Here’s an interesting factoid for you: every year this century, with the exception of 2001, a superhero movie has been in the top ten highest grossing US films of the year. Some years have had more than one – 2008 had three. Not surprising then that other filmmaking nations are trying to get their hands on those fat comic-book dollars (or in this case, baht). Thailand’s film industry is currently enjoying considerable worldwide success on the back of Tony Jaa’s martial arts movies, and has made some forays into this area such as 2006′s Mercury Man. The film was produced Prachya Pinkaew, director of Ong Bak and Chocolate, with action choreography from his long-time collaborator Panna Rittikrai. It was their attempt to cash in on the Hollywood comic-book boom, specifically Spider-Man. Don’t worry if you don’t pick up on this immediately, as the filmmakers (completed by director Bhandit Thongdee, The Unborn) helpfully add extras in Spider-Man T-shirts and jokey graffiti shout-outs to the Marvel movies, not to mention the look and abilities of the hero.
Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.
I have nobody to blame but myself. I mean, by now I should know that Hong Kong movies are not what they once were (i.e. good). And I should certainly know not to expect anything much from pop duo The Twins, a.k.a. Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung – I did, after all, suffer through their crummy vampire action mess The Twins Effect. So why in the Gay Blue Hell would I be interested in Protégé De La Rose Noire, their latest box office smash? Well, because one of my Hong Kong heroes, Donnie Yen, was the man behind the camera, and Donnie kicks ass. He was the action choreographer on The Twins Effect, and deserves the credit for making the mostly non-fighter cast look halfway competent. So maybe, just maybe, he could pull something out of the fire. Also of interest is that the movie features Donnie’s little sister Chris Yen, returning to the big screen for the first time since her debut in the little-known 1986 Yuen Woo-ping film Close Encounter With A Vampire. Still, I didn’t dare get my hopes too high, which is just as well because the movie still couldn’t live up to them.
Well I just… I mean… you know. Huh. How about that? I guess to have any hope of communicating effectively about a movie like Hero Dream we have to first summarize the concept of the Hong Kong Cat III film and, more importantly, the batshit insane, anything-goes attitude that drove Hong Kong cinema off the cliff and into pure pandemonium. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, so I’ll keep it brief. Or as brief as I ever keep anything. And after that, we can talk about how I racistly can’t tell the difference between Chin Siu-Ho and Chin Kar-Lok unless they are standing right next to each other, and even then I have problems unless one of them happens to have a bowl cut and a salmon colored blazer.
It’s popular in modern film criticism, both professional and amateur, to look back with a knowing snicker at what we perceive to be the profoundly obvious homoeroticism present in many — if not most — of the beefy, oiled up action films of the 1980s. It’s also popular to wonder whether all this musclebound gay subtext is actually there, or whether we, from our perch in the 21st century, simply inject it in ourselves. The answer of course, is probably yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And thank goodness, because if it wasn’t there, queer cinema would be stuck with a really boring filmography.
I ended up owning Naked Fist through my desire to beat Teleport City head honcho Keith in our race to both own as many nude kickboxing movies as possible. I’m not doing too well in this race mind you; my ineptitude at competitiveness has never been more obvious than when, as soon as I got a copy of Naked Fist, I immediately ripped it and sent it to Keith. This despite knowing he has at least 3 nude kickboxing movies I don’t own. I guess my only hope now is that he doesn’t have TNT Jackson, Duel to the Death, Golden Ninja Warrior or any of those Alexander Lo Rei/Godfrey Ho flicks where Alice Tseng fights ninjas while taking a bath. I don’t hold out much hope though; this is Keith we’re talking about. Ninjas in the bath are his bread and butter.
If there’s one lesson to take away from this lavish Thai swashbuckler, it is this: if you are a dick to whales, don’t go to war against a guy who is nice to whales and can also ask them for favors.
These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan. It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with maybe an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.
What is it about a sexy woman in a skull mask? Is it that her nubile body makes one pine for his lost youth while her death’s head visage mockingly reminds him of his encroaching mortality? Probably.
Neraka Lembah Tengkorak is based on a series of popular Indonesian novels credited to author Bastian Tito, all of which focus on the exploits of Wiro Sablang, a sort of wuxia-style wandering hero gifted with a wide variety of supernatural powers. Seven films in all were based on the series, all starring actor Tonny Hidayat as Wiro, and the popularity of the books would later also translate into a successful TV series, albeit one with a different actor in the lead.
Regular readers to this site may have noticed my curious affection for the DTV martial arts flick. Thus it would be churlish of me to ignore Bloodmoon, a 1997 example of the genre, seeing as it features not one but TWO of my fellow Brits. A handful of Britkickers have made names for themselves as nasty roundeye bad guy types in Hong Kong martial arts films; the likes of Mark Haughton, Sophia Crawford and Jude Poyer have all spent time getting beaten on by Asian stars du jour. Probably the most successful of these is one Gary Daniels, a remarkable martial artist who has a Judge Dredd-style square jaw, the physique of Schwarzenegger and amazing kung fu/karate/kickboxing skills, coupled with the acting ability of a wooden badger. Daniels has appeared in some 30-odd films, but is still best known as the imposing ‘Pony tail fighter’ in Wong Jing’s lame Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter.
Joining Gary in Bloodmoon is fellow Brit Darren Shahlavi, another action type who came to video by way of Hong Kong. He has a spectacular fight at the end of arguably the last of the New Wave of period martial arts films, Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi II. Also appearing is American martial artist Chuck Jeffreys, who among his other acting and stunt credits was fight choreographer on Spider-Man (the 2002 one, not the woeful old TV show). Anyway, that’s far too much trivia on fifth-banana action stars for anyone, so on with the review of Bloodmoon.
Our story opens on the nighttime New York skyline with some reassuringly bad superimposed-moon special effects — so bad in fact that they make the Evil Dead ones look downright polished. We move to a boxing gym where a badass fighter named Eddie Cunningham (Hakim Alston) is training. A banner proclaims the gym as “Home of the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World.” Pretty soon the gym is empty and the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World is left to lock up, standard practice for boxing CHAMPIONS I assume. Suddenly a figure appears, who intones, “there is blood on the moon” (cut to shot of fake window with big red circle painted on it). This is our villain (Shahlavi), and he cuts an imposing figure; black leather trousers, lined opera cape, metal-tipped engineer boots, Gene Simmons hairdo and a curious mask which sits somewhere between a yin-yang symbol and one of Elton John’s more outlandish eyewear choices. After a reasonably spectacular fight the boxing CHAMPION is killed by our villain’s Iron Finger technique.
Next we see a figure on a high-powered motorcycle zooming around some of Manhattan’s more memorable landmarks, in case we’d forgotten we were in New York. Apparently to get to a seedy Harlem gym you have to go via the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and Columbus Circle, stopping on Mulberry Street for some clams at Sal Anthony’s. Although I’ve visited “la grande pomme” three times admittedly I’ve never ridden a motorbike there, so maybe this is the best way. The figure pulls up outside the boxing gym, doing a little spinning jump kick to amuse the police officers guarding the entrance. This is Detective Chuck Baker (Jeffreys) and he is a droll fellow. So droll in fact that he does a few conjuring tricks over the bloody corpse of the boxing CHAMPION. In a line of dialogue so obvious it could have come from Ed Wood’s pen, he looks down at the corpse and says, “Boys and girls, it looks like we got ourselves a homicide.” No clue is too complex for this detective it seems.
On his return to the police station Chief Hutchins chews him out. A shockingly bad Frank Gorshin plays Hutchins, in fact I haven’t seen scenery-chewing on this scale since, um… Frank Gorshin in that episode of Buck Rogers with the Legion Of Death. Hutchins is upset because the killer is taunting him with emails featuring the words “Blood on the moon”. Clearly his expertise with basic email and cheap Photoshop effects means the police consider him to be a computer genius.Meanwhile in the back room of a bar, a Tough Man CHAMPION named Dutch (played by Mr. PPV, The Whole F’n Show, Mr. Monday Night himself Rob Van Dam) is attempting to copulate with a female on top of a pinball machine. Dutch is a bit of a sh*t, we know this because he… well, he looks like one, and is played by Rob Van Dam. Oh, and he calls the girl a ‘b*tch’. Not surprisingly (and because there hasn’t been a fight for about five minutes) the killer arrives and picks a fight with Dutch, using his nifty Iron Finger strike again (I’m not kidding, he actually has two iron fingers). That’s two CHAMPIONS dead then, I wonder if the cops will notice. Sadly the police aren’t going to make this staggering revelation for another hour or so, but bear with them as there’s plenty of fun to be had before then.
Killing Rob Van Dam just isn’t on, so the Chief calls in retired cop Ken O’Hara (Daniels). Now, forgive me if your name happens to be Ken and/or O’Hara but that particular nomenclature just doesn’t have the ring of a true action hero name. Usually he would have been called Steve Ninja or Barry Fist or something, but KEN… I kept wanting to refer to him as Stig O’Hara, the famous lead guitarist of The Rutles. Anyhow Stig, I mean Ken, is introduced to us playing on the beach with his young daughter. I’m not familiar with Manhattan having only visited there a few times (I may have mentioned it in passing), but I can’t recall any beaches. Anyway I digress once again. Some nasty Manhattan beach Hell’s Angels arrive and start to cause a ruckus. Ken, man of peace that he is attempts to smooth things over, until the foolish biker thugs decide to rough up his eight year old. Boo, meanies. This is all it takes for Ken to leap, punch and spinning jump kick into action. He’s still a man of peace at heart of course, as he says, “I didn’t want to fight them; I didn’t have a choice.”
Ken is a Mind Hunter, a super-smart serial killer profiler who quit the job when he got ‘too close’ to the mind of a killer he was tracking and incidentally was horribly injured. Yes folks, we now have a kung fu cop action buddy movie Manhunter ripoff. Chuck arrives at Ken’s house to find his (estranged, naturally) wife waiting to collect their daughter. Seems that all the profiling got in the way of his marriage too. Chuck tries to convince Ken to return, but Ken refuses. “I don’t do this anymore!” he cries, the acting very nearly detectable. Next time we see Ken he is walking around his house at night. There is a thunderstorm outside, mournful soft rock on the soundtrack and angst in the air. He gazes at a photo of an old Japanese guy with a horribly fake moustache before he slips into a monochrome flashback of his torture at the hands of a psycho. “Not again!” screams Ken, in slow motion naturally.
AT THAT VERY MOMENT, the Japanese guy with the fake moustache (Ken Kensei) is meditating in his dojo. He is Master Takaido, and we assume he is a CHAMPION at something. Bad facial hair possibly. Our villain enters and sets up a nifty live video camera-modem link before Master Takaido notices him and declares his spirit unclean. There then ensues a neat Katana fight that is being beamed live by computer to police HQ. Chuck realises that they are seeing the killer at work but is too late to save the Master. Good thing too because Chuck and Ken are still at the ‘mutual dislike’ stage. They won’t reach ‘grudging respect’, let alone ‘admiration and understanding’ for a good half-hour. Of course the two are now thrown together since Master Takaido is Ken’s former Sensei, but not before they accidentally bump into each other at the darkened crime scene and duke it out for a bit.
At the crime scene they also run into Takaido’s adopted American teenage daughter Kelly (Brandie Rocci), who is probably best described as ‘spunky’. She wants to be involved with the investigation, adding a new annoying wrinkle to the plot. Chuck and Ken shake her off long enough for them and their visible boom mike to see sleazy computer hacker Justice (Jeff Pillars), who can figure out the complicated email trickery. Naturally he is a repulsive fat weasel who downloads porn and pees in a thermos. They get a location on the killer, but it’s all a big trick and they end up surrounded by drug dealers. Of course they beat the crap out of them but there’s no masked killer to be found.
Meeting Kelly in the obligatory strip club, the petite blonde takes out a gang of unruly guys who are hitting on her. Ken neglects to help, claiming she is “a former national CHAMPION”. Good job the killer wasn’t there to overhear that, eh? Oh, hang on…who’s that guy in the Gene Simmons wig? Naturally the killer turns up at Kelly’s place shortly thereafter, and a fight ensues. A word on this. I have no problem with guys in wigs doubling women in fight scenes, even when the woman in question is wearing panties and a bathrobe. However if this is a road you choose to go down, it’s not a good idea to let said male stunt double do backflips in which his pink-cotton clad hairy nutsack is clearly visible.
After a short interlude while Ken saves his marriage by going on some fairground rides, our heroes find another dead guy, this time with the word “CHAMP” written next to the body in blood. This actually gives the game away to our doofus cops. “It’s been here all along!” says Ken. No shit, Sherlock. It seems that Master Takaido once held a tournament called the Masters’ Challenge, in which different martial arts champions fought each other. Most of them have been victims, except for two — have a guess if you think our guys pick the wrong one. Meanwhile the real killer lures Kelly to his house and kills her.
By the time Chuck and Ken find Kelly, the killer has kidnapped Ken’s newly reconciled wife and kid. He straps them to a bomb and demands Ken face him in Mortal Kombat…sorry, wrong movie. Naturally it only remains for Ken, Chuck, and the killer to face of in an abandoned factory, the discerning bad movie’s location of choice. If you think Ken kills the bad guy and saves his family…you’d be wrong actually. This movie has a very odd cop-out ending which makes very little sense.
Apart from all that, how is the movie? Well, I daresay there’s some acting in here somewhere but I’m buggered if I can find it. Gary Daniels has spent a long career saying very American-sounding lines in an English accent, something that never works very well. Jeffreys is OK, Rocci is irritating, and Shahlavi has an evil laugh that he must have borrowed from an 80s cartoon. Frank Gorshin deserved an award of some kind for his performance, which is hammier than the pork products stand at a pig auction. Still, all of them are better than the daytime TV rejects playing Ken’s wife and daughter.
Still, this is a kung fu movie so who cares about acting? How does he movie fare to those who like extra chop with their socky? Well, fortunately it does quite well. Director/choreographer Tony Leung Siu Hung worked on such Hong Kong fare as In The Line Of Duty 3, To Be Number One, and Satin Steel, and he puts together some nice action scenes. Luckily he has three very talented martial artists to perform them, with a decent cast of support victims, who lay just enough smack down before dying horribly. There are even some Crouching Tiger-style wire stunts, including at least two where the wire isn’t clearly visible.
My main criticism of the film is that it looks cheap – Ng See Yuen and Seasonal films, the folks behind seminal classics like Drunken Master, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and Secret Rivals produced it. The problem here is the same one that has dogged other Seasonal American productions; you get a lot more bang for your buck in HK than in the USA. The amazing computer graphics look like the sort of thing I could have done on my previous PC with the software that came free with my old printer. A shame, because with a bit more attention to detail this could have been a bargain-basement classic.
As it is the best thing to do is fast-forward to the fight scenes and try not to laugh at the killer’s costume. Or he’ll kick your ass, CHAMP.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Frank Gorshin, Darren Shahlavi, Nina Repeta, Leigh Jones, Jeffrey Pillars, Brandie Rocci, Keith Vitali, Joe Hess, Rob Van Dam, Jen Sung Outerbridge, Michael Depasquale Jr., Ken Kensei, Joe Lewis, Rebecca Rogers, Hakim Alston | Screenplay: Keith W. Strandberg | Director: Kuang Hsiung | Cinematography: Derek Wan | Music: Richard Yuen | Producer: Ng See-Yuen, Keith W. Strandberg
Back in the 1980s, American pop consciousness got really obsessed with the Vietnam War. Serious questions about what the war meant to the American psyche manifested in a variety of mediums, none so readily exploitable as film. And film, like Bo Gritz, became obsessed with exploiting the notion that American POWs were still being held captive in Communist Vietnam. Gritz, amid a flurry of self-promotion and with a team comprised at least partly of bikini chicks wearing t-shirts about how awesome Bo Gritz and his howlin’ commandos were, set up shop in Thailand and began crowing about mounting rescue expeditions. Dealing with a KIA family member can be devastating; dealing with an MIA is often even worse. As far as I know, Gritz never actually amounted to much other than a huckster, and although Vietnam began a program of finding and returning remains of American servicemen, there was never any secret cache of POWs discovered. But the idea had taken root, and once that idea took root, American cinema was quick to send a seeming endless parade of would be heroes who didn’t fight in the actual war to win it for us after the fact in make believe. Uncommon Valor was the most respectable. Rambo: First Blood Part II was the most iconic.
And Ultimax Force is the movie that asked the question: what if Rambo was ninjas?
In retrospect, I cant believe it didn’t happen more frequently. I mean, combining the American obsession with ‘Nam movies with the American obsession with ninja movies — that just seems like common sense. I’m surprised Cannon, who were kings of both genres, didn’t just spontaneously spawn a dozen movies about ninjas saving POWs without even having to commission the production of them. As far as I know, ninja and “rescue the ‘Nam POW” movies just appeared magically overnight in Golan and Globus’ office, created presumably by a team of elves who had little else to do ever since they helped make that cobbler rich. At the very least, you’d think Godfrey Ho would have gotten in on the action.
Surprisingly, though, there were very few movies that thought to take the proverbial American ninja and plop him down in the middle of a ‘Nam POW movie. Godfrey Ho was too busy splicing ninjas into movies where guys with mustaches fought other guys with mustaches in the jungles of The Philippines, but this was always over the drug trade. So the potentially ripe field of movies about ninjas rescuing POWs from the clutches of the VC remains sadly under-exploited.
However, if you have to have a sole example of the genre, Ultimax Force is as good as you’re probably going to get. It has pretty much everything a “ninjas meets Rambo” movie needs. The plot is pretty bare: four ‘Nam vets who also happen to be ninjas are asked by their old master to rescue one of their ninja brothers, languishing still in a VC prison camp. With that groundwork laid, you get what you need from such a film. There’s a bar room brawl, a cute Vietnamese woman played by a Chinese woman who assists the heroes, a lot of exploding huts, guys falling out of guard towers, sadistic prison commandants, dudes doing the exaggerated “I’m getting peppered with machine gun bullets” dance, and lots of walking or boating through the jungles. Plus the heroes, when they aren’t dressed as ninjas, wear the requisite 80s American adventure wear: acid washed jeans cuffed tight around the ankle, white sneakers, loose fitting checkered shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and of course, headbands. They look like their “rescue mission” checklist included “sharpen ninja swords, to some push ups, stop by Chess King.”
Aside fromt he requisite notes, Ultimax Force does a couple things a little different from your standard Namsploitation movie — apart from, you know, ninjas. Chief among these is the fact that the rescue mission is a dismal failure. Once the prison commander gets wind of a bunch of American ninjas heading his way to liberate the POWs, he just guns down all the prisoners, including the ninjas’ brother. There you go. Problem solved, though it lacks the panache of some of the more flamboyant sadistic prison commanders, who would keep the prisoners alive but do something like crucify them or put them in those half-submerged cages full of leeches. So points off for style, but I guess you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the more mundane “I’ll just shoot ‘em” approach. James Bond is lucky he never ran into this guy. There’s also no talk of government conspiracies or corrupt American businessmen and officers colluding to foil the rescue mission.
Ultimax Force is a pretty low budget but enjoyable trash war film. It delivers on the action and exploding huts and doesn’t bother with much else. While Italian ‘Nam movies are often full of ripe, ridiculous dialogue, Ultimax Force (pretty sure it was Filipino) offers almost nothing in the way of cornball lines. It sticks mostly to gratuitous name calling and those tortured insults that are too convoluted to have come from the mind of a native speaker of English. And the plot is as thin as the dialogue. This isn’t a movie that has a lot to say. Like the ultimax force itself, this movie has a job and gets it done as quickly as possible. It’s only about 80-something minutes long, and most of that time is spent on the point: ninjas mowing down VC. I appreciate that they keep this one lean and mean, especially after more meandering, twisty movies like The Last Hunter.
The actors here have worked hard to be completely emotionless, even when they’re supposed to be screaming vengeful, “I’ll get you, you fucker!” proclamations. One of ninjas harbors considerable racist rage against the Vietnamese, but this is never explored as anything more than an excuse for him to get to say things like “slant-eyed mother fucker.” A couple of the other ninja are whiny “dude, let’s just go home and forget this” sort of guys, which while understandable, doesn’t make them particularly compelling adventure heroes. When people fire machine guns, they just make half-hearted yellface and wave their machine guns around wildly, somehow managing to hit people despite their technique looking similar to just flailing a garden hose around. And also, for some reason, the machine guns make pew-pew-pew laser noises. Heroes also die for no reason other than they do incredibly stupid stunts for no reason. Case in point — one guy swan dives off a bamboo platform into the waiting throngs of well-armed VC, who shoot him all to hell before he finally reveals he was also holding a grenade that kills a couple guys. Why wouldn’t you just throw those grenades from cover? Why the swan dive?
Oh, because you’re a fucking ‘Nam vet ninja.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: The Philippines | Starring: Vivian Cheung, Brad Collins, Sauro Cotoco, Vincent Giffin, Eric Hahn, Debbie Henson, Jeremy Ladd, Audrey Miller, Arnold Nicholas, Ronnie Patterson, Patrick Scott, Henry Strzalkowski, Ray Uhen | Screenplay: Joe Mari Avellana | Director: Willy Milan | Cinematography: Joe Tutanes | Music: Willie Cruz