Today I watched Pao Hsueh-Li’s The Battle Wizard (1977)
One can kind of tell that this movie is based on a novel, because boy is this plot over complicated. The main thrust of it comes from a guy named Duan Yu, he is a noble and next in line for the imperial throne, but hates studying martial arts. His father tells him it is an important skill in the outside world, but Yu, coddled as he is, doesn’t believe that. So he decides to run away for a while and see if the outside world is really as violent as his father said, it is. Yu is then whisked along on a magical adventure that brings him face to face with a villain driven to avenge himself of Yu’s father’s past sins.
There are plenty of details I am not recounting here as, frankly, the plot is not the reason to watch this film. The plot for this movie is a busy mess of an adaptation that fails to tell the story with any efficiency. But the special effects and all the wild stuff that happens along the way are a real hoot. This is one of those very crude Chinese fantasy films along the lines of Holy Flame of the Martial World or The Boxer’s Omen which I find to be wildly entertaining and creative. It is obvious that the crew of this film have only a fraction of the tools available to their American and European contemporaries, so I have to admire their ambition with trying to show all this wild stuff. Even with laughable gorilla costumes, there is something to admire in the in your face approach these artists took to their craft.
While it is mostly a fun ride, there is actually a rather interesting theme buried in Yu’s fanciful tale. When the film begins, Yu doesn’t want to put in the effort to learn kung-fu, he wants to read poetry all day and loaf around lazily. But then it is under his own pwer and motivation that he leaves his coddled life to learn of the world, inevitably also gaining fantastical powers as per the heroes journey. While that certainly sounds like your basic adventure plot, there is something special in how Yu makes an effort to avoid effort, and in the end is rewarded for his hard work to avoid hard work. I head a saying once that life is practice, living is training, and I think this film portrays that idea very well. It doesn’t matter what road you take, just that you take one, they all lead in roughly the same direction anyways. So yeah, there is some philosophy to be found here, but I mostly like it for the lasers. 5/5
Today I watched Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Street Fighter (1974)
This film is something of a spinoff of the Japanese Street Fighter film series which had starred Sonny Chiba. Despite that this film has no real plot ties to those ones, except of course all the karate violence and drug dealing. In this film a half Japanese martial artist from Hong Kong named Koryu is sent by the police to investigate the disappearance of her brother who was working undercover in Japan. What she is confronted with is an extremely powerful heroin smuggling ring that is protected by a legion of colourful characters and kitsch martial artists. So with the help of a recast Sonny Chiba, she must obviously dispatch with this army of felons.
While this film still has much of the grit and gore of the original street fighter films, it also takes a lot of influence from kung fu films from Hong Kong. This is especially evident in how the film opens as it begins with a demonstration of star Sue Shiomi’s martial prowess on a colourful soundstage, much like a 70’s wuxia flick. It also means the fight scenes are quite a bit more flashy and showy, unlike the previous films’ very direct and impactful choreography. That said there are still buckets of blood, even the gore is made a little flashier and more over the top.
One might complain about the addition of wire work and this more colourful choreography, but then is isn’t really a street fighter movie. Sonny Chiba doesn’t even play Tsurugi in it, his character is some guy named Hibiki. So it’s easier to see it as the beginning of a new, similar, but different franchise. As such I think this is quite a great film, it’s action is really well done and the story has plenty of absurd elements to keep it all moving. I would heartilly recommend this to fans of karate films and any fans of action films in general, it’s all over the place in a really fun way. 5/5
Today I watched Ron Clements’ and John Musker’s Treasure Planet (2002)
Based on the classic adventure novel, Treasure Island, this film takes that story and loosely adapts it to space fantasy. Jim Hawkins is a rambunctious youth who dreams of adventure and gets to live that dream when a treasure map falls into his life. A crew is put together to follow this map, but unfortunately someone messed up and hired a crew of deeply untrustworthy characters. As they sail towards their destination, Hawkins comes to admire one of these untrustworthy characters, a certain Long John Silver, and they form something of a father son bond. But it is not to last as Hawkins is an upstanding sort of fellow who sides with the ship captain while it turns out that Long John is leading pirate mutineers on a quest for gold.
So the big gimmick here is that the story takes place in some kind of super stylized space fantasy world. In this anachronistic setting, tall masted ships from the golden age of sail chart courses through a colourful and warm ‘etherium,’ as the introduction calls space. Yet these ships are still made of wood and the fashions are still very traditional for the pirate genre. This anachronistic take reminds me a lot of the old Dungeons & Dragons setting Spelljammer, which really excited me. Visual flair and creativity move this film and build a really fun world to inhabit.
But then we get to the story and the film seriously drags. Obviously, with such legendary source material, there is a solid story buried here, it’s just that the script is pretty bad. Perhaps the biggest sin here is that Jim Hawkins, our main character, is practically a nobody, a cipher devoid of distinguishing features. Furthermore the dialogue is some of the most hackneyed I have heard since starting these reviews, full of the clumsiest exposition imaginable. Exposition where characters bang on about things that other characters already know doesn’t just rob the film of momentum and sound stupid, it also robs the characters of intellect.
Now that being said there were a few standout performances that managed to elevate the material. Emma Thompson is particularly good as this film’s version of Captain Smollett, a feisty and energetic cat-woman who gets far less screen time than she deserved. Brian Murray also gets some good work in as Long John, his voice perfectly bringing to life a really expressive and interesting character model. That being said he is really robbed of the opportunity to bring out that complex relationship with Hawkins as their entire bonding process is pretty much relegated to a rather crass musical number. It’s the only number of it’s type in the film, it’s just a lame licensed song, and it characterizes the lack of plot creativity found in this film. So really, despite attempts at being a family film, it ends up just being a brisk and entertaining kids film, and that is most certainly to the film’s detriment. 3/5
Today I watched Stephen Hopkins’ Predator 2 (1990)
Predator 2 is based on two ideas, the first being a minor detail about the predator’s behavior from the first film, it always hunts during heavy heat waves. The second idea is the image of the city as an urban jungle, inhabited by tribal gangs, human predators, and human prey. With a massive heat wave consuming L.A., it is the perfect time for the titular Predator to hunt. His prey this time are the Dirty Harry style loose cannon cops who are the only law on streets torn apart by massive drug wars. Danny Glover plays the lead this time, a Detective Mike Harrigan whose men are on the front lines of the urban conflict that threatens to devour their city. But the Predator now presents an otherworldly threat beyond the comprehension of anyone in the concrete jungle.
While this film and it’s characters are really no more over the top than it’s predecessor, the pulpiness can be felt much stronger here as it’s setting is so much more familiar. The city just offers so much more in terms of visual style and flair than the jungle does and thus this film can feel rather surreal at times. The jungle was gritty and intense, isolating and alien, the city is an insane hodgepodge of human life. When this city is inhabited by such over the top characters it loses some of the gritty quality.
Perhaps the film also goes a little too far in trying to make that concrete jungle analogy, resorting to some tribal racial stereotypes to make the imagery stick. Furthermore I have always had some level of issue with police protagonists in action movies as they run the risk of being very oppressive. This movie dodges that bullet at least by challenging them the same way that soldier action movie heroes were challenged in the first film. There is also this very conservative news personality who gets beaten up all the time which is somewhat cathartic to watch.
Predator 2 is certainly an interesting film, even if it doesn’t really live up to the original. It’s a very silly monster/action movie with a rather weird cast, but it comes across as satisfyingly off kilter. Danny Glover is particularly good here I think, he seems to have a lot of fun with his role and manages to work in some depth and warmth to the character and story. Really though, this is just a silly and stylish good time, a solid example of early 90’s extremism. 4/5
Today I watched John McTiernan’s Predator (1987)
Soldiers have a very important role in the traditional monster movie, their the guys who seem capable but die all the same to make the creature more intimidating. Then the scientists or other thinking type will puzzle out some manner of defeating the monster, but that’s hardly fair to soldiers, who are in their own way problem solvers. Predator re-focuses the monster movie on those soldiers, and in doing so fuses it with the mighty American action movie. To achieve this the plot is very simple, a group of commandos led by Arnold Schwarzenegger are sent into the jungle on a mysterious operation to rescue some important person. The whole operation goes sideways when it turns out to be some CIA cover-up, but more importantly there is an alien hunter using these grounds for sport.
For being a blend of traditional monster movies with an over the top action films, McTiernan actually milks a lot of subject matter out of it. In a sort of always a bigger fish type sense, there is significant parody here, as the action archetypes are hunted and made fools of by a superior being. It’s a very loving parody though as even still the movie is a very well constructed action film in it’s own right. But it’s certainly a showcase of how absurd action movies had become entering the late 90’s and how untouchable heroes were that they needed to be pitted against.
McTiernan was very good at surfacing and parodying these issues in a number of his films, such as Die Hard and The Last Action Hero. His are films that strike me as being between times, a transition between the 80’s and 90’s styles of action film making. I think this helps to explain his failures in the late 90’s and the fall into obscurity he subsequently suffered. And yet, those handful of classic he produced are extremely important and influential in the history of action cinema. 5/5
Today I watched Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
The second installment in the illustrious Lone Wolf and Cub series picks up where the last film left off and establishes the main structure of these films. Itto Ogami wanders Japan with his son Daigoro as mercenary assassins, constantly pursued by his nemesis, the Yagyu clan and their ninja warriors. In this film, a retainer clan of the Yagyu composed entirely of female ninja takes a stab at him while he goes about completing one of his contracts. The contract then forms the main narrative component while the ever present Yagyu threat is an excuse for even more action.
Itto’s contract this time around is to kill a notable maker of indigo dye. This craftsman has recently defected from his old clan who were profiting significantly off of secret dye formula that are known to him. To keep him quiet they must hire the Lone Wolf and Cub for the target is also protected by three elite killers with unique weapons of mass carnage. Really though, the stories in these films are a little irrelevant, they are excuses to present stunning imagery and sequences.
Much like the first film this one uses a starkly minimalist approach to the audio-visual presentation, while maximizing the bloodshed and action. Since the film is very much so not about the story, it really becomes about the feel of the scenes, their ephemeral impact. Even if the story takes a back seat and action is elevated, this is still first and foremost a strong mood piece that fluctuates between said violence and oddly tender moments between father and son. That strange dichotomy is this series in a nutshell, and this is just another supremely entertaining entry in that canon. 5/5
Today I watched Chih-Hung Kuei’s The Boxer’s Omen (1983)
This film opens on a boxing match between a Thai boxer and a boxer from Hong-Kong which ends in a questionable finish. The Thai boxer’s eye was apparently damaged enough for the ref to call for the finish, but in a fit of rage, the Thai boxer attacks his Hong Kong counterpart from behind, crippling him. Now it is up to the Hong-Kong boxer’s brother to avenge him, but first a ghost leads him to a temple in Thailand so a priest there can tell him a story about another priest battling an evil wizard. The priest of that story was defeated, killed(?), and cursed and now needs our hero to break said curse. So he abandons earthly matters, becomes a monk, walks the path of enlightenment, and fights evil. All this before heading back to Hong-Kong to box his brother’s Thai Nemisis before battling even more evil.
The Boxer’s Omen has quite the confusing narrative, mostly due to it’s breakneck speed of delivery and focus on effects. That being said, this is one of the most wild and over the top movies I have ever seen, it’s totally insane. The story is some kind of Buddhist parable about the path to enlightenment, I think, maybe, but this is totally lost in the madness. There is just so much going on in the visuals and special effects of this movie that everything else is pushed by the wayside. In some respects the film is also a horror as many of the aforementioned effects are rather gross and disconcerting.
Despite it’s silliness, this film still does manage to also be a bit disturbing from time to time. This is largely thanks to the outlandish and disconcerting imagery, as cheap as the effects may be, the sheer imagination has an impact all it’s own. Because of that I actually really dig this film’s presentation of black magic as it is more dangerous here than in most films. For one thing it is totally gross, which reflects the self serving sacrifice such diabolical people must go through. On top of that it’s just dangerous in a way few films manage to make magic, it’s insane and brutal in a way that is immediately off-putting.
People need to see this movie, it is such a wild experience. I have seen many, many crazy, insane, and surreal films, but nothing could have prepared me for this roller-coaster of in your face oddity. So now I think that this is some must see cinema is you are like me and have an addiction to the strange and eclectic. Even if you don’t though, you should still see this film, it’s an experience unlike anything else out there. It’s a one of a kind marvel of utter insanity. 5/5