Phenomena is often regarded as a turning point in the career of Italian thriller director Dario Argento. Unfortunately for him, the direction it is most often cited as turning is down. After Phenomena, the influential director had one more good film in him – the mean-spirited and sadistic Opera — and then it was all downhill from there. In many ways, Argento’s career seemed to reflect that of another highly creative, important director: Tsui Hark. Both men revolutionized film making in their respective countries and inspired (and continue to inspire) countless other writers and directors. Both men brought a highly stylized vision to the screen. And both men have spent the better portion of the last decade trying to live up to their own reputations.
“In the near future.” More times than not, it’s a euphemistic way for a science fiction film to say, “We were too broke to afford interesting sets.” Setting a film in “the near future” is a great way to get around a variety of stumbling blocks, not the least of which is a low budget. The near future allows you, as I said, to pretty much make up all sorts of new technology, situations, and laws while not having to fork over any money to build futuristic sets. It allows you to mold modern society to your whims without having to recreate it as something new. The alternate to this solution is to have a guy from the future travel back in time to the 20th century to save us or kill some other time traveling villain or some such nonsense. Once again, unless you are James Cameron, this allows you to throw some scifi stuff the way of the audience while not having to think too much about the look of the film.
The pain and glory of watching a Thomas Tang movie is that you never know what you are going to get, but it will almost always be stunningly terrible. Tang, for those fortunate enough to require an introduction, is part of the unholy trinity that also includes director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai, film makers in only the broadest and most liberal definition of the term. Their specialty, often working in concert, was to take part of one cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, splice it together with parts of a second cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, pepper in some original footage — usually of ninjas, hopping vampires, or white dudes (and by “white dudes” I mostly mean “Richard Harrison”) — then dub the entire thing into English in a lackadaisical attempt to make some sort of halfway coherent plot out of the mess. Using this formula, a guy like Thomas Tang could make ten or twelve movies out of just a couple movies, with very little production cost. By the time people paid to see whatever Frankenstein monster resulted from the process, it was too late for them to be pissed off. Thomas Tang — or Godfrey Ho, as the case may be — already had your money.
Look, I never said I was proud of the things I liked when I was kid, alright? And I’m even less proud of some of the things I watched now, some twenty years later, all excited about realizing how stupid they are only to realize that while, yes, they are pretty stupid, I still don’t dislike them nearly as much as I probably should. The fact of the matter is that those movies I saw as a wee sprout camped out on the floor of my friend’s house soaking in the warm glow of satellite television absolutely will not budge from their lofty spot of “fun” no matter how much rational thought and taste I apply in my vain attempt to dislodge them, and you all know that I am, if nothing else, a man of impeccable taste.
Most folks cite the slick gangster film A Better Tomorrow as the breakout film for both director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat. And that is, in part, true. It was the film that made them both household names (Chow far more than Woo, at least at the time, when the name of a star was much more important than the name of a director), and it spawned hundreds of imitations. Where Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made mainland Chinese kids want to quit school and go join the Shaolin Temple, A Better Tomorrow made Hong Kong kids wear Ray Bans and overcoats and quit school to join triad gangs. Woo the Christian pacifist must be really proud of that.
In recent years, pop culture fascination with the end of the world has resurfaced after years of dormancy during which we were all enjoying the good ol’ years of Bill Clinton, the dotcom industry, and a relatively peaceful time as long as you ignore that whole Balkan thing. Yeah, we might have used a giant asteroid to destroy Paris just for kicks from time to time, but when it comes down to ending the world, we pretty much became disinterested during the 1990s. The end of the Cold War seems to have dashed our post-apocalyptic fantasies. Gone were the days of an Evil Empire and a Red Scare. Gone were the days when middle school youths would organize themselves out in the woods to build a bomb shelter that would eventually evolve to resemble a foot deep hole covered by a sheet of warped plywood.
If you are familiar either with me or with my work on this site, it probably comes as no shock that I rank Gymkata as one of the most valuable players on an amazing and occasionally sparkly team. I’ve been pushing this movie on people for decades, armed at first with little more than my cherished VHS copy in its oversized gray MGM/UA box. Since then, and much to my delight, Gymkata has become a touchstone of pop culture references. People know it, even if they haven’t seen it, and knowing, as you know, is half the battle. And while some people get irritated when something they’ve been name-dropping for years suddenly gets embraced by the larger mainstream non-mainstream society (Chuck Norris karate jeans being the most recent example), I bear no ill will toward those who are late in coming to Gymkata. Lord knows there are plenty of things for which I showed up late. I don’t consider it to be some secret to be guarded jealously and to the death by fanatic soldiers armed with weird masks, AK-47s, and scimitars. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who have the word “gymkata” on their lips, the better.