kurosawa would have done it better.  Although being sub-Kurosawa (but what isn’t?), Shogun’s Samurai is more than worthy of a viewing.  I would have liked a tighter script with the trimming of a few of the more minor characters, but there is still much to recommend about the movie.  Not least Sonny Chiba running around in an eye patch cutting people up left, right and centre.  Oh yes…

*This is not true, but it certainly feels like it.

Triple Cross (1992) August 30, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 1990s films , add a comment

Director: Kinji Fukasaku  Starring: Kenichi Hagiwara; Kazuya Kimura; Keiko Oginome; Sonny Chiba  Territory: Japan

Not to be confused with the Cynthia Rothrock movie of the same name (incidentally one of the worst films I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch), this tale of a heist gone wrong comes from Kinji Fukasaku (who would go on to direct Battle Royale). 

After robbing the takings from a top hotel, a trio of older crooks and their young upstart protégé are disappointed that their take is quite a lot less than they expected.  While Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), Imura (Renji Ishibashi) and Shiba (Sonny Chiba) take the loss philosophically, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura) is furious and attempts to steal the money for himself.  Thus begins a lethal chase between Kanzaki and the young metal-obsessed hothead.

Triple Cross
Triple Cross plays slightly like a Japanese version of a Ringo Lam movie.  The movie’s anti-heroes are equally treated with no clear-cut protagonist, and the generation gap between the criminals is played up by using different musical styles in the soundtrack.  The cast is solid, with Chiba excellent as aging playboy Shiba with his much younger lover.  The fame-hungry Mai (Keiko Oginome) two-times Shiba with Kadomachi and adds a valuable wildcard to the mix.

For all its competency (and a brilliantly lethal looking car chase), Triple Cross is never more than adequate.  It has all the action, twists and gunplay you could care for in films of this type, and the decision to eschew the normal central or sympathetic character is a noble one.  But there are better examples of its kind around, particularly in the films of the aforementioned Ringo Lam.  But if you’re hankering for an action thriller with plenty of twists and turns, you can do far worse.

Yakuza Deka 2: The Assassin (1970) August 23, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Wacko , add a comment

Director: Yukio Noda  Starring: Sonny Chiba; Ryohei Uchida; Fumio Watanabe; Toshiaki Minami  Territory: Japan

There’s a real sense of a production line with successful Japanese action sequels of the 70s.  This sequel to the incredibly good fun Yakuza Deka was produced in the same year as the original, a practice certainly not uncommon at the time.

Chiba is Hayata again in another plot to infiltrate Yakuza gangs.  In fact, the plot is so similar to the original film that it sometimes feels like a remake.  In this one, though, the focus is on the deadliest threat to the nation’s youth: marijuana.  Hayata goes undercover and almost gasps aloud when opening the door to a marijuana party.  Cue lots of young female topless stoners, psychedelic music and imagery…and Chiba tripping on pot.  This scene, along with Chiba’s outlandish wardrobe, is worth the price of the DVD alone.

THe Assassin

Although slightly less comedic in tone than the original, Yakuza Deka II nevertheless shows Chiba had a flair for physical comedy.  And of course, he handles the action scenes with his customary flair.  Although not as good as the original, the film still boasts a thrilling climax and a star at his athletic best.  But the best line goes to a young moll forced to sleep with Chiba – afterwards, she says philosophically “it’s been more pleasurable than I thought”.  How I long for a woman to say that to me

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