In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
It makes me happy to wake up and discover, more or less totally by accident, that the world of film is still surprising and delightful. I have no idea how I heard of Norwegian Ninja. Perhaps appropriate to the subject matter, awareness of the movie simply popped into my head with no external stimulus at all, like the world knew that I needed to know Norwegian Ninja existed, and the cosmos took whatever metaphysical steps were needed to enlighten me. There it was all of a sudden on my television, and I was pretty happy. After this and Troll Hunter, maybe I should start paying attention to Norway beyond making jokes about the black metal scene and how their scary devil make-up isn’t as scary as they think it is when all those people pose for a photo out in their back yard.
As the kind of pop culture savvy, switched-on individual who reads Teleport City, I assume you’re familiar with Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man. But in case you’re not or just need reminding, here’s a quick recap of the plot. Peter Parker sees the girl of his dreams being wooed by a wealthy jock with a flash car. Deciding what he needs is a cool set of wheels, he uses his recently acquired spider powers to enter a wrestling contest for money, only to see through his inaction, his beloved Uncle Ben shot and killed. The 2009 Russian film Black Lightning (produced as all Russian movies apparently are by Night Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov) uses the same plot, but asks the one important question Spider-Man left dangling; ‘what about the car? What about the car??’
Moscow, 2004. Greedy industrialist Victor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Night Watch) is drilling for the vast diamond deposits buried under the city. Despite warnings that this will undermine the foundations of Moscow and possibly kill millions through earthquakes, Kuptsov pushes ahead, but is thwarted when his giant Matrix-style tunneling machine isn’t powerful enough. The only thing with enough energy to complete the plan is the MacGuffin-O-Tron, also known as the Nanocatalyst. This device fashioned from magic moon rocks can increase the power of any normal fuel to over a million times the power of nuclear energy, or something. It was designed in the Soviet days but the project was abandoned.
In the present day, some workers employed by Kuptsov discover the lab where the Nanocatalyst was discovered. There are lots of blueprints and so forth, and also an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga automobile. Seeing the chance to make a profit, they decide to swipe the car and sell it. Which may have a certain significance to college student and our nominated Piotr Parkovich, a.k.a. Dmtry, Dima to his friends (Grigory Dobrygin). Dima is contentious, studies hard, and has serious hots for the new girl, Nastya (the extremely pretty Ekaterina Vilkova, Hipsters). Dima though is constantly upstaged by his rich buddy Maxim (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a sleek white Mercedes (one of the things that tickled me about this movie is how everyone evil drives a Merc. I’m half-expecting to find an interview where one of the writers reveals a Mercedes killed his father). Seeing his son is pretty bummed out, Dima’s Dad (Sergey Garmash, Space Dogs 3D), a poor but upstanding tram driver, buys his son… an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Dima is grateful but not exactly thrilled; this is hardly the car to impress Nastya. So he hides it and tries to get the bus to college, but misses it because of stopping to help an old drunk. And on this day of all days, when nasty Victor Kuptsov is giving a lecture at the college. Dima earns some cutting remarks from Kuptsov, who trots out the old bullshit that successful people help only themselves. But his words strike a chord in Dima, who wants to make enough money to impress the girl he loves. You can probably see where this is going…
Kuptsov meanwhile is annoyed that the Nanocatalyst is nowhere to be found, only a container of previously converted super-energized nanofuel (it’s blue and glowing so you know it’s crazy powerful). From the blueprints it’s apparent that the Nanocatalyst has been built into the missing Volga, so Kuptsov sends his army of heavies out into Moscow to find all the Volgas they can. Meanwhile all is not well in the Dima household. Dima’s new attitude of only looking out for himself and trying to make as much money as possible does not sit well with his poor-but-proud Dad. When Dima Sr. intervenes in a mugging, his son berates him for risking his life for someone else, causing a deep rift between them. Kuptsov’s men observe Dad getting angrily out of the Volga, but stick with pursuing the car. And then Dima makes a startling discovery: his car can fly. Aw, man. The Russians had flying cars back in the 1960s? Way to go, capitalism.
Through an old record he finds in the glove box, Dima tracks down a couple of the scientists who built the car. They are now married, Perepelkin (Valeriy Zolotukhin, Night Watch) and Romantseva (Ekaterina Vasileva). Perepelkin is suspicious, claiming they could never get the Nanocatalyst to work, the project was closed down and chief scientist Elizarov (Juozas Budraitis) was fired in disgrace. Romantseva is more sympathetic and gives Dima the manual for the car. Now that he can circumvent the horrendous Moscow traffic, Dima becomes the star of the flower delivery service he’s been working for. Finally he has some cash to splash around, and takes Nastya to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He discovers quickly that she’s not the rich sophisticate Max said she was, and if she fails the next college exam will have to go back to her family in the country.
Unfortunately with great wealth comes great assholery. Dima gets into a fight with Max, and says a few salacious (and untrue) things about Nastya, which she overhears. Even worse, when he goes to reconcile with his Dad, Kuptsov’s men get there first, and the mugger Dad thwarted earlier is in their employ. Dad ends up bleeding to death in a snowy side-street while Dima sits idly by, refusing to call an ambulance because it doesn’t fit with his new ‘looking out for number one’ philosophy. He realizes too late who the victim is, Dad having already passed away.
At home with his distraught Mum (Elena Valyushkina) and little sister Tanka (Katya Starshova), Dima has the revelation we’ve been waiting for since the opening credits, especially when Tanka tells him “you’ll have to be dad now.” Using the Volga’s super-radio which cleverly doubles as a police band scanner, Dima becomes a hoodie-wearing superhero. He saves a child from a burning apartment block, foils an armoured car robbery and saves a baby in one go, even catches the mugger who killed his Dad (the mugger’s fate is not revealed, but since I don’t think Dima ever knew it was him, this isn’t too much of an oversight – I quite liked the ambiguity, in fact). He also gives the Volga a spiffy new coat of paint, and soon the people and the press are going crazy over this hero they have dubbed ‘Black Lightning.’ My favourite scene in the film is a lovely little moment that pops up about now, when Tanka asks Dima if Black Lightning is real. He says yes, but nobody knows who he is. “I think it’s Dad,” she replies. Brought a little lump to my throat, I don’t mind telling you.
Kuptsov is getting extremely frustrated with his inability to capture the car and the Nanocatalyst. He recalls the three scientists from the original project and convinces them he’s building a new version of the car to help Black Lightning in his heroic work. It transpires that Romantseva and Elizarov were in love, but because Perepelkin wanted her for himself he faked the negative results, knowing Elizarov would be fired. Meanwhile Dima deliberately fails an exam, knowing his place will go to Nastya, who is genuinely struggling. She realizes he’s not the dickhead she thought he was, but in a romantic twist of fate that is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, ends up thinking Maxim is Black Lightning. Max being a genuine dickhead, plays along.
Back at Kuptsov’s facility, Perepelkin finds out about the plot to drill for diamonds and destroy Moscow. Now eager to redeem himself, he tries to escape and get help even though it means likely death. Kuptsov lets him go, betting that Black Lightning will show up to rescue him. Nastya meanwhile has switched her allegiance back to Maxim, admiring his apparent selflessness and heroism. Discovering this, Dima almost lets Perepelkin die just to prove Maxim isn’t the hero, but of course he can’t. “Black Lighting will be there. He has to be there,” he tells Nastya, even though he knows he’s playing into Maxim’s hands (Max is hiding in the toilet at this point). And somehow, Nastya realizes that even though Maxim is apparently the hero, she actually loves Dima.
Unfortunately Dima falls into Kuptsov’s trap, failing to save Perepelkin and losing the Nanocatalyst to the bad guy’s super, rocket-armed flying Mercedes. Kuptsov re-starts the drill with the three scientists tied to it, and Moscow seems doomed. With only his small reserve tank of nanofuel left, Dima is able to stop the drill and recover the Nanocatalyst. Kuptsov is furious and, having worked out who Black Lightning is, kidnaps Nastya, demanding the Nanocatalyst in exchange for her life. Can Dima save the woman he loves and Moscow and defeat the man ultimately responsible for his father’s death? Does a Russian bear shit in the woods?
Y’know, I could say a lot of negative things about Black Lightning. Sure, it’s massively derivative of American comic book movies; as well as the Spider-Man series, it borrows bits of Iron Man, Batman Begins (the score is identical in spots) and Universal’s legal team may have been rubbing their hands over the Delorean-like design of Kuptsov’s flying Mercedes (Universal put the film out internationally though so I assume it was OK). Dima even has a Facebook account where people can ask him for help, Kick Ass style, but I guess those movies were in production at the same time so we’ll let that one go.
On top of that, the plot is pretty thin, and several of the elements could have been fleshed out better. In particular I’d like to have seen the car given a bit more… personality I guess. I don’t mean have it talk or think for itself, but it doesn’t register on-screen the way I think it’s meant to. Partly this is down to Dima’s character never seeming to have much of a bond with it; it’s just a tool for getting the job done. I do wonder if part of this is because the special effects, while good, are used sparingly, so the flying sequences are quite brief. Hey, I doubt they had $150 million to spend so that’s understandable. I also think it’s because Grigory Dobrygin as Dima isn’t a very good actor. He’s a little too blank, is better at being a jerk than a hero, and a times is even a little creepy. The rest of the characters are pure ciphers, though thankfully filled by good actors who make them work for the most part.
And then there are those pesky action sequences. I know that in a movie about a magic flying car it’s probably silly to complain about how much of the action seems to defy physics, but there are moments where I did roll my eyes (like when Black Lightning is flying vertically upwards with another car balanced upright on the front fender – I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work). And a little more time spent on exactly what the car is capable of would have been nice. It seems like the only difference from a normal car is supposed to be the flying thing, and yet BL seems to be indestructible, can apparently go into space without ill effects despite earlier being shown not to be watertight, and a few other things. And honestly, when it comes to super-heroics a flying car is a lot less practical than a dude swinging from a web. Take the moment where a stolen armoured car is about to hit a woman and her baby. BL shunts it from the side, flipping it over. So now it’s still moving forward at speed towards the baby but completely unable to steer. Of course it stops in the nick of time but you get the idea.
And yet… for all its many faults, I found myself going along with Black Lightning, and getting genuinely invested in the outcome. There are some nice moments throughout, and so help me I wanted to see weird, creepy Dima get the girl. I mentioned the sweet little bit with him and his sister, and I all but cheered when Dima thinks he’s sacrificing his future with Nastya to do the right thing. I am something of a sucker for comic book movies, I guess. I even smiled a little at the joke stolen from the Moore-era Bond movies, when a guy about to knock back his fifth vodka sees the flying car and swears off booze forever. So while far from a classic, I’d give Black Lightning a pass, even though it has nothing to do with the DC comics character of the same name – a black guy who shoots lightning.
And so what if they never really address why a bunch of scientists, discovering a magic new power source, would turn it into a flying car? If I had the technology and the resources I’d build that shit yesterday!
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Russia | Starring: Grigory Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Ekaterina Vasileva, Juozas Budraitis, Ivan Zhidkov, Sergey Garmash, Ekaterina Starshova, Mikhail Efremov, Dato Bakhtadze, Igor Savochkin, Sergey Legostaev, Elena Valyushkina | Screenplay: Dmitriy Aleynikov, Aleksandr Talal, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Rostislav Krivitskiy, Vladimir Neklyudov | Director: Dmitriy Kiselev, Aleksandr Voytinskiy | Cinematography: Sergey Trofimov | Music: Yuriy Poteenko | Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Syuzanna Muazen, Pavel Ratner, Iva Stromilova, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel | Original title: Chernaya Molniya
At time of writing (February 2011), the movie arm of Marvel Comics has three big budget summer blockbusters due out this year. Thor, starring Black Swan and Captain Kirk’s dad; Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Agent Smith and Johnny Storm; and X-Men: First Class, starring Mr. Tumnus and January Jones’s tits. Marvel has become quite the movie powerhouse since the first X-Men movie over a decade ago. This is all a far cry from back in the day, when Marvel was giving away the rights to their properties for the price of a deli sandwich, and not even a good deli either. This led to such classic fare as the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series, Albert Pyun’s unique take on Captain America and that Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four that was too awful to be released – of course the same could be said of the big-budget Tim Story version, but that didn’t stop them.
So no surprise then that Marvel saw fit to option their mystical superhero wizard Dr. Strange to an outfit like Full Moon Entertainment. Readers of this site doubtless have at least a passing familiarity with Full Moon and their head honcho Charles Band, but for any newcomers (and to pad out the review a little longer) I’ll recap. For Band the movie business ran in the family. When you’re the son of an independent writer/director/producer like Albert Band, it’s fairly likely you’d want to try out this filmmaking lark for yourself. When your dad is the auteur behind Zoltan: Hound of Dracula, it’s also reasonable to assume that a lot of your output will be utter crap. So it was with the younger Band.
But it’s not all bad. Band’s old company Empire Pictures produced some great Stuart Gordon films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dolls and… well, just those, though this writer has a lingering affection for Robot Jox as well. Empire also put out a number of other cult favourites including Zone Troopers, Trancers and Ghoulies (the latter two directed by Band). Empire eventually folded, and Charles started up Full Moon. And that’s when the floogdates of dreck really opened, because for every Re-Animator there are ten shitty Puppet Master films. In fact I think there actually are ten shitty Puppet Master films. And then there’s the Dollman series, the Demonic Toys series, the Witchouse series, the many Trancers sequels and that one where all of the Universal monsters are played by dwarves.
But even Full Moon couldn’t help but release the occasional decent movie. Subspecies is a highly-regarded take on the vampire mythos, while Stuart Gordon returned to make a couple of interesting flicks for the company (The Pit and the Pendulum, featuring some of Lance Henriksen’s finest scenery-chewing, and Castle Freak). Even more recent, deliberately tongue in cheek fare like The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong show more imagination than the mockbusters and endless giant shark movies from The Asylum and Nu Image. And for that I have a certain admiration for Band. He’s definitely an innovator. The Video Zone featurettes that accompanied Full Moon releases on VHS were DVD extras before the invention of DVD extras, or for that matter DVDs. And hey, if you want a complete collection of puppet master or demonic toys figures of your own, Band’s Full Moon Toys has you covered.
So why aren’t you familiar with the Dr. Strange movie that Full Moon made? Because, er, they never made it. By the time the project was ready to go into production, the option on the character had lapsed. But that wasn’t going to stop Band, who by now had a perfectly good screenpla… a screenplay, and after the liberal application of Wite-Out (other correction fluids are available), Dr. Strange became Dr. Anton Mordrid, Master of the Unknown. In the starring role was Full Moon regular and B-movie fan favourite Jeffrey Combs.
Mordrid lives in an amazing New York apartment full of old books and maps and other things pertinent to his wizardly status, but also lots of NEON! Because THE FUTURE! When not hanging out among the books and the neon, Mordrid is on the astral plane talking to his boss, Monitor, a big disembodied pair of eyes. Monitor serves as an exposition-o-tron, usefully discussing with Mordrid things they both know for the benefit of the audience. Monitor is also kind of a dick. “Mordrid,” he’ll say, “the Death’s Head has escaped. You must fight him.” “But Monitor,” responds Mordrid, “I’m not powerful enough.” “Yes, I know. And first you must cross over to the Other Side.” “But Monitor, crossing over will make me even weaker.” “Oh, cry me a river. Are you still here?”
The Death’s Head is a guy called Kabal, played by Brian Thompson. I love Brian Thompson. In the 80s and 90s he was the action movie heavy called Brian you hired when you couldn’t get Brion James. In fact I’m still sad that Thompson and James never starred together in a movie I just wrote in my head called Brian and Brion Blow Shit up. Thompson fought and was ultimately defeated by everyone from Sylvester Stallone and Cynthia Rothrock to, um, the cast of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. With his Roxx Gang hair and spiffy 90’s shades, Thompson is the perfect guy to play an evil wizard in a movie like this. Kabal is using his alchemical powers of mind control to steal various elements he can use in his dastardly scheme; to unlock the cosmic prison where his demon buddies live to let them destroy the Earth.
Mordrid meanwhile is hanging out at the huge apartment in the building he owns, talking to his raven Edgar (yes, I know) and flirting with his neighbour/tenant Samantha (Yvette Nipar, Robocop: The Series). She’s a police researcher into ancient evil cults and whatnot, so she’s drawn to Mordrid as much for his knowledge as his easy charm and gold silk dressing gown. Mordrid is also a much better prospect than the other guy in Sam’s life, her police contact Det. Tony Gaudio (Jay Acovone), one of those NYC cop stereotypes who could be reading a treatise on nuclear physics and all you’d hear was “cannoli, Jersey, Brooklyn badabing mama mia!”
Mordrid, suspicious at the thefts of alchemical materials, goes to the cosmic prison to discover that yes indeed, Kabal has escaped. Apparently he killed everyone except Mordrid’s friend Gunner (Ritch Brinkley), a guard. Meanwhile on Earth, Kabal has enlisted the help of the kind of heavy metal hoodlums that only exist in movies, Adrian (Keith Coulouris, Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus) and Irene (Julie Michaels, Road House). In order for his spell to work, Kabal needs to drain all of Irene’s blood, which I personally think was a poor choice on his part. Adrian is far more annoying and Irene looks good naked, so unless the spell specifically calls for ‘blood of a rock chick’ I’d have gone with Adrian.
Det. Gaudio is assigned to the case when Irene’s body shows up. Sam recognizes a symbol burned into her forehead as one she saw on Mordrid’s amulet, so suggests the cops go to him for advice. Mordrid meanwhile is increasing his power by inserting a bunch of clear Perspex daggers into himself, when Kabal’s astral form drops by for a chat. “Ah,” sneers Kabal, “the Crystals of Endor!” Which suggests that the rebels must have given the Ewoks some advanced plastic-making technology before they left. Anyway, Kabal is interrupted by the cops, who rather than asking for information simply arrest Mordrid as the no. 1 suspect.
Sam is able to convince Gaudio to let her see Mordrid. She’s wary at first, wondering if maybe he is a murderous occultist whackjob. Mordrid however uses his powers to play an extended mental flashback. When they were kids, Kabal and Mordrid were schooled together in magic and the ‘Dark Arts’ and so forth. But Kabal was seduced by the lust for power etc. and so on, and turned evil. Mordrid defeated him, and has been standing watch on Earth for hundreds of years in case Kabal escaped. Now won over, Sam helps Mordrid escape using his nifty time-stopping amulet.
Kabal needs only one more artifact, a philosophers’ stone, which he finds in a museum. He’s on the verge of releasing all the demons when Mordrid astral-projects into the museum. How do ancient wizards fight to the death? They reanimate a couple of dinosaur skeletons to battle it out. Yes, you heard me, GIANT STOP-MOTION DINOSAUR SKELETON FIGHT! Which is another reason I like Charles Band; the dude needed very little excuse to throw in a bunch of stop motion monsters. Since he usually used stop-motion wiz Dave Allen, these sequences were generally pretty good, and this one is short but a lot of fun. Even Kabal is entertained: as the scenery scampers for cover, Brian Thompson declares “God! Our powers can be amusing!”
I’ve riffed pretty hard on this movie but it’s mostly affectionate, because I rather enjoy Dr. Mordrid. Partly I think it’s because it rips off so many elements from Highlander, which is one of my favourite movies. Partly it’s because I feel well-disposed to any film that throws in some stop motion dinosaurs, and a lot of it is watching Brian Thompson set to maximum Ham. But mostly it’s because of Jeffrey Combs. Combs is always a reliable performer and a welcome presence, but this is a bit of a departure for him. I can’t think of another movie where he plays a romantic lead, and he’s really quite good at it. Of course he’s still Jeffrey Combs, so there’s a slightly sinister, twitchy edge to the character, but since he’s a 400-year old inter-dimensional wizard it fits perfectly. I have one female friend who finds Combs extremely hot in this flick, and inasmuch as I can appreciate such things, I agree. It’s Combs that gets the movie through the rather too frequent dialogue scenes needed to pad out such a low budget film. So even without the qualifier ‘for a Full Moon movie’ I think Dr. Mordrid is well worth watching, if only for Combs and those battlin’ dinosaur bones.
Generally, it only takes a fella like me sticking his hand into the fire a few times to learn to stop sticking my hand in the fire. Sometimes, though, learning whatever lesson life, pain, and horrible blistering has to teach me just doesn’t happen, and laughing like a buffoon, I just keep sticking my hand into those warm, enticing flames. And few flames are as warm, enticing, and unbearably painful as the films of zero-budget Indian horror director Harinam Singh. His movies are made with a disjointed stream of consciousness that James Joyce would kill to accomplish, and many others would kill to not have to experience. He assembles his footage with an apparent total disregard — and perhaps even disdain — for the linear narrative, splicing together scenes in a random order, reusing the same scene multiple times, or spending some time with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and may, in fact, have been stolen from another movie just to pad out the running time. His films fail miserably not just to be good films, but to be films at all.
Of the many pleasures in life available to be sampled by an aging and debauched, lecherous libertine like myself, the “misguided celebrity cross-over attempt” hardly beats out “a night with half a dozen young Russian models and a video camera,” but it runs a close second. Or maybe third. And maybe not that close, actually. Anyway, the point is, I get a hearty chuckle out of the disasters that occur when a celebrity in one field aspires, either because of a raging ego or genuine creative impulse, to become a star in another field. Actors recording albums. Musicians starring in movies. Sports personalities trying to do either. And while the world is littered with terrible albums recorded by people who were famous for something other than music, it’s “making a movie” that seems to be the baseball cap of ill advised — though totally understandable — efforts. Just like how every other sport has a baseball cap associated with their team (you don’t see baseball players walking around in casual football helmets, after all), it seems like it eventually comes down to the person famous in that genre of celebrity wanting to make a movie. Most of the time, they simply pop up as a star or co-star in a disposably idiotic movie. But sometimes, the celebrity has enough money and staggering enough delusions of grandeur that they can give the world that most special gift: the vanity project.
Vanity movie projects can undo even accomplished movie makers, who should already know better. But it’s a particularly sublime sort of vanity project that comes along when the person indulging their own ego and — again, totally understandable and relatable — desire to make a movie. Few people working today seem quite as committed to totally insane vanity movie projects as mixed martial artist and UFC superstar Hector Echavarria. When you read a one-line summary of his life, Echavarria himself sounds like the villain in any number of dumb direct-to-video action films from the 1990s — an Argentine millionaire businessman and kickboxer? Come on! How many of those did Jalal Merhi take down in 1993?
But the thing is, Hector’s background also prepares him ably to be the hero in any number of the same films, probably teaming up with Jalal to take down a gang consisting of…I’m gonna say John Miller and Bolo Yeung. Because according to the legend, Hector Echavarria was a sickly youth who was eventually taken under the wing of a fleeing Shaolin monk who had defected from China. The monk began training the young boy, and as the years progressed, the association with monk Kou Tsao enabled Hector to train with a variety of famous sifus, masters, and senseis. But life was tough for the kid, and he soon entered the seedy world of underground streetfighting. When he was arrested after breaking an opponent’s ribs, a cop told Hector he better clean up or end up in prison. Hector heeded the cop’s sage advise and eventually became a professional tournament fighter. Remember — this is not a summary of the plot of the movie I’m eventually going to get to. This is Echavarria’s real, or at least “officially sanctioned,” biography. No word on how much of his life was taken up with training montages set to bland synth-and-guitar-driven music, but I assume it to be a substantial amount. Also no word on how much of it is utter bullshit.
Rather than his background leading him to throw down against a local crime lord while also fighting to save the community arts center from greedy developers, Echavarria’s life took him in the direction such backgrounds usually take people in real life: he decided to open a gym in Miami. It was there that Hector met someone associated with a edgy new television show that was about to shoot its first season: Miami Vice. Echavarria must have enjoyed the experience, because he kept at it, and eventually he got the attention of producers back in his native Argentina. A string of roles followed, and Hector must have saved most but not all of his pennies (he probably had to spend some on sweet Ed Hardy shirts, after all) until he could cash in on them and his fame to do what you, I, and many others would likely do given the same opportunity: write, direct, and star in a really bad direct to DVD action movie with all his buddies, crammed with tons of gratuitous violence and nudity. And know this: despite all else that I may write about Never Surrender from this point on, the ultimate thing to realize is that Hector Echavarria made exactly the same movie I would have probably made in his situation. It is without a doubt the heir to all the direct to video action films of the 1990s, with a healthy dose of full frontal Andy Sidaris style sex and nudity thrown in for good measure.
As if the rampant macho wish fulfillment wasn’t already obvious enough, get a load of the plot: Diego is the baddest man on the MMA circuit. All the other MMA guys (played by actual MMA fighters) want to hang out with him. But Diego’s drive to always be the best leads him to a seedy underground fighting circuit where the winner gets to fuck the loser’s girlfriend. No, seriously. What you have here is pure, unadulturated MMA fanfic in which Hector Echavarria is casting himself as the quintessential “Mary Sue.” For those who need clarification, in the world of shitty, most fan-generated fiction, a “Mary Sue”is a character that is a blatant stand-in for the author. Only it goes beyond that. Mary Sue will be the absolute best at everything, and all the formerly competent characters occupying some work of fiction will suddenly fawn endlessly over and constantly need the help of Mary Sue, who’s just the bestest and smartest and prettiest and Legolas will totally fall in love with her and marry her and they will go on a honeymoon to Sanrioland.
Diego is basically the MMA fanfic version of a Mary Sue, with Echavarria wishing himself into a role where actual MMA guys all fawn over him and tell him how awesome he is and want to ride around in his stretch Hummer limo. Plus, he could beat them all up if he wanted to, and he makes super-love to ladies. As far as I know, Echavarria himself never actually worked the mixed martial arts circuit, which makes it even sweeter that he would cast himself as the number one pit fighter in the world, then wave enough money in front of legitimate MMA fighters to convince them to show up for a few hours and tell him how awesome he is, and how they all wish they could be more like him. Of course, the entirety of his plan was to pay fighters to show up and praise him. He didn’t really know what to do with them beyond that, so you get a steady procession of guys like BJ Penn and Rampage Jackson showing up out of nowhere, saying, “Diego, you da man!,” maybe having a fight scene with some thugs, and then their character disappears for the rest of the movie.
Eventually, through sheer force of human intelligence, Diego surmises that maybe, just maybe, the women aren’t as willing participants in this exchange as you would think. I mean sure, all of hem like fucking Diego, but the rest of the time, they’re basically sex slaves. Obviously, it’s up to Diego to fight for their freedom and put an end to this whole sordid business. It could also be that Diego doesn’t actually realize what he’s taking part in is wrong; it could be that Hector Echavarria realizes that the one person in the world he really wants to make love to is Hector Echavarria, so he might as well fight to free all these chicks. Standing in the way of Diego and supreme righteousness is bloodthirsty thug Patrick Kilpatrick, who apparently traveled into the Face/Off universe and stole Randy Couture’s face.
You know the grunting noise a rutting feral hog makes? This movie is the embodiment of that sound. This movie is an Ed Hardy shirt. Hell, this movie doesn’t just feature stretch limo Hummers; it is the cinematic embodiment of a stretch limo Hummer, and chances are if you think stretch limo Hummers are totally bad-ass and classy, then this is probably the movie for you. Or, if you are like me and just love totally goofy, incompetent movies packed to the gills with tough guy swagger, naked strippers, and dudes punching each other in the face, well, you’ll probably be happy too. 100% USDA prime meathead dialogue, an inability to string scenes together in any coherent sort of way, characters who pop in and out of the movie at random and purely because Echavarria was able to convince them to show up and do a scene — this is a shitty, sleazy b-movie the way they used to make ‘em, and I was overjoyed watching every sordid, idiotic frame. Never Surrender is a pretty terrible movie by almost any sane measure, but as long as you aren’t looking for good or logical writing, quality acting, well-executed fight scenes, or any sense of good taste or decency, there’s untold amounts of entertainment to be mined from a movie this absurd. It really was just like staying up late to scope out titty movies on Cinemax back in the 1980s, only instead of Jack Scalia solving an insurance fraud case involving Shannon Tweed, mixed martial arts dudes would show up in between the sex scenes with anonymous strippers to beat each other up. If you have any sort of fondness at all for that sort of irredeemable crap, let Hector Echavarria ensure you that, if nothing else, he’s still respecting the tradition.
The film does have some potentially decent fight scenes, but unfortunately, Echavarria is about as good at directing a film as he is at acting in one. He has no real grasp of how to stage fights for the camera, and the result is a lot of messy fights with lots of editing and no real rhythm. Echavarria himself looks particularly sluggish in some of the scenes, and his desire to do as many spinning, high kicks as his kickboxing background will allow him doesn’t really fit with the whole MMA vibe. For those old enough to remember, when MMA first began its march to popularity, the matches threw together a bunch of different sized fighters using a bunch of different styles of fighting. It didn’t take too long before people noticed that the guys who tried to break out the funky styles got destroyed, and every match was dominated by the guys who knew grappling disciplines like jujitsu. By the time Never Surrender was released, the idea that an MMA circuit could be dominated by a forty-year-old dude spin kicking and doing the splits was, at best, quaint.
At the same time, bringing a truer MMA style to the screen, where two guys circle each other, throw a few kicks and punches, then spend the next ten minutes on the ground maneuvering for a choke hold to end the match, does not particularly compelling cinema. In the hands of a creative and talented choreographer, just the right balance of what happens in the ring and what we wished would happen in the ring could be obtained. The driving force behind many of the current crop of low budget MMA action films, Tap Out, worked hard to get it right, and most of the time, they succeed. Echavarria, on the other hand, flails about, and the film’s fight scenes suffer from his lack of attention to anything but filming himself with a naked hooker grinding on top of him in slow motion. Even the veteran MMA guys who show up to pretend like they give a shit about Hector Echavarria are undermined by the director’s poor grasp of how to stage and shoot a fight for film. Although, once again, if you are looking to relive the ridiculous low-budget actioners of the 80s and 90s, Echavarria at least handles himself in a fight as well as Jalal Merhi, and substantially better than, oh, let’s say Julie Strain.
Never Surrender (the 1000th film to have that title) is ultimately a movie about how awesome Hector Echavarria is, playing to the tough guy (and more importantly, wannabe tough guy) fantasy he and his target audience doubtless harbor: to be the baddest mother fucker in the world, out-fighting and out-fucking every other man on the planet. It’s obvious from the get-go that only by writing, directing, and starring in the movie himself could Hector Echavarria ever hope to communicate to the rest of us just how awesome Hector Echavarria is and how awesome it is to be Hector Echavarria. Every frame of this movie is designed specifically for Hector to remind you of how cool and tough Hector Echavarria is. He can beat up anybody, and every hot chick with fake boobs wants to have sex with him (and actually, probably did to get their three minutes of “fame” in this movie, pretending to do what they did in real life to get the role). Because he’s a classy guy, Hector stops short of adding DVD audio commentary in each sex scene to the effect of, “We’re pretending to have sex here, but we did it for real also.” So I don’t know. If this movie is just a self-indulgent way to pander to his own ego and let the world know how great it is being Hector Echavarria, maybe he’s right.
Nostalgia. It’s a dangerous thing, especially when applied to something you haven’t encountered for over 30 years. Take, for example, my favourite TV show as a kid; I lived and breathed The Six Million Dollar Man. I had two different Steve Austin action figures (one with a grippy hand, one without), a rocket ship thing that folded out into a bionic surgery table, some sort of evil robot with a claw and interchangeable face masks*, and even a Jamie Sommers action figure (it was not a doll. Shut up. SHUT UP!). I would spend hours during school playtimes attempting to run in slow motion while making the nininininini…. noise. I’m sure I looked like a complete buffoon, but I didn’t care.
And oh man, what a show that was! I remember every episode being a breathtaking thrill ride, as The OSI battled to stop megalomaniacs trying to use atomic bombs to blow up space stations full of more atomic bombs, while Steve Austin wrestled a robot yeti with laser eyes that also contained an atomic bomb. And between being about six and thirty-six, I never saw The Six Million Dollar Man again. Imagine my disappointment, watching re-runs on SyFy, to discover that Steve spent most of his time helping pretty divorcees in lumberjack shirts fight off evil logging companies in bland-looking (and above all cheap) forests.
Because back in nineteen seventy whatever, my junior brain was incapable of differentiating between awesome and suck. I thought everything was as good as Star Wars (my yardstick for quality in those days). The Black Hole? Totally as good as Star Wars. The Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers movies? Every bit as good as Star Wars. If I’d seen The Humanoid back in the day, I’d probably have told you THAT was as good as Star Wars, and I dare say I also thought today’s review subject was the equal of Lucas’s epic adventure. In fact about the only post-Star Wars sci-fi movie I didn’t think was as good as Star Wars was Starcrash, which I thought was crap. But again that just shows you how badly formed my young synapses were, knowing as I do now that Starcrash is the greatest movie ever made.
The Amazing Captain Nemo was an attempt by Irwin Allen to graft some Star Wars-style laser and robot action onto an underwater adventure, and was originally made to serve double duty as both a movie and TV mini-series, the latter shown as The Return of Captain Nemo. This wasn’t uncommon in the late 70s; As I hinted above, my first exposure to both Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica was in the form of movies that were edited together from episodes of the show (in fact Galactica managed to knock out three of these, including one based on- the Lords of Kobol help us – Galactica 1980). I have a recollection so vague of seeing the TV version of Nemo that for a long time I assumed I must have dreamed the whole thing.
There’s this mad scientist called Professor Cunningham… Let’s just hold it there. Professor Cunningham? That’s what you call a guy whose name strikes terror into all those who hear it? Because that’s not even trying. I’m not suggesting going completely overboard and calling your antagonist Dr. Maim or Count Torture or something, but Professor Cunningham sounds like an avuncular college professor. And – unfortunately – he looks like one too, seeing as he’s played by Burgess Meredith in a costume of grey slacks, grey grandpa cardigan and loose black tie. He’s absolutely not the guy who you expect to be commanding a killer submarine full of robots, and ordering around a 7-foot tall gill man in space armour called Trog or Tor or something. But that’s exactly what he’s doing. The submarine is called The Raven, and looks like a kit bash of a couple of pipes with a Space: 1999 Eagle transporter. It has this really amazing weapon called a Delta Beam, which can apparently blow up whole islands, but for some reason Cunningham instead threatens to destroy Washington using an old-fashioned nuke.
Meanwhile, during some stock footage of naval manoeuvres, a couple of divers make a startling discovery. Commander Tom Franklin and Lt. Jim Porter happen across a mysterious submarine. When they investigate further, they discover it is the Nautilus, and the famous Captain Nemo (José Ferrer) is still aboard in suspended animation. There’s not a whole lot to say about Tom and Jim except that they helpfully wear different coloured wetsuits so you can tell them apart. They are played respectively by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, who look like they were created in a lab from the DNA of Tom Wopat and Larry Wilcox just to be on 1970s TV.
Tom, Jim and their boss Miller (Warren Stevens) convince Nemo to use his genius, and spiffy art-deco sub, to help them take down Cunningham before Washington is destroyed. While a little annoyed that this will divert him from his true goal – searching for the fabled Atlantis – Nemo agrees. It’s a bit of a coup for the good guys since the Nautilus has all kinds of amazing technology years ahead of its time. It has a laser cannon and a nuclear reactor, or at least that’s what Tom and Jim call them, setting up the old chestnut of Nemo snapping “that is only what you call them in your modern futuristic parlance you young whippersnappers you!” or words to that effect.
Nemo tracks down Cunningham fairly easily, and having temporarily neutralised the delta beam, swims out to say hi. No, he really does: he and Tom scuba over to the Raven so that Nemo can ‘look his opponent in the eye’ or some such guff. It’s mostly so Ferrer and Meredith can do a bit of scenery-chewing and we can have a brief underwater laser battle as the good guys escape. I have to say, I really love that someone looked at the exciting shootouts in Star Wars and thought, ‘I wish these were slower and more ponderous, like Thunderball.’ Anyway, the Nautilus uses its laser (or focussed light projecting fabtraption, according to Nemo) to shoot down the nuke, and that’s the end of episode 1.
In order to refuel, Cunningham drills holes in some barrels of nuclear waste that the US has dumped in the ocean. The release of radiation threatens to be catastrophic, so once again the Nautilus is pressed into action to save the day. First though they must take on board an expert in, um, leaking radioactive barrels, I guess. This is Dr. Cook (Mel Ferrer) and his pretty-ish assistant/girlfriend Kate (Lynda Day George). Dr. Cook doesn’t add much to the story, except that he’s actually a traitor in league with Cunningham. He sabotages the Nautilus, though Nemo figures out who the culprit was instantly. But Cook has another trick up his sleeve… a sword cane.
Yes, honestly, that’s his back-up plan. He attacks Nemo, who apparently forgets he has a whole crew of armed officers so that the two Ferrers can have an old-guy sword fight. Cook is killed, and Nemo tricks Cunningham into blowing up an undersea cliff to bury the nuclear waste and saving the day. Oh, and there’s some business with the Nautilus getting stuck in a minefield, but it’s dealt with rather quickly. And that’s the end of episode 2.
For the big finale, Nemo finally discovers Atlantis, which looks pretty much exactly like you’d expect it to: Greek columns and acropolises (acropoli?) and so forth. Then a guy in a toga swims aboard, and declares he is King Tibor (Horst Buchholz), the head honcho of Atlantis. He tells Nemo that having been betrayed by a previous visitor who claimed to have peaceful intentions, the crew of Nautilus will be tried and judged by the Atlantean council. Sort of makes you wonder, if your nation is attacked by a treacherous enemy and you get all suspicious of visitors, why you’d send the king out by himself to make contact. Never mind, he’s got a toga so he must know what he’s doing.
Anyway, Nemo is able to convince the council he’s an OK guy, and returns to the Nautilus with Tibor and a couple of others. But they find the crew frozen, Tom (or is it Jim?) missing, and the ship inoperable. It’s Cunningham again of course; he’s using a mind-control device to overpower Jim (or is it Tom?) and the Atlanteans, and now intends to drain all of the genius ideas from Nemo’s mind. And also use some ball bearings to destroy all the cities on Earth, or something. And naturally it was he who previously conned the Atlanteans. While strapped into Cunningham’s brain-draining machine, Nemo cleverly remembers some footage from earlier in the movie, allowing Tom (or possibly Jim) to break free of Cunningham’s control. They escape, treating us to a slightly more elaborate underwater laser fight, before the final battle between the Raven and The Nautilus. Which isn’t terribly exciting, to be honest, but does end with an explosion. And then Captain Nemo promises never to return to Atlantis. And that’s the end of episode 3.
The Amazing Captain Nemo is a frustrating experience. The episodic structure means that there’s no real through-line of plot to get resolved, and as soon as a problem presents itself, it’s fixed immediately. Plus the removal of a fair chunk of footage from the longer TV edit also causes a number of problems. Character development is non-existent, and presumably the lost scenes would also help fill in some troubling holes in the story. For example, what’s the deal with Cunningham’s weird mutant hench-thing? Was he supposed to be an Atlantean of some sort? Both he and and the toga-wearing Atlanteans refer to Nemo and his crew as ‘aliens,’ so I assumed a connection. There are also unfortunate continuity gaffes that presumably come out of the editing, such as when Nemo orders the Nautilus, last seen resting on the ocean floor, to “dive dive dive!” I’m guessing these gaffes are down to the editing anyway; the script might just suck. And don’t fall for anyone telling you Robert Bloch is responsible for the screenplay, as I assume his contributions were lost among those of the 6 other writers (not including Jules Verne).
So, The Amazing Captain Nemo is just-about-passable afternoon matinee entertainment, assuming you can roll with the ropey model FX (and honestly, how can these be so much worse than the ones in Allen’s earlier Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?). Having seen it again, I can now say with confidence I didn’t imagine it as a six year old child, so peace of mind of a sort has been achieved. And I also now know for certain that even the addition of sweet laser-equipped scuba thrusters isn’t enough to make diving sequences interesting.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and find this old TV show I remember from being a kid. It had a guy with a metal hand that had all these interchangeable gadgets on it, and I’m completely sure it’ll still be awesome…
* The villain turned out to be Maskatron, as described here. I also had the radio back pack, which kind of sucked. I really wanted those critical assignment arms, but it was not to be…
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, Mel Ferrer, Horst Buchholz, Tom Hallick, Burr DeBenning, Lynda Day George, Warren Stevens, Med Flory | Screenplay: Larry Alexander, Robert Bloch, Robert C. Dennis, Norman Katkov, William Keys, Mann Rubin, Preston Wood | Director: Alex March, Paul Stader | Cinematography: Lamar Boren | Music: Richard LaSalle | Producer: Arthur Weiss, Irwin Allen
Rest assured that I’m going to attempt a formal review of Hunterwali in the paragraphs below, though I have to admit I’m tempted just to leave you with the blunt summation I gave my wife after watching it, which went as follows: “Amazing. It was like two and a half hours of people yelling at each other and fat ladies dancing, and then, at the end, a dog rode a horse.”
The whip-wielding female avenger Hunterwali is a frequently recurring character in South Asian film, going back at least as far as Fearless Nadia’s initial turn in the role back in 1935. This 1988 version is a Pakistani take on the legend, fronted by one of the day’s biggest stars of Pakistan’s rough and tumble Punjabi language cinema, the generously proportioned Anjuman. Also on hand are the two other biggest stars of Pakistan’s Punjabi language cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, who, along with Anjuman, were teamed together with such numbing frequency that it sounds like it was near impossible to see a movie in which the three didn’t appear. The insanely popular Rahi alone was like a one man industry, starring in over 500 films between his debut in the mid 50s and his assassination in 1996.
It probably goes without saying by this time that the version of Hunterwali I had access to had no English subtitles. Subtitles, however, are for the weak — or so I have come to believe. Of course, it’s easy for me to take that stance when I can avail myself of the detailed summary provided by Omar Khan over at The Hotspot Online. Given the insane contortions of Hunterwali’s plot, I am indeed in his debt.
Still, summary aside, the most important thing that I need to communicate to you about Hunterwali is that, for the uninitiated, it will likely come across as the most yelling-est movie ever. During its first act it seems as if not a moment passes without someone pointing a finger and bellowing defiantly at someone else, usually with that someone else in turn pointing their finger and bellowing back. I have since learned that these screaming verbal sparring matches -– known colloquially as barrak –- are a standard feature of these Punjabi action films. It’s as if every man and woman in the film were played by 1970s era Dharmendra, but a version of 1970s era Dharmendra who has somehow been fused with the great and powerful OZ, so that every one of his full-throated utterances comes equipped with its own cavernous reverb. In keeping with this, Hunterwali as a whole, while not as sleazy, shows much the same commitment to subtlety seen in Pashto efforts like the notorious Haseena Atom Bomb, complete with an absurdly profligate use of shock zooms and frequent thunderclap sound effects to denote important plot points.
The film does calm down a bit after the first act, settling into a middle bit rich with masala melodrama. At this point it might seem like the movie was less concerned with Hunterwali’s exploits than it is with the question of whether she will settle down and become a dutiful wife and daughter. To underscore this, Hunterwali is provided with a twin sister, Bano, who, by contrast, is every bit as demure and devout as Hunterwali is aggressive and hoochified. (Needless to say, Bano always keeps her head covered and her body hidden underneath loose fitting garments.) Those used to Western portrayals of these type of fantasies of female vigilantism might be forgiven for thinking at first that Hunterwali intends to celebrate its heroine’s flaunting of gender norms. However, the deep conservatism of the film soon becomes apparent, demonstrating that, while the makers may not be above using Hunterwali’s scandalous behavior to titillate their male viewers, they also clearly intend to show that a heavy price must be paid for it.
This price comes in the form of a handsome young fellow whom Hunterwali falls for after he helps her fend off a gang of would-be rapists. In defiance of her father, who has already arranged for her to marry a family friend, she runs off with the man, only to find that he is far from the honorable gentlemen that he initially seemed. In communicating the depths of this guy’s depravity, the movie uses an interesting moral shorthand. Of course, we already know that things aren’t going well once he takes Hunterwali home to reveal that he lives in a cave lair. But, once he is revealed to be in cahoots with the gang of would-be rapists, we notice only too late that that cave is lined with magazine pinups of Madonna, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Beals and — hey, is that Phoebe Cates?
Hunterwali manages to escape from the rape gang, but, because she has disgraced her family, feels she has no recourse but to commit suicide. However, her father then shows up on the scene and prevents her from doing so, preferring to handle the job himself by putting a bullet in her head. Bano then also makes the scene and throws herself between Hunterwali and her father, taking the bullet meant for her sister. Dad then turns the gun on himself and blows his own head off. This jaw dropping sequence comes to a close with Hunterwali promising the dying Bano that she will take her place, which will entail playing wife to Bano’s new husband, a righteous police inspector played by Mustafa Qureshi.
As might be expected, the combination of married life and the business of being Bano quickly starts to chafe on Hunterwali, and she is soon back to her vigilante antics in full force. This happily leads to a final act chock-a-block with violence, gore and absurd animal stunts, as she hunts down the members of the rape gang one-by-one and shoots out their eyes before hanging them from the rafters of their Rape Cave.
The final set piece sees Hunterwali closing in on the leader of the gang — her former paramour — with the assistance of her two ani-pals, a horse named Moti and an adult German Sheppard named Puppy. The gang is momentarily able to subdue the two critters and get the drop on our heroine, but only until the resourceful Puppy is able to free Moti from his bonds and go riding to the rescue.
As well as another fine addition to the South Asian Animal Stars Hall of Fame and some truly amazing — and shiny! — outfits worn by Anjuman, Hunterwali boasts an ear-hectoring, Bappi Lahiri-esque disco score that will keep you tapping your toe right up to the very moment you shoot yourself to make it stop. What can I say, this movie really is the whole package… of what, though, I have to confess I’m at a loss to say.
To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.
Following the trail blazed by Yimou, we started getting a slew of impressive looking, giant-scale historical epics, some with more martial arts than others. Having limped along for so many years with nothing at their disposal but pop stars more interested in sculpting their hair and male model abs than in learning the craft of making an action film, Hong Kong film makers suddenly had the best and brightest of China at their disposal, and the mainland Chinese seemed absolutely raring to prove themselves to disillusioned fans. Plus, having weathered the pop idol decade, there was now a new generation of directors who were hungry for the sort of slam-bang kungfu films with which they’d grown up in the 70s and 80s. They wanted new faces who wanted to be martial arts stars, and they wanted to bring back the old guard to serve as mentors. And all of a sudden, we were getting movies like Little Big Soldier and Gallants and 14 Blades. Like I said, we’re only just now starting to rebuild, but the new foundation looks more promising than anything we’ve seen in years. I never felt like I needed to learn the difference between Stephen Fung, or Edison Chan, or any of the other goofy young things that devoured most of the last decade. Now we’ve got a whole new batch of names to learn, though, and some of them are worth learning.
First and foremost, learn the name Jiang Lu-Xia.
One of the things I remember most fondly from the 80s and early 90s are the fighting femmes who took over the screen. Names like Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan, Cynthia Rothrock — the movies they starred in during those years may not have always been the best written or best acted, but they damn sure delivered the action. Insane stunts, brutal fights, blazing energy — even the worst of them had enough over the top action to make it worth suffering through the missteps. And if the fightin’ lads suffered during the first decade of the 2000s, the fightin’ ladies all but vanished. The old school “girls with guns” class retired, or they moved on to more upscale prestige projects, or they found their genre was no longer favored by film goers and so sought work in The Philippines and other places where they were still a few years behind what was hip in Hong Kong.
As for us fans of the genre, we had nowhere to go. Cynthia Rothrock came back to the United States, but her movies here were mostly terrible. Hong Kong couldn’t come up with anything better than CGI’ing around Charlene Choi and Maggie Q. There was no action actress who instilled genuine fear in the viewer the way Sonny Chiba-trained Yukari Oshima used to be able to do. There was no one with the innocent-but-deadly charisma of Moon Lee. And there certainly wasn’t another Michelle Yeoh. Luckily, when directors and production companies decided to start making martial arts actioners again, they didn’t settle on the crop of cute pop idols and models that were slinking around the joint. If no actress in Hong Kong was going to put herself through what it took to really become an action star, then they’d just go calling elsewhere. That’s when China’s Jiang Lu-Xia picked up the phone.
If you want to draw comparisons to past greats, Jiang is less “the next Michelle Yeoh” and more “the next Jet Li,” albeit with a dash of Yukari Oshima thrown in. Like Li, Jiang is a wushu superstar from the mainland, and her prowess at martial arts turned her into a one-woman self-defense industry. She started training in martial arts at the age of seven, in Mongolia, and eventually pursued training at various spots in China. Before breaking into film, she was kicking ass in a host of tournaments, not to mention working as a referee, starring in self-defense instructional videos and television shows, appearing on a competition-based reality series called The Disciple, and becoming an internet sensation when she started uploading videos of herself under the name “Mao Er Bao Bei.”
While she was busy honing her skills and uploading videos, veteran Hong Kong action film stuntman, supporting actor, and choreographer Xiong Xin-xin (you know him as Clubfoot from the Once Upon a Time in China series, and he popped up more recently in Bad Blood and the unwatchable Circadian Rhythm) was trying to get a new project off the ground, one that would continue the trend of Hong Kong martial arts films getting back to the spirit of the 1980s, when they ruled the action universe. It would also be Xiong’s first time as director. Xiong soon had Jiang brought to his attention, and like many, he saw her potential as a major new martial arts movie star. Unfortunately, those many people didn’t include many studio execs, who were hesitant to put their faith in this supposed kungfu film revival unless the movie was a period piece featuring Andy Lau in a fake beard. Xiong is well-known and respected, but he’d never directed before, and this chick from…where was it? China? Mongolia??? Why the hell would anyone greenlight a movie like that?
Luckily, just as Andy Lau showed faith in a goofy little idea that became Gallants, and was willing to fund the movie when no one else would, Xiong eventually found backers among friends and the Hong Kong entertainment old guard, including the not-so-secretly most powerful man in the world, pudgy little comedy dwarf Eric Tsang. Seriously, have you ever read about him? That dude could have you killed if he wanted to. Anyway, Jiang Lu-xia threw herself into the role, emotionally and physically, with a gusto and willingness to injure herself that we haven’t seen from Hong Kong since the apparent stuntman death wish they had in the 1980s moved to Thailand. Her skill and enthusiasm for the role turns what is an otherwise clunky film into a fairly enjoyable experience, one that focuses almost entirely on watching Jiang Lu-xia beat the shit out of people in a series of increasingly improbable set-ups.
Jiang plays Nie Yi-yi, a teacher at her family’s martial arts academy. When a freak accident causes the death of her father, she sort of drops out of life until an old friend, Chung Tin (Bio Zombie‘s Sam Lee) runs into her and convinces her to take a job as a bodyguard, where she will be able to beat people up while wearing a business suit. Shortly after taking the job, however, Yi-yi is beset by more problems, as her charge and his family is targeted by a seemingly endless stream of goons. Although Yi-yi beats the crap out of most of them, they still succeed with the kidnapping. Yi-yi and Chung Tin launch a mission to get their boss back, but the deeper in they go, the more it seems like something else entirely is going on.
Yi-yi eventually notices that the the various fights she’s having as part of her mission are being video taped, and before too long, she gets the right people to beat the information out of: none of this is about her boss. It’s about her, and one of the favorites of low-budget fight films: a ring of jaded rich people who enjoy watching and betting on life-or-death street fights. They’ve been secretly video taping all of Yi-yi’s fights and broadcasting them on the Web for gamblers — funny, I guess, given that Jiang herself became a star thanks to using the Web to show off her fighting skills. Obviously, the people using her for her ass kicking skills need to have their asses kicked.
Coweb is, like a number of recent low-budget fight films, a throwback to the 80s and early 90s in pretty much every sense — and that includes the daft writing. But like the movies that are its heritage, Coweb seeks to make up for its narrative shortcomings by making sure we never have much time to dwell on them before all is forgiven by watching Jiang Lu-xia in action once again. Xiong Xin-xin is shaky in his first outing as a full-on director, and some of the film’s action sequences feel a bit awkward, like everyone is still feeling things out. Even when he’s restricted simply to being an action director, Xiong can turn in somewhat uneven work, and that’s once again the case here. But one need not fear, because Jiang Lu-xia comes to the game with such intensity and a willingness to do pretty much anything that’s asked of her that her fight film charisma carries the day. Even in a somewhat half-assed film like Coweb, it’s impossible for me not to love watching Jiang in action — and while some of Xiong’s choreography is off the mark, he also gives us more than enough of it to ensure that he has as many hits as he has misses.
Jiang’s throw-downs against henchmen in a kitchen is fun. While the set-up of her fight in a disco’s shallow pool of water is completely convoluted and absurd, the end result is Jiang fighting a chick in a short dress in a pool of water. Then she fights a dude with ill-advised hair, has some fun on that old Hong Kong action movie friend (bamboo scaffolding), and takes on some kungfu breakdancers before she works up to the main challenge: Kane Kosugi! Like I said, the fight choreography isn’t perfect, but I don’t ask for perfection. I thought it was all pretty entertaining. If Xiong is a bit shaky as director, Jiang looks like she’s been doing this her whole life. Oh wait — basically, she has, hasn’t she? Anyway, she’s the most obvious recent example of the massive gulf between what Hong Kong was doing for the past decade plus — relying on camera tricks, CGI, and pop starlets — and what I hope they start doing instead –which is relying on women who walk the walk.
Her supporting cast is all right, but frankly, we’re here to watch Jiang Lu-xia. Kane Kosugi is one of those actors who deserves better than he gets. He’s not all that impressive a thespian, but within his limits he’s effective — and he, like Jiang Lu-xia, can walk the walk. The man basically finished Ninja Warrior! that he didn’t get credit for beating the course is a matter of a couple fractions of a second, which I thing should be negated by the fact that he did the whole thing in the rain. The prospect of finally getting to watch him in an action movie with a real opponent — instead of being in awkward scenes with stars who don’t have any talent for martial arts — had me pretty excited. Xiong Xin-xin must have felt the same way, because he gives the two of them a good twelve or so minutes to beat on each other. No gimmicks, no fancy directing — just two very, very good martial arts actors doing what they do best. It’s not Jackie Chan versus Benny Urquidez in Dragons Forever, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Coweb ends up being a lot of great raw material that never fully coalesces into a great film, but for those who are accustomed to rolling with the sloppy writing we forgave in the old girls with guns movies, there’s nothing about Coweb‘s sundry sloppy mistakes and silly plot that will prove to be an impediment to enjoying the movie. Jiang Lu-xia shines, and watching her has made me more excited about the future of martial arts films than anyone in a long time. She probably deserves a better director and choreographer in the future, but the inexperience of both her and Xiong Xin-xin gives this movie a rough around the edges underdog appeal. I seem to have enjoyed Coweb a heck of a lot more than many other people, even among those whose opinions on film I take with some degree of seriousness. But whatever the case, I just found it really easy to roll with. It felt like it was 1992 all over again, with a bunch of us huddled around my shitty little television watching Iron Angels or Righting Wrongs for the first time. I had a big, dumb smile on my face after all was said and done. There’s very little pretense about the type of movie this is, and as much as I love the current trend of humongous overblown epics and haunted warlords in medieval China, I’m also a huge fan of lean, no nonsense ass kickers. On that level, Coweb more than satisfied me.
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jiang Lu-Xia, Sam Lee Chan-Sam, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Kane Kosugi, Wanja Gotz, Chan Kwok-Bong, Mike Moller, Peggy Tseng Pei-Yu, Wai Cha Go Si, Ho Chung-Lam, Geung Kam-Kui | Screenplay: Sunny Chan Wing-Sun | Director: Xiong Xin-Xin | Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung | Music: Mak Jan-Hung | Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho, Eddie Chan Shu-Chi | Original Title: Por Mong