At this point, I don’t think there is much cause to recount the ninja craze that swept the world in the 1980s (you can piece together the story from our reviews of The Octagon and Enter the Ninja). From Hong Kong to Japan, Bollywood to the United States and of course Turkey, these black-clad shadow warriors fanned out and did that really rapid baby-step ninja run into our hearts. Although the ninja originated in Japan, and Hong Kong produced more ninja films, for my money the United States was still ground zero for eighties ninjamania (many Hong Kong ninja movies were made purely to export to the United States, as often as possible, with as many different titles for the same movie as distributors could dream up). But while the US was inarguably the capital of ninja fanaticism in the western hemisphere, we were not entirely alone. In the snowy northern land known as Sweden, a man named Mats-Helge Olsson was building a sizable filmography of hyper-violent, mostly terrible action films that shocked and disappointed his countrymen. That Mats Helge would make a ninja film was inevitable. That he made two is unfortunate.
For anyone who ever watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and was disappointed that, for all its over-the-top absurdities, it didn’t feature a scene where Harrison Ford punches a midget and makes him fly across a field, then Naksha is the movie for you. Only it’s not Harrison Ford doing the punching; it’s action cinema mainstay Sunny Deol. But hell, if anyone in the world is going to punch a guy of any size and make him fly across a field, then it’s going to be Sunny. Jackie Chan may have tried it at some point, but he’s past the days of being able to do that anymore — although he is an appropriate actor to bring up in our discussion of this movie. Naksha gets compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (because all adventure films get compared to Raiders), the films it more accurately resembles would be the modern-setting adventure films of the late, great Cannon Studios, like Treasure of the Four Crowns or that thing where Chuck Norris and Lou Gossett, Jr. bicker and hunt for gold or whatever
In the 1960s and 1970s — at the very least — there was no bigger star in Turkish cinema than Cuneyt Arkin. Whether he was a medieval dude with a steel claw defending Turkey from dastardly Crusaders, or a tough-as-nails cop in a plaid blazer defending Turkey from drugs and ninjas, no one could throw down with as much cool as Cuneyt. He was Bruce Lee (well, Jimmy Wang Yu maybe) and Maurizio Merli all rolled up into one glaring package. Similarly, in the 1970s, there was no bigger star in Hong Kong cinema than Bolo Yeung — and by “bigger” in his case we mean the size of his muscles. This bodybuilder turned kungfu movie whipping boy first rose to prominence when he showed up in Enter the Dragon to stand around with his arms folded, looking impressive until he gets his ass kicked by John Saxon — who kicks Bolo’s ass even though he could barely kick. After that role, which actually gave him his stage name, Bolo was in high demand. Pretty much every kungfu star in the world wanted to be filmed beating up the Chinese muscle man, and Bolo was always happy to oblige. The man has been beat up on screen by pretty much every martial arts star you could think of. It was inevitable, perhaps, that Cuneyt would one day cross paths with Bolo — even if it was only in the editing room of notorious hack movie makers Godfrey Ho and Thomas Tang.
Watch enough of the types of movies that regularly occupy the screens here at Teleport City, and at some point you will undoubtedly find yourself lifting your arms up into the air toward yon’ heavens and, in a booming and suitably epic film sounding voice, beseeching Jehovah himself. “O Lord!” you will cry, “O Lord, how in the name of all that is twisted and unholy did this film ever get made?” For the very existence of some films, if not exactly a pox ‘pon the very arse of Almighty God Himself, are at least perplexing in their existence. Who, you ask the hideous phantoms that haunt you whenever you are left too long by yourself (the phantoms look like Mick Jagger in Performance), in their right mind would have ever green-lighted this film? You are especially likely to ask yourself (and your inner demons) this question if, like me, you consider “go out with a hot chick and party and drink free booze with her and your pals” or “stay at home and watch made for Sci-Fi Channel original movies all night,” to be a legitimately difficult decision. A night of movies in which Stephen Baldwin saves humanity? OK, I think I’ll out to the party. But a night of movies in which Daniel Baldwin saves humanity? I might just have to stay home that night.
Sompote Sands is one of those figures in cult cinema who casts a long shadow. Granted it’s a shadow that twists around and warps into a demon like Calibos’ shadow in Clash of the Titans, but it’s a shadow never the less. Regarding the origin story of this supremely interesting and bizarre film maker, that was spoken to when we reviewed his Ultraman-meets-Hanuman epic Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, so rather than paraphrase here, I encourage you to mosey on over and check that one out. The twisted saga of Sands’ relationship with and claim of stewardship over the work of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is one of my favorite film stories. For our purposes here, let us fast forward a decade or so, into the 1980s and a point where Sands had moved on from remaking Japanese superhero properties for the Thai market and had decided to indulge more substantially in his fondness for Thai mythology.
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.
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.
During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.
It makes me happy to wake up and discover, more or less totally by accident, that the world of film is still surprising and delightful. I have no idea how I heard of Norwegian Ninja. Perhaps appropriate to the subject matter, awareness of the movie simply popped into my head with no external stimulus at all, like the world knew that I needed to know Norwegian Ninja existed, and the cosmos took whatever metaphysical steps were needed to enlighten me. There it was all of a sudden on my television, and I was pretty happy. After this and Troll Hunter, maybe I should start paying attention to Norway beyond making jokes about the black metal scene and how their scary devil make-up isn’t as scary as they think it is when all those people pose for a photo out in their back yard.
Of the many pleasures in life available to be sampled by an aging and debauched, lecherous libertine like myself, the “misguided celebrity cross-over attempt” hardly beats out “a night with half a dozen young Russian models and a video camera,” but it runs a close second. Or maybe third. And maybe not that close, actually. Anyway, the point is, I get a hearty chuckle out of the disasters that occur when a celebrity in one field aspires, either because of a raging ego or genuine creative impulse, to become a star in another field. Actors recording albums. Musicians starring in movies. Sports personalities trying to do either. And while the world is littered with terrible albums recorded by people who were famous for something other than music, it’s “making a movie” that seems to be the baseball cap of ill advised — though totally understandable — efforts. Just like how every other sport has a baseball cap associated with their team (you don’t see baseball players walking around in casual football helmets, after all), it seems like it eventually comes down to the person famous in that genre of celebrity wanting to make a movie. Most of the time, they simply pop up as a star or co-star in a disposably idiotic movie. But sometimes, the celebrity has enough money and staggering enough delusions of grandeur that they can give the world that most special gift: the vanity project.
Vanity movie projects can undo even accomplished movie makers, who should already know better. But it’s a particularly sublime sort of vanity project that comes along when the person indulging their own ego and — again, totally understandable and relatable — desire to make a movie. Few people working today seem quite as committed to totally insane vanity movie projects as mixed martial artist and UFC superstar Hector Echavarria. When you read a one-line summary of his life, Echavarria himself sounds like the villain in any number of dumb direct-to-video action films from the 1990s — an Argentine millionaire businessman and kickboxer? Come on! How many of those did Jalal Merhi take down in 1993?
But the thing is, Hector’s background also prepares him ably to be the hero in any number of the same films, probably teaming up with Jalal to take down a gang consisting of…I’m gonna say John Miller and Bolo Yeung. Because according to the legend, Hector Echavarria was a sickly youth who was eventually taken under the wing of a fleeing Shaolin monk who had defected from China. The monk began training the young boy, and as the years progressed, the association with monk Kou Tsao enabled Hector to train with a variety of famous sifus, masters, and senseis. But life was tough for the kid, and he soon entered the seedy world of underground streetfighting. When he was arrested after breaking an opponent’s ribs, a cop told Hector he better clean up or end up in prison. Hector heeded the cop’s sage advise and eventually became a professional tournament fighter. Remember — this is not a summary of the plot of the movie I’m eventually going to get to. This is Echavarria’s real, or at least “officially sanctioned,” biography. No word on how much of his life was taken up with training montages set to bland synth-and-guitar-driven music, but I assume it to be a substantial amount. Also no word on how much of it is utter bullshit.
Rather than his background leading him to throw down against a local crime lord while also fighting to save the community arts center from greedy developers, Echavarria’s life took him in the direction such backgrounds usually take people in real life: he decided to open a gym in Miami. It was there that Hector met someone associated with a edgy new television show that was about to shoot its first season: Miami Vice. Echavarria must have enjoyed the experience, because he kept at it, and eventually he got the attention of producers back in his native Argentina. A string of roles followed, and Hector must have saved most but not all of his pennies (he probably had to spend some on sweet Ed Hardy shirts, after all) until he could cash in on them and his fame to do what you, I, and many others would likely do given the same opportunity: write, direct, and star in a really bad direct to DVD action movie with all his buddies, crammed with tons of gratuitous violence and nudity. And know this: despite all else that I may write about Never Surrender from this point on, the ultimate thing to realize is that Hector Echavarria made exactly the same movie I would have probably made in his situation. It is without a doubt the heir to all the direct to video action films of the 1990s, with a healthy dose of full frontal Andy Sidaris style sex and nudity thrown in for good measure.
As if the rampant macho wish fulfillment wasn’t already obvious enough, get a load of the plot: Diego is the baddest man on the MMA circuit. All the other MMA guys (played by actual MMA fighters) want to hang out with him. But Diego’s drive to always be the best leads him to a seedy underground fighting circuit where the winner gets to fuck the loser’s girlfriend. No, seriously. What you have here is pure, unadulturated MMA fanfic in which Hector Echavarria is casting himself as the quintessential “Mary Sue.” For those who need clarification, in the world of shitty, most fan-generated fiction, a “Mary Sue”is a character that is a blatant stand-in for the author. Only it goes beyond that. Mary Sue will be the absolute best at everything, and all the formerly competent characters occupying some work of fiction will suddenly fawn endlessly over and constantly need the help of Mary Sue, who’s just the bestest and smartest and prettiest and Legolas will totally fall in love with her and marry her and they will go on a honeymoon to Sanrioland.
Diego is basically the MMA fanfic version of a Mary Sue, with Echavarria wishing himself into a role where actual MMA guys all fawn over him and tell him how awesome he is and want to ride around in his stretch Hummer limo. Plus, he could beat them all up if he wanted to, and he makes super-love to ladies. As far as I know, Echavarria himself never actually worked the mixed martial arts circuit, which makes it even sweeter that he would cast himself as the number one pit fighter in the world, then wave enough money in front of legitimate MMA fighters to convince them to show up for a few hours and tell him how awesome he is, and how they all wish they could be more like him. Of course, the entirety of his plan was to pay fighters to show up and praise him. He didn’t really know what to do with them beyond that, so you get a steady procession of guys like BJ Penn and Rampage Jackson showing up out of nowhere, saying, “Diego, you da man!,” maybe having a fight scene with some thugs, and then their character disappears for the rest of the movie.
Eventually, through sheer force of human intelligence, Diego surmises that maybe, just maybe, the women aren’t as willing participants in this exchange as you would think. I mean sure, all of hem like fucking Diego, but the rest of the time, they’re basically sex slaves. Obviously, it’s up to Diego to fight for their freedom and put an end to this whole sordid business. It could also be that Diego doesn’t actually realize what he’s taking part in is wrong; it could be that Hector Echavarria realizes that the one person in the world he really wants to make love to is Hector Echavarria, so he might as well fight to free all these chicks. Standing in the way of Diego and supreme righteousness is bloodthirsty thug Patrick Kilpatrick, who apparently traveled into the Face/Off universe and stole Randy Couture’s face.
You know the grunting noise a rutting feral hog makes? This movie is the embodiment of that sound. This movie is an Ed Hardy shirt. Hell, this movie doesn’t just feature stretch limo Hummers; it is the cinematic embodiment of a stretch limo Hummer, and chances are if you think stretch limo Hummers are totally bad-ass and classy, then this is probably the movie for you. Or, if you are like me and just love totally goofy, incompetent movies packed to the gills with tough guy swagger, naked strippers, and dudes punching each other in the face, well, you’ll probably be happy too. 100% USDA prime meathead dialogue, an inability to string scenes together in any coherent sort of way, characters who pop in and out of the movie at random and purely because Echavarria was able to convince them to show up and do a scene — this is a shitty, sleazy b-movie the way they used to make ‘em, and I was overjoyed watching every sordid, idiotic frame. Never Surrender is a pretty terrible movie by almost any sane measure, but as long as you aren’t looking for good or logical writing, quality acting, well-executed fight scenes, or any sense of good taste or decency, there’s untold amounts of entertainment to be mined from a movie this absurd. It really was just like staying up late to scope out titty movies on Cinemax back in the 1980s, only instead of Jack Scalia solving an insurance fraud case involving Shannon Tweed, mixed martial arts dudes would show up in between the sex scenes with anonymous strippers to beat each other up. If you have any sort of fondness at all for that sort of irredeemable crap, let Hector Echavarria ensure you that, if nothing else, he’s still respecting the tradition.
The film does have some potentially decent fight scenes, but unfortunately, Echavarria is about as good at directing a film as he is at acting in one. He has no real grasp of how to stage fights for the camera, and the result is a lot of messy fights with lots of editing and no real rhythm. Echavarria himself looks particularly sluggish in some of the scenes, and his desire to do as many spinning, high kicks as his kickboxing background will allow him doesn’t really fit with the whole MMA vibe. For those old enough to remember, when MMA first began its march to popularity, the matches threw together a bunch of different sized fighters using a bunch of different styles of fighting. It didn’t take too long before people noticed that the guys who tried to break out the funky styles got destroyed, and every match was dominated by the guys who knew grappling disciplines like jujitsu. By the time Never Surrender was released, the idea that an MMA circuit could be dominated by a forty-year-old dude spin kicking and doing the splits was, at best, quaint.
At the same time, bringing a truer MMA style to the screen, where two guys circle each other, throw a few kicks and punches, then spend the next ten minutes on the ground maneuvering for a choke hold to end the match, does not particularly compelling cinema. In the hands of a creative and talented choreographer, just the right balance of what happens in the ring and what we wished would happen in the ring could be obtained. The driving force behind many of the current crop of low budget MMA action films, Tap Out, worked hard to get it right, and most of the time, they succeed. Echavarria, on the other hand, flails about, and the film’s fight scenes suffer from his lack of attention to anything but filming himself with a naked hooker grinding on top of him in slow motion. Even the veteran MMA guys who show up to pretend like they give a shit about Hector Echavarria are undermined by the director’s poor grasp of how to stage and shoot a fight for film. Although, once again, if you are looking to relive the ridiculous low-budget actioners of the 80s and 90s, Echavarria at least handles himself in a fight as well as Jalal Merhi, and substantially better than, oh, let’s say Julie Strain.
Never Surrender (the 1000th film to have that title) is ultimately a movie about how awesome Hector Echavarria is, playing to the tough guy (and more importantly, wannabe tough guy) fantasy he and his target audience doubtless harbor: to be the baddest mother fucker in the world, out-fighting and out-fucking every other man on the planet. It’s obvious from the get-go that only by writing, directing, and starring in the movie himself could Hector Echavarria ever hope to communicate to the rest of us just how awesome Hector Echavarria is and how awesome it is to be Hector Echavarria. Every frame of this movie is designed specifically for Hector to remind you of how cool and tough Hector Echavarria is. He can beat up anybody, and every hot chick with fake boobs wants to have sex with him (and actually, probably did to get their three minutes of “fame” in this movie, pretending to do what they did in real life to get the role). Because he’s a classy guy, Hector stops short of adding DVD audio commentary in each sex scene to the effect of, “We’re pretending to have sex here, but we did it for real also.” So I don’t know. If this movie is just a self-indulgent way to pander to his own ego and let the world know how great it is being Hector Echavarria, maybe he’s right.