When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.
Scary movies are hard to come by. Gory? No problem. Sorta cool and creepy? Sure, we got those in spades. But genuinely scary movies are rare as diamonds and, to be, infinitely more valuable. There is something wonderfully affirming about watching a movie that keeps you awake at night, that gives you eerie nightmares. There’s something wonderful about a film that makes you afraid to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or that makes you nervous about the fact that the closet door is open just a crack. It’s a delightful rush of adrenaline and apprehension, but scary movies have almost become a thing of the past. Too often, people are simply interested in delivering (and having delivered to them) flashy special effects and “style.” Thus a scary movie like the classic The Haunting gets turned into another “dazzling feast for the eyes” that leaves the soul and the brain still hungry for more. Bring on the scare, man! I can watch any hundred films for cool special effects, but the well from which to draw truly frightening films is well nigh dried up.
And then along came Japan. Ah, Japan, my salvation! Just as Hong Kong swooped in to save me from the doldrums of 1980s American action excess (and just as Korea later swept in to save me from the same thing in Hong Kong), Japan came to my rescue in the late 1990s by staging a horror revolution. While they cranked out plenty of atrocity exhibits that got by on gore and tastelessness alone, Japanese filmmakers were also rediscovering the age-old pleasures of simply scaring people, or at least creeping them out with eerie rather than gross imagery. Thanks in part to a boom in horror related manga, but thanks primarily to the discovery of the fact that Japanese girls were really into chilling horror movies, the scare revolution began with films like Birth of the Wizard and a movie that will go down in history as one of the most effective horror films of all time, The Ring.
On the surface, there is nothing especially fancy about the movie. The plot is familiar territory that has been explored countless times by other films. The direction is, for the most part, top notch but straight-forward, showcasing none of the wild innovation or surrealism of other Japanese horror films, like Uzumaki. In fact, the direction is almost clinical, documentary fashion stuff that reminds me of George Romero’s scientific approach in many ways. The dialogue, the acting, and everything else is very good but not anything that sets new standards for quality.
So what is it, you may then be wondering, that makes The Ring so damn good? For starters, it uses its simplicity to great advantage. While some writers pile half-baked subplots and digressions on top of each others like the angry and sullen clambering over one another in the muck of the fifth ring of Hell, in an attempt to give their stories some false sense of depth or importance, Takahashi Hiroshi’s screenplay (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki) keeps the story fairly straight-forward, which ultimately makes the twists and shocks that much more startling. Sometimes, as I’ve maintained before, the simplest things are the best things, and there’s no need to mask yourself with dishonest complexities when the straight-forward, honest core is so powerful.
Director Hideo Nakata also understands the concept of dramatic tension, the ability to build up an overwhelming sense of dread rather than go for the three-second shock of a spring-loaded cat popping up at the characters or the “sneaking up behind my friend to grab their shoulder” scare employed by every lesser horror film known to man. As always, it reminds me of the famous story told by Alfred Hitchcock when trying to explain the basic concept of tension, which was relayed back in the review of Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan. Sadly, it is a skill that seems completely lost on the vast bulk of horror filmmakers today, not to mention going unappreciated by fans whose only real desire is to see a head or Jennifer Love’ Hewitt’s button-down top explode. I know I sound like the old horror fogy that I am when I bemoan such events, but so it goes. It’s not like I’m opposed to sex ‘n’ gore, to which many of the reviews here will attest, but liking one doesn’t mean you can’t mourn the passing of another. The other night, I was sitting around watching Bride of Frankenstein, thinking about how no horror movie that emotionally engaging or developed would ever be made today. There’s room for all types of horror, but no one seems interested in anything that relies of character or plot development.
Well, no one but the Japanese. Nakata handles the progression of the story with superb mastery, always favoring restraint over the cheap shock, allowing the sense of weirdness and dread to build throughout the entire film until, by the end, it is very nearly unbearable, and you find yourself white-knuckled and clutching the chair in anticipation of what’s coming next. That, in my opinion, is effective horror. Any buffoon can make a teenager jump by having one of those lame “shocks” like the cat or the sneaking friend, and big deal. You can make someone jump by just sitting next to them and suddenly yelling “boo!” for no reason. The Ring isn’t as base in its approach, opting instead to go the route blazed by classic horror films like The Haunting and Psycho or even Dawn of the Dead. It’s the type of scare that stays with you for days, even weeks, after the movie is over.
The Ring opens in classic horror film form, with two young girls home alone. One of them is telling a story about a cursed videotape. Once you are finished watching it, you get a mysterious phone call predicting your death in exactly one week, and then of course, one week later, you wind up dead. The second girl, Tomoko, isn’t as amused by this story as her friend, what with her and a group of friends having watched what may very well have been the cursed tape of growing urban legend fame one week ago. Tomoko tries to pass it off as nothing, but when the phone starts ringing, fear starts to rise. The entire scene, though hardly original or unpredictable, is beautifully paced. Even if you figure you know what’s going to happen, it still keeps you on pins and needles.
Enter then a sharp female reporter named Reiko, who works for what seems to be some sort of paranormal newspaper, or just a crappy sensationalist newspaper, possibly the New York Daily News. Reiko’s curiosity regarding the cursed video is piqued when one of her own relatives’ death is attributed to having seen the tape. Unfortunately, none of the other schoolgirls around can give any straight or concrete information regarding the tape. In classic urban legend form, it’s always a friend of a friend, or a friend who heard from this guy. A little investigative journalism uncovers the fact that a group of high schoolers from a nearby school have indeed all been dying off in strange, unexplained fashion, and they were all down in a rented cabin in the province of Izu.
Reiko makes the drive down to Izu to snoop around the cabin and eventually runs across a videocassette left behind by the kids. Although hesitant at first, Reiko soon pops the tape in a VCR and watches the bizarre, nonsensical few minutes of footage it contains, realizing immediately that this is the tape. Upon its conclusion, the phone in the cabin rings. What is said, if anything, is unclear, but it’s enough to freak out Reiko.
Back in the world, Reiko is increasingly upset by the video and the subsequent phone call. She enlists the aid of her ex-husband, Ryuji, a college professor who seems to have some sort of psychic ability. Ryuji is played by none other than Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the crown jewels (along with Sonny Chiba and Etsuko Shiomi) of the Japan Action Club during the 1970s and 1980s, not to mention being Michelle Yeoh’s co-star in the classic Hong Kong action film Royal Warriors. Although well versed in the paranormal, Ryuji is a natural skeptic and figures the tape to be nothing more than urban legend. He not only watches it, but has Reiko make him a copy so he can watch it over and over in an attempt to study and decipher the content. I guess he figures if you’re going to die after watching it once, you might as well annoy whatever malevolent force is behind it by watching it as many times as possible. Alleviating Reiko’s own fear somewhat is the fact that Ryuji receives no phone call after watching the video.
I wish I could say the same for me, however. In a lovely and more than a little unsettling coincidence, mere seconds after watching the scene in which Reiko views the cursed video for the first time, I got a call on the phone. Strange enough that I get a call, having as I do very few friends who use the phone. It was made more suspicious by the fact that it was around three in the morning, and even my friends aren’t rude enough to call that late without warning me ahead of time. Needless to say, I was as amused as I was scared to pick up the phone, and that’s a positive sign that the movie really managed to succeed in delivering the creepiness. Turns out it was some strung out dude calling the wrong number. Suffice it to say that The Ring will make you regard both your television and your phone with a little more suspicion.
As the week drags on, however, her fears begin to rise again, especially after her young son finds the tape and watches it himself. Determined to unravel the mystery, just in case something sinister is happening, Ryuji and Reiko follow a trail of clues to a small fishing island that was once the home of a woman with soothsaying powers. After being humiliated during a press conference meant to celebrate her powers, she and the professor who had “discovered” her went into hiding. A revelation on the island leads the duo back to Izu and the old cabin, where the final answer to what is happening lies deep underground. Or so it would seem. When doing a final bit of research to close the bizarre turn of events entirely, Ryuji discovers one more piece of the macabre puzzle that only Reiko can solve.
It’s an old story, one you’ve probably heard before, but The Ring pulls it off with such subtlety and effectiveness that it completely disarms you and keeps you guessing. Sure, you know what is supposed to happen in these sorts of ghost stories, but you’re never quite sure if the movie is going to go that route or forge off into some completely unexpected territory. It never allows you the comfort of familiarity even within a familiar type of story, and the end result is one of constant, growing fear. It truly is a beautiful experience to get this scared by such a seemingly simple movie.
It’s smart enough not only to avoid tipping its hand too early in the game and relying on horror film clichés to carry it through, but it also knows to avoid other obvious plot devices. In an American film, a story of two divorced people thrust together again by unusual circumstances would invariably become a story about them getting back together. That piece of crap Tri-Star Godzilla movie was basically a giant monster wrapping on a tired old “reconcile our past” romance with absolutely no imagination. While the characters of Reiko and Ryuji in The Ring are placed in similar circumstances, the plot never allows them to spoil things by turning into a shallow mockery of soul-searching with one of those “Why did we break up?” scenes with the predictable “Maybe we just loved each other too much” answers. There is no romance in The Ring, although it’s hinted that Ryuji may have been involved with one of his students. It keeps the movie focused on what it is supposed to be doing, which is scaring us.
The handling of psychic phenomenon is also well done. Ryuji’s “powers” are not as ludicrously illustrated as having him stand in a room and shoot wavy special effects out of his forehead or anything like that. Instead, his psychic ability is depicted realistically, or as realistically as you’d like to thing psychic abilities could be depicted. It’s nothing especially magical. Instead, he simply seems to be very adept at reading people rather than reading their minds, interpreting body language, reactions, and reading between the lines of statements to extrapolate some hidden truth. It’s nothing outside the realm of believability in the real world, and keeping the story grounded in very down-to-earth trappings is what helps elevate the horror of the truly fantastic elements when they come. Once again, subtlety and restraint prove to be two of the film’s greatest tools for constructing genuine, lasting horror.
On top of the expertly constructed plot is some fine acting. Sanada is, of course, a veteran, though here he gets to prove to genre fans that he can act as well as he can kick and shoot lasers. Actress Nanako Matsushimi, who plays Reiko, had very little experience before this film, acting in only a couple television movies. She is superb, wonderfully pulling off a character who is smart, determined, believable, and also not afraid to be afraid. And when she is afraid, you can feel it, and the palpable nature of her fright only helps augment your own fear. Despite what you may think, pulling off a strong, believable female character (or male, for that matter) is not an easy task. Sure, any hack director can plop a woman down in a scene and have her unload clip after clip into advancing bad guys without showing the slightest hint of fear, but that’s not exactly the sort of strength to which one can relate. Nor does it show very much character. And finally, it doesn’t help that this supposed bad-ass is almost always played by a model turned actress who maybe weighs ninety pounds and has all the muscle definition of David Spade.
The character of Reiko, on the other hand, demonstrates a much more believable type of strength. She’s not perfect, maybe even needs to ask for help, but she is smart, determined, and willing to forge ahead even when she’s wracked by fear. Nothing about her is overblown or of such preposterous proportions that she becomes unbelievable as an actual person. A weakly written script would have her seem like a superwoman who can solve any and everything thrown her way. Instead, we get a woman who perseveres and moves ahead regardless of her inability to answer every single question on her own. There’s a reason that this movie helped open the door for what has become known as “schoolgirl horror” in Japan, that is horror movies featuring strong but not cartoonishly infallible lead heroines. Par of The Ring’s success can doubtlessly be attributed to the fact that it doesn’t pander to not insult women, refusing to treat them as politically correct uber-women or as stumbling helpless bimbos. Instead, it gives us a very noble, believable, and imperfect heroine, and that character resonated deeply with lots of girls who saw the movie.
Reiko’s young son is also well played. Little kids in films, especially in horror films, are always an iffy proposition. More times than not, they drag the movie down with them into a kicking, screaming, whining mess. The children are often insufferably irksome, or they are in a plot where they save the day and exhibit skill and intelligence far beyond what is believable even for one of those genius super-babies. Additionally, most films with children in them never really want to upset potential parental audience members by putting the kid in any real danger, so you know that ultimately nothing is going to happen. The Ring suffers from none of these fatal flaws. The young Yoichi is rarely the center of attention, and when he is, child actor Rikiya Otaka is somber, soft-spoken, and completely devoid of the annoying traits most children in movies (and in real life, for that matter) tend to exhibit. Because of this, when his fate is called into question by his viewing the videotape, you actually don’t want to see him die a horrible and mysterious death. Funny how much more effective a film can be when you don’t want bad things to happen to the characters. I wish more horror writers and directors would realize this.
The icing on the cake is the music, which by itself is enough to illicit nightmares. Composed by Kenji Kawai, who also did the phenomenal soundtrack for Ghost in the Shell, it is perfectly suited for the film, sounding as it does like a cross between wailing souls, scraping metal, and something that Coil might have concocted on that unused Hellraiser soundtrack they did. It’s just one more difference between successful horror like The Ring, and the other crap we have out there that eschews using music to set the mood and instead uses an unrelated parade of pop hits to sell soundtrack CDs.
It’s an amazing film in every aspect, and for my money, it will remain one of the greatest and scariest horror films of all time, easily ranking among the past classics. Intelligent writing and masterful filmmaking elevate the proceedings far above the herd, and what is in one sense little more than a very good popcorn movie takes on much deeper qualities. The struggle of modern Japan and the modern Japanese against a very ancient, and traditional terror, not to mention the use of a relatively modern technology as the manifestation of this terror, speaks volumes without hitting us over the head with clumsily and heavy-handedly handled messages. There’s also a well-crafted message in the film about a generation of parents who allow the television to do the child rearing without any real regard for what it is the kids are watching, even if it’s violent pro wrestling shows or cursed video tapes. Again, the message is there but not at the forefront of the movie, never overshadowing the simple, visceral delight of being scared out of your wits by a movie. The Ring is a testament to quality horror filmmaking and should be required viewing for any fan of the genre.
The popularity of the film spawned all sorts of mildly confusing offspring. Both The Ring 2 and The Spiral are sequels, though made by different people and following different paths. Ring 2 is generally considered to be the official sequel, with The Spiral being a somewhat official sequel, but not really. Both films are quite good. Another rarity in the horror genre, I suppose: sequels that, while not quite as good as the original, are still very good. A television show was also made, and a third film, Ring 0, followed part two. Rather than continuing the story, however, part three is a prequel (thus the zero in the title), and by the time it was made, the magic (not to mention the director) had left the series, resulting in a movie that is at best a pale and distant echo of the original. On top of all that, a Korean film called Ring Virus based on the same original novel was made. That movie is also quite good.
Far and away the best thing about The Ring, and the real proof of just how solid a chiller it is, is that a week after watching it and thus watching the cursed video in the film, you’ll start to get fidgety and start thinking about how maybe you should be making copies for your friends and enemies and inviting them over for a viewing.
All the films that fall into that general category of “cool when I was in elementary school” have this common peculiarity. I, as well as most of the people with whom I saw them, remember one or two particular scenes from each movie, and not much more up until we start watching again, at which time the floodgates of memories both shameful and grand are thrown open. With Sword and the Sorcerer, for example, everyone remembered the slimy wizard making the witch’s chest explode, and everyone remembered the steamy bathhouse scene, but not much else. In the case of Beastmaster, another classic from a bygone era, we each remembered some green guys who wrapped their leathery wings around people and dissolved them, and we remembered Tanya Roberts bathing nude under a waterfall. In Revenge of the Ninja it was a tremendous spray of blood as Sho Kosugi kills the villain at the end, and two naked people getting killed in the middle of having sex in a hot tub.
There may be a pattern here. I’m not sure.
In the case of the oft-forgotten Indiana Jones rip-off, Treasure of the Four Crowns, all anyone could remember was “something about a lot of flaming rocks swinging around on really obvious wires.” There’s a good reason this is the thing we all remember. We remember it because nothing else really happens in the whole damn film. Sure, it claims to be action-packed, in the tradition of course of the recent hit Raiders of the Lost Ark, but unless you count among the action sequences the scenes in which a middle aged man struggles to grab hold of a floating key that makes electronica music play, then the truth is that action scenes are few and far between. Specifically, there is one at the beginning of the film, one at the end, and neither are really worth a damn for anything beyond the sheer hilarious incompetence on display.
Although few people seem to remember this little gem of a film, and by gem I mean small chunk of gravel, it caused a minor stir upon its initial release, and I have fond memories of the day we all loaded up for our friend Jason Morgan’s birthday party (I think it was his) after school and went to see this film, which aside from promising us nonstop action both bigger and better than what we’d so recently enjoyed in Raiders of the Lost Ark, was also shot in glorious 3D! Back in the 1980s, let me tell ya, we knew how to live. Sure our music sucked and we all wore those tan Bass dress shoes with the backs squashed down for no real reason. Sure, we made stars out of Nu Shuz and Rockwell, but we also braved bold, new paths forever etched in the annals of history. One of the biggest was probably the flight of the first space shuttle, but only slightly below that in terms of global impact was the explosion in the popularity of 3D movies that failed miserably to be good movies or look very 3D.
I can’t remember if the trend started on television or the movie houses, but my first 3D memory was the groundbreaking broadcast of Creature from the Black Lagoon in dramatic 3D. You had to go down to the local Convenient food mart (now called something else, I think) where you could get a free pair of the red and blue cardboard glasses that sawed into your ears. Then you, your family, and your friends could all huddle around the television and watch this historic event. It’s weird in this day of twenty-four hour media saturation, to think of anything on television being a national event, but these were simpler times. When a miniseries like The Day After promised to blow our minds, the nation ground to a halt in order to watch. It’s a curious thing I don’t think could be recreated today. Sure, there were lots of people excited about the final episode of Seinfeld, but it just wasn’t the same.
The biggest thing I remember about that night spent watching Creature from the Black Lagoon in dimension-bending 3D was how amazingly un-3D it looked. For starters, it aired on local channel WDRB-TV 41. This was a time before cable, so we all had to struggle with the rabbit ear antennae as best we could. The end result was that there was no such thing as a clear picture, at least not on a local independent channel like 41. Thus much of the potential 3D effect was no doubt watered down by the snow and occasionally weak and wavy signal. Plus, the 3D technology just sort of sucked. But it was still sort of cool, so they did it again a little while later with that movie about the gorilla that escapes and spends a lot of time reaching at the camera. Now, I know many of you out there are younger than me and can’t clearly remember a time when gorillas were terrifying beyond the scope of mere words. But for those of you as old as or older than me, you remember – if you dare. Rampaging gorillas were a huge deal back then, though not as much so as they had been in the 1940s when every other movie featured the Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi being chased by a gorilla and every other television show was another episode of The Little Rascals in which Spanky and the gang try to scare Buckwheat with a fake gorilla, only a real gorilla escapes and causes all sorts of hilarious escapades. If it wasn’t that episode, then it would be another one where they have to defend their fort from other kids by dressing up like pirates and flinging Limburger cheese at them.
I know it’s a level of sophistication to which many of you young kids can’t fully relate, and I pity you that the world has become so dumbed-down that it no longer appreciates the subtle humor of black guy whose afro stands up or a scene in which a drunk guy sees a gorilla run by him in downtown New York, causing him to look at his bottle of ripple, look at the gorilla, look at the ripple, then throw the bottle away as he proclaims, “I gotta lay off this stuff!” I weep for a generation that cannot see the humor in Ruth Buzzi’s strained-voice, purse-swinging, crazy woman character.
Okay, so I crossed the codger line there. Even I didn’t find Ruth Buzzi funny. I don’t think anyone did, with the possible exception of the people on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, and they were all plastered anyway. Existing parallel to the 3D rage on the television was a growing revival of 3D movies on the big screen. In the span of a few short years, or possibly even months, we were hit head-on with films like Spacehunter, Friday the 13th Part III, Weird Al Yancovich’s ground-breaking In 3D album, and of course the film we’re here to discuss today, Treasure of the Four Crowns. The main problem uniting all these movies was that, while every producer knew he wanted to cash in on the trend, no one really had much imagination when it came to taking full advantage of the potential of 3D effects. Thus you get scene after scene of a guy reaching toward the camera or pointing a speargun at the screen (I think that was done in all three films I mentioned). In the case of Friday the 13th Part III, it was especially sad how little they came up with. I mean, it’s a movie about a crazed invincible killer, and besides being the movie that introduces the hockey mask (I think), the best 3D effects they could come up with were the chilling “here comes some popcorn!” scene or the shocking “Watch out! I’m doing yoyo tricks!” scene. Not exactly what fans wanted.
Pretty much every other scene in the action-adventure disaster that is Treasure of the Four Crowns involves a guy sticking something toward the camera in an exaggerated manner and for an unrealistically long time. Pretty much anything that isn’t bolted down gets picked up and waved into the camera. Keys, sticks, guns, fingers, bottles of booze, skeleton arms, spears, dangling bits of string, even a squirrel. You name it, and someone held it in front of the camera in a very unnatural looking way. It is, in many ways, the least ludicrous thing about this movie.
The movie opens with Star Wars like scrolling words on a space background. They explain to us that some things, like this movie, simply cannot be understood. These things include, aside from the movie Treasure of the Four Crowns, the actual four crowns, which contain gems that, when united by a man in a windbreaker, can either usher in an era of peace of prosperity or unleash a world where good is forever entangled in battle with evil, which I guess would be, well, the current world. I’ve never quite understood how a couple little gems or amulets or anything could usher in an era of anything. Just because you can shoot some animated beams out doesn’t really translate into changing the world. Sure, both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Lord of the Rings featured magic items with the power to change the world, but that was only if they were used as weapons by a guy who already had a pretty big army beforehand. If Sauron had just been some lonely wizard living in a cave, it’s unlikely the One Ring would have changed much of anything, and if Hitler didn’t already have his army in place, he wouldn’t even be able to lift the Ark of the Covenant. But, for the sake of this movie, let’s assume that these jewels do have unspeakable powers. The opening narration then goes on to tell us that, even as we are reading this, a soldier of fortune is seeking out artifacts that will unlock the power of the crowns. That soldier of fortune, that man, is JT Striker.
JT Striker sounds like one of those TGI Fridays rip-off restaurants where you are served potato skins by an overzealous waitstaff all named Josh or Justin or Megan. In a way, this image is not so far off from the image we see of JT Striker, a rugged man of the world, an adventurer, rogue, international soldier of fortune who has come to raid an ancient castle while wearing a Members’ Only jacket and a pair of Haggar slacks. I was immediately reminded of the “greatest athletes in the world” from Gymkata, most of whom were very pasty, doughy middle-aged guys in jogging suits who looked more like used car salesmen than they did the greatest athletes ever known to man. I would find, as Treasure of the Four Crowns progressed, that it in fact had far more in common with Gymkata than it did with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sadly, in my twisted, sick universe, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Anyway, JT Striker, exuding all the manly ruggedness of a guy who puts on a nylon warm-up suit and power-walks through the mall for exercise during his lunch break, is busy attempting to pick his way through a jungle cave filled with booby traps that result in a lame 3D effect at every step. Spears, vines, JT’s ass and crotch, and at one point something resembling a squirrel, or possibly a woodchuck, gets thrust toward the camera to provide thrill-a-minute action. JT, of course, being one of the greatest soldiers of fortune ever to step out from behind the counter of a Rexall Drugstore, manages to evade even the deadly spring-loaded squirrel and soon finds himself shoving his crotch into the camera as he shimmies down a space-age looking corridor while weird Forbidden Planet type music plays. What the hell???
At the bottom of the shaft, he lands inside what looks to be the basement of one of those King Henry’s Feast type themed restaurant where all the community theater people go on the rare days when a Renaissance Festival isn’t within driving distance of their homes. I thought he was in a jungle just a second ago, but whatever. I suppose there could be castles full of medieval artifacts in the middle of the Amazon. Can you prove otherwise? Have you ever been on a treasure hunting expedition to the Amazon? Well, JT Striker has, and he didn’t even have to buy safari clothes. He just wore some slacks and a red warm-up jacket. He didn’t even bring a burro or treacherous Hispanic sidekick. Heck, he didn’t even bring a sack or a backpack or anything.
The aim of his edge-of-your-seat adventuring is to retrieve a magic key that has a tendency to make electronic “whoo whee woo” music play as it levitates around aimlessly, causing things to blow up. Picking up the key triggers about a million booby traps, each one deftly foiled by Striker using the method known in the business as “dumb luck.” Most of the booby traps cause something to fly toward the camera. Now, “seeing the string” is a staple of any bad movie filled with even worse special effects. We all know that there are multitudinous sci-fi films in which you can spy the wires holding planets and spaceships in place. Treasure of the Four Crowns takes this to a bold new level however by refusing to include even a single shot where you can’t see the string that the various items wobble around on. You might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, but I bet it was less noticeable in 3D,” and I would then have to laugh at you. Even as a ten year old who could be dazzled by something as obviously shoddy as Thundarr the Barbarian, seeing the historically incompetent effects in this movie truly astounded me. I mean, how many decades have they been doing the levitating shtick in movies? And they can’t even get that right? Hell, I was able to do a better job in high school video productions we made for English and history classes. It also causes a crossbow to levitate through the air, or at least to wobble precariously on the end of a wire. Striker chooses to stand motionless, directly in front of the crossbow, waiting until it begins to fire bolts at him before he dives to safety in the nick of time, providing us with much tension and rousing action, or at least an excuse to ask the question, “Why would anyone stand motionless, directly in front of a levitating crossbow?”
All sorts of stuff starts to explode while ghost noises tease us that the moldy old skeletons lining the walls will spring to live and deliver some serious undead action. Sadly, that is beyond the scope of the budget, so some of them just sort of fall over a little. Striker escapes out a nearby window, which begs the question why didn’t he just come in that way to begin with instead of dealing with that out-of-place jungle cave full of traps? As he runs, or lumbers I suppose, over the lawn in dramatic slow motion, things blow up for no reason and showers of sparks rain down from strategically placed flashpots. If there was any doubt that this movie would not live up to the promise of out-adventuring Indiana Jones, I think we had them addressed during that riveting opening action sequence, and I use the term “action” in the sense that it means a middle age man in Members’ Only jacket running in slow motion through a field of exploding flashpots. Some people call that action. I call it a Billy Squires concert.
Back in civilization, which begs the question of just where the hell this castle was in the first place, Striker sells the key to the nutty Professor Montgomery, who does what all professors do in movies like this, which is rant incoherently about a relic possessed of unspeakable power. Basically, he recites that bit of scrolling text from the beginning of the film. You know, I may not have gone to Harvard or Oxford or Cumberland Community College, but I did go to college, where I took several anthropology and ancient history classes. At no point in my entire five years (switched majors a year from graduation), did I ever have a teacher who, on the side, quested after ancient relics of unspeakable power. In fact, they didn’t even hire people to quest for relics, and with all due respect to Indiana Jones, I tend to doubt the existence of these adventuring professors who have magic amulets and scepters lying about in their office. Like I said, maybe I just went to the wrong university, because never did I have a class with a nutcase professor with some cockamamie theory about the lost Amulet of Zag-nalthriglil that would allow the possessor to conquer the world. I did, however, have a film theory teacher who used to jump up on the table during class and do suggestive interpretational dances to film noir music.
Montgomery uses the key to unlock one of the three sacred crowns. I know, I know. There are four sacred crowns. There’s actually only three. One apparently got destroyed a long time ago, which would seem to render the whole threat of uniting the crowns somewhat moot. Inside the crown is a slip of paper. That’s about it. Oh yeah, the key makes some stuff pop and fly at the camera because it’s been a few minutes since anything was flung at us through the miracle of 3D technology. The professor and his little buddy, an incredibly grating smarmy guy, want to hire Striker to obtain the other two crowns, which are in the possession of a really lame religious cult. Montgomery promises that those two crowns have treasures in them slightly more interesting than a scrap of old paper. Personally, I’m thinking the whole treasure of the crowns thing is going to be as anti-climatic as the safe of the Andrea Doria or Al Capone’s secret vault. Striker is apparently on my side, as he delivers the “bunch of superstitious mumbo jumbo speech” and combines it with the “I’ve got better things to do than get killed,” though apparently he doesn’t since when we first met him he was braving the menaces of a dead squirrel and a persistent buzzard. Some more swinging the key about on a string and the promise of a lot of money eventually convince Striker not to return to his job as manager of the Airway men’s department just yet. And I say Airway because they didn’t have Target back then.
To pull off this task, Striker insists on assembling his team of seasoned adventurers. First there is Rick, the alcoholic mountain climber. Here the movie really misses a golden opportunity to exploit the “drunken double take” joke of which I spoke earlier. Just as Striker is about to give up on the drunken Rick, the key starts doing that flying around thing. This scene goes on for what must be ten minutes, and it would have been a perfect opportunity to have Rick do the thing where he looks at the bottle then throws it away. Instead, Striker manages the awesome feat of eventually catching the slowly drifting key after a lot of stuff explodes, and Rick, figuring that this asshole just let a little magic key blow up his whole cabin, decides he’s game for some adventure. Next up is Socrates, who is working a shameful gig as a clown in some back alley vaudeville show. Like Rick, Socrates is initially hesitant to risk his life and give up all the prestige and public adoration that comes from being a clown in a failed vaudeville show. But he’ll come along so long as Striker agrees to also put Socrates’ dearest Liz in mortal peril as well. Liz, aside from being something of a knockout, is a trapeze artist.
So, the world is going to be saved from the clutches of an evil cult by a guy in a Members’ Only jacket, a vaudeville clown, a trapeze artist, a drunk, and a grating yuppie. Oh, do I ever wanna get my hands on the guy who decided to entrust my fate to a washed-up clown!
This whole sequence has gone on for a very long time, and most of it has been comprised of scene after scene of the key flying around and making glass and steam fly toward the camera. The movie is well over halfway finished at this point, and we’ve had one dull action sequence, an abbreviated clown act, some goofing off on a trapeze, and a bunch of exposition and shots of a key levitating to and fro. Maybe the people who were going to out-adventure Indiana Jones missed the part where, by the halfway point, they’d had about a dozen fist fights, shoot-outs, car chases, sword fights, funny monkeys who do the Seig Hiel salute, explosions, a froggy looking guy named Toht, and we’ve been to America, Nepal, and Egypt. Somehow, Treasure of the Four Crowns’ procession of scenes involving Striker attempting to convince a clown to help him raid this fortress aren’t quite the same. Indiana Jones gets Sallah, a barrel-chested hero of a sidekick with a booming voice, while Striker has a guy who, on a good day, reminds you of some sleazy coke-snorting disco yuppie who drives a Corvette.
I mean, even Gymkata had a bunch of fight and chase scenes by this point. Sure they were lame beyond mortal comprehension, but at least they were there. Treasure of the Four Crowns is only a step above what real archeology would be like, which is sitting in a room reading books for two years before you go out to the Gobi Desert to brush rocks with a cotton swab. But hey, now that we have the impressive action team assembled, I’m sure the pace will pick up. No wait, first they have to spend some time going over the various traps and security devices that pepper the cult’s compound. The crowns are in a room protected by dozens of those laser beam security devices, a big metal cage, and a floor that causes a piercing alarm to go off if you so much as drop a feather on it. And then the statue upon which the crowns themselves rest is packed with assorted booby traps as well. Since they can’t get in through the front door, so to speak, their only option is to use a series of ropes, pulleys, and trapeze contraptions to crawl across the ceiling! And luckily, Striker just happen to assemble a team containing a mountain climber and a trapeze artist. I’m not sure exactly where the aging clown with a heart condition comes in. Then there’s one of those scenes where the magic key flies around for about nine hours as everyone grimaces in slow motion as stuff explodes and flies into the camera. Apparently, this is how the movie defines scintillating action, but I guess I’ve been spoiled to the point where watching someone whiz a key around on the end of a string simply fails to impress me anymore.
While the leader of the cult holds one of those, “I shall heal this sickly woman” meetings to impress new recruits, Striker and his team go into action, or as much into action as this leisurely paced film will allow. It occurs to me that this cult doesn’t seem especially interested in using the power of the crowns so much as they just like having them locked away in the big secure room for no real reason. It’s not like they were actively trying to use the crowns for evil, nor were they actively pursuing the key that would unlock their allegedly awesome power. In fact, if Professor Montgomery wouldn’t have started this whole mess up, it’s probable that this cult would never to anything more dastardly than shanghai the occasional homeless guy and indoctrinate him to love “the master” as he wears a burlap sack and picks potatoes for the Rapture.
Tension builds to a fever pitch, or at least a slightly warmer pitch than it had been watching the key fly around, as Striker and his band evade the ninja guards in novelty masks and proceed to crawl very slowly across the ceiling, stopping occasionally to nearly fall or trigger an alarm so we get scenes of incredible nail-biting suspense, or at least a lot of scenes featuring middle aged guys hanging upside down and making “hyngg!” noises. They also scream a lot when they fall, which seems not so wise to do when a ninja in a funny mask is right outside the door feeling pissed that, while he does get to wear the cool ninja soldier outfit, he has to ruin it all because the cult leader insists on the stupid big-nose masks. After about eleven hours of crawling around, Striker is finally in position to get the crowns. Then the old clown has a heart attack, which frankly serves Striker right for ever thinking that an old clown would be a good adventurer, and the drunken Rick is impaled by a bunch of spears that shoot up out of the altar in front of the crowns. Then some steam blows on Striker, and the alarm finally goes off after all this screaming and triggering of booby traps. The yuppie guy triggers yet another trap and is either bitten by a fake snake or impaled by a spear. Since whatever it is, is shooting directly at the camera in glorious 3D, it’s difficult to tell. Then he gets crushed too! Man, that guy just had no luck. As the ninjas and their leader close in, Striker unlocks the crowns and grabs the jewels, which causes lights to go off while his head spins round and round in a scene that literally had me falling off the couch with unbridled laughter. And from here on out, it only gets better. As I describe the finale, you will probably write me off as having dropped acid or had one too many warm cans of Michelob, but I assure you my sobriety was intact even if my sanity was not by the film’s end.
The jewels flash various colors, and suddenly Striker turns into a hideously deformed mutant with gel oozing out of the side of his face. As he growls without opening his mouth so as to avoid dislodging the shoddy latex they slapped on his face, the jewels begin spewing flame! The ninjas try to mow the mutant Striker down with machine gun fire, but it has no effect, as he swings the flame around and cooks everyone. Then he makes giant flaming rocks fly around the room on cables so obvious they might as well be glow-in-the-dark. I mean, they didn’t even attempt to hide the wires! As Striker’s supernatural wrath mounts, it unleashes a spinning rod covered with sparklers, which swings back and forth from more ridiculously visible wires. Then the cult leader melts in a blaze of special effects work not quite as impressive as when all those Nazis melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just as the possessed monster Striker is about to shoot the flames at Liz, who has been crouching up on a ceiling beam this whole time, she calls out his name and, of course, he manages to regain control of himself just in time to hug her. Yeah, you think I’m joking, but I’m actually making it less absurd than it actually is. Professor Montgomery arrives in a helicopter to spirit them away through a nearby window. Just to make sure everything ends as stupidly as possible, Striker does his best to convey “the pain of sacrifice, and for what?” as he throws one of the jewels into the fire, presumably for one of the surviving ninjas to find and use as a relic of unspeakable power. Apparently the whole part about the jewels being able to end disease and hunger just wasn’t payment enough for the valiant sacrifice of a drunk mountain climber and a washed up vaudeville clown.
With the lunkheaded script, the pathetic “action,” and special effects that would even embarrass Ed Wood Jr., it’s easy to say Treasure of the Four Crowns is one of the worst movies ever made. It’s easy to say it because it’s pretty much true. I mean, this movie is bad. Really bad. Even when I was a kid I recognized how mind-bogglingly cheap and incompetent this movie was. Few and far between are the movies that showcase so little respect for and so much contempt for their audience. They didn’t even make a half-hearted attempt to conceal all the wires, figuring I suppose that we’d be so wowed by the endless scenes of keys and woodchucks and Striker’s ass comin’ at us in 3D that we wouldn’t mind a few short-comings in the other effects. This is the movie that you need to see if you’d ever wondered if a film could make you say, “Well, it wasn’t near as good as Gymkata.” This movie sets it’s sights on Indiana Jones but fails even to match the pommel horse fury of John Cabot. At it’s highest point, this movie almost manages to attain the same level as the lowest points in Gymkata. And as you might suspect, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire mess.
Let’s face it, they don’t make movies this bad anymore. Sure, they make plenty of bad movies, but those movies are slick, high-tech, well-produced bores. They’re not the kind of movies where the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of a clown, even if the clown is named Socrates. I guarantee you Treasure of the Four Crowns, with its three crowns in the movie, will be one of the most awful films you have ever seen, and I also guarantee you that you’d be hard pressed to have a more enjoyable time witnessing such garbage. It’d be different if they’d tried to make a comedy or a spoof, but their intention was to make one of the greatest adventure films the world had ever seen. Who are “they,” you ask? What fool of a producer could possibly think this movie was more action-packed and exciting than Raiders of the Lost Ark when, in reality, it wasn’t even as good as a lesser episode of Tales of the Golden Monkey? What man could be so collossally stupid as to think this movie was anything but complete and utter crap?
Golan and Globus, my friends. Golan and Globus.
Depending on who you are and what sort of movies you like, Menahem Golan and his partner in crime Yoram Globus are either geniuses who have littered the world with some of most laughable yet enjoyably lame movies ever made, or they are simply farts straight from the bowels of Lucifer himself. Under the banner of their Studio, Cannon Films, these two seem to have the career goal of making Dino DeLaurentus look like a producer of classy films. The Cannon filmography stretches back into the 1960s and includes such ground-breaking cinematic bottom-feeders as Lady Chatterly’s Lovers, The Barbarians, Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, those Lou Ferrigno Hercules movies where the gods all live on the Moon, Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo, and more Chuck Norris films than you want to know about. They gave us Bo Derek in Bolero, Sylvia Kristel in Mata Hari, and Mathilda May strutting around naked and making Patrick Stewart explode in Lifeforce. They gave us Rappin’ starring a young Mario Van Peebles, and King Solomon’s Mines starring a not so young Richard Chamberlain. They gave us Hot Resort as well as Hot Chili. From their horn of plenty sprung not just Cobra starring Sylvester Stallone, but also Over the Top.
I could list the films that benefited from Cannon’s Midas Touch, but it would take days. Suffice it to say that any fan of the worst film has to offer owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Golan and Globus and their complete and total lack of shame. It is with considerable disappointment in myself that I look back at the films that defined my years of pre-pubescent enlightenment and realize just how many of them came from the hallowed halls of Cannon. Scary as it is, I can safely say that without their steady and relentless stream of complete garbage, sleaze, and worthless junk throughout the 1980s, I would not be the man I am today. What really elevates these guys, what really makes them special, isn’t just that they produced films like Cyborg and Delta Force. No, what really sets them apart from the pack is that not only did they produce those films, but they also produced exploitive rip-offs of their own products, resulting in films like American Cyborg and Delta Force One. It’s one thing to exploit a trend, but it’s operating on a whole new plane when you manage to exploit your own exploitation of a trend.
Treasure of the Four Crowns is just another jewel in their own eerie collection of crowns with the power to destroy – or heal – the world. It all depends on who wields the power of a mystic gem like Alien from LA or Goin’ Bananas, not to be confused with Goin’ Ape featuring Tony Danza. No, that gem was produced by the far more respectable Robert Rosen, who also gave us the gift of Revenge. Within the greater cinematic landscape, Treasure of the Four Crowns is an hilariously pathetic attempt at filmmaking that falls so incredibly short of the goals it sets for itself and the promotional bragging that it did that you can’t help but love it. It’s like those D&D hopeless characters with an ability score of three for everything. But the character, as weak and worthless as he may be, is still lovable, and possesses at least one really cool magic item. In the case of Treasure of the Four Crowns, the magic item is the outlandish but comptentent score by Ennio Morricone, who must have owed Golan or Globus a big favor. Within the confines of Cannon fodder, if you will, it’s pretty much par for the course. As a kid, I found it amazingly stupid yet hilariously enjoyable. As an adult, I find once again that I have not advanced much beyond the level of maturity I had attained by age ten.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: United States, Spain, Italy | Starring: Tony Anthony, Ana Obregon, Gene Quintano, Jerry Lazarus, Francisco Rabal, Emiliano Redondo, Francisco Villena, Kate Levan, Lewis Gordon | Screenplay: Lloyd Battista, Jim Bryce | Director: Ferdinando Baldi | Cinematography: Marcello Masciocchi, Giuseppe Ruzzolini | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Yoram Globus, Menahem Golan
All I ask of an action film is that it entertains me. I’m not a demanding viewer most of the time. I’m easy to satisfy, and I don’t think that makes me simple-minded. No, there are plenty of other things that do that. As long as the movie isn’t god-awful boring or just plain full of crap, I’ll probably at least enjoy my time watching it, even if it isn’t the sort of thing I’d ever buy. Frankly, I’d much rather sit through a dumb but exciting action film than a boring one that tries to be smart and fails miserably. At least a dumb action movie lets you know immediately where you stand. At the same time, I hate a lot of big, dumb action movies. Is this a contradiction? Hypocrisy? Well, don’t try to figure me out. I’m one of those hedge mazes, baby, and you could get lost in my leafy green complexity.
For better or for worse Chuck Norris and his big bushy 1970s mustache will forever be the face of the American martial arts film. It’s not because his films were any good so much as it is the simple fact that he was there and he never went away. Guys like Jim Kelly and Don Knotts simply faded into the background, while Van Damme and Steven Seagal were relegated to the rows of direct-to-video fare when audiences finally caught on that there was no real reason to be watching On Deadly Ground when you could watch Jackie Chan instead. By all means, Norris should have joined one of these two groups by now, but like an agile cat, he manages to bend and twist and avoid the arrows, keeping himself just above the ranks of the fallen.
He got his start in movies thanks to Bruce Lee’s many contacts in Hollywood, namely Dean Martin. Martin used Norris as a stunt extra for one of the Matt Helm movies before Norris really made an impact as the boss bad guy in Bruce Lee’s classic Way of the Dragon. Their confrontation during the film’s finale in the Roman Coliseum is one of the top screen fights in kungfu film history. Bruce wanted to work with Chuck Norris because, unlike most martial arts stars, he was adamant about casting real-life martial artists to fight n his film. Most filmmakers were happy with dancers, gymnasts, or people who could just wave their arms wildly at the camera and tumble around.
When Lee got a chance to direct a film, one of the first things he did was set about hiring the best martial artists he could afford. For the film’s biggest fight, he turned to Chuck Norris. After making such an impact in that film, where audiences around the globe were wowed by his intense fighting style and abundance of body hair, it was no surprise that people started thinking about casting him in larger roles. His first was as the head heavy in Yellow Faced Tiger, released in the United States as Slaughter in San Francisco. What that role had in common with his role in Way of the Dragon was that it was a Hong Kong film that didn’t really require more from Chuck than kicking some ass. His lines can be summed up pretty much as the following: “Hmmm,” “Arrrr,” and of course, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”
When Chuck finally got to start speaking his own language (or any language at all beyond primal grunts and evil laughter), people found that he wasn’t really that great an actor. What did they expect? It’s not like he was actor. How good at karate are your average actors? Luckily, scripts rarely demanded more from Chuck than his poor man’s Clint Eastwood, and when they did, he was wooden but certainly not the worst performer in the world. Not that it mattered. People weren’t lining up to see Force of One in hopes of catching some really heart-wrenching scenes of Chuck Norris emoting all over the place. They were, however, hoping for heart-wrenching scenes in the most literal sense. In that category, Norris always delivered. Throughout the 1970s, Norris’ fame and onscreen body count grew rapidly. His specialty was the “man of peace driven to extreme measures by evil people,” his days as a cackling villain long behind him. Norris’ characters were always noble, humble, and generally fond of cowboy garb.
Folks liked Chuck Norris movies because they identified with him. He was just this normal looking guy: not all that handsome, not all that muscular, but possessed of intense inner strength matched by fists that could shatter brick and bone. He was always the moralist, always the straight guy, always the hero at a time when antiheroes were all the rage. Sure, he butted heads with the higher-ups and rattled a few cages, but that’s because there was so much corruption around him. He was just as likely to put cowboy boot to ass on a corrupt politician or police chief as he was coke dealer or robber-baron. While there was no shortage of tough-as-nails heroes for the urban crowd, Norris was one of the few guys out there dealing double-fisted beat-downs in the name of all the rural, small-town guys who talked softly and wore bootcut jeans. He was Billy Jack without the endless scenes of improvisational theater and explanations of the alternative hippie school.
The one problem aside from his limited acting range was the limited writing range of whoever was dreaming up those movies. Pretty much every one of them entails Chuck beating up a bunch of small-town thugs or international drug lords employing small-town thugs. Rarely did he face off against other martial artists, which I guess is realistic (how many fights have you seen that bust out into fully choreographed kungfu fights?) but not all that interesting to watch. Uneven pacing and cliché scripts only helped to muddy the waters, keeping most of Chuck’s films in the “not good but still enjoyable” range until the 1990s, when he dropped the “but still enjoyable” aspect of his work.
In 1980, Chuck Norris made a film that used what was then a little-known but increasingly popular martial arts legend. The legend was the Ninja, and the movie was The Octagon. The ninja trend would really start rolling a year later with the release of Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja, but Norris beat everyone to the spinning punch when he incorporated the mask-wearing shadow warriors into this not altogether bad little martial arts adventure. Norris plays Scott James – an action hero who has a normal name instead of being named something like “Derek Ice” or “Maximilian Scorpio, Esquire.” Scott’s just your average Southwestern dude who happens to have a secret Ninja past and a Ninja brother who wants to kill him some day. Scott also has a tendency to allow his thoughts to be broadcast as echoing whispers throughout the entire movie, which gets pretty annoying after about, oh let’s say the first time it happens. Call it personal preference, but I really hate the whole “echoing voice-over” thought-bubble thing. It just seems goofy to me, and I can’t stand that they always have to make it a whisper. Scott never thinks in a normal voice, just like all those people in Dune thought to themselves in whispers. I tend to think to myself in Patrick Stewart’s voice, all booming and commanding.
Scott gets tangled up with a militia that trains potential terrorists using Ninja techniques. Watching these would-be thugs get their ninja training reminded me of the year Phillip Holder moved to Gainesville and amused us all with his self-aggrandizing fliers stapled up all over town. Anyone who has ever picked up a copy of Inside Kungfu is no doubt familiar not only with Chuck Norris brand karate jeans (with increased stretchability for when you need to kick a trucker in the head while still lookin’ good and not ripping the seat of your pants), but also with (self-proclaimed) Grand Master Phillip Holder, who peppered the magazine with ads hocking his instructional videos. When he moved his global training center to Gainesville, Florida, he put signs up everywhere looking for students who wanted to be trained by “the world’s third deadliest man.” No one ever explained that title to me. I guess there is some international governing body that hands out “deadliest man” rankings, but that still doesn’t explain the exact nature of Holder’s claim. Is he the third man to hold the title “world’s deadliest man,” or is that in the race to be the world’s deadliest man, there are two men in the world deadlier than Phillip Holder?
Anyway, he crossed over into Octagon territory when he opened a summer camp for “Bodyguard and Ninjitsu Training.” I have no doubt that Phillip Holder could hand me my ass on a silver platter, just as I have no doubt that the few beer-swilling, Joe Don Baker looking good ol’ boys who attended the Grand Master’s ninja summer camp could kick my ass in less time than it would take them to down a can of Red Dog, but let’s face it: being able to kick my ass doesn’t exactly qualify you for Grand Master status or serve as a major stepping stone on your way to becoming a ninja. I’m guessing that alumnus of the Phillip Holder Ninja Camp (or “Kamp” if you are funny) were about the same as the people graduating from this Octagon thing, meaning they’re the type of gang who would get their ass kicked by a single well-trained individual.
But Norris is a man of peace, and he doesn’t just haul off and kick someone’s ass without dragging the decision out for the first two-thirds of the film. Luckily, people keep trying to kill him for no real reason, so he does get to fight a lot in between echoing voice-over thought whispers of him going, “Sakura, could it be you?” as he contemplates the possibility that his old ninja brother is the man behind the terrorist ninja camp. Speaking of terrorist camps, here’s a question I’ve had on my mind since I first saw all that footage of Al Quaeda training facilities with the guys scrambling over ramps and stuff: why do terrorists need to know how to perform well on gymborees? Honestly, I think whenever Osama bin Laden couldn’t think of anything more destructive for his thugs to do, he’d just send them out to jump over the bars and swing on the ropes. Are they planning on taking down America by challenging us to a footrace through an obstacle course? Or are they training to win that Gymkata game?
One of the women at the terrorist training camp decides this is all a little much, and makes a hasty retreat, eventually coming into contact with Scott (Norris), who has been busy playing games with some rich chick while his best friend grumbles and Lee Van Cleef drifts in and out of the film in an attempt to spur Chuck’s character to action or possibly just collect a paycheck. You’d say that Van Cleef was slumming it in b-movie action realm if his filmography wasn’t so full of shame. Given that he would later go on to star in the abysmal Master Ninja television series, it’s safe to say that this movie is the pinnacle of all things Lee Van Cleef has done involving ninjas. Eventually, the reformed terrorist chick shows her boobs to Chuck Norris and he finally gets off his peace-lovin’ ass track down Sakura’s ninja camp. The terrorist chick shoots stuff, Lee Van Cleef gets to blow things up, and Chuck Norris has to fight his way through a maze filled with ninja henchmen before facing off against the final ninja henchman (who insists on wearing an elaborate get-up and metal mask even though the training facility is in the middle of the desert in Mexico) and, ultimately, his estranged blood brother.
The Octagon takes a lot of flack for “looking dated,” which has never hit me as an especially meaningful criticism. It’s what people say who can’t remember back more than three years. It’s not Chuck’s fault that fashion in the late 1970s was so abysmal. Luckily for him, cowboy fashion has been the same pretty much since the 1800′s, so at least he isn’t strutting around in all those plaid flares Sonny Chiba had a tendency to don. That a film looks dated really doesn’t bother me or register, most likely because I’ve been watching film so closely for so long now that I’ve simply learned to disregard certain trivial things that other people seem to get hung up on. Besides, there’s plenty of stuff to complain about in The Octagon without having to dwell on the khaki pantsuits and things like that.
First, of course, there’s that damn whispering. I go to bed at night, and I hear Chuck Norris whispering in the wind. I’m thinking of recording all his weird echoing whispers and playing them at random intervals during subway rides around town. That would at least afford me some small amount of satisfaction for having to hear ol’ Chuck’s whisper-thought so much. It seems weird to have to yell “Shut up!” at a guy who isn’t actually saying anything. Watching The Octagon is a simulation of what it must feel like to have ESP.
Coming out when it did, The Octagon is basically a 1970s action film with a 1980 release date. As such, it suffers from many of that era’s shortcomings, which are actually many of the same things that endeared the movies to me. It’s needlessly arty in some places, amateurishly crude in others. Flashbacks have a freaky tint to them, and many of the nighttime scenes are poorly lit (or at least poorly transferred from the original negatives). The pacing is also pretty uneven. When there’s action a-brewin’, it’s generally pretty good, but when it comes down to scenes of Chuck Norris engaging in witty banter with Lee Van Cleef or the rich lady, things just grind to a halt. Luckily, the final third of the film dispenses with the dialogue altogether save for the occasional shout of “Sakura!!!” and just makes with the martial arts mayhem.
I also don’t begrudge Chuck Norris the chance to have a cute girl get naked for him during the film’s one short love scene. Given the chance, I’m sure most of us would write ourselves a script that involved some attractive young gal rubbing her boobs against us, or some strapping young cabana boy giving us a cocoa butter rub-down. But understandable or not, I’m not so into seeing Chuck Norris’ carpetlike chest stroked lovingly like someone might pet a furry dog or a sasquatch. I mean, you slide your fingers into that jungle, and there’s a chance some of them won’t come back out.
Action, of course, is what we’re here for, and when the movie shuts up long enough, it delivers some solid martial arts fun. Sure, we’re not talking Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, but as far as American martial arts films go, The Octagon has better than average fight scenes. Norris is in good form and this movie has the wisdom to pit him against other martial artists rather than fist-swinging country lugs. While the choreography isn’t mind-blowing, it’s definitely solid and even believable for the most part. Sakura is played by Japanese karate movie mainstay Tadashi Yamashita, and Richard Norton shows up as a thug, so this movie isn’t devoid of martial arts talent. For the most part, fights are well done. I’m sure fans of the wild wire-fu and undercranked nonsense will find the fights sluggish, but since I enjoy the old school even if it’s slower and doesn’t fly through the treetops, I thought The Octagon’s martial arts were pretty enjoyable.
As for the ninjas, I’m not quite sure what their deal was. I know that ninja popularity was on the rise as this film was being completed, but none of the ninjas in the movie do anything particularly ninjalike. Sure, they sneak into houses and try to strangle Chuck Norris, but there’s no real reason to do masks and cloaks for that. Well, masks maybe, but you don’t exactly blend in with the surroundings running around your average Southwestern city in a ninja uniform and cloak. They don’t seem to be teaching their students very much, either. Sakura and his sai-wielding ninja right hand man kick dirt at people and do that thing where you teach them a lesson by beating them up, but none of their pupils seems especially accomplished at any point. I wonder if Sakura and his masked pal didn’t go back home after a day of watching the recruits screw up and bemoan the sorry state of ninjitsu students these days. Additionally, if the entire idea behind the art of ninjitsu is that you blend in to your surroundings, why would a bunch of Japanese ninjas build their camp in Mexico then strut around the local barrio in their ninja outfits? Mexico is a pretty laid back place, but even the most stereotypical Mexican peasant would be stirred from his siesta by a troupe of ninjas marching down the street. Maybe Sakura just passes his men off as some Cirque du Soliel type of thing.
On the acting front – well, you get what you pay for. That Chuck Norris has never been nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar is no travesty of justice, and he proves that here. He’s not bad, per se, but he is stiff. He gives it the ol’ college try, and he’s better than a lot of the other actors in the genre. Lee Van Cleef is there to pay some bills, but he turns in a decent performance, though half the time exactly what he’s even doing is a bit unclear. Yamashida is all action, few words, as is Norton. The rest of the cast – well, let’s leave it at the fact that there’s a good reason you’ve probably never heard of most of them before or after this film.
Problems aside, The Octagon really isn’t such a bad film. It was the first out of the ninja gate, even if Enter the Ninja was more popular, so it gets points for being historically important in that regard (or however historically important low-budget B-movie action films can be). It’s certainly better than vast many ninja films that would be released throughout the 1980s, sitting at the top of the heap alongside the likes of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Pray for Death. Granted, that’s not an especially tall heap, but it’s better than nothing. If you’re looking for wild ninja action and people disappearing into puffs of purple smoke, your better off with a film like Ninja Hunters. If, however, you appreciate decent low-budget 1970s action films, The Octagon has a lot of fun to offer despite the stop and go pacing and low production values. I’m much happier with a low key film like this than I am overblown, special effects laden crap like we see today. Call me a cranky old redneck with no taste, but I’d much rather see Chuck Norris beating up ninjas in some sandy courtyard than I would ever watch Jet Li do cgi-fu and “bullet time” effects.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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