Category Archives: Film & TV

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Enter the Ninja

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Golan and Globus. Say the name. It rolls off the tongue with silky smoothness, leaving only the faintest oozing trail of snail-like effluvia in your mouth. Golan and Globus. A name that, along with the banner studio Cannon, means many different things to many different people. None of them are good, but many of them are enjoyable. In the 1980s, the powerhouse production tag team of Menahem Golan and his partner, Yoram Globus, assaulted the world with a seemingly endless stream of cinematic swill that quickly became a staple of my early film-watching life. Nary a trend went unscathed as Cannon Films latched on to one flash in the pan after another, producing as many movies as humanly possible before the trend died out and the next thing came along.

We dealt with these gentlemen and their contributions to human society during a review of Treasure of the Four Crowns, the movie that proves you can make an Indiana Jones type adventure without a big budget, big stars, a good story, a good director, or good special effects; it just won’t be a very good film. I’d like to say that when I was young and foolish, Cannon Films comprised the vast bulk of what I wanted to see when I was over at my friend’s house who had one of those big satellite dishes. The only reason I can’t say that is because I’m not exactly young anymore, except when compared to Carl “Oldie” Olson or Young Mr. Grace, and I still love most of the Cannon Films I watched as a wee one. You could chalk it up to nostalgia, or more realistically, you could chalk it up to incredibly immature and undeveloped taste.

Finding out that Golan and/or Globus produced a film is enough to send most people heading for the hills with shotgun in tow, ready to board up the windows of their ramshackle cabin and send an assful of lead the way of anyone who approaches them waving a copy of Braddock: Missing in Action III or The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. Hardened fans of the films that tend to settle closer to the bottom of the barrel greet each Cannon Films release as a treat, albeit a treat not unlike a pack of Good ‘n’ Plenties. Say what you will, but these guys know exactly what to cram into their films to assure thousands upon thousands of adolescent boys will be going out of their way to borrow them from friends with premium cable channels or to just watch them between the wavy scrambled lines. The vast majority of Cannon productions can be boiled down to two fundamental elements that exist at the very top of the periodic table of bad movie elements: sex and violence.


When all else fails, or when you happen to be too lazy to try anything else, a sleazy movie producer can always rely on these enchanted looms to spin cinematic gold (or green, as the case may be) every time. Against our better judgment, it almost always works. Heck, the advertising for Showgirls was one degree shy of just flat-out saying, “It’s a bad movie, but it’s full of tits!” and you know what? People paid to see that. Striptease made a big deal out of the fact that Demi Moore bared her bosoms for the film, and folks flocked to the theaters to catch a glimpse of her nipples, apparently forgetting that she’s shown them off in damn near half the films she’s ever been in. The only difference is that in About Last Night, they weren’t perfectly spherical, gravity-defying orbs similar to Jim Kelley’s afro in the 1970s.

Golan and Globus productions generally fall somewhere below your average Dino De Laurentiis film but still above your average Roger Corman picture. At least Golan and Globus would spend some money on a movie. They may not pay to fly the crew to Japan, but they’d be more than willing to spring for a few weeks in Manila as long as you worked cheap. From Sylvia Kristel to David and Peter Paul, the steroid-powered twins, the halls of Cannon are filled with the sort of macho heroes and nekkid ladies people demand from their cheap exploitation cinema.

When an author by the name of Eric Von Lustbader penned a novel called The Ninja that quickly shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed perched atop that pyramid for five months, the boys at Cannon smelled a trend that had been steadily building for the past several months. Genres of film go through popularity cycles, and every seven to ten years, what was popular then becomes popular again. Martial arts movies were due for a return to the big screen, as packed revivals of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon had shown throughout 1979. The popularity of The Ninja and the smash 1980 miniseries Shogun starring Richard Chamberlain (who would later work with Cannon Films on King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel) and the legendary Toshiro Mifune foretold that this time around, Japan would be the focus rather than China.

Like the masters of sneakiness and surprise that they are, ninjas had slowly and quietly been infiltrating the mainstream consciousness of America for quite some time. One of the first non-Asian films to feature a ninja was the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, during the filming of which the production ruined the ancient, wooden walls of Osaka Castle by throwing real shuriken (throwing stars) into them. Throughout the 1970s, people became more familiar with these mysterious denizens of the shadows when they were featured as the heavies in many a kungfu film. By 1980, the success of The Ninja and Shogun (which also features a ninja or two) opened the doors to the big screen in the form of Chuck Norris’s The Octagon, arguably the first of the ninja exploitation films that leapt out of the trees and onto an unsuspecting American public.

As they were passed down from one movie to the next, the authenticity of the ninja became warped beyond comprehension. Basic facts were still more or less intact – specifically, that they were highly skilled assassins and masters of disguise – but little else remained true to any historic roots. The ninjas of old got their start round about eleven hundred years ago with two separate mountain clans in central Japan – the Iga and the Koga. Isolated form the greater portion of Japan in much the same way that the people of the American Appalachians were insulated from the United States, the mountain clans developed into legendary farmers, healers, and weather forecaster with a profound respect for the land that lent them their livelihood.

It was from these mountain clans, steeped in ancient tradition and religious beliefs, that the ninja would acquire their mystical flavoring. Drawing from the Shinto reverence for nature and the esoteric philosophy of Mikkyo, ninjas came to rely on a belief in secret symbols and sacred words as a way to enhance personal power. The religious aspects of ninjitsu eventually mixed with the martial arts of China, which were carried to Japan by exile warriors seeking asylum after the fall of the T’ang dynasty.

The final ingredient in the birth of the Ninja clans was the influence of a sect of people known as the Shugenja, wandering holy men who sought enlightenment through self-imposed physical suffering. They’re the sort of guys who would sit naked in the snow or hang off the side of a cliff in order to understand cold or overcome the fear of hanging off the side of a cliff. Through these acts of punishment, the Shugenja would come to understand nature, and in understanding nature would be able to draw power from it. There’s really very little that’s different from the philosophy of the Shugenja and the philosophy of a mountain man or pioneer. The concepts of “drawing power from an understanding of nature” manifests itself practically as knowing how to stay alive in the woods, knowing what plants and berries you can eat, what certain signs in the weather might imply, things like that. Although approached from a religious frame of mind, the philosophy of the Shugenja and the Ninja is astoundingly practical and down-to-earth.

What the sundry warlords of feudal Japan saw in the Ninja were easy targets. Hillbillies who could be taxed and exploited and were too powerless in government to defend themselves. They weren’t entirely correct. Their superior knowledge of nature and of wilderness survival made a Ninja a fearsome opponent even for a well-trained samurai. Small groups of Ninja could hold off entire armies simply by employing a greater understanding of the land and how to use it to one’s advantage. All that cool looking samurai armor isn’t going to do you much good when some bunch of farmers are rolling boulders and logs down on you. Contact with Chinese martial artists helped them develop a fighting skill and tactical sense that was often greater than the commanders of the samurai legions, and it wasn’t long before the Ninja clans added political savvy to their repertoire. The manipulated policy to protect their villages and would gleefully promote any ignorant superstition about themselves that kept people nervous and away from their hills. Once again, similarities to the so-called hillbillies of Appalachia abound.

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the ruler of Japan and ended the bloody era of warring states and petty lords. The new shogun decided he would hire Ninja to be his personal bodyguards. For the most part, members of the Ninja clan stayed out of the mainstream political and military scene, preferring to stick to things that directly affected them and their villages. The allure of money is strong, though, and for some Ninja it was more than enough to lure them out of the mountain forests and valleys and into the halls of the Imperial Castle, newly established in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) instead of its traditional home in Kyoto. Other Ninja looking for a quick way to make money rented themselves out as spies. Ninja had always been willing to do a little infiltration here and there in order to protect their family and community, and now some of them were putting these skills up for auction to the highest bidder rather than sticking to the tradition of working for and as part of the Ninja community.

These are, of course, the Ninja embraced by film and literature. Though noble and definitely interesting, the fact that most Ninjas were farmers and herbalists doesn’t necessarily make for rousing tales of action. Few and far between are the people who would see a movie called Furious Blade of the Ninja that was all about a clan of Ninja diligently hoeing the garden and using scythes to clear a patch of land for planting. The Ninja who rented themselves out – the sell-outs, basically – made for cooler stories, and so the renegades and the Ninja in the service of the Tokugawa shogunate became the basis for the bulk of the books and movies that were to come.

Unfortunately for the sell-outs, with the Tokugawa era came relative peace throughout Japan. Ninja eventually moved from roles as saboteurs, spies, and assassins to being castle guards, and eventually they came full circle, being relegated to the ranks of palace servants — most specifically, the gardener.


The outlandish notions regarding the Ninja that have become de rigueur in most ninja films evolved directly from a combination of widespread ignorance, propaganda, and creative license. Because the Ninja clans followed a different set of rules than those that governed the samurai lifestyle (ninpo instead of bushido), most of Japan’s looked down upon the Ninja as backward hayseeds and uncivilized countryfolk. They were the rednecks of medieval Japan. Part of the resentment toward the Ninja communities also came from the fact that the samurai were generally so unsuccessful at dealing with them. Masters of guerilla warfare – a necessity for a group of poor mountain folk who are vastly outnumbered by well-equipped armies – the Ninja were often able to befuddle even well-trained samurai through their command of the land and understanding of the sneakier aspects of a fight. Defeated samurai decried the Ninja tactics as dishonorable and deceitful; the Ninjas claimed they were fighting the only way practicality would allow.

To a samurai lost in the woods, it must have seemed like these backwoods yokels were wielding some sort of magic power. They would appear and vanish without a trace, use every part of nature to their benefit. Combine befuddlement with ego, and a samurai would return home with tail between legs and spin fanciful yarns about how the only reason he was defeated was because the Ninja disappeared into thin air, flew over the treetops, and performed other feats of wizardry.

The Ninja clans, in turn, were more than happy to take this hyperbole and run with it. The more people feared them, the less likely people were to come around and stick their nose into the Ninja communities. Because the Ninja were a secretive and insular community, there really wasn’t anyone to talk sense into people and refute the claim that Ninjas disappeared into clouds of multicolored smoke or were able to explode into hundreds of tiny ninjas.

While most early filmic depictions stuck to the historical facts about the ninjas who became assassins and spies for hire, the farther things moved from their Japanese roots, the more the wild old stories were once again embraced. Before too long, thanks in part to Chinese kungfu films, ninjas were everywhere, often clad in garish neon outfits and doing things like flying over castles and shooting flame out of their hands. By the 1980s, things really got out of hand, and more than a few movies from both sides of the Pacific featured people in wildly colorful ninja outfits running around the streets of modern-day cities. Of course, any real ninja would understand the key to performing their job is to blend end and seem nondescript and normal. You don’t get very far as a spy if you look like a spy, and there is very little that’s nondescript about a guy in metallic red pajamas and a facemask running down the streets of modern-day Duluth while waving a katana over his head.

Logic and history didn’t really matter of course. What people wanted wasn’t historical accuracy; they wanted guys screaming and using weird weapons and wearing hoods. And by 1980, American filmmakers were ready to give it to them.

Hot on the heels of The Octagon came Golan and Globus with 1981’s Enter the Ninja, the film that really kicked the trend into high gear. Real-life martial arts superstar Mike Stone had this script called Dance Of Death. He’d been shopping it around without much success, and eventually the thing landed on the desk of Menahem Golan. It took Golan a while to read it since he wasn’t initially interested in a martial arts movie. The success of The Ninja novel quickly changed his mind, and before long he and Stone were heading down to the Philippines to make a little movie called Enter the Ninja. Stone was set to star, at least until production began. Then all of a sudden, Stone was just the fight choreographer and stunt double for the new star, Italian action star Franco Nero.

One look at Nero will explain the sudden change. He oozes ninja. When you think of a ninja, the mental image in your mind is going to be very close to Franco Nero: tall, blond, a little solid in the weight department, and adorned with a thick Maurizio Merli mustache. Stone was baffled, but what the hell? He was getting paid more to work behind the scenes and as a double than he was originally offered to be the star. The one problem that emerges in the film with Stone as Nero’s double is that he’s not only leaner, he also has a big, dark white guy ‘fro while Nero has fairly thin, blond hair. The end result is that one minute you’re watching Franco Nero strike a ninja pose, and the next minute you’re going, “Is that Screech kicking that guy’s ass?” Luckily, most of the action takes place behind the hood and mask of a ninja uniform, so the difference is only obvious in a few scenes.

Nero plays Cole, the first Westerner to ever be recognized by a Japanese school of ninjitsu. He gets this recognition by running through a bamboo forest and pretending to kill his ninja brothers and master. He looks resplendent in his bright white ninja uniform, the perfect color for blending in with his lush green background. As a testament to the sophistication of his skill, he manages to bury himself, climb trees, jump off cliffs, and swim in a brackish pond while still keeping his duds sparkling white. Now my friends and I used to do run around like ninjas in the woods fairly regularly, but no one ever flew in from Japan to give us any recognition, I assume because Sho Kosugi was working behind the scenes to prevent us from receiving our due. At least, that’s what he does here. Kosugi plays Cole’s ninja brother, Hasegawa, who is not as impressed as the master by Cole’s ability to sprint through the jungle and pretend to behead people. Hasegawa displays his ninja training prowess by tipping over his tea cup, pounding his fists on the table, and whining, “He is no ninja!” If you’ve ever been to a friend’s birthday party where one kid starts crying, or your friend gets yelled at by his mom in front of everyone, you have a general idea of how this feels for all the other ninjas. They just keep quiet, stare at the table, and pray that the cake comes soon.

With his newfound ninja credentials secure, Cole heads to the Philippines to visit his old war buddy, Frank Landers, played by Alex Courtney. Courtney looks like a b-movie version of James Caan. He and his British wife have one of those standard issue pieces of land that some greedy developer wants to buy. They, of course, won’t sell, having fallen in love with the simple, rustic life of owning a lavish Filipino plantation house. The greedy businessman, who of course, lounges about his posh high-rise office space in a silk robe, employs a variety of ludicrous goons in hopes of strong-arming Frank into selling the land. Leading the goons is Sigfried, a bulbous limping worm of a German stereotype in a white Panama Jack suit (you’ll see many of those during the course of the film) and sporting a keen hook hand. Exactly why a man who could best be described as “hamster-like” or “not dissimilar to that Goatman on Saturday Night Live gets to be in charge is a mystery.

Movies, especially bad movies, have a tendency to always cast some incredibly greasy little twerp as the leader of the evil thugs. What are they thinking? Fat German weasels who sweat a lot and can’t walk are seldom the leader of vicious street toughs, but in movies, gangs always get lead by the goofiest guy imaginable? I mean, what makes a criminal mastermind look at an overweight sweat hog with a bum leg and think, “This is the perfect guy to be my main thug!” Oh sure, he has a hook hand, but his nasal voice and gland problems negate the coolness of steel, and his primary value of a fighter seems to be the ability to stick the occasional surly dock worker in the thigh.

Cole quickly becomes entangled in Frank’s fight to get rid of the thugs, which in a way is actually in line with ancient Ninja priorities about defending their farms and small rural villages from big city heavies. This could be an accident, though. The script from here on out is pretty much what you would expect. There’s a scene of Frank getting drunk and losing hope, followed by a scene of Cole kicking someone’s ass. Peppered throughout are scenes of Filipino farmers getting beat up by the lamest looking bunch of thugs you could possibly imagine. Someone apparently employed the cast of Taxi to be the muscle, only they told Tony Danza to stay home.

Isn’t there a single Filipino who can fight? Here’s the thing movies have never understood. They always feature some backwater town full of helpless peasants who get bullied by even the lamest of villains. Try this experiment: go to some small hick town, go to the local bar, and try to start some shit. Walk up to the first guy you see and pour his Red Dog into his lap, then say, “I think you work for me now, asshole.” As the six-foot six factory worker with a belt buckle bigger than your head stands up in preparation for pounding your ass into next week, reflect on why it is movies always feature skinny-ass, no-fighting-talent goofballs reigning over entire hick towns like little Hitlers. In my experience, small towns are over the world are pretty much the same, and whether it’s Africa or the Philippines, I find it difficult to believe there’s not a single Filipino bad-ass who could just strut up and beat the unholy crap out of the sweaty German goatman or the floppy-haired beanpole whose big 1970s mustache weighs more than the rest of him.

Trust me. Go to some seedy Filipino bar in some small farming shantytown, start throwing your weight around (possibly while faking a limp and a sniveling German accent) and see if a dozen muscular, tan guys with mustaches, cowboy hats, and open Hawaiian shirts don’t line up to teach you a valuable lesson about the difference between movies and real life.

Because this was the 1980s, Cole is joined by the “comic relief codger,” who fulfills the role with gusto, even performing the standard routine of popping up to cover the hero with a gun when faced with a dozen opponents. He also fulfills the role by upholding the tradition of not being very funny. You know, you could probably count the number of comic relief characters who were actually funny on one hand, even if it was a hook hand.

Seeing how Cole has a cackling old fart with a white beard, a drunk guy with a white dude afro, and a sassy British gal as his army, the developer sends out a couple more guys in white suits and hires Hasegawa, telling the ninja master that they are fighting local thugs and bullies who are hassling the farmers. The ninja master doesn’t really research this claim too heavily. Hasegawa himself isn’t as naive about the motivations of his new employers, and he doesn’t much care so long as it gives him a chance to face off against Cole. After all the expendable characters have been dealt with (how many films feature a guy who turns to alcohol and doesn’t get killed as a means to motivate the hero?), and a large amount of sneaking around is done, Cole and Hasegawa finally face off in an old boxing arena. Cole also finally slips on his form-fitting white ninja uniform to contrast nicely with Hasegawa’s black uniform. It’s a welcome change from the tight slacks Cole’s been sporting for most of the movie.

Enter the Ninja isn’t what one would call a great movie, but it’s not as bad as you might thing. Though Cannon’s follow-up, Revenge of the Ninja was both better and sillier, Enter the Ninja is still a fair movie and certainly better than the vast majority of ninja films that would follow in its footsteps. Golan’s direction is pedestrian and uninteresting, but it gets the job done. His big flirtation with style is to play the “wah wah wah wahhhhh” comedy punchline music when Cole rips off Sigfried’s hook hand and throws it to him with the singer, “Hey! You forgot something.” The acting is not half bad. Franco Nero is not very convincing as a master of the martial arts, but he is convincing as a fist-swinging bad-ass, and on top of that, he’s a decent actor. The supporting cast is okay, though most of them are relegated to the ranks of speechless thug or over-the-top action film cliche.

The plot has its fair share of goofiness, of course, but at the heart of things is a predictable though time-tested story about the greedy developer picking on the innocent. That plot worked for a million black action films, so there’s no reason it can’t work for a ninja film. The silliness stems mostly from the fact that Cole and Hasegawa feel the need to thrown on their ninja uniforms for the big finale. What’s the point? All the bad guys already know who Cole is, and everyone knows who Hasegawa is as well. What’s the point in wrapping your head up in a sight-restricting hood to hide your identity? Nothing looks sillier than a guy in a white ninja suit stepping out of a Caddie in a modern setting.


Another big question would be: where the hell are the cops? Not to mention the Filipinos who can fight? I mean, the Philippines aren’t a savage and untamed land. They do have police there. The first thing Cole does when he gets to town is impale a guy on a work bench. You’d think someone with some authority would want to have a chat about that. People are killed left and right, and not once do the authorities show up to even be corrupt and take a bribe from the rich guy.

And then of course, there’s the final joke in which Cole thinks about killing the now reformed and utterly defenseless Sigfried just for shits and giggles.

All things considered, and in the greater scheme of things, Stone’s script commits no great offenses worse than anything you’d find in any other low-budget action film. In fact, as far as ninja films go, it’s one of the most sensible scripts around. Although Hasegawa and Cole do eventually suit up in the traditional garb, Cole does most of his ninja-ing in a pair of slacks and a seersucker shirt or in a jogging suit. And not once do they perform mystical feats like flying or disappearing or splitting themselves into phantom decoy images. It’s all pretty straight-forward, no-nonsense stuff, and given the utter absurdities that would soon clog the ninja arteries, the simple yet grounded-in-reality (relatively speaking) story is a welcome thing. It wasn’t until after this film that things would get ridiculous and Tomas Tang would have lanky white guys in shiny red, white and blue ninja outfits running around with bright yellow headbands that said “Ninja” on them in that jagged “Oriental” font.

Enter the Ninja takes a lot of flack as a result of just how low the genre would sink – not that it was ever that high. When your two best entries in a genre both come from Cannon Films, you’re in trouble. Most of the disdain is unwarranted however, and people often attribute the foibles of later movies to this one. A quick viewing will reveal to you that, while not a great movie by any stretch, Enter the Ninja also isn’t a bad movie. As action fare goes, it’s fairly harmless and even enjoyable in that late 1970s/early 1980s way. It maintains a pretty violent pace despite the lame comic relief bits, the action comes frequently, and the script, while no work of art, at least makes simple sense in the world of action films. Try on any plot from any Tang/Godfrey Ho film and tell me if you don’t find yourself with a newfound appreciation for Mike Stone’s derivative but more or less logical story (again, this is all relative).

The fight choreography ranges from typical to slightly above-average, with the final sword fight between Cole (being played under the mask by Mike Stone) and Hasegawa being the high point. It’s obvious that you have two real martial artists doing the work during that scene, and while no one’s going to look at it and see Swordsman-like movies, it’s a not a bad bout. The rest of the fights consist of the typical American “guy with martial arts fights lugs without martial arts,” so there’s very little in the way of martial arts choreography. Franco Nero basically hits the guys a lot, then transforms into Mike Stone to deliver the occasional kick or flip. Not good stuff, but not bad if you are just looking for fist fights. All in all, if you want scintillating martial arts mayhem, Enter the Ninja is going to leave you cold. If you want historical facts about ninjas, you’re going to be just as cold, and you really should start exercising better judgment in where you look for historical information.

If, however, you’re looking for an unpolished but fairly enjoyable low-budget action film that just happens to feature two guys who don ninja uniforms at the very end, then you could do worse. It may not be art, but it’s got a certain grimy charm. Art or not, it was a box office hit, and then it was even bigger when it debuted on the new medium of cable television, the format on which Cannon would build an empire. A quick release to theaters just to be polite would then be followed by heavy rotation on HBO, and an army of underaged brats would become instant fans.

People like to rip apart American-made martial arts film, with the basis for the action usually being that they’re generally really horrible movies. The fights are plodding and poorly done, the scripts are atrocious if there’s even enough work put into it to be atrocious, and the production values are slightly above what you might find in your better infomercials. They’re easy targets and generally deserve the wrath they inspire. But they’re not all totally worthless. Enter the Ninja has very few examples of what might be called good writing or good fighting, but it’s not the worst thing ever. When Stone and Kosugi lock up, there’s some decent stuff. When Franco Nero is in control, he caries himself with all the fleet-footed grace of a drunk lumberjack, but at least you’ll believe he could kick the shit out of Sigfried. The biggest problem American films have, especially from this period, is that they almost always feature a guy with kungfu fighting a guy with no kungfu. The end result isn’t much to see. While Enter the Ninja certainly has its fair share of such scuffles, it at least has the good sense to move along at a brisk pace. Within the realm of American-made martial arts films, and that’s a sad realm indeed, Enter the Ninja is probably one of the top ten films, falling behind contemporaries like Revenge of the Ninja and newer films like Shanghai Noon.

Cannon followed the success of this film with Revenge of the Ninja, this time turning the tables and making Sho Kosugi the hero. He did very little in Enter the Ninja until the end, but Revenge was his show. It was supposed to be Stone’s show, but once again, Golan pulled the rug out from under the karate champ and left him standing in the rain. It seems kind of cruel, but given Stone’s acting career after his time with Cannon (as in, he didn’t have one), perhaps his acting skills were simply not as impressive as his fighting skills. Revenge of the Ninja did pair Kosugi with another real-life martial arts star, Keith Vitale, who would go on to star in a number of crappy American martial arts films and the not crappy at all Jackie Chan/Sammo Hun/Yuen Biao film, Wheels on Meals, where he was outshined by creepy Benny Urquidez.


Enter the Ninja allows Sho Kosugi to enjoy what would in the ensuing years become known as the “Boba Fett Phenomenon.” Named for the Star Wars bad-ass who never actually does a single bad-ass thing gets his ass handed to him lickety-split the first time we see him fight, the phenomenon happens whenever a character is perceived as an ultra-cool bad-ass despite there being a single bit of onscreen evidence to support the reputation. In Enter the Ninja we see Sho Kosugi fight twice. He gets his ass kicked both times. The only time he wins a fight is when he’s tangling with a drunk. All things considered, his onscreen fight victories are no more impressive or numerous than those of Sigfried.

But at least he looked good getting his ass kicked, and Sho Kosugi was aggressive enough behind the scenes to parlay his supporting villain role into a short but memorable career. When the ninja craze died out a few years later, Sho disappeared back into the shadows from whence he came, emerging only once in the 1990s in an attempt to market his “Ninjasize” workout video, complete with spandex-clad “Ninjettes.” It didn’t really grab the world the same way Tae Bo or the Gazelle did, but I guess it paid a few bills.

Good or bad, and I maintain that there is actually more good than bad, Enter the Ninja is a landmark film, the one that started it all, the Conan the Barbarian of ninja exploitation. Just like Conan, Enter the Ninja’s reputation is harmed by the infinite crimes that would be committed in its name, from crappy American ninja movies to guys with mullets wearing ninja pants and practicing their nunchuka skills in the park, Enter the Ninja spawned far more idiocy than it actually contains. It’s not as good as Conan by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not as bad as you may think if you haven’t seen it in a long time. Goofy action fun is all I need sometimes, and that’s all Enter the Ninja delivers.

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Ghost of Yotsuya

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There’s a lot of things I love in life. Good food, good friends, travel, a fine kungfu film, a crappy kungfu film — the list goes on, but few things can make me all warm inside quite like a ghost story. Growing up in the rural South, ghost stories and folklore about haints, beasts, and certain death lurking in the woods were a given, and like many Southerners, I developed a healthy dark streak and affinity for the more macabre side of life — or death. Whichever. I think it probably comes from the fact that the South is a very bloody, death-filled part of America. From the Revolutionary War to the War Between the States, on to the struggle for civil rights, the soil of The South is as rich with the blood of countless Americans as it is with the history of America itself. You have to learn to deal with the dark stuff, and it’s a lot better to deal with it as “a spooky but familiar friend” than some sort of antagonist.

I can recount endless nights spent camped out in the back yard or propped up on the front porch swing swapping yarns with friends about local hook-hand killers, cave dwelling goatmen, and chanting devil worshipers. The spectre of evil was all around us, threatening our every moment of life, and it certainly made things a lot more interesting during slumber parties, though things went too far when our friend Roman’s mom decided to give us a good one by dressing up as an ax murderer and scraping on the basement window while we were all downstairs holding a seance to try to summon the spirit of the recently departed John Belushi.

A ghost story is a universal. The appearance may change, the clothing may be different, but the spirit, if you will, remains a constant. They reflect fears and fascinations that transcend race and geography. You won’t find a single culture on the planet that doesn’t have it’s fair share of spooky stories and tales of the dead come back to haunt the living. Whether you are squatting down by the fire conversing with some remote Amazonian tribe or sprawled on the front porch in the rural south, whether you are sitting cross-legged on the tatami mat of a Japanese living room or sitting at a table on the sidewalk of some narrow, winding Italian street, if talk turns to ghosts, we’re all speaking the same language.


For those not well-versed in the ways of Japan and Japanese films, the trappings of Nobuo Nakagawa’s classic Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan may seem strange and exotic. Set in medieval Japan, the film is full of samurai and demure kimono-clad ladies, gruff fishermen and haughty nobles. Even in today’s supposedly well-connected global community, it’s a history about which very few Americans know much beyond the most basic and stereotypical of facts. However, even those with a complete and total lack of knowledge regarding the formative years of Japan (you really should brush up on your history though), will instantly recognize the language underlying the Japanese being spoken — and I’m not talking about the English language subtitles.

Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is one of the most famous of all horrific Japanese legends. It’s been told and retold countless times via literature, word of mouth, kabuki theater, and of course film. The 1959 version directed by acclaimed master of Japanese horror Nakagawa Nobuo is generally regarded as the best of the movie versions, and with plenty of good reasons. The story itself is simple enough, something that any fan of ghost stories will recognize regardless of the number of samurai with which one may be acquainted. The story opens with a group of jovial nobles out for a late night stroll around town. They are accosted by a young wannabe samurai named Iyemon. Iyemon wants to marry one of the samurai’s daughter, but since our man Iyemon is known as something of a screw-up and all-around crummy bastard, the samurai is less than enthusiastic about welcoming the ne’r-do-well into the family. In a fit of rage, Iyemon attacks the samurai from behind, killing him and his friends.

Aware of the fact that multiple homicides will not do too much to improve the town’s opinion of him, not to mention the fact that it won’t really help him get in good with the woman whose father he just sliced down, Iyemon and his partner in crime, Naosuke, make up a story about being attacked by a well-known local ruffian. Naturally, they valiantly defended everyone, but the gang that set upon them was just too many. His “bravery” ingratiates Iyemon to the slain samurai’s daughter, Oiwa. Iyemon vows to avenge the murder, which wins him even more bonus points and eventually Oiwa’s hand in marriage, which also gives him the social status he so desperately desired.

You can’t keep a slimy samurai clean, of course, and it isn’t long before Iyemon and Naosuke are up to their old treachery again. On a pilgrimage to visit a famous waterfall and pray for justice, Naosuke is endlessly annoyed by the brother of Oiwa and her sister, Osode, to whom Naosuke has taken a shine. Using not-so-subtle threats about exposing Iyemon’s guilt, Naosuke pressures his old “friend” into helping him kill off the brother. Being a despicable couple of guys, they stab him in the back and push him off a cliff while he is kneeling in meditation. Then, of course, they go running back with yet another story about how they were jumped by the same bandits, who were looking to kill them before they could seek out their righteous revenge. The two couples then split up to search for the non-existent bandits, and they wind up not seeing each other for a long time.

Time passes and Oiwa gives birth to Iyemon’s child. Contrary to what you might expect from a murderous, lying samurai, Iyemon proves to be a less than stellar husband, though he remains with Oiwa despite her failing health in order to continue sponging off her status in society, or what little of it remains after she loses most of what her father once possessed. Naosuke, meanwhile, lives life as a hustler, constantly promising Osode that he is spending his days seeking the villains who murdered her father. Until he has avenged that death, she refuses to marry or sleep with him, even when he does that thing where he grabs her and makes ugly kisses faces as she fights him off.


When Iyemon goes out for a stroll one night after gambling much of his wife’s money away, his presence foils some attempted thuggery. Even though Iyemon really didn’t do anything but take his hat off, the criminals bolt and the victims, who turn out to be some local nobles, lavish him with thanks. When he catches sight of the noble’s lovely daughter, he instantly falls for her in the most base and shallow ways. When the noble offers him a reward, Iyemon magnanimously refuses, reciting a speech about honor that Oiwa’s own father lectured him with seconds before getting stabbed in the back. Duly impressed by Iyemon’s spirit, he becomes a welcome guest in the home, while at the same time plotting a way to get out of his life with Oiwa.

A chance meeting with his ol’ murderin’ pal Naosuke results in Iyemon getting the bright idea to murder his wife. He immediately chickens out though, realizing that the ol’ “some bandits jumped us” shtick probably wouldn’t work for him a third time. Naosuke is just bored, however, and if that means he has to come up with something new in order to relieve the monotony of not murdering people all the time then blaming it on bandits who never materialize, well then he’s man enough to devise new schemes for bloodletting.

Naosuke drums up a plan in which he will hook Iyemon up with a special poison that will cause Oiwa to die a horrible death. Since the rumor around town is that Oiwa and her doctor, a portly gent named Takuestu, have been seeing one another on the sly (an untrue rumor, even though Takuetsu is fond of Oiwa), Iyemon can either claim he caught them in the affair and thus exercised his right as a wronged husband to kill his wife, or even better, he can just pin the crime on a jealous Takuetsu and be completely free from involvement. At first, he’s hesitant, but then he thinks about things for a while and realize that yep, murder is the way to go.

Iyemon plays nice for his suffering wife, talking to her like a decent gentleman for once and vowing to her that he will make amends for his less that spotless treatment of her in the past. In a touching display to cap off his tenderness, he then replaces her medicine with the poison that will cause her face to melt and result in an excruciatingly agonizing death. Being the sporting sort of man that he is, he then even arranges for a special visit from Takuetsu so he can be blamed for everything.

After Takuetsu unsuccessfully puts the moves on Oiwa — something Iyemon himself said she would like — Oiwa’s death begins. Her face begins to burn from the inside, as does much of the rest her body. Freaked out by the whole melting face thing, Takuetsu confesses to Oiwa that her husband enlisted him to seduce her, though now he’s not so into it. She surmises that she has been the victim of a horrible plot concocted by her rotten husband, but before she can extract any revenge, the poison runs its course and she dies. Iyemon reappears just in time to accuse Takuetsu, who he then kills. Just as the plan seems to be going perfectly, however, something in Iyemon’s already warped brain seems to snap. He nails the corpses to two wood panels and sets them adrift in a nearby river, expecting the current to carry them far away.

While all this is going on, ol’ Naosuke doesn’t want to not be performing some heinous deed as well, so he finally tracks down the villain he and Iyemon blamed for the murders that started this whole sordid chain of events, and in classic form, stabs him in the back. Her father’s murder now avenged, Osode will consent to marry Naosuke.


So things seem to be going pretty well. Naosuke has Osode, even though she is not wild about the marriage, and Iyemon is now free to chase his latest skirt. Nothing could be finer, at least until the ghost starts showing up. Seems like every time Iyemon tries to lie and relax after a long, hard day of being a jerkwad, there’s the gory disfigured apparition of his slain wife floating around and taunting him.

Naosuke, on the other hand, is out fishing for eels one day when he hooks the hair comb and kimono that had once been worn by Oiwa. Not realizing their nature, he decides to take them home, clean them up, and give them to his wife since nothing will impress a lady quite like giving her a wad of stinky stuff you fished out of the local swamp. Osode immediately recognizes the two items, however, both of which were family heirlooms. Just has her suspicions are being piqued, Oiwa shows up. It’s funny how people never seem to notice the deceased state of a loved one and just go about their business as if their friend isn’t all pale with a green supernatural light shining on them. Oiwa’s arrival is a little much for Naosuke to handle, what with him knowing she’s been murdered and all. He breaks down and confesses everything to Osode, right down to the fateful night Iyemon and he murdered her father. Needless to say, this is even less healthy for their relationship than trying to give her the swamp water-soaked rags of her murdered sister.

Iyemon isn’t faring much better. Now both Oiwa and Takuetsu’s bloody corpses are harassing him. In a fit of hysteria, he slashes out at the ghosts with his sword, which only results in him accidentally killing two innocent people. As if having the horrible decaying remains of your murder victims plaguing you wasn’t enough, Osode soon finds that her brother, previously left for dead, actually survived the attempt on his life. He confirms Naosuke’s confession by saying, “Yeah, they tried to kill me too.” Brother and sister then set off to seek revenge against Iyemon. By this time, of course, Iyemon’s madness is complete. The ghosts refuse to leave him alone. It could be that they are all in his head, and that his latest round of murders just pushed his already fragile mental state over the cliff, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re trying to deal with ghosts causing rooms to fill with bloody water and things like that.

As he stumbles insanely about the courtyard of the temple where he was seeking refuge, he comes face to face with Osode and her brother, both wielding swords and looking to get some justice for their father, Oiwa, and everyone else Iyemon stuck a sword into. Aiding them in their battle are the ghosts, of course, and Iyemon’s treachery is ultimately no match for them.

There is nothing that isn’t predictable about the story. After all, it’s a timeless classic with which everyone is familiar. We know Iyemon is going to murder his wife, and we know her ghost is going to come back for revenge. What makes a film a timeless classic, however, is that you can know every single plot point and still find yourself riveted to the screen. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan manages to do just that. It doesn’t matter that you know what’s going to happen, just like it doesn’t matter if you already know some local legend about ghosts. It still sends a chill up your spine every time you hear it. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan draws its power from its highly stylish look, deliberate and increasingly frantic pacing, and overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere.

The film is, for starters, stunning to look at. The art direction, use of sets, eerie lighting, and surreal atmosphere were obviously heavy influences on the better known but not necessarily better Kaidan from 1964. Director Nobuo Nakagawa was a big fan of European horror films, and you can sense a lot of what would become the Hammer Studios aesthetic in his film despite the decidedly Japanese trappings. Much like the later Kaidan, you could turn the sound off and simply look at this film, and it would be a wonder to behold.


The seemingly “normal” first half of the film is deceptive. You have your murderous samurai, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Well, unless you’re talking modern-day South Bend, Indiana. The minute Oiwa ingests the poison, however, the film spirals off into completely bizarre and chilling territory. Nobuo Nakagawa made a name for himself directing horror films that were, even by today’s standards, shockingly gory. Though this movie is not nearly as bloody and violent as his 1960 masterpiece Jigoku (which featured folks in hell getting sawed in half, nailed in the face with spikes, and other fun hellish past times), it’s definitely an eye-opener for the time. The disfigurement of Oiwa is wonderfully pulled off and genuinely nasty to look at. Likewise, a number of the surreal appearances of her ghost will drop the jaw of even a jaded movie-goer. Nakagawa’s imagination is as genius as it is warped, and I’d put many of the ghost scenes from this movie on par with my favorite ghost story of all time, The Haunting (not the remake, of course).

Everything else about the film is top-notch. The music is effective. The acting is accomplished. There’s a reason this is considered a hallmark in the history of Japanese horror films and why Nobuo Nakagawa is considered one of the great masters, if not the greatest master, of the genre.

Of course, this sort of film isn’t for everyone. Those who get kicks out of visceral gut-punch gore films and have no appreciation for the building of characters and suspense will no doubt be lost during the films lengthy build-up to the frenzy of the final half-hour. Myself, I happen to be a fan of horror films that take time to build suspense, and this one does so wonderfully. You know horrible things are going to happen. It’s just a question of when, and the waiting keeps you on the edge of your seat and, at least if you’re like me, far more enchanted and entertained than a rapid series of fifteen second gore effects.

I’m reminded of a story once told by Alfred Hitchcock when describing his philosophy on telling a good story. Imagine, he said, you have a scene where two men are sitting in a cafe discussing trivial matters. The scene goes on like this for a few minutes, and then suddenly, BOOM! A bomb goes off. The audience is startled, and you get that ten seconds of fright and giddy recovery time. Then it’s over. Now imagine the same scene, only this time the first thing you establish is that there is a bomb underneath one of the men’s seats, and that it will go off in three minutes. Then you continue with the scene same as before, with the men sitting there talking about pointless things. Now, the audience spends the entire three minutes on the edge of their seats, screaming at the screen that there is a bomb under one of the seats! What was a ten-second long shock suddenly becomes three minutes of nail-biting suspense and tension that will drive people crazy.

Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan, like the classic horror films that inspired it, operates on this level of tension and anticipation of grisly acts to come, and it pays off for your investment of time. It also helps that the minutes leading up to the final acts of retribution are well paced and often exciting. As Iyemon’s nasty deeds pile up, we keep waiting and waiting for the big payoff when the ghosts of the murder victims get their revenge, and when it finally comes, the revenge is sweet. So if you like build-up and tension, if you like horror tales that handle themselves as well-crafted stories rather than a succession of effects and cheap scares, then this is your kind of movie. If you dig the classic horror of the 1930s or the bloodier yet still artfully constructed horror of Hammer Films, then this is your type of movie.

It was definitely my type of movie. I was enraptured through the whole thing, marveling at the surrealistic and highly stylized set pieces, gleefully allowing the anticipation of horror mount until the final big pay-off, which was both eerie, shocking, and worth the wait. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is undeniably a classic of horror, regardless of which side of the ocean it comes from. It’s an ageless, multi-cultural tale of revenge from beyond the grave that can speak to and chill the bones of everyone, regardless of your standing within the ranks of the samurai.

feat

The Soldier

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The Cold War produced a lot of great films, or at least a lot of enjoyable ones. It also produced some godawful dreck, though even some of that dreck was at least entertaining. Cold War paranoia films took on many forms. In the 1950s, there were a lot of those “realistic” atomic war movies that consisted mainly of a group of people sitting around in a bar discussing matters until an atom bomb fell and blew everyone up. The more creative films let giant red ants or some such creature stand in for the commies. Some of the more outlandish entries even had secret plots by the Chinese to tunnel under the Pacific Ocean and pop out in California ready for an invasion. During the 1960s, the Cold War sci-fi film gave way to straight-up espionage thrillers inspired by the success of the James Bond films that always involved the Reds trying to steal some terrible device we never should have invented in the first place. Luckily, there’s always a square-jawed G-Man on the case, ready to dish out some beat-downs and bed some Eastern Bloc babes. The best Cold War films of the 1960s were most definitely coming from Italy, Spain, and Germany. The Eurospy film was born, and it was probably one of the greatest achievements of the Cold War era.

When the 1980s came, Ronald Reagan rekindled the Cold War with a fire in his eye he’d not had since the days he was gleefully ratting out his co-stars in Hollywood and accusing them of being Commies during the Senate Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan made the escalation of the Cold War the primary focus of his eight-year administration, allowing education to falter and the economy to languish in disrepair. On the one hand, his crackpot brinksmanship seemed like it just might be the end of us all. On the other hand, he did bankrupt the Soviet Union and cause the downfall of European communism, thus ending the Cold War it seemed he was so likely to heat up. History is funny like that. In the midst of the rhetorical sparring between Reagan and his Russian counterparts, Cold War paranoia films enjoyed renewed popularity. This time we were often blowing up the whole world then driving around in dune buggies after the dust settled.

Although post-apocalypse films were the most noticeable and flamboyant, more than a few cloak and dagger thrillers slinked onto the screen as well. Unfortunately, a lot of those were geared toward kids and always featured a plucky young protagonist furiously pedaling his BMX bike away from pursuing Russian agents. I may be a lot of things, but a fan of insipid kiddy action films is not one of them. Even when I was a young tot, if I was watching an action film, I wanted blood and explosions, and if possible, ninjas and boobs. It was generally unlikely that I would get my requirements fulfilled by a movie starring Corey Haim or Henry Thomas riding their bikes to freedom. Luckily, a few films emerged that satisfied my appetite for movies far more adult than I probably should have been watching. I remember very vividly the night I first got to watch James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. My friend Dan (then known as Danny) had this older brother named Dave who liked to do typical big brother stuff like hide out in the woods and howl like a werewolf (or a regular wolf, I suppose) to get us scared. It rarely worked, and it was odd that he’d go to such extreme and goofy measures to spook us since we were far more afraid of him simply delivering a good-natured pounding to us.

When he wasn’t teaching us important things like how to endure an Indian burn or a red belly, he was a pretty cool older brother (or maybe it just seemed that way since I could always go home; Dan had to stay there and pray for the day his brother would have to go back to college). He was the one who let us hang out and watch The Soldier. While I remember the whole night with rather bizarre clarity, about the only thing I could remember from the movie itself was a scene where some guy sneaks into an apartment and tries to strangle some other guy with a wire. The other guy blocks it with his arm, but the wire still cuts through his sweater and causes a decent amount of blood to flow. I have no idea why that scene is the one I remember, but there ya go.

Since everyone my age builds their live around reclaiming their childhood and indulging themselves by purchasing every toy they were never able to get when they were ten, I figured it might be a good idea to track down a copy of The Soldier and give it another go-round. I mean, I remember that it was bloody and full of spies. That’s enough to warrant at least one more look. Not too long ago, I would have gone into this film with some degree of trepidation. Would it still seem as cool to me now as it did nineteen years ago? However, after watching countless films from my youth that I should have grown out of, I discovered that my tastes have, for better or worse, changed very little since then. I still like the most godawful juvenile crap, and that part of the brain that makes you outgrow cheap barbarian movies and corny sci-fi remains as undeveloped as the part that should have me buying a house and starting a family instead of worrying about completing my Michael Caine spy thriller collection and tracking down a Fidel Castro action figure. So given my short-comings when it comes to taste, I abandoned any misgivings a sane person may have harbored and dove headlong into the heart of this Cold War actioner. I wasn’t really disappointed either, but I rarely am. I mean, if Space Hunter and Death Stalker aren’t going to disappoint me, a film has to really be bad for me to regret wasting my time with it.

The Soldier stars Ken Wahl – fresh off his turn in 1981’s Fort Apache, The Bronx (but better known here for his role in The Taking of Beverly Hills) — as The Soldier, a CIA operative who is so tip top secret that only the director of the CIA (and maybe the President) knows he even exists. As you expect from such a movie, The Soldier is the guy you call when all other options fail, when the task at hand is impossible, so on and so forth. Maybe if they trained all their operatives this well, we wouldn’t need those “final option” guys, because the first option guys could actually get the job done. Maybe if the CIA stopped relying on twelve-year-old kids on bikes to outwit Russian spies, there’d be less need for The Soldier.

When we first meet The Soldier, he’s blowing away some terrorists in super slow-motion with ultra-wet bloody squibs. All while Tangerine Dream drones on in the background. So far, so good except for the fact that you can clearly see the squibs detonating and emitting a little puff of fire. Maybe they’re using some of those explosive-tip bullets. Of course, this scene has nothing at all to do with anything else in the movie. It just shows us that The Soldier is a bad-ass, and the movie has really over-filled its squibs – something of which I always approve. The actual plot kicks in when three terrorists – yep, three – hijack a shipment of weapons-grade plutonium that is being shipped on the back of an open-bed truck in a container clearly identifying it as weapons-grade plutonium, and with only one car (an Oldsmobile) to guard it. Oh, and a Southern cop somewhere else up in the hills. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never transported weapons-grade plutonium anywhere, as far as you know. Consumer grade for the kitchen, sure, but never weapons-grade. Nor have I ever been in the military in a position to be privy to the particulars of transporting such a cargo. Still, even with my ignorance fully fessed up to, I’m pretty sure they don’t do it in a clearly-marked open-bed truck with only two guys in an Olds to guard it. Surely they’d do something like hide it amid a convoy of heavily armed Piggly Wiggly trucks full of well-trained soldiers. And surely they wouldn’t stop for anything, even a topless woman hitchhiking or a broken down car. But the terrorists in The Soldier don’t even need the topless hitchhiker, because this truck will stop for dang near anybody.

When you only have a couple slow-witted guys guarding the deadliest substance on the planet, it’s no surprise that it only takes three terrorists to steal it. When the single cop finally shows up for support, he draws his gun and does the whole, “Freeze right there, mister!” routine. Now just as I’ve never been in the military, I’ve also never been a cop, but I’m pretty sure that even in today’s skittish anti-cop atmosphere it’s considered A-OK to come in with guns a-blazin’ when you’re approaching a group of men who you know gunned down two US soldiers, blew up a car, and are currently crawling around on top of the truck you know contains plutonium. No need to be diplomatic about things. Maurizio Merli would have immediately started kicking in teeth and bashing people’s heads with the hood of a car. Hell, he’d let you have it with both barrels blazing just for flipping off an old lady. Of course, I suppose I could be wrong. If anyone in the military would like to confirm that James Glickenhaus is correct, and we truck around nuclear weapons with an escort of two Plymouths (one of which disappears), then I’ll apologize, revise this review, and promptly move somewhere with a little more security when it comes to transporting the stuff that can blow up entire cities.

Now that they have the plutonium, the terrorists whip up an atom bomb and plant it somewhere in Saudi Arabia, demanding that Israel withdraw from the occupied West Bank. If Israel refuses, the terrorists will set off the bomb, thus contaminating over 50% of the world’s oil supply and thrusting civilization into a state of panic and anarchy. Israel refuses, which frankly seems sort of prickish. I mean, I know you’re all proud of holding onto a useless hunk of desert and all instead of just giving it to the people who live there, but this is the whole world we’re talking about. Couldn’t they just take it back later on? What’s so great about the West Bank anyway? Not wanting to see the world cast into chaos, the United States begins military preparations to force Israel out of the West Bank. Given our current relations with Israel in which we let them do pretty much anything no matter how adversely it affects us, this may seem sort of odd. Keep in mind, however, that the US and Israel were not always buddy-buddy. When Israel was carved out of the Middle East by European countries, it was populated almost entirely by refugees from Eastern Bloc nations. In other words, Communist nations. The US was supremely suspicious of Israel, which at the time seemed much closer to a Socialist nation than a democratic one. Anyway, what did we care? It was a problem for Europe and the Middle East to work out amongst themselves. It wasn’t until it dawned on the United States that Israel had a lot of strategic value as a base and as a place to test new weapons that we figured it might be worth buddying up with them. So now we have the mess we have today. If only we had a man like . . . The Soldier!


Not wanting to see the world torn asunder, nor wanting to see the US go to war with Israel, the CIA sends The Soldier in to do what he must do, however it must be done. Of course, if he gets caught, the US government will deny his existence, et cetera. You’d think after about the nine hundredth time someone heard that speech, they could just skip it. This isn’t his first mission. He knows the “deny any knowledge of you and your actions” spiel. If they just gave it to them the day they graduated from “super duper spy training” school and added, “And this applies to everything you do from here on out, starting . . .now!” they’d save everyone a lot of time. Meanwhile, over in Israel, a hot female Mossad agent is torturing Iceman. Seriously. Not Val Kilmer Iceman. I mean Iceman Iceman. Sure, it’s just a ruse to get someone to talk, but doesn’t anyone notice that the guy pretending to get tortured has simian-like features and a forehead that slopes like a Neanderthal in order to hide the blood packets the Mossad installed in it to make his interrogation and execution seem realistic? Palestinians may not be up on all the latest techniques from Stan Winston, but I think even the untrained eye can spot a guy with three inches of latex protruding from his forehead and making him look like some of your more involved Star Trek: The Next Generation aliens. About the only reason this sequence even exists is to introduce the chick, and the only reason she exists is so she can sleep with The Soldier later on for no real reason.

While The Soldier prepares for his mission by playing Konami light gun games, the terrorists pass the day eavesdropping on the CIA. After building a bomb out of a light bulb, the terrorist infiltrates CIA headquarters and plants the dastardly device in the office of the head of the CIA. Let me do this one more time: I’ve never been a member of the CIA, but I have been by their office in DC for a tour once a long time ago. I seem to remember them having security. You know, being the CIA and all. Yet this guy gets past all their security simply by throwing on a granny dress and a gray wig and pretending to be the cleaning woman. Wouldn’t security recognize the fact that she has man scruff and a wig that isn’t on properly? And wouldn’t they know who was and was not supposed to be cleaning the director’s office? Surely even the CIA wouldn’t fall for the old “the regular cleaning lady is sick, so I’m taking her place” bit. Actually, given what we’ve learned in recent months about how the CIA and FBI operate, I guess they could possibly fall for a trick involving a European terrorist masquerading as the lady from Mama’s Family.

Something I’ve always wondered is how terrorists always manage to get a job as part of the cleaning or maintenance crew at wherever they need to plant stuff for later on. Take Shiri, for instance. It’s one of my favorite action films, but how the heck did all the terrorists get jobs at the stadium they’d be attacking later on? Did they have a contingency plan in place just in case they were told that the stadium wasn’t hiring anyone? Why are there always just enough employment opportunities for the terrorists to sneak in however many people they need to do the job? Similarly, even if the guy from The Soldier had been masquerading as a cleaning lady long enough to bug the office, how did he get the job to begin with? I assume the CIA screens everyone heavily, even their janitorial staff. Didn’t they catch that this cleaning lady was actually a man who, until a few months ago, had been living in Poland or East Germany or something? It seems that no matter how screwed up the CIA may be, they’d at least catch that one.

So what I’m learning here is that The Soldier is slightly less believable and more bone-headed than even the most outlandish Eurospy films. I mean, I’m willing to accept a few plot contrivances to help move things along, but this movie is really pushing things. Luckily, it’s countering the colossally inept plotting with a lot of slow-motion shooting and blood-spurting bullet wounds. Just don’t mistake this for anything even remotely resembling intelligent regardless of how much the dreary Tangerine Dream music may make it sound like an arthouse experiment.

The Soldier eventually goes to meet up with Klaus Kinski at some ski resort for no real reason, at least not one I remember them telling us. If The Soldier had watched any movies before taking this assignment, he’d know that you can never trust Klaus Kinski. He’ll always betray you or crawl through the ductwork to watch you undress. Maybe The Soldier figured the guy did give the world Nastasia Kinski, so he’d give him the benefit of the doubt. How a guy as creepy looking as Klaus contributed to making Nastasia is as great a mystery as how a greasy little guy with a crappy haircut like Dario Argento could have had anything to do with the production of Asia Argento. Anyway, The Soldier and Klaus meet at a ski resort for no other reason than it’s a convenient place to have the ski chase and shoot-out that’s become required for all spy films since James Bond first popularized them. Seriously, how many spy films have ski chases and shoot-outs? Bond seems to have had one in almost every movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Heck, even next generation spy movies like XXX knew enough to have a ski chase. But at least they make some perfunctory attempt to justify it in the story. Here, they just go to the ski resort for no reason. And then Klaus Kinski immediately betrays The Soldier, whom he seemed to have been friends with up to about this point.

So they have a big ski chase, which is admittedly pretty cool. The Soldier even does a 720 while firing an Uzi. Unlike the real world, where this would be an incredibly idiotic thing to do that would result in you hitting no one while everyone was free to take potshots at you, in the world of poorly-conceived Cold War action films, you can do the same stunt in slow motion, allowing you to nail half a dozen fast-moving gunmen on skis while at the same time being able to completely dodge all their attempts to shoot you. Eventually, The Soldier is able to punch one of the gunmen, which causes him to confess the entire plot to The Soldier, revealing that it’s not terrorists at all who are behind the atom bomb threat. It’s the Russians!

Now wait just a minute here.

The Russians? Okay, I know it’s the Cold War, and the Russians are responsible for everything bad that happens, even the decline in ratings for Battle of the Network Stars, but come on! The Russians need oil, too. I know they have some of their own, but surely even Russia can’t benefit from casting the bulk of the world into a state of anarchy. I mean, it is going to affect them as well, like having unruly Eurotrash neighbors who smoke hasch and blast dull trance albums all night. This is silly even for Cold War Russians. And why are they putting on this whole stupid show with making Israel vacate the West Bank? Why do they give a rat’s ass? Are they pissed because so many Jews left Russia and moved to Israel? If Israel had agreed to pull out of the West Bank, would the Russians just go, “Well, we didn’t expect that. Guess we better go turn off that bomb like we promised.” What’s with the dog and pony show? Why don’t they just set the bomb off and be done with things? I’ve seen better plans hatched by the kids down the street who were trying to take over the Little Rascals fort, and all those plans involved dressing up like pirates and flinging Limburger cheese at each other.

In order to alert the CIA to the fact that it’s those dirty, no-good Commie pinkos behind the plot, The Soldier must break into a military base to use the phone. Why? Who knows. You’d think after all this time he’d have a better way to contact the one guy who knows who he is. For some reason, the head of the CIA is sitting in the dark in his office, and only turns on the lamp with the exploding bulb when it’s convenient to the plot. Now The Soldier is on his own, with no allies save for the crack team he assembles to help him pull off a scheme even stupider than the one dreamed up by the Russians. The first guy he recruits is “the black guy.” Since this movie was made before Ernie Hudson was a big star, the black guy is played Steve James, who played “the black guy” in every movie requiring a black guy before Ernie Hudson became the official black guy of Hollywood. Anyone who is a fan of crappy action films recognizes James, who’s probably best-known for his role as “Kungfu Joe” in I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka! or for carrying a load named Michael Dudikoff through some American Ninja films. James was almost always relegated to playing sidekick to some lead-footed white hero, which was ironic since James was a better fighter and actor than pretty much everyone to whom he was forced to play second fiddle. He was definitely one of the great fixtures of action cinema until his untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1993.

He’d already worked with James Glickenhaus in 1980 on the “‘Nam vet gets revenge” flick The Exterminator. In The Soldier, he’s the guy who sneaks in and does that attempted wire assassination to Ken Wahl I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of course, after some fighting, they just laugh and embrace, glossing over the fact that had The Soldier not reacted in time he would have been decapitated. And even though he did react in time, he still has an inch-deep gash in his forearm. Do people, even highly trained people, really do this “trying to kill my buddy as a good joke” thing? Rough housing is fine and all, but most people draw the line at attempted murder, even if it’s all in good fun. It’s like Kato constantly attacking Inspector Clouseau. Most people would just sneak up and give their buddy a wet willie or something, not try to slice their limbs off.

The Soldier assembles the exact same crack team that is assembled for every movie of this nature. There’s the black guy, the drunk, the chick, and the guy who doesn’t want to be there. Together, they hatch a scheme in which the rest of the team will commandeer a nuclear missile silo while The Soldier drives around Berlin in a Porsche for no discernable reason. The job of the guys in the silo is to threaten to nuke Moscow unless they drop this whole scheme with irradiating the Saudi oil fields. To show they mean business, The Soldier will drive fast and jump a sports car over the Berlin Wall. That’s their plan? First of all, taking over the missile silo is ridiculously easy. It must have been on the same base that ships nuclear materials in open-bed trucks with no armed escort. Or it’s the same base that can be infiltrated by a precocious bike-riding pre-teen who made his own clearance cards. Seriously, even though it’s adults doing the espionagin’, their plans are even more ridiculous than what any spy-thwarting youngster would have devised. I mean, we don’t want to lose the oil, so instead we’ll start World War III and destroy the whole world? At least the Russian plan could have resulted in Russia itself surviving and being a society where everyone wears burlap sacks and hoes the fields all day. I mean, they were pretty much there already. But The Soldier’s plan makes even the oil field scheme seem like a good idea. This is the kind of crap that probably sparked the events we saw in Red Dawn. I always wondered why the Russians would launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, and why they’d have a bunch of sun-loving tropical island boys from Cuba invade a small town in Colorado. Now we know they were pissed about the stupid crap The Soldier was trying to pull. The Cubans probably just wanted to see snow and shoot at C. Thomas Howell. Who doesn’t want to shoot at C. Thomas Howell?

Talk about a lunkheaded movie. When a stupid action film aspires to be nothing more than a stupid action film, it’s usually not bad. You know what you’re getting, after all. What’s far more entertaining, however, is when an action film tries hard to be smart and the effort just makes it ten times stupider than it would have been without the delusions of intelligence. Chimps could hatch better plots than Glickenhaus has concocted for this mess. Nothing makes any sense even by Cold War standards when lots of things countries did seemed to make no sense. Even Ronald Reagan, who damn sure had some fruitcake ideas, would have dismissed these schemes as a bunch of junk. Why would the Russians want to catapult the whole world into a state of total chaos? Oh sure, because they’re evil. Even Tom Clancy wouldn’t devise a plot that inane. And what about The Soldier’s plan to prevent it from happening? Why did he have to have his guys break in and take over the missile silo? All he does is meet up with The Russians in East Berlin and say, “We’re going to blow up Moscow if you blow up the oil,” and they take him at his word. They are terrified by the revelation that The Soldier now has a missile pointing at Moscow. Was it somehow a shock to the Soviets that we had missiles pointing at them all ready to go? Who did they think we were pointing them at? His whole plan is the brinksmanship equivalent of spending a million dollars to catch a guy who stole ten dollars. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that the crisis has been averted, you just sort of sit there and go, “That’s it? Really? Man, I’m glad the Cold War’s over.”

The film isn’t helped by the plodding Tangerine Dream score, which seems totally out of place in an action film. Moody synthesized new age music hardly communicates a sense of urgency, so even at the points where the film is well-paced and action-packed, it seems slow-moving and dull. Sometimes a score that seems contradictory to the onscreen action can end up working quite well. This is not one of those times. And speaking of dull, it seems like Steve James is the only one doing any acting. The concept of having more than one facial expression or tone of voice seems lost on Wahl, who glides through his performance as The Soldier with somnambulistic dreariness. Was he even aware of the fact that he was making a movie? Klaus Kinski is fine, as he always is, but he’s only in the movie for a tiny bit, long enough to justify listing him on the movie poster to snare any of the types of people who might be snared by Klaus Kinski’s name on the marquee. Everyone else turns in performances that could be called “below average” had Ken Wahl not set the bar so low. Compared to him, the other actors seem as low-key as Cesar Romero playing The Joker. Not that the script gives them much to work with.

With so many things going against this film, it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a miserable failure as an intelligent espionage thriller, but as a crappy action film it succeeds marvelously. There’s a lot of shooting, and when people get shot the blood really gushes. Ken Wahl (or his stunt double) gets to have a ski hill shoot out. He also gets to jump an expensive sports car over the Berlin Wall — score one for capitalism, baby! A lot of things blow up, and there’s one of those scenes where a fight breaks out in a cowboy bar and the band just keeps on playing as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary (I think that joke was old even in 1982). Although I feel there’s too much poorly used slow-motion (made worse by Tangerine Dream’s meandering synth score), at least there’s a lot of action, and some of it is even fairly exciting.

Despite making a number of action-oriented films, Glickenhaus just never got the hang of it. For his next movie, 1985’s The Protector, even Jackie Chan couldn’t help Glickenhaus figure out how to stage a compelling action set piece. That The Soldier has any action at all worth watching is a bit of a miracle, but it’s a welcome surprise. The ski chase is good, as are a number of bloody shootouts and car chases, though you’ll be left wondering what sort of lame Porsche is unable to outrun an Army jeep. The horrendously thought-out plot only adds to the charm. At least they tried to make something smart. They simply didn’t succeed. But they did make something that is more entertaining than it is disappointing. Better spy films have come and gone, but The Soldier has enough gratuitous violence and bad writing to keep it on the list of fond memories I’ve been able to relive. If you want your thrills delivered with brains and wit, you’d best look elsewhere. If you want them delivered with bloody squibs and asinine writing, then The Soldier just might be the man for the job.

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Pray for Death

Just when you thought America’s cities were getting safer (as our suburbs and rural towns get more dangerous), you leave the house to walk down to the corner bodego and catch sight of a bunch of cops fighting with a ninja. It’s more than likely that at some point the ninja throws down an eggshell grenade and disappears into a puff of red smoke. Or maybe you stumble upon a couple of ninjas all fighting each other in the middle of 2nd Avenue. It may sound weird to our late 1990s ears, but way back in the 1980s, this is how things were. America’s cities were infested with ninjas, usually wearing the traditional black ninja suit, but sometimes also wearing shiny gold, red, green, or purple outfits. The urban ninja is not above a fashion statement, after all. Statistics estimate that in the early- to mid-1980s, for every thousand cockroaches in a city, there were also five ninjas. Since every American city has a cockroach population numbering in the hundreds of millions, you can bet that’s quite a few ninjas along for the ride.

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China Strike Force

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Stanley Tong sucks. I don’t make such sophisticated statements without some degree of deliberation and thought, and after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m left with no alternative than to pass judgement on this Hong Kong director, and my judgement is that I could never see another Stanley Tong film in my life, and I wouldn’t be all that upset. Any number of things about his work annoy me, but first and foremost is his ability to make even the most dynamic stars uninteresting and dull. I mean, this is the guy who had Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Lo, and Yuen Wah together in the same film (Police Story III: Supercop) and made them all disappointing. Oh sure, Michelle did the stunt where she jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train, and that was cool and all, but ten seconds out of a ninety minute film hardly justifies the tedium. What kind of fool puts Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah in the same film and doesn’t think to stage a fight scene? Or Jackie Chan and Ken Lo? Or Jackie Chan and anybody? He might as well not have even been in that movie. Tong went on to make Rumble in the Bronx, one of the most ludicrous of all Jackie’s films but at least it was fun and Jackie fought a hovercraft. Tong then redeemed himself slightly with the above-average Police Story IV: First Strike. But then he made Mr. Magoo, and it was all over.

China Strike Force was supposed to be his big comeback film, his grand return to Hong Kong, and at least financially he was successful. The movie made a lot of cash at a time when Hong Kong films were still recovering from an industry collapse that sent everyone reeling for over a decade. China Strike Force had a lot going for it. First, there was Aaron Kwok. For years, Kwok was plagued by his pretty-boy teen idol image and questionable choice of unbuttoned shirts covered in metallic blue feathers. It held him back and kept him from ever being taken seriously as a legitimate action star. Then he got a few years older, the wrinkles started to show here and there, and while he may still be a handsome lad, he started to get the age and character that would enable him to finally break through. A few more pounds and a few more scars and he’d be set to join the Hong Kong action set without looking out of place among the traditionally grizzled veterans. For whatever reason though — probably his unwillingness to give up tight sequined shirts and boas and such — he never really clicked, or he hit at a time when the action star was a thing of the past.


And then this film has Norika Fujiwara. You’d have to try real hard to find more of a knock-out than this woman. She was a model and a television actress in Japan before getting her big break in this film, and in getting her break, we’ve all received a break as well because she’s gorgeous and not nearly as untalented as most other models-turned-actress. Throw in direct-to-video American action king Mark Dacascos, and you have one of the best-looking casts around. I’ve always thought Dacascos deserved to be a bigger star than he was. Why is a guy who moves this well, who can act at least halfway decent, and who is a striking guy to boot, going direct to video? It’s unlikely at this point he’ll ever catch his break. Instead he’ll be doomed to a life not unlike Don “The Dragon” Wilson, which is at least a good doom. I wish I could be doomed to be pretty damn rich after making an endless string of low-budget action films.

China Strike Force itself has a pretty typical plot. Dacascos plays your run-of-the-mill young gangster guy who is intent on taking over the business, does not care for the tradition of honor, etc etc etc. These guys have been in about every gangster movie ever made in any country, but some old fart always trusts them, only to get shot in the back when the time is right. Aaron Kwok plays Darren, a hotshot cop who is always annoying his superiors. He has a partner who barely does enough memorable stuff to result in anyone remembering his name. He’s only there to die, as in one of the most contrived scenes even for an action film, the movie takes a break from all sorts of shooting and jumping about to feature a scene where Darren and his partner go out for dinner, and Darren asks his partner “So your wedding is soon?” They might as well flash up a big red “This guy is going to die!!!” subtitle. Everyone should know by now that in a cop film, the cop who is retiring, getting married, about to have a baby, or just bought a boat is always going to get wasted. It’s a time-honored tradition. Handled properly, it can be kind of funny. Handled without any finesse whatsoever, as it is here, it’s just plain annoying. As if that wasn’t predictable enough, he’s also marrying the chief’s daughter.

While the cops pal around, we learn that Dacascos plans to increase his underworld power by selling drugs. As is par for the course in this type of movie, the aging gangster who took Dacascos under his wing hates drugs and vows that his organization will never be a party to the selling of such foul goods, since we all know the triad dudes of the 60s and 70s were basically saints. Extortion, murder, prostitution, slavery, gun smuggling — these are all noble ventures, but drug peddling is right out. This news irks Dacascos’ partner in America, played by hip hop star Coolio, who is apparently not a fan of Weird Al Yankovich. Coolio plays your very stereotypical jive-talkin’, cigar-smokin’ hustler who’s only task in this movie is to say “Holy shit!” and “Cuz” or however you spell the slang for “cousin.” He’s pretty good at doing that, and luckily nothing else is demanded of him. To no one’s surprise but the old guy, Dacascos plots with Coolio, who’s character is actually named Coolio, to off the old man and take the business over.


Also thrown into the mix is Norika, who is an undercover Interpol agent trying to get info on the old man’s operation. Of course, no one knows she works for Interpol, as that is the general idea behind being undercover, but even someone who is still surprised by the plot twists in a Girls Gone Wild video can tell from her first scene that she’s an undercover cop. One thing I like about a film like China Strike Force is that I don’t have to worry about spoiling it for anyone. It’s all so plodding and obvious that it’s impossible to ruin any surprises. An underworld assassination at a big fashion show gives the film an excuse for two important things: a lot of sexy women parading about in skimpy panties, and the film’s first action sequence, in which Aaron Kwok chases the assassin through the streets of Hong Kong using a variety of vehicles. At one point, Stanley Tong even has the gall to completely rip off his own “moving motorcycle” stunt from Supercop, though he manages to screw it up more this time around by using a lot of wires to make the whole think look goofy instead of cool.

The first action scene sets the stage for what you can expect from the rest of the movie: something just isn’t right about it. Sure, there is a lot going on, but it just doesn’t click. The wires are employed so they can go “over the top,” but it winds up looking silly. In a fantasy film I don’t mind wires and flying. In a reality-based action film, I think they look out of place but can still be used with great effect. In this, however, they are used very clumsily, and they detract greatly from the potential impact of what could have been cool fights and action sequences. Actually, now that I rewatch it, the first action sequence is the best one in the movie. It almost, but not quite, achieves a flow and if nothing else is kind of cool because the assassin guy gets run over, hit by cars, punched, kicked, thrown off moving trucks, and even jumps off a giant bridge — yet he still shows up later in the movie only to get killed in the most boring, mundane way. Way to give us a potentially cool character then treat him like an afterthought. Thanks, Stanley.


But far more than wires and missed character opportunities is the glaring problem that has plagued Stanley Tong’s films since he first stepped behind the camera. He has no sense of pacing or rhythm. Tong started his career as a stuntman, and while we all know he can dream up and even perform some cool stunts, being able to properly film them is something else entirely. Tong’s action sequences never find a groove. They always feel disjointed and, as a result, awkward and sloppy. Part of the problem here is that he’s trying to make a kungfu action film with a cast that doesn’t have much kungfu skill, but even that can’t wash away Tong’s own lack of directorial skill since he brought the same plodding sense of confusion to action scenes involving Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, both proven commodities. What it boils down to, then, is that Stanley Tong just isn’t a very good director. Or rather, he’s an astoundingly mediocre director who makes astoundingly mediocre movies.

Anyway, lots of action film cliches follow. Rather than pay the assassin, who seems damn near indestructible and would seem to be a worthwhile investment, Coolio just kills the guy. Mark Dacascos does indeed kill the old guy and start selling drugs. Aaron Kwok’s partner does indeed die tragically. Aaron falls for Norika and, in an attempt to give us more T&A, has a pointless, out-of-place daydream about massaging her thigh. I’m all for T&A, male and female, but come on. Put a little effort into working it into the film. I mean, they had the T&A scene where Norika infiltrates Dacascos’ and Coolio’s gang by showing up in a tiny string bikini then stripping down to nothing to prove she isn’t wearing any wires or anything. That was an okay excuse for some T&A.

Eventually, Aaron and Norika close in on Coolio and Dacascos so they can have the big action blow-out. Just as Stanley Tong can’t direct an action scene, so too does he always blow the finale of his films. Supercop has both Yuen Wah and Ken Lo for Jackie and/or Michelle to fight, so they knock off both those guys in about one second in very offhand manners, and leave Jackie to face… an old guy. Police Story IV gives us an underwater fight scene — funny but fairly disappointing — before having Jackie slip around with a fake shark. Then of course Rumble in the Bronx completely forgot to even have a finale, so we just get Jackie Chan driving a hovercraft to a final showdown with… another old guy. This is worse than when the big final scene in Game of Death ended up being Bruce Lee versus… Gig Young. At least Gig Young was middle aged.


This time around, Tong tries to deliver an action-packed finale, but once again his own lack of skill as a director trips him and everyone else up. Mark Dacascos is a genuine martial arts bad-ass, or at least he can pull it off wonderfully on screen. So God forbid we include him in the final fight scene. No, let’s kill him off in the usual goofy, offhand manner. Let’s crush him with a purple pimp car dangling from a helicopter. Then let’s have a huge kungfu fight between the three people with the least amount of kungfu skill. Aaron Kwok versus Mark Dacascos could have been pulled off, and with a different director it might have even looked good. Coolio versus Aaron Kwok is about the stupidest damn fight scene I’ve seen in a long time, and that includes the fight scene in The Matrix where that woman jumps up in the air and strikes the most absurd looking “pouncing chicken” stance I’ve ever seen while she hovers and the camera pans around her.

Since Coolio and Norika are no martial artists, and Aaron Kwok is a passable on-screen kungfu star at best, that means we have to have a big gimmick to make up for the lack of interesting fight choreography. Tong’s answer? Have the whole fight scene take place on a teetering pane of glass dangling from a crane hundreds of feet up in the air. It might sound exciting at first, but think about it, and let me use this pro wrestling analogy. Many years ago, WCW had a pay-per-view match between the dull Dustin Rhodes and the even duller Blacktop Bully. The gimmick of the match was that the whole thing was going to take place on the trailer of a moving truck. It might have sounded cool at first, but the end result was two guys moving very, very slowly while trying to keep their balance as the truck poked along various lonely highways at speeds in excess of ten miles an hour.


This finale is that wrestling match. Norika, Coolio, and Aaron all scoot about very gingerly while trying not to fall off the glass. From time to time, one person or another will dangle off the edge or try to kick someone. And then Coolio finally falls, but only after one false change of heart. You know, where the villain is about to die, begs the hero to save him, and once being saved immediately reverts back to his dastardly ways. Heroes always fall for that shit. I mean, before you flew around with the purple pimpmobile dangling from a helicopter, he was selling crack to nine-year-old kids. Now all of a sudden he’s maybe not that bad a guy? They only do this so the hero can kill the villain without looking like a murderer. How many action movies end with the hero refusing to kill the villain, only to have the villain suddenly produce some weapon, thus justifying the hero turning around and offing the guy? It’s a weak cop-out. People want their bloodlust satisfied, but you also can’t just have a hero who hauls off and shoots people after beating their ass. In the end, Coolio falls off the glass and Norika and Aaron fall in love for no real reason. They were only together about two days, and most of that time was spent being hoisted around on wires and pretending Coolio knew kungfu.

The big problem with China Strike Force is how average it is. It’s impossible to completely blast it and say it’s awful, because it’s not. At the same time, it sure as hell ain’t a good movie. It’s just… bland. Poorly directed. Awkwardly paced. Horribly choreographed. Completely cliche. In the hands of a good director this could have been a good movie. In the hands of someone as incompetent as Stanley Tong, the movie never manages to rise above a mundane level. It takes a talented director to elevate poorly written action film nonsense into something memorable, and Tong does not have the tools for the task. As such, China Strike Force remains an unsatisfying, though not completely unentertaining, failure.

Given the uninspired direction, the film’s sundry flaws become impossible to ignore. The English language dialogue, of which there is quite a lot, is ludicrous. Who wrote this crap? I mean, it’s English. I recognize the words, but it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like English that was spit out of one of those online translation things that can get the vocabulary but fails utterly to comprehend nuances and grammatical rules. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue was recorded at a level barely audible to dogs and mice, let alone humans. Whenever a hip hop song plays — and they play often — suddenly it’s like you have the volume on eleven, but when they go back to speaking, everything is silent again. Thus watching this movie is a constant battle with the volume control. And speaking of English, what the hell is up with Mark Dacascos’ character? How are you going to become the lord of a vast Chinese criminal underworld if you don’t speak a lick of Chinese? Even people of Chinese ancestry I know who grew up in America know at least a few words in their grandparents’ tongue, but this guy doesn’t know a single phrase. Surely the Chinese triads would not be overly accommodating of a new boss who murders other bosses, can’t speak any Chinese, and brings Coolio to all the parties.

The film’s other big short-coming is, of course, the pacing. Stanley Tong can do no right when it comes to figuring out how to pace and stage an action sequence. He cuts when he should stay still, he shoots in close all the time so we can’t see anything. He never finds a rhythm or a flow for the action. He loves to go over the top, but only in ways that are ludicrous rather than breathtaking. The many action scenes in this film range from pedestrian to lumbering. You spend the whole scene waiting for something to be done well, then all of a sudden it’s over, leaving you with an empty feeling and no sense of satisfaction. And then sometimes it’s all too ludicrous, even for a Hong Kong action film. When Dacascos and Coolio are down at the docks watching the boys unpack a Ferrari or one of them other fancy sports cars, Aaron shows up and spoils the fun, leading to a completely unbelievable scene where Dacascos takes off in the sportscar and Aaron luckily happens upon a passing truck full of forumla one race cars which, despite the highly explosive nature, apparently ship fully gassed and ready to go. Of course, this all happens after the part in that first fight/chase scene where he rides a motorcycle up the flat vertical surface of a delivery truck’s rear door. I think he repeats that nifty trick at the end of the movie as well.


The finale, which is by and large a ripoff of the helicopter finale from Tong’s earlier Supercop, is hardly the pay-off I was hoping for. It’s not cool or original. It’s just, well, stupid. From the whole “car dangling from the helicopter” bit, to Mark Dacascos being killed without ever facing off against the heroes, to the completely disjointed and uninteresting “fight” between Norika, Aaron, and Coolio, Tong certainly tries a lot of stuff, but none of it works. To add insult to injury, Tong’s reliance on the most obvious and awkward of wire stunts makes it impossible to enjoy even on a visceral level. On the plus side, however, Norika looks great in her leather fightin’ outfit.

The acting is passable, but the roles aren’t very demanding. Aaron Kwok was coming along, but as of this film he was not quite there physically or in his acting skill. Norika is basically there to look good and kick some ass, and she is OK at both. When she has to act, it’s only the shallowest of deals. Even a paperdoll could pull it off, so no complaints. Dacascos is alright, but if he’s going to be a Chinese gangster, even one from America, he should have learned to fake his way through some Cantonese. Coolio is playing a stereotype, and you have to be really untalented not to pull that off. Everyone else is pretty forgettable. Aaron’s partner is so bland that when he dies, you hardly notice. His fiance is every bit his match in blandness, so that even though she loses her future husband and her father (not the same man), it really doesn’t matter all that much. The movie punctuates this by completely blowing her off at the end in exchange for a kissing scene between Norika and Aaron, which of course comes out of nowhere.

The only thing memorable about this film is how good it might have been if someone else had directed. As has always been the case, Stanley Tong was given all the pieces for a great film and just couldn’t make them fit together. I should have come away beaming and saying “That was great!!!” Instead, I walked away slowly thinking, “Well, that was average… I guess.” Awkward drama, awkward comedy, and awkward action sequences are tenuously strung together in what proves to be a very average film. Sure, it’s better than watching a Mario Van Peebles film, but around the same time as this movie was made, guys like Johnny To were raising the bar and giving us enjoyable, well-made action films and making Stanley Tong’s lack of skill even more glaring. He has no style, and he has no substance. In the end, China Strike Force, like most of his movies, is a bland and somewhat tedious exercise in paint-by-numbers film-making on the level of some of your more uninteresting direct-to-video action films. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again.

Release Year: 2000 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Aaron Kwok, Norika Fujiwara, Lee-Hom Wang, Ruby Lin, Coolio, Mark Dacascos, Ken Lo, Paul Chun, Siu-Ming Lau, Jennifer Lin, Benny Lai, Li Hsueh Tung | Screenplay: Stanley Tong, Steven Whitney | Director: Stanley Tong | Cinematography: Jeffrey C. Mygatt | Music: Nathan Wang | Producer: Andre Morgan, Stanley Tong, Barbie Tung | Original Title: Leui ting jin ging

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Uzumaki

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I love fairy tales. Not the happily-ever-after stuff that makes you feel good about yourself. No, I’m talking the black stuff. dark and twisted, meant more to terrify children into sleepless nights than to lull them into a soothing night’s slumber. Tales where the kids don’t outsmart the witch, where they do end up in the oven, and no one lives happily ever after. Given our increasingly crass and cynical society, I would seem, at first, that this sort of twisted tale would be popular, but as they often require some degree of imagination and appreciation of both the subtle and the fantastic, most people would simply rather watch shit blow up. When someone does attempt to carry that sense of the macabre over into a modern day fairy tale, it can happen with mixed results. At their best, they come out looking like Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb or City of Lost Children. More often than not, however, they just come out looking Troll.

Despite being a world away, Japanese horror draws on very similar, almost universal, elements of horror to lay on the scare. In a similar vein, there are creepy fairy tale elements that exist above and beyond culture and geography and become part of globally understood and shared heritage. While in college, I was reading a book simply called Japanese Tales, that was a collection of bizarre Japanese fairy tales, and it struck me that, despite the fact that many of these existed as oral legends at a time long before Japan was in regular contact with the nations of the West, the stories were very similar in tone. Everyone understands a witch luring innocent youths into the woods, or monsters who take the form of humans.


My favorite was about a woman who struggled much of her life with a tape worm. She managed to survive the parasite and eventually give birth to a young son who grew up to become a tremendously powerful general and leader of men. Great were his deeds, and he soon ruled the land. A neighboring warlord invited the great warrior to his court one day for a celebration of their new alliance. At the feast, the neighboring warlord offered up bushels of walnuts (or was it chestnuts?) for all to eat — it was, after all, the commerce crop that kept his province prosperous. The great warrior, however, refused to eat the walnuts. When the host warlord grew angry and felt insulted, the great warrior threw off his helmet and exclaimed “I can’t digest nuts! I’m my mother’s tapeworm!” He then promptly turned into a tapeworm and slithered off. The best part of the whole weird story, however, was the final line, which went something like “Back in his homeland, his family was devastated and his province plunged into chaos. Everyone else agreed it had all been a good laugh.”

I bring this up because I feel the Japanese surrealist horror film Uzumaki draws heavily upon the tradition of the creepy fairy tale. There is something fantastic and mesmerizing about it all, and something unsettling and distressing lurking just under the surface. I forgot where I read it, perhaps in an interview with Clive Barker, but someone said that the most effective way of creating a sense of dread is to take something familiar and slowly transform it into something alien and threatening. The best example I can think of is the closet monster. How many times have you opened your closet to get something out? Your shoes, perhaps, or an elf you’ve been holding prisoner? If you have a closet, chances are you open it at least once a day, maybe more. It’s a familiar place. But let it get dark out, let it be pitch black and three in the morning when you wearily gaze over from the comfort of your bed and realize the closet door is open.

Suddenly it’s not so familiar. It’s a gaping black maw, noticeably dark even in the dead of night. Suddenly what was once familiar to you begins to take on a sense of dread. What if something comes out of there? A monster, or a killer, or that damn elf? And what’s that shadow? I think it’s just my shirt thrown over the vacuum cleaner, but it sure looks like an ax wielding homicidal maniac. I once spent an entire night scared witless as a youth, covers tight around my neck as I stared in horror at what was most definitely the shadow of Weird Harold from Fat Albert come to kill me. Okay, so maybe not everyone gets freaked out in the middle of the night by shadows that bear a vague resemblance to Weird Harold, but you get my meaning. Nothing makes a person panic quite like suddenly finding yourself in a strange situation when you thought you had everything under control.

Uzumaki is set in a sleepy working class town somewhere in the Japanese countryside. There’s nothing particularly weird about the place. Hell, even though it’s in Japan it’s not that much different than a small blue-collar town in America. It’s downright idyllic, right up until the opening narration that tells us of the unspeakable nightmares the town contains. Director Higuchinsky has nothing on his resume before this film, but he proves right out of the gate that he is a master of subversion, taking a beautiful small town and immediately making you anxious about it. We then meet cute high school student Kirie, our narrator. She’s a pretty average schoolgirl — a few friends, a few enemies, a nerdy goofball who keeps trying to make her fall in love with him by employing such tactics as jumping out and trying to scare her at every possible opportunity. Her dad is an accomplished pottery artisan, and her boyfriend is a moody teen who will one day join an emo band. The two of them are hassled by a Barney Fife-esque local cop who has nothing better to do than bluster at teens who ride two to a single bike.


En route to meet her beau, Shuichi, she spots his father crouching in an alley. Attempts to get his attention fail, as he is intently videotaping a snail slithering up the wall. Already things are weird. Shuichi is acting weird as well, though not so weird as to be taping hours worth of snail shenanigans in extreme close-up. But he seems afraid, and he talks of running away, fleeing the town, which he feels has a rotten core. Kirie is confused but also a bit excited by the idea of dropping everything and running off with her childhood sweetheart. At this point, the film is shaping up to be just another schoolgirl horror film, the sort of watered down, one step above Goosebumps stuff that has been big business in Japan for the last couple years. You know, whenever anyone has the brains to make a movie for adolescent girls, it’s always a huge hit (remember Titanic), and yet people only seem to remember to do it like once every ten years or so. You’d think by now they’d understand that the girls are bored shitless and want a little something thrown their direction.

Don’t be fooled. Uzumaki is just getting started.

Kirie learns that Shuichi’s father has become obsessed with spiral designs, surrounding himself with them, dedicating his life to staring at them and ranting about it all when he isn’t bust videotaping the spiral design on snail shells. His madness has reached the point where it is starting to tear the household apart, and Shuichi suspects there is a force behind it all that threatens the whole town. At school, in the meantime, things aren’t much more normal. When Kirie isn’t being accosted in the bathroom by the leader of the resident girl gang, who sings the praises of being the center of attention, of being the focus of the spiral, she’s sitting in a science class attended by a kid who only shows up to school on rainy days and is covered by a thick, dripping goo. Why they let him only come into school on rainy days is less puzzling then why they would let a kid covered in gallons of effluvia just take his seat. Hell, we didn’t even tolerate the kid who always had the gooey, unnaturally green ball of mucous clinging to the very edge of his nostril. I know if I had showed up for chemistry glass all dripping with goo, there would have been a good chance they would have made me hit the showers, or at least that emergency eye wash fountain for the kids too clumsy to not get iodine in their eyes.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Shuichi’s father is eventually overcome by his mania and commits suicide — by cramming himself into a washing machine and twisting his body into a taffy-like spiral. This upsets Shuichi’s mother, and the matter is made worse during the funeral when the clouds from the crematorium spiral up into a massive, misty whirlpool that also has a tendency to form a likeness of the deceased’s anguished face. Shuichi’s mother breaks down, and soon she too is obsessed with spirals, but with their elimination rather than their collection. She begins by slicing off her own fingertips, and then after a later midnight visit from a friendly neighborhood centipede, realizes there is a part of her inner ear that is also a spiral. The jagged shard of a broken vase can dig that out, though.


As Shuichi helplessly watches his parents self-destruct, Kirie begins to notice her father too is becoming a nutcase, and the girl gang leader at school has started styling her hair into massive swirls. A local Poindexter teams up with Kirie and Shuichi to crack the sinister mystery, but of course, just as he makes a huge discovery, he’s killed in a grisly car wreck. If the overall freakish atmosphere of the movie thus far hasn’t convinced you this is something more than schoolgirl horror, the graphic gore might bring you around. While we’re not talking Dawn of the Dead here, the movie refuses to pull punches with the gore, and when someone dies, they die horribly. The bizarre events in the town eventually attract the attention of the outside media, and a news van arrives to do a “can you believe this shit” type of story that is made even meatier by the fact that the gooey kid and his friendly neighborhood tormentor have just gone and transformed into giant half-slug half-human creatures and spend the day squirming up and down the side of the high school. The film crew meets with an equally unsavory fate as they attempt to leave town, resulting in some decapitation and a cute, perky newscaster left with her eyeballs dangling by the optic nerves.

Kirie and Shuichi want desperate to either fight against or escape from the growing hurricane of spiral-related madness, but they don’t even know what to fight against or where to start. There is no creepy old wizard living at the edge of town, or secret government lab, or anything at all to give them the first clue as to what the hell is happening. As she struggles desperately to make some sense of the chaos, Kirie’s life is completely shattered when Shuichi himself begins to exhibit rather strange spiral qualities.

The end is a disturbing jolt to the system, to say the least. At first, it will leave you sort of pissed off and thinking “what the hell?” kind of like Blair Witch Project. Unlike the end of that film, however, which gets stupider as time goes by, the final burst of gory insanity in Uzumaki grows increasingly unnerving the more it sits in your mind. Ultimately, the film ends with the same close-up and snippet of narration with which it began, turning the film itself into one giant spiral. It’s a feeling not unlike the one you might get from a particularly good episode of Twin Peaks, like the one where they finally reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer. It will confound and anger some, while others will simply sit back and think, “Holy cow!” to themselves as they realize the disturbing power of what they’ve just seen.

First and foremost, Uzumaki is a visual film, but unlike a lot of current films that rely on slick visuals as nothing more than eye candy, the surreal atmosphere of Uzumaki is a central tool with which to weave the tale. It’s not just thrown on for the hell of it. There is an actual purpose, and Higuchinsky knows how to use the visual aspect of the film with the deftness of a scalpel-wielding surgeon, and I don’t mean Dr. Giggles. Every shot, every set, every quirky pice of music, is perfectly exploited to create a sense of lurking dread. Like a seedy circus sideshow or run-down midway, Uzumaki is undeniably gorgeous and frighteningly grotesque and disorienting. It is, as I discussed earlier, a disorienting warping of the familiar, mundane world into something threatening and dangerous. For his first time out as a director, Higuchinsky is astoundingly successful. WHile Lucio Fulci always talked about creating the feel of a surreal nightmare in his films, he was only ever able to accomplish it in tiny bits and pieces. A moment here, a moment there, then back to the tedium of watching Ian McCulloch intone, “But that’s crazy!” Higuchinsky manages to capture that same nightmarish mood, but he sustains it throughout the whole movie and never exhibits any of the slapdash qualities that undermined Fulci’s own attempts at such a mood.

Some of the scenes don’t even strike you as bizarre until they are over and you’re going, “Wait, what the hell?” In a casual, offhand manner, the film will just randomly throw in background characters who are walking in reverse, or in a particular eerie scene that doesn’t even hit you as eerie at first, Kirie and her friend are walking down a hallway having a typical schoolgirl conversation while, on either side of the hallway, students stand at attention, still as statues, gazing off into nothing. There is never any acknowledgment of these things, making them even more intriguing, sort of like that weird hippie you can catch sitting in the background of various episodes of The Young Ones. I didn’t even notice him until years later, but now that I know that he’s sometimes there, squatting in the corner, it’s equally amusing and disturbing. Watch the very first episode, Demolition, and you’ll see him during a scene around the television set. It’s kinda creepy.


As far as the plot goes, it is simple but effective. The movie is based on a series of horror comics by writer Ito Junji, a proclaimed H.P. Lovecraft fan, and the influence of Lovecraft is obvious. Like his inspiration, Ito’s stories are difficult to translate onto film. They are simply too far out there. This problem has plagued countless would-be screenwriters and directors who took on the unenviable task of turning brilliant H.P. Lovecraft stories into incredibly lame movies. Consider that a number of Lovecraft’s stories revolve around creatures who are so intensely terrifying that merely glancing at one is enough to drive someone mad. If you make a movie about such a beast, you either have to show it — which will inevitably be a big disappointment — or not not show it — which would also be a big disappointment. Lovecraft created a fear that simply could not be lifted off the page or out of your own mind.

Likewise, Ito’s stories often defied easy adaptation. Despite the difficult source material, this is a damn effective film that manages to communicate an intangible yet overwhelming horror without ever having to show it. Lovecraft would have been proud, I think. Sure there are kids who turn into creepy slugs, people with weird eyes and hair that spirals up forty feet and continuously swirls around. Sure heads are crushed, people are gutted, and bodies rot before horrified onlookers, but these are all symptoms of what is happening. In the hands of a lesser storyteller or director, the fact that the film never reveals the nature of the seemingly supernatural madness would be a big let-down, but scriptwriter Nitta Takao, armed with Ito Junji’s story and Higuchinsky’s inspired direction, uses the ambiguity to augment the film’s nightmarish tone. It’s truly a stunning feat to have pulled off.

The movie also never tips us off as to what actually happens to our heroine, Kirie. When last we see her, she is in what is, at best, a dire situation, but the closing repetition of the opening narration would imply that she somehow cheated fate. If so, how? We never know, and while that would be a weakness in some films, it’s the reverse here, like never finding out why the birds were attacking people in The Birds. Is it possible that Kirie, who was teased about never being the center of attention, was somehow the focal point of the spiral madness? Was she the eye of the hurricane? Or was she simply insane, dreaming up this whole bizarre scenario in her head? The film is constructed in such a way than any explanation would fail to be as effective as no explanation, leaving the viewer with a lingering feeling of chill and glorious discomfort.

Higuchinsky also uses music brilliantly. The soundtrack is a combination of sappy toy piano sounding “young kids in love” music and off-kilter horror/carnival music. It works further to subvert the feel of the film when you have this quaint and innocent scene of a young girl clinging to the boy she’s loved her whole life while dippy lovey dovey music plays in the background as they ride the bike in slow motion. It’s sweet tot he point of being goofy, but it becomes heart-breaking in a way since you know any second the creepy carnival music is going to start up and no one is going to be very happy.

The cast is up to the task of fleshing out this bizarre world. Hatsune Eriko is great and sympathetic as Kirie, while Fhi Fan as Shuichi is moody, dreary, and detached. At first it almost seems like it’s bad acting, but then you start to think about how many of these self-absorbed mopey guys you knew in high school, and you suddenly realize the kid has nailed it. Unlike the mopey kids in high school, at least this guy lives in a town that is cursed with a madness involving lots of spirals and bloody deaths. Everyone else is basically there to die horribly and go insane, and they all do it well.

The effects are great as well. Actually, the effects are somewhat archaic looking in spots, but once again the director makes it work marvelously for him, turning what should be a drawback into another strength. Competently done but somewhat awkward computer effects serve to embellish an increasingly alien and surreal landscape. The gore effects are bang on, grisly and realistic, and the make-up effects to create the slug people is also great. Unlike those twits who made the updated version of The Haunting, Higuchinsky knows better than to make a movie where there are effects for effect’s sake, and they are the central point to the movie being made. Higuchinsky wants to creep you out, and he is smart enough to know that special effects are just one of many means to that end and not the end themselves. Just like the stylish direction, the special effects are not there just as eye candy. They have a job to do, and they execute it wonderfully.

Uzumaki is a surprising film, and that makes me happy. Like a fairy tale of old, it seizes you from the outset and pulls you deeper and deeper into a world that is too weird to look at but too enticing to turn away from. Even during the quiet moments and build-up scenes, there is enough tension and uneasiness to keep the movie sailing along. When the end hits, it hits hard, and I guarantee the whole thing will stick in your mind a long time after you’ve finished watching. Of course, my guarantee means nothing. It’s not like I’m going to give you an oven mitt if you find yourself dissatisfied. I only have two oven mitts, and I need them both because one is always dirty.

The most refreshing thing about this movie is that it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. While you can place in the company or H.P. Lovecraft and Twin Peaks, it’s still quite different in many ways. It’s a movie that knows how to lull you into a sense of security, then spring untold amounts of indescribably freakiness ‘pon you. I love a movie that keeps me guessing and thinking, and Uzumaki delivers on a cerebral level, at least for a dolt like me. Uzumaki is a film for people who like to be messed with, who like to be unnerved, who like to get depressed and disturbed by a film out of nowhere, days or weeks after they’ve seen it. You’re sitting there, thinking happy thoughts, and all of a sudden you start thinking about the gruesome “slide show of death” that helps close the movie, and all of a sudden you just feel creeped out. It’s the sort of movie that will be appreciated by people who also appreciate sinister carnival midways and those ringmasters who speak of black things and always seem to have midget henchmen dressed as Aladdin walking behind them playing the squeezebox. It’s a movie for people who just simply delight in the torment of sheer weirdness and surrealistic horror.

feat

Band of the Hand

bh

Of all the television shows that have come and gone, few had the personal fashion impact of Miami Vice. Its influence was unmatched up until the day all those girls started getting the “Friends haircut.” While I may like to labor under the delusion that I’ve always been a wildly diverse, counter-culture fringe dweller for all my life and started fighting The Man the minutes I was cut out of my mother’s belly (or even before, since I insisted The Man drag me into his world by force), the sad fact of the matter is that in seventh grade, I was still a year away from my revelation. Though hardly a “business as usual” kind of kid, Lord knows I owned a few audaciously colored Polo shirts, a pair of Duck Head khakis, and a pair of those weird tan, soft leather Bass shoes. Not the boat shoes, but those other ones. At least I wasn’t one of the guys who wore Tretorns. I owned a copy of Thriller, and yes, I owned a Miami Vice soundtrack cassette. So sue me. It was the 1980s, and it wouldn’t be until a year later that I would discover skateboarding and begin my evolution.

When reviewing Sword and the Sorcerer, I remarked on the hesitation I feel any time I chose to revisit things from my past, especially from the period of my past falling roughly between 1982 to 1985, a period in which I knew all the words to “Easy Lover.” What disturbs me even more, as eBay makes revisiting my favorite films of that era an easy to afford reality, is that I keep discovering that I still like those movies. By all accounts, The Beastmaster and Gymkata should not be good movies once you cross the threshold into adulthood, doubly so for an adult who spent much of his college career writing papers on “the influence of expressionism in early German silent films” or “the influence of World War One on cinematic art design, 1919-1936.” After watching and dissecting films consider by popular consensus to be among the very best ever made, I should not be sitting down with giddy anticipation to watch The Perils of Pauline, having gained nary an ounce of sophistication since the day I first watched it at a friend’s house on cable television decades ago.

Yet here I sit, constructing a website about the world of film in which Citizen Kane is little more than the punch line to a variety of jokes, where religiously-themed masterpiece movies like Beckett are known but Devil Nuns of Monza is more likely to be given an in-depth analysis.

Michael Mann, the producer who gave the world Miami Vice and helped rocket Phillip Michael Thomas into a lucrative career as a phone psychic spokesman, has come a long way since the days when the interior of police stations were all done up in neon, Edward James Olmos was a police chief with ninja training, and Don Johnson was looking for a heartbeat. Since those days, he’s given the world the critically acclaimed feature films Manhunter (the first movie to introduce the world to the character of Hannibal Lecter), and Heat starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and a weird but unmentioned bulbous knob on Val Kilmer’s elbow. In 2001, Mann shook things up again with a highly anticipated biopic about Muhammad Ali with the controversial casting of Will Smith as Kentucky’s own and Mario Van Peebles as Malcom X.

So it is with no great surprise that we’ll be ignoring completely the respectable body of work Mann has given us in the past ten or fifteen years, and concentrating instead on the 1986 film Band of the Hand. Produced by Mann and directed by former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser (also a Miami Vice alumnus, though unlike Mann, he actually got less credible as his career progressed – if you call Kazaam progress), everything about Band of the Hand screams outdated 1980s chic. From the “cool” clothes to the frequent pink and blue neon, there’s certainly no mistaking the era in which this movie was produced. With all that dating going against it, not to mention the inevitable fate of being dismissed as “cheesy” by any feeble-minded simp who can’t get a grip on anything older than The Matrix, I was shocked upon viewing this film some fifteen years after I first thought it was pretty cool to find that it’s actually still pretty cool.

Not that it’s a forgotten classic or anything. There’s no real crime being committed by the bulk of humanity for not remembering this movie was ever made, but it’s still pretty fun, if not more than a little outlandish in its premise. We begin with a series of juvenile delinquents being rounded up for various crimes. To be honest, some of these juveniles look pretty old. I mean, is “international coke trafficker in a slick pastel blazer and sportscar” really something juvenile delinquents do? I figure, you know, knifing someone or stealing porno mags is what juvenile delinquents do, not setting up vast international drug rings. But that’s just what Ruben seems to be doing. He’s on the fast-track to success as a Cuban drug dealer until he gets busted.

Then there’s Moss and Carlos, the leaders of rival black and Puerto Rican street gangs. They get nabbed when a rumble between their respective posses turns into an all-out riot. Generic “pretty boy” Dorsey gets busted trying to sell drugs. Future cross-dressing sex symbol and Hedwig and the Angry Inch director/star John Cameron Mitchell rounds out our band of misfits as JL, a disturbed young punk rocker in the truest 1980s movie sense of the word, meaning they slap spikey orange hair, a pair of Oakleys, and some neon colored paint-splattered clothes on him. He gets arrested when he catches his abusive stepfather beating the shit out of his mom and decides that the old man deserves a little fatal justice for his actions.

But a funny thing happens on the way to jail.

Our five young trouble makers find themselves dropped off not at juvie, but instead in the middle of the swampy Everglades. The only other person around is a gruff dude named Joe who showcases early 1980s “mercenary” fashion by wearing nothing but black tank tops, black cargo pants tucked into his combat boots, and of course, accessorizing with the black bandana tied around his head. Joe informs them that he is about to use up the greater portion of the film’s “suspension of disbelief” allotment. The five rakehells have been drafted into a special rehabilitation program in which they are dropped into the middle of the swamp and forced to fend for themselves while Joe dispenses half-baked zen warrior wisdom, thus teaching them all the value of self-respect and team work, which will eventually prepare them to return to the means streets of Miami where they will defend the locals from a young Laurence Fishburne as a pimp and Ruben’s old drug kingpin boss.

Okay, sure.

There are, of course a couple problems with the plot. First of all, I don’t think, even in the Reagan era, you were allowed to shanghai young criminals and drop them in the swamp with Billy Jack. Sure, you could put a telephone book on their chest and hit it with a hammer, but dropping them in the swamp to eat bugs and slog through the murky, snake- and gator-invested waters of south Florida’s beautiful ecosystem was right out. Luckily, none of these guys seems to have any family, at least not any family that objects to their ne’r-do-well offspring being sent to the swamp to build bivouacs.

The second problem is that Joe doesn’t really seem to teach them very much, and their revelation about the value of sticking together and becoming friends is rushed through with very little development. I’m guessing they were out in the swamp for weeks, but the way the film is put together, it feels like a couple days. It becomes obvious very early on that the film treasures style over substance – not surprising with Michael Mann in the producer’s seat. The end result, also not surprising given Mann and Glaser were both primarily television guys at this point, is a movie that feels like a television show. Each of the boys plays a stereotyped character – -the two gang leaders, the suave drug dealer, the dumb pretty boy, and the quiet crazy guy, all of whom eventually discover the value of good. The story relies on you being familiar with those archetypes (and honestly, who isn’t at this point?), and never really does much to develop the characters beyond that.

Ruben is the one exception to the rule, as he’s the only character the movie spends any real time on. After he and the gang – the Band, if you will – successfully complete their program of Joe going off to eat hot wings while they wallow in the muck, Ruben’s first instinct is to bail on the ghetto squat they adopt as their home and headquarters and return to his posh life and position of power. Part of his motivation is his girlfriend, Nikki, played by a young Lauren Holly. She’s still caught up in “the life,” though she’s starting to fear for hers. When Ruben’s old boss declares war on “that bunch of young punks” who are cleaning up his most profitable ghetto, Ruben has to chose between the high life or street war alongside his new friends. Which way he goes is no big surprise, of course.

What is a big surprise, especially for a movie like this, is how good most of the young actors are. John Cameron Mitchell was years away from becoming a counter-culture darling, but he brings a quiet and believable intensity to the character of JL and actually softens the “smart, crazy dude” stereotype by playing it a little more subtle where most people would have hooted and hollered way over the top. The late Michael Carmine does a great job as Ruben, and the rest of the cast performs with workhorse-like competency within the limited roles assigned to them. Carlos is protrayed by Anthony Quinn’s son, though from the looks of him, he could just as easily be related to Antonio Sabata, Sr. James Remar, known in b-movie fandom as one of the greatest sleazy villains of all time (or alternately as “that guy who reminds me of Willem Dafoe”), turns in exactly the performance you expect: delightfulyl slimy. Lawrence Fishburne is mostly there to tool around in a pimpmobile and do that thing where you talk big and threaten some dude with a gun, then that guy disarms you in the blink of an eye and kicks your ass.

Where the movie fails the talents of the cast is in the writing, which as I said, suffers from shallowness and a certain degree of far-fetchedness, if there is such a word. It was the 1980s, though, and if Arnold could walk slowly across a lawn while three dozen guys with M-16s fail to shoot him, then a quintet of wacky young punks can train in the swamp to fight Miami drug dealers. At nearly two hours, though, they should have had time to do more with characters other than Ruben. Instead, it’s up to us to fill in the blanks. Joe spouts off idiotic “way of the peaceful warrior” philosophies that we have to accept as profound and deep because the movie calls for it. He’s wise, or so we’re told, but in reality, his wisdom comes off like the dime-store nonsense your finer high school football coaches spout off.

The scenario itself is rushed and undeveloped as well. It’s like we’re watching them bicker and fight with one another, then in the next scene there should be a bit of text saying, “And they fought long into the night, but by dawn, had learned to respect one another.” There’s no real sense of character development from the guys. We’re asked to simply accept at face value that somewhere out there in the swamp, they discover their humanity.

Where the first half of the film is a so-so Dirty Dozen type “misfits train to be the best of the best” type film, the second half sees the movie dive into a 1980s interpretation of all those “let’s clean up the ghetto” type films from the 1970s, with Joe being a link to the many “vets clean up the ghetto” type movies that became popular in the 1980s. You know the ones. A Vietnam vet returns to “The World” only to discover that the madness of war is nothing compared to the madness that has seized the streets of America. Where as the cats in the 1970s generally fought back with kungfu and various wacky schemes, in the Reagan Era, they decided to dispense with the shenanigans and simply start blowing people away and shooting them with flamethrowers.

The action is poured on pretty heavily in the second half of the film, and while it’s certainly not on par with what was going on in Hong Kong at the time, there were certainly worse atrocities committed in the name of American action choreography, many of them conveniently located in Ninja III: The Domination. With Mann’s guiding hand, and no neophyte to the world of action himself, Glaser directs the action sequences with style, energy, and a quick pace. The finale sees the Band unite to take out a major drug manufacturing plant in South Florida, disappointing hundreds if not thousands of Bret Easton Ellis characters and fans alike.

Stylewise, the movie is Miami Vice. Mann spared no Vice idiosyncrasy or element in this big-screen adaptation of his pastel, neon-drenched Miami. Had it been legally possible, they could have actually set this movie in the Miami Vice universe as a spin-off with Crockett and Tubbs cameos. No such cross-over, however, though the film looks exactly like its small-screen counterpart. Everyone dresses like a rock star. Everyone has cool cars. And of course, every light in Miami is neon pink. That last one actually isn’t so far from the truth. While it would have been nice to see Mann and Glaser concoct something a little different, you can’t really blame them for drawing from the Miami Vice well. That sort of style is inevitable for Mann. Even Heat, produced years later and set in Miami’s kindred spirit of a city, Los Angeles, still has certain scenes that are heavy on the Vice style. I wonder if Mann will apply the same glowing pink neon to the seedy world of boxing in Ali.

While the style of the film certainly dates it as a product of the 1980s, it doesn’t torpedo the film the way you might think. This could be because everyone these days apes John Woo, and some of Woo’s films, while certainly not mimicking Miami Vice possess that same “ultra suave” sense of style. Thus the Band of the Hand fashion isn’t as outlandish now as it probably should be.

The direction itself is solid if unspectacular. Like the plot, the direction relies primarily on the popularity of the Miami Vice sheen to carry the film, rising to the task only when the action scenes erupt and everyone starts jumping around with uzis, the gun of choice in pretty much every 1980s urban action film. Glaser keeps a solid pace throughout the film, even during the requisite dramatics between Ruben and Nikki. Plus, this sort of film always gets away with a false sense of tension since you know at least one character is going to die. As long as they aren’t all total jackasses, you’ll at least care somewhat about who it is. Once again, the charisma of the individual actors outshines the limitations of the script, making it easier to become more emotionally invested in everyone than the writing deserves. Not that we’re on the same level of Jimmy Cagney or Chow Yun-fat here, but considering the bulk of the characters populating the action films of the 1980s, the Band is certainly worth more of your time than the collected characters of Michael Dudikoff.

Music is important to the movie as well, and if you know a thing or two about Michael Mann, you know that he was one of the first people to really emphasize rock (or what passed for rock at the time), and if nothing else, he was very good at it. In fact, he’s better at using music to convey mood and emotion than the script is. While I won’t be searching eBay for copies of the Band of the Hand LP or cassette (CD? Whatever. Those things will never catch on), within the context of the film, it works remarkably well, though it also makes it feel even more like a Miami Vice spin-off than before.

So yeah, it’s not a great film, but it also doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as off-handedly as some people do. I regard any criticism that can’t get beyond, “Dude, it was so cheesy” and thus disregarding a film simply because it was made in a time and fashion period different from their own. I don’t think I give Band of the Hand the benefit of the doubt simply because it came from the 1980s, a time when I was, you know, discovering girls and growing hair on parts of my body where there hadn’t been any hair before (like the soles of my feet and my tongue). That’s not valid because, frankly, I hate the 1980s. Not as much as I hate the disco era, but if you want to get a groan out of me, simply force me to endure any number of “Retro Eighties” forms of entertainment. So it’s not like I have a soft spot for things that are distinctly 1980s.

What it boils down to, then, is the simple fact that I don’t think Band of the Hand is a particularly bad movie. Sure, it has some pretty obvious flaws, and in the end, it’s pretty silly. In the end, however, it does for Michael Mann what The Last Dragon did for Barry Gordy. Actually, “not much” would be what it did for them. But both, in my opinion, manage to rise above their obvious short-comings and deliver movies that are, if not perfect, at least fun. Compared to most of the action films from the 1980s, Band of the Hand is a damn work of art, but removed from those low standards, it remains a decent if not entirely successful action film with a goofy moral, lots of energy, and style to spare. I went into it expecting to laugh, and I discovered that despite the 1980s trappings, it was still an alright b-grade action film. It may not be The Killer, but at least it isn’t Panther Squad.

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Redneck Revenge

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Sorry about the lack of screencaps. I owned this years ago on VHS, and the tape was a victim of a particularly hungry VCR. In reflection, it may be that the VCR was only trying to protect me.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: in my opinion, when you call your movie Redneck Revenge, you’re establishing very high expectations. Your movie should have rednecks, and it should have some revenge, and with such a title communicating both low-brow sleaze and violence, you should also have some nudity and probably some car chases where a cop car flips over or jumps through the open doors of a box car on a moving freight train. You know, cool Southern stuff. And let’s face it — we’re talking in relative terms here. It’s not that hard to make a passable hicksploitation film. You churn out a script revolving around either a lone lawman fighting small town corruption or an ex-con who is trying to resist returning to a life of crime, yet gets pressured into breaking the law by small town corruption. You have a fat sheriff in mirrorshades, and you have gals in short cut-offs. You have ample use of the word “boy” aimed at adults. And you have shitloads of fightin’, shootin’, drinkin’, and drivin’ — sometimes all done at the same time. An untrained chimp could probably crap out a hicksploitation film that I would be happy with so long as it contained these key elements in some loosely assembled fashion. Alas that Redneck Revenge was not made by a collective of untrained chimps.

The action, if you want to amuse yourself by using that term, begins with a small-town sheriff on a drug bust. I could make fun of the sheriff, but truth be told, he’s one of those Joe Don Baker model of guys who could no doubt kick my ass up one bank of the Mississippi and down the other. The sheriff’s name is Rick Montana, which is a pretty good hicksploitation film name. Montana is a good first or last name for anyone in the South, much like Cody, Scout, or Skyler. Rick is hiding in the bushes while his undercover man makes a cocaine deal. Of course the bad guys, what with the fact that they are bad guys and all, kill the undercover guy rather than pay him. It’s not that they wanted to kill a cop; they would have shot him even if he was a fellow criminal because the first rule of action films is that no transaction between criminals happens without one group double-crossing the other.

As the deal turns fatal, DEA agents and the state police swarm out of their hiding places. Actually, no, it’s just Rick, who apparently thought he could bust up a huge drug smuggling ring with just him and his buddy. I guess his thinking was not entirely off base, as all evidence points to these drug dealers being pretty crummy at their job. Sure they have a briefcase full of cocaine, but man alive do they ever drive a piece of junk car. It’s like buying coke from Roy Clark. Anyway, Rick comes lumbering down out of the hills with shotgun a-blazin’, and despite the fact that he’s shooting people at more or less point blank range, there is no blood. There is no force of impact. There is no shotgun wound, or any sort of wound at all.

Now believe me, I understand the hassle of pulling off gunshots in a low budget or no budget film. You have to get permits, you have to pay fees, and you have to get blanks, a special effects guy who can do squibs, et cetera et cetera. It can be a hassle, and rigging your own squibs is not as easy as one might think. You can’t just tie a firecracker to a condom filled with fake blood and hope for the best. That’s a lesson I learned first-hand. So what you do, if you have any respect at all for what you are attempting to make, is you work around it. You don’t show the shotgun go off. You don’t show the bullet wound until after the fact, when all you have to do is poke a hole in someone’s shirt. It’s not difficult at all to dance around the fact that you don’t have blanks or explosive squibs. This movie decides instead to have a guy running out of the woods firing a shotgun with no kickback and no smoke that kills people without actually causing any physical damage to their bodies. I suppose it could be some new experimental weapon, or maybe Rick is supposed to be something of an idiot, and he really is just running out after people with an empty gun. After all, the people he “kills” can be seen clearly taking big, heaving breaths after their so-called deaths. It could be that they were just like, “Oh Jesus, this guy again? Okay, when he makes the gun noise, just pretend to die, and then he’ll go away.”

After killing the drug dealers, he kneels for the touching scene next to his fallen comrade, whom he then leaves lying out in the field along with the two dead drug dealers and several kilos of cocaine. I may not be a law enforcement specialist, but I watched a lot of episodes of TJ Hooker (well, one episode, which is probably more than most of you) when I was younger, and I’m pretty certain there are guidelines for drug busts and homicides, like you report the whole incident and don’t leave all the bodies and drugs lying in a field where some young backwoods kid can take his friends on an adventure by uttering the line “You guys wanna see a dead body?” I’m pretty sure that even if you are a big Southern sheriff in a tank top who refuses to call the DEA or any back-up at all in on a coke bust, you still have to do stuff afterwards with all the corpses and evidence.

But Rick will have none of that. While his narration rambles on in a quality so fuzzy you can’t make out anything but “Seems like everyone close to me ends up dead,” Rick just leaves everything lying, hops in a nearby muscle car, and drives off into the sunset. So we’re not off to a smashing start, but at the same time, the movie hasn’t done anything too terribly unforgivable. I mean, smokeless shotguns that leave no bullet wounds in the still-breathing dead are signs of sloppy film making, but there’s a certain charm to them as well.

We then skip forward, and presumably to another town, where a big fat guy who looks like Wilford Brimley pulls up on a fancy-pants three-wheeled motorcycle, or trike if you are a trike fan or a five-year-old. It looks like something a Shriner might drive around during a homecoming parade. A local youth is mightily impressed with the trike however, and as the fat guy, named Red, slides gracefully off his iron steed, the youth takes to polishing the same three or four parts over and over. They have some sort of conversation, but apparently the audio was looped in at a later date after being recorded beneath a highway overpass as a tornado blew through. As Red saunters off, another fat guy pulls up in a car and immediately begins to admire the trike as well. This second fat guy, different from the first in that he doesn’t have a thick droopy mustache, is the local town boss. He sure does like that trike.

Now, okay, let’s review. Lone lawman, check. Fat small town boss, check. Shotguns and muscle cars, check. So they had all the ingredients. They just didn’t know what to do with them. The shotgun doesn’t actually shoot, and the corrupt boss drives an Acura. What the hell kind of small Southern boss drives an Acura or Saturn or whatever the hell it was? I mean, Sheriff Rick may be sorta bad at drug busts, but at least he drives a muscle car. Bosses are supposed to drive those stretch caddies with steer horns on the hood, even if they aren’t in Texas. Or a cool truck. Or something, anything, other than an Acura. Remember Isaac Hayes in Escape From New York as the Duke? He drove around a big long Caddy with chandeliers for headlights. You knew he was the shit. Now, how much different would his first scene be if, instead of a long Caddy with chandelier headlights, he had stepped out of a Dodge Neon?

The boss says something, but since the audio has been recorded through a broken mic wrapped in a very thick wet towel, I’ll de damned if I could make out a word of it. I’m guessing he was telling the rag boy how much he liked the trike and how he would like to steal it or something. The boss then waddles over to Red’s bar and tries to muscle the trike out of his possession. You may be thinking that a fruity looking custom trike may not be that cool an impetus for violence, and you’d be right. It’s not like the boss is fighting to buy some land so he can tear down a youth center and build a casino. He wants a trike. If he’s the boss of the town, why doesn’t he just go down to the shop and order one? If he had watched this movie, he would have seen that the end credits display the shop’s address for a good five minutes, so it’s not like he couldn’t find the place.

I guess even the boss felt like the whole trike thing was pretty lame, so he also throws in that he wants to muscle Red out of ownership of this shitty bar in the middle of nowhere that about four people go to. It’s sort of like if two people went to war over the ownership of a Hardees franchise. When the boss’s goons try to rough ol’ Red up, it attracts the attention of Rick, who had been sitting down at the end of the bar looking sort of like a disturbing cross between Jerry Lawler, John Ritter, and that guy Al from Home Improvement. Rick doesn’t take too kindly to these yokels hassling Red, so he decks them in the lamest barroom brawl you’re likely to see. One of the guys has got to be lugging around over three hundred pounds, not an ounce of it muscle.

Red’s assailants thus vanquished, Rick takes time out to please us all with an acoustic musical interlude — he kicks ass AND plays acoustic guitar for the ladies afterwards! That’s a modern sort of hero. While a couple of the local barmaids sit and half listen to his crooning, Rick goes through an entire. They go through the whole song! And it sounds like they recorded it on a Fischer Price tape deck. This sort of movie is made by calling on friends and local businessmen who want to get their wares put on screen for a few minutes in exchange for some goods or services. Apparently none of the people involved knew anyone from a local radio station, or even a high schooler who had mastered the art of operating a tape recorder.

While Rick woos the lasses with his velvet voice and guitar picking, the gang of fat guys convene to mumble about teaching everyone a lesson. I gotta tell you, even though one of them looks a lot like Big Van Vader, this is a pretty sad gang. What is this guy the boss of anyway? If his dream in life is to own a trike and a shithole of a bar, he can’t be a very powerful boss. This is like watching the VFW guys try to take over a town, except that those guys, even though they could all be in their eighties, could still kick a little ass better than this bunch of yahoos.

And then we’re back to Rick, who is singing another song! Geez! Only a minute in between acoustic guitar interludes??? Isn’t that against the law? What the hell did I rent here? Redneck Revenge or Joan Baez and Friends Honor John Denver? At least this number was interrupted by a Freddie Prinze Sr. look-alike, who comes to threaten Rick some more. Since Rick just kicked all their asses when they attacked him at once, kicking one guy’s ass isn’t that big a deal, though I wish I could say he issued an ass kicking. Instead, he just sort of grabs the guy and maybe pushes him around a little until the guy falls down and runs off. To be fair, it looks like most of the real-life fights I’ve ever seen.

The boss decides he can catch more flies with honey than he can with an out of shape Mexican and a fat guy. He catches up with Rick while the heroic one is hopping into his muscle car. Every time they show the muscle car, surf guitar music plays, which is a pretty cool feature of the car. The boss apologizes for the initial bad impression and invites Rick over to his vast estate for a party. Rick, not wanting to miss out on free booze and chicks, agrees. He must have been mightily disappointed. Look, every evil guy has to have an estate and a pool with lots of random sexy women cavorting around it, preferably topless. How many movie bad guys have you seen in this set-up, usually as they sit in a lounge chair, wearing sunglasses and a terrycloth robe, talking on a cell phone? Every lame action movie has this scene in order to communicate the wealth, power, and decadence of the master criminal.

The big problem here is that this boss’s decadent orgy looks like a Fourth of July pool party. He has a modest suburban home and a refreshing stock of mildly attractive to Plain Jane gals populating his pool. None of them are topless. What the hell? How did this guy get a gang, even one as lame as what he has? I mean, Spankie from the Little Rascals was a more imposing and better connected gang leader than this loser. Come on, wood paneling may give your living room a cozy feel, but it’s not the sort of interior decor a ruthless crime lord goes in for. This guy seems only slightly better off, if any at all, than everyone else in the movie. Who are these women in the pool lazily tossing a ball around? And why do they hang out at this fat old guy’s pool party when it’s obvious he wields no authority or power whatsoever and isn’t even slightly rich? Why does he command a gang of goons and bikini clad lasses he apparently picked up down at the local temp secretary office?

Okay, so this boss has Rick over for the pool party, and they hang out for a while, and then what does he do to seal his possession of Rick’s soul? Offer him a room full of naked women who will attend to his every desire? Offer him wealth, power, political influence, or free rides on the trike? No, he invites Rick into the basement to watch crappy movies. This may be an okay thing for me to do on slow Saturday nights with a few friends, but I’m not trying to win over a righteous sheriff and get him to help me bump off some other old fat guy so I can have his bar and bike. And of all the movies they pick to watch, they watch one called Blood Bath, apparently about Tommy Smothers hunting a serial killer. This all happens because — the bg reveal — this fat boss is played by exploitation film impresario David F. Friedman, and lord knows that man has a basement full of movies.

We then get to watch several minutes of this completely different movie distributed by Something Weird Video. At first I thought someone had recorded over part of Redneck Revenge with a bunch of advertisements. I mean, it goes on for several minutes, but then they cut back to the fat guy laughing. I guess this is part of the movie. Let’s lay something on the line right now — Redneck Revenge is barely an hour long. At least seven of those minutes go to Rick singing songs. A good few minutes more go to playing scenes from a completely different movie of similar American Wrestling Association quality production values. Later on, we’ll have pointless minutes devoted to Rick farting around in an ultralight (one of those little flying lawn mower deals) and looking at an elephant. If your movie is only an hour long, then half the total running time should not be filler, especially filler from other movies full of filler. How the hell hard is it to just rip off Walking Tall? I mean, the movie’s already been made. All you gotta do is cheapen it up a bit, get worse actors, and presto! You have Walking Tall II.

Anyway, after a few minutes of that, it’s back to the pool party, where the women are still tossing around the beach ball and possibly popping Valium based on the level of excitement they communicate. And then it’s back inside and suddenly we — I mean they — are watching Something Weird nudie loops. I’ll tell you what — if this is the only nudity in the whole movie, I’m gonna be mightily pissed. After tempting Rick with this small collection of select titles from the Something Weird catalog, the fat boss figures he’s got our man in the palm of his hand. He heads out to make a deal with the Red: bet the bike and the bar (I think) in the local tough man contest. If Red can’t find a man who can win the tournament, he’ll lose it all. If he wins, well then, he doesn’t seem to get anything. Pretty damn stupid bet if you ask me, but then, I’m not a betting man.

Needless to say, Rick steps up to the plate, even displaying his boxing prowess by breaking a pool cue against the table, which I’m sure Red really appreciated. He only has three customers, and now one of them is always smashing things. The boss is understandably angry, having thought that sitting in the basement watching boring movies with fully clothed women who didn’t put out had been more than enough to entice Rick to join the dark side. Rick then switches into an “Anabolic Activator” sweatshirt, cut off 80s style to communicate his recent acquisition of the eye of the tiger. He goes around watching stock footage of local tough man competitions for more padding. Frequent cuts to reaction from the people in this movie help reassure us that this is all part of the plot and not just some cable access thing someone accidentally recorded over the movie. This goes on for a while.

32 minutes in, and we finally get a rebel flag. How the hell can you make a movie called Redneck Revenge and let half a stinkin’ hour pass without a single rebel flag? Sorry, the one in the opening credits is a cheap shot, and I don’t count that.

Determined to make sure Rick doesn’t make it to the fateful tough man competition, the fat gang (not to be confused with the elusive and mysterious Gang of Fatty) sets up a cunning trap. Rick walks into an ambush, or purposely drives there, and gets his ass kicked in a very boring fashion. Then they drag him around behind the truck, because you always have to drag someone behind a truck in these movies. Luckily, they put a thick jacket on him and only drive across grass at very slow speeds. Don’t the dozens of cars passing nearby on the road notice this? And for that matter, hasn’t anyone thought of, you know, calling the cops? It’s obvious that this boss is not one of those bosses who has the mayor and the chief of police in his pocket. I mean, this guy can’t even put the squeeze on some old fart named Red. If this guy is lucky, maybe he can bully around the local newsie, but even that will only last until the newsie goes to high school or starts drinking Met-Rx. This boss has no local power whatsoever, so why don’t they just call the cops on him and his worthless bunch of goons?

Anyway, I guess that doesn’t matter. The boss shows up and says he doesn’t want Rick to not be able to enter the contest. Why not? The bet was that Red couldn’t find a guy who could win, so if Rick can’t compete, well then there you go. Whatever the case, they leave Rick lying in the field. In a better generic action film, this is the part where a Shaolin monk or crazy feral girl is supposed to discover the beaten hero and nurse him back to health, after which he can start training for revenge. Instead, it’s fat Red on his chopper trike, and they head off to the bar to get cleaned up. Don’t these guys have homes? And how the heck did Red know Rick was lying unconscious in a vacant lot? Oh yeah, probably because the whole thing took place a few feet from a major road.

Anyway, I don’t know about you, but all the action up to this point has me drained! Why don’t we take a break from the non-stop thrills of Rick sitting poolside and turn our attentions to the wacky zany county fair! The arrival of the fair is announced by stock circus music. You know, a wise man once said that “Circus music ain’t nothing but music you play at a circus,” and I’d be hard-pressed to argue with him. This is the lamest county fair ever. I’ve been to a lot of county fairs. I’ve bee to county fairs in Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, and even stopped at random ones as I stumbled across them driving through Georgia and Tennessee. I know my Southern county fairs, and let me tell you this one will make you wish it was as good as those mini-fairs that set up for a few days in the K-Mart parking lot.

This is where the tough man competition is being held. Scenes of tough man action are intercut with interesting shots establishing the festive atmosphere of the fair — a haunting juxtaposition of the fun of a fair with the dire situation Rick is in. Okay, not really. Mostly it’s scintillating action-packed shots of funnel cakes being made. Now I like a good funnel cake. I even like a bad one, but I don’t necessarily want to rent a video of them being made. Then it’s back to the contest, where they do the thing where the big guy holds the little guy back by the forehead, and the little guy swings wildly, his every blow falling woefully short of its target. I know my uncle used to do this to me, but is it really a viable defensive move in a no holds barred, bare knuckle street fight? For that matter, the “Indian wrist burn” my uncle generally followed up with looks to be more powerful than any of the offense we see on display in this parade of small town machismo.

After a little of that, as if the film didn’t already have enough filler, we get random shot of Rick petting an elephant. Just because he’s been kidnapped, beaten, and dragged slowly behind a truck doesn’t mean Rick can’t appreciate exotic animals. And then it’s back to the fight. Aren’t people supposed to wear athletic gear? I mean, even in a small town affair such as this, shouldn’t the guys show up wearing something other than their work clothes? I don’t know — a pair of old gym shorts, some sweat pants, something like that? And now that I think about it, what happens if neither Rick nor one of the boss’s goons wins the tournament? Surely in a small rural Alabama town, there must be at least one hell-raising young ass-kicker who can wipe the floor with everyone else. And why is this whole sequence set to 1980s generic breakdance music? What the hell is Southern or rednecky about that? Were they too damn cheap to spring for some stock banjo music?

More elephant footage then, set to drunken kooky music. Isn’t this Rick guy supposed to be fighting or something? For a bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred competition populated by the local fat boss’ thugs, he’s yet to get so much as a scratch or bruise, and he apparently has plenty of time and energy for traipsing about the midway in between matches, spending his time stroking elephants and watching a family of acrobats. With the first day of vicious fighting over, the thugs proclaim that it is time to take the kid gloves off. Shouldn’t they have done that to begin with? What was the benefit of having the kid gloves on in the first place? And once again, isn’t this a lot of trouble to go through for a trike?

To prove they mean business, the fat boss’s thugs show up and hang Rick’s little brother, or buddy, who possesses an unsettling resemblance to Roger Clinton. Okay, now I have to ask one more time — aren’t there any cops in this town? This fat guy isn’t so rich that he could have bribed the whole place, or even one person. Hell, his television was a 15-inch Magnavox. Isn’t Rick a cop? Or at least an ex cop? Wouldn’t it occur to him that maybe he could seek assistance from the local constabulary? And isn’t this a pretty serious, rapid escalation in the type of crime they are willing to commit?

To cement their evilness, the thugs kidnap the girl Rick had been scamming on with the acoustic guitar approach. You know, just in case killing his little brother wasn’t enough. Why would they kill him and only kidnap her? Naturally, they say if he ever wants to see her alive again, he’ll lose the fight. So okay, we have extortion, assault and battery, murder, and now kidnapping. I’m still thinking a call to the cops might be in order, but then, I’m no Rick Montana. Angry at hearing this threat, Rick disregards that whole thing about not killing messengers and snaps the neck of the guy who delivered the threat. Isn’t that, you know, illegal? I mean, the guy wasn’t even armed. He didn’t even take a swing at Rick. I know Rick’s pissed about his brother, but breaking someone’s neck when you don’t even know if they were involved in the murder isn’t the most heroic thing in the world, even if the guy looks sort of like a woodchuck.

Rick determines that the best course of action is to fly around in an ultralight for a spell. An ultralight is a very small aircraft, generally single person, that looks like a flying go-cart. You don’t need a pilot’s license, and they are fairly cool, I will admit. But what the hell? It’s not like you can sneak up on someone in one of those things, especially if it has a giant neon green sail. They aren’t very fast, but they are very loud. What the heck is this supposed to accomplish other than to show off the fact that one of Rick Montana’s friend’s owns an ultralight? Well, I guess he does land it about fifteen feet away from where he took off, so maybe he was just blowing off some steam. He might have given one of those, “You know, when I’m up here, all the problems of the world seem a million miles away” speeches, but since the audio throughout the whole movie was recorded via an intricate network of cardboard paper towel tubes, I can’t be sure if anything was said at all.

So Rick sits and waits for the bad guys to stop by with the girl, and then he kicks some ass and rescues her. Does he use a gun on these possibly armed assailants who have already murdered his little brother? Hell no, that ain’t the Southern way. Oh wait, yes it is. Anyway, Rick opts to open a can of whoop-ass pro wrestling style, and takes on the thugs with a folding metal chair. This scene, incidentally, like just about every other scene in the movie, takes place either in a construction site or a car port. It’s difficult to tell which, but apparently this entire town is made of car ports and construction sites.

Meanwhile, the fat boss is back hassling Red again. Why do they keep letting him into the bar? Rick shows up to clean a little house, this time sporting a wrestling belt. Oh wait, it’s from the tough man competition. I guess he won. Finally, some cops show up with Rick and arrest the boss. Shouldn’t they be upset about the dude with the broken neck? And shouldn’t they mention that maybe Rick should have called them before the kidnapping and murder? Speaking of which, for a guy whose little brother was murdered the day before, Rick is in a pretty jovial mood. He even feels like singing! Oh no, wait, instead he just drinks. Oh no, he is singing after all, performing rousing country western numbers with a band called The Tres Hombres,which features four members. I guess one guy isn’t an hombre. So in exchange for the life of his little brother, Rick helped a stranger maintain possession of a goofy looking custom trike. The movie closes with some break dancing music. Where the hell did that come from?

Since I always like to accentuate the positive of even a very bad movie, allow me to state the two positive aspects of Redneck Revenge. First, Lori Gretchen, who appears for a few seconds as a random girl in the pool party scene, is cute. Second, the movie is only an hour long. Somehow, these are hardly worth the investment of time, but at least I didn’t trade the life of a loved one.

To top things off, Big Ray’s Custom Trike gets a credit, complete with address and multiple angles of the famous trike as featured in the smash hit Redneck Revenge. It goes on for a spell. So what you have here is not a movie at all. It’s a very long commercial for Big Ray’s and to a lesser extent, Something Weird Video. Normally, I’m a huge fan of Something Weird, but I’ll never forgive them for this. As far as locally produced commercials go, this was pretty good. It was even better than the old Gainesville Steven A. Bagan, attorney at law commercials where the little slobbering kid waggles his finger at the camera and drools out the line, “Wemembull! Safety foist!” It was not, however, better than the collective commercial works of Louisville’s “Smilin’ Irishman” used car lot commercials.

As far as movies go, even hour-long shot-on-video movies made for less than the price of a meal at Denny’s, this thing stinks. Almost all of it is filler. You can’t hear a single word that’s being said. There’s violence but not interesting violence, no nudity except in those strip loops they watch, and every character is goofy beyond belief. The script couldn’t have been worse if it had been written by very small mollusks. All this over a trike? A local boss criminal who has no power yet can still go around killing Roger Clinton without anyone getting upset? Okay, maybe that’s believable, but what about everything else? There is little at all of merit in this film unless you are really into trikes, and even then it’s probably still not worth it.

And what’s with all the goddamned circus footage? If you’re going to put a family of acrobats in your movie, at least get ones that have mastered something more than the dramatic front tumble or swinging back and forth on the trapeze. I understand the people who made this probably wanted to cram everything from their local community into the movie, but you know what? They’re community was boring. Think about how much fun you would have watching home videos of complete strangers talking about middle school football, and you have in your mind a video that will prove at least twice as interesting as this.

I want to say good things about this movie. Believe me, I do. Rick Montana is a big guy, and I don’t want to piss him off by insulting a movie that, despite what appears on the screen, was probably a lot of work. You’ll notice that, unlike other movie review websites, I rarely post negative reviews, and even my negative reviews strive to highlight the positive parts. I’m a very forgiving man. I’m especially forgiving when it comes to do-it-yourself projects. I generally feel that they deserve the support of the fringe film community because they are labors of love from people working 100% outside the mainstream. I want to like those films, because I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews. I didn’t enjoy Redneck Revenge even more (or is it less?). I hope Big Ray got a little extra business out of this, or Rick Montana got a recording deal or something, because then at least this film would have served some purpose.

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Revenge of the Ninja

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Sometimes, real life events contribute to the effectiveness of an on-screen story. A tremendous act of synchronicity results in the alignment of elements, each one falling into place so perfectly that it could never be orchestrated by anything but nature itself. Such is the case with the mini-flood of ninja movies during the 1980s, and the life of the star of most of the movies — a man named Sho Kosugi. No one had heard of Sho Kosugi, but when the ninja craze hit American shores, he suddenly stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight, bringing to our attention the secret tactics and lives of the mysterious warriors known as ninja. When the craze finally died out, Sho Kosugi vanished back into the shadows without a trace. Some said he went into hiding, pursued by an ancient sect of ninja who wanted to kill him for divulging their secrets to the world. Some say that to this very day he is kicked back and living the good life in some secret mansion alongside Bruce Lee, also in hiding from those who would seek to murder him.

Whatever the case may be, there is no denying that Sho Kosugi’s mysterious past, present, and future, contributed to the mystique of the ninja movie. And though his son, Kane, carries on the tradition established by his father of Kosugi family members starring in sub-par martial arts films (Kane has starred in shows like KakuRanger and Ultraman Powered), he does not wield the power or command the respect his father did. Sho Kosugi was a Asian bad-ass in American film when there were no Asian bad-asses. Bruce Lee had passed on and wouldn’t enjoy a revival until the 1990s. Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan were busy kicking ass over in Hong Kong, but their wild exploits were all but non-existent if you were living in America. No, the best we had over here was Chuck Norris, donning the traditional martial arts garb of a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, some rawhide vest, and of course, Chuck Norris brand karate stretch jeans, as advertised in early 1980s copies of Inside Kungfu.


When the notorious production team of Golan and Globus, who gave us many of the films we watch today on Mystery Science Theater 3000, decided they wanted to make a film about ninjas, they called upon Sho Kosugi to be the heavy. For some reason, Italian B-movie star Franco Nero was cast as the doughy hero. He’s best known for his role as Django, the cowboy who wanders the old west with a coffin in tow. That’s cool and all, but now he got to don a white ninja outfit and have a stunt double jump around. It … didn’t work. The film was Enter the Ninja, and while there are many interesting stories about it, I will save those for an actual review of Enter the Ninja. Suffice it to say that audiences were wowed by the zany ninja antics, a trend was born, and no one gave a shit about Franco Nero. They did, however, dig Sho Kosugi. So when Golan and Globus decided to milk the genre for all it was worth (but not as badly as Thomas Tang would milk it) and make another ninja film, they called on Sho Kosugi to play the lead.


This was at a time when Asian men were reduced to playing ass grabbers (Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects) and seedy criminals (Year of the Dragon). Even black heroes had fallen by the wayside. The 1980s were the era of big white heroes, and the days of Bruce Lee and Fred Williamson were gone. So it was a big deal to have Sho Kosugi storm the party and lend a non-white face to violent, heroic derring-do. Although Sho Kosugi was still fulfilling a stereotype (martial arts bad-ass), you gotta admit that’s not a bad stereotype to have. It’s better than most. And it’s cooler than the white American stereotype, which is a big dumb-ass with a gun. He fulfilled a more important role, though, that had been vacated with the death of black action films and the gentrification of kungfu films. He was a non-white hero kicking ass in a predominantly white world. It’s no wonder Sho and the ninja films were embraced so whole-heartedly. For anyone who couldn’t relate to the time-hopping exploits of Michael J. Fox or the sweaty machismo of Rambo, Sho Kosugi was all they had.


Incidentally, there are a lot of big dumb-asses with guns in this film, which was called Revenge of the Ninja. It has nothing to do with Enter the Ninja, other than having ninjas all over the damn place. During the 1980s, you could actually see more ninjas running around in broad daylight in downtown LA than you saw at night during the middle ages in Japan. In the case of Sho Kosugi, he is a former ninja (I didn’t know there were such thing — do you get a good 401k as a retired ninja?) who moves to Los Angeles to run an antique shop with his friend. What he doesn’t know is that his friend is using the antiques as a way to smuggle dope. As more and more thugs start hanging around the shop, Sho starts to catch on that something is up. In order to stop his firestorm of ninja powers, the dope smuggling gangsters kidnap Sho’s son (played by his real son, Kane). So let me get this straight — you have this ninja who you’ve pissed off. And the best thing you can come up with to make him stop hassling you is to kidnap his son? Why would you kidnap a ninja’s son? Don’t they know that will just piss him off more and make him do even more flips than ever before?


Another ninja is called in to kill Sho Kosugi after the shit hits the proverbial fan. Mobsters are getting slashed left and right as Sho seeks revenge and the other ninja just doesn’t give a shit. Big surprise when the other ninja turns out to be Sho’s friend. What was he expecting? I would imagine the society of ninjas is pretty small, even on a global scale, so you get to know all the other ninjas after a while. The finale has Sho and the other ninja storming a high-rise that has been fortified by the mobsters. They kill lots of gun-toting toadies before finally facing off on the roof. Somewhere amid it all, a police office played by Keith Vitali (Wheels on Meals) crawls around wounded in the hallway.


Despite the fact that it contains more cheese than one of those disgusting stuffed crust pizzas, I really like Revenge of the Ninja. I remember the first time I saw it. I was at my grandparent’s house for the weekend. They just got cable TV, and I was up late watching HBO, hoping to catch a glimpse of some boobies or something. Revenge of the Ninja gave me that and so much more. I was going wild, and although I didn’t go out and buy a headband that said “Ninja” on it in that jagged “oriental” typeface (whatever), I was definitely hooked on gory ninja films as much as I was on gory kungfu films. Revenge of the Ninja is tons of fun, with a tremendous body count, fountains of blood, cheap 1980s sex scenes, Kane Kosugi kicking ass on gangsters, Sho Kosugi kicking ass on gangsters, dueling ninjas, and pretty much everything else a boy could ask for. The martial arts, which are mostly sword fights, are actually pretty good. The bag o’ ninja tricks each ninja has is more fun than any of that James Bond gadgetry.

Sho Kosugi is a fun hero — the man of peace pushed too far. We don’t see too many of those these days, but they were always my favorite. These days, everyone is all to ready to duke it out and go to war, but Sho demonstrated restraint. Even when faced with physical violence against himself, he held back, partly because he didn’t want to reveal that he was a ninja (as if kicking someone’s ass would make them automatically go, “Shit, that dude must be a ninja!”), but mostly because he believed in peace. Violence was always the final, tragic solution, but when he resigned himself to it, he sure didn’t hold back! A solid 90 minutes of entertainment.