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 … Continue reading Ninja Mission
Referring to anything that happens in a Lupin III cartoon as “realistic” is folly, but the teleivsion special Lupin III: Elusiveness of the Fog pushes the boundaries even for the Lupin universe, where purple midgets in leisure suits threaten the world and Fiats somehow can drive up castle walls. I’ve always preferred Lupin’s slightly more grounded in reality exploits. Granted, we’re talking relative frames of reference here, but at the core of things, I like Lupin and his crew matching wits against their foes and pulling heists in a world that seems at least vaguely familiar. Elusiveness of the Fog, however, puts an entirely scifi/fantasy twist on the Lupin formula and gives us a goofy, breezy time travel adventure that manages to be disposably entertaining without being all that good.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 … Continue reading Norwegian Ninja