Category Archives: Marital Arts

Martial Arts August: Revenge of the Ninja

Revenge of the Ninja is one of those films that you either understand or you hate. If you can grasp the decade in which it was made and understand what martial arts had become, you will actually enjoy the campy nature, funny one-liners, and bad post-production dialogue editing. The fact MGM rolled the dice and funded such a film was a surprise, but made sense giving that no major production houses were getting involved in what are essentially exploitation films. They just wanted a fair grab at some money in a niche market, and who can blame them for that? The other companies were staying out of it for the most part, perhaps even for good reason.

After the seventies, people wanted more and more, and these kind of kung-fu, bloody, rated-R films were going to small theaters, matinees in the cities, and drive-ins. These were never critically acclaimed films, but were tons of fun. You go to see films like these to enjoy insanity, and basically say “No way!” or “What was that?” to your friends every five minutes. This is one of those films that is so bad, it’s good. It’s also truly violent and gritty in a way we don’t really get anymore in modern action films.

First of all, you need to have a certain kind of humor when watching this film. Made in 1983, Revenge of the Ninja stars Sho Kosugi who was in over 15 martial arts films, hilariously, most of them have “death”, “ninja”, or “kill” in the title. Go figure. Are you surprised? This film was shot on the West Coast, under Philippine influence, about the way of the Chinese. Besides this film, which he is known best for, he also starred in 1985’s Pray for Death and more recently, 2009’s Ninja Assassin.

If you enjoy ridiculous murders and fights which are actually very well choreographed, these films are must sees if you’re looking for a 90-minute romp of entertainment. These movies are not total crap. All these movies are meant to be exactly what they are: envelope-pushing entertainment. Rarely will you get creative camera angles, original stories, or good special effects. That’s not what these kinds of films are about. They are about shock, awe, fighting, and over-the-top deaths.

Produced by Canon Films in 1983, Revenge of the Ninja ran 90 minutes in length and made a pathetic $509,000 on just 93 screens in its opening weekend. It’s scattered run that year — jumping from venue to venue — collected just over $13,100,000. It’s available in DVD and as of this writing (August 2011) is available on Netflix’s instant view and streaming service.

I’m going to know run through a list of what is featured in this movie and I will leave it up to you whether or not you see it. But you have to admit, no other movie on the planet has all of these things. Trust me:

  1. Stereotypes Italians, gays, blacks, Chinese.
  2. Breasts. Through wet t-shirts and just completely out. All fake, btw.
  3. Random rip-off of first-person slasher scene from Halloween for no reason.
  4. Old, balding men with mustaches in very short gym shorts wrestling in a hall where there is definitely not enough room by a brick wall.
  5. Forced, out-of-place conversations after a sparring match to keep the plot moving with exposition.
  6. A Native American hired thug dressed in Indian attire with braided hair. He wields axes and tries to scalp our protagonist.
  7. Huge 9-foot jumps over walls – clearly off of trampolines.
  8. Rich, white guy is the antagonist, trained as super ninja.
  9. Grandmother who can kick some serious ass. Impossible considering her age. But funny to watch.
  10. A fight scene that immediately has you laughing as Sho Kosugi approaches a make-shift, rip-off of the Village People for information. Stereotypes include a gay cowboy with a mustache and cowboy hat. A Spanish biker with a jean jacket, a black dude with short shorts wearing a headphone radio with antennae and mustache wearing roller skates, yes, roller skates, and a Japanese, fat skinhead wearing a leather jacket with a huge red and white rising star on his t-shirt, just in case you didn’t understand his stereotype. This group of four men are met for the first time by the protagonist and the audience at a children’s playground where they are all sitting on a picnic table laughing and drinking beer. Real hardcore.
  11. Characters, many of them, having no common sense or lapses in judgment due to a poorly written script.
  12. A pint-sized child fighting a full-grown woman and winning.
  13. People’s hands getting cut off. Great effects.
  14. Ninja’s spitting out spikes and blades into baddie’s faces. Actually kind of sick thanks to the gratuitous zoom ins.
  15. The bad ninja apparently carries around two, yes, two mannequins of himself in case he needs a diversion on a roof. Where he keeps these is anyone’s guess. Maybe his ass.
  16. Kid distracting a bad guy by pointing up and saying “Hey! Look! Superman!” and that shit actually works.
  17. Holding breath in hot tub for two minutes in full ninja hear and knowing exactly when to pop out.
  18. Joe Pesci wannabe.
  19. Actually good stunt work, especially when Sho is chasing down the van!
  20. Streams of blood spraying 15-feet in final kill scene.

 

So there you have it. Without a doubt, boys may enjoy this more than girls and you really gotta watch it in groups.

 

MH

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Enter the Dragon: a movie review

stream rental for $2.99

Bruce Lee is a house hold name. Everyone knows him; the whooping, yelping, and shrieking Chinese martial artist. Thin, fast, and fierce. He was a force to be reckoned with in the martial arts community in the late 60s and early 70s, simply as a performer and combatant. His entry to the film world was more than welcomed since karate/kung fu had been inaccurately portrayed in most American films up until that point. (And later, the ninjas of the 80s… don’t get me started.) But the handsome, talented, charismatic Bruce Lee fused his art with the art of film to create the archetype “KUNG-FU” action film, which future films of all genres (karate films, action films, and thrillers, even comedies) would hearken back to for decades to come. The tragedy is that his biggest film would also be his last. He died the same year.

Lee: Teacher?
Shaolin Abbott: I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight. I have several questions. What is the highest technique you hope to achieve ?
Lee: To have no technique.
Shaolin Abbott: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent ?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Shaolin Abbott: And why is that ?
Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.
Shaolin Abbott: So, continue…
Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

 

Like all films, it’s would be foolish to say that just because Bruce Lee starred in the film that it was good. That’s not true at all. Any well known star in Hollywood today has more than likely played their part in a poorly written or poorly directed film. Bruce Lee is no exception, having starred in several films taking place in different countries under several directors. However, most of his work was decent at worst. Enter the Dragon is one of the most prolific of his works. It is the “go to” title; the first film a buddy would probably recommend for the Bruce Lee new-comer.

The interesting thing about Enter the Dragon is its long-lasting success as a martial arts film, though the title hardly makes any sense when you think about it (but that’s neither here nor there). The truth is that much of the action comes in the last 20 minutes; and most of the movie is an underground/gang/espionage film that feels a bit more like a James Bond film than the kung fu most people think of when recalling wild, exploitative kung fu pictures that would come later in the 70s catering to ultra violence and geysers of blood. This film, unlike Sonny Chiba pictures, contains no shots of bones snapping – only the sound effects. And this only happens once or twice. There really is not that much gore.

It’s more about the story and the mystery of this island where a man named Han holds a fighting tournament every three years to recruit fighters to his personal protective entourage. The complication comes with the news that this “Han” was once part of Lee’s Shaolin temple, and has turned his back on the Philosophy and Spirituality which his teachers and community held so dear. Without fail, just to give Lee a solid reason to enter the tournament to help an undercover agent trying to bring Han’s illegal shit to an end, he is told by an elder the truth about how his sister died years ago – of course it was at the hands of Han’s gang. (She took her own life though. She’d rather die with her honor than be raped? I may have chosen differently, but that’s a cultural thing.) I suppose the elder didn’t tell Lee years ago because he was afraid Lee would have gone on some revenge trip, but it seems that with the first five minutes of the film having Lee spouting Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, Lee probably could have handled it. He is centered. He is one. There is no “I”. Blah, blah, blah.

“Don’t think… feel. It’s like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of that heavenly glory.”

I don’t know what all that means, and I’m not going to make some pretentious guess like I know more than you, but I’m glad this kind of writing—while interesting and not yet typical and clichéd—was kept in the beginning of this film and not woven throughout. Having Bruce Lee rattle off some “Confucius” phrases would have gravely diminished his believability as a character.

That slight criticism aside (which some say is one of its strengths); the topic of the characters in this film is up next. They are damn good. For a movie that is not loaded with action and fighting, it does a very good job of keeping the plot engaging and the pace rolling by exploring all of the characters. And I mean “all” of the characters. Most films of the time (and especially the Enter the Dragon copy cats in the 70s) never spent any time with the secondary characters or the villains. Very little gets established, and then the film asks you to “just go with it. You get it.” But this film explores Lee, played by Bruce Lee; Williams, the black afro dude; and Roper, a white man with prominent brows with a classic handsomeness typical of the early 70s. He could have easily been a Bond. These two characters are accompanying Lee to the island and were Vietnam buddies. Williams, as a character, has not aged well and almost could come off as a racist interpretation of a black man in the 70s. Afro, sideburns, bell bottom pants, huge collar, smooth talking. At the time it probably wasn’t funny. In 2011, it is.

Getting back on point, we follow these characters as they land on the island, have a party, have sex with women, and begin sparing. With very little action, I’m surprised at how intriguing and visual this second act of the movie is and how much you can enjoy the characters. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the other Bruce Lee films. Partly due to good casting choices, these actors gave real personalities to their roles and seemed to enjoy shooting the film.

Enter the Dragon (click for rotten tomatoes rating) is a “must watch” for martial arts fans because though the genre did not begin with this film, this movie solidified the decades of hommage to come: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fight Club, James Bond, Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill, and countless other action/adventure/martial arts films have made references (or borrowed lines/character traits) from Bruce Lee’s iconic movies. Don’t forget about Lu Kang from the Mortal Kombat videogame franchise. I mean, yeah, that is a direct character lift in almost every way.

The first act shows the audience some interesting flashbacks, cross-faded through wavy film transitions that really show what decade this film was made in. That’s not bad; just an observation. Actually I really enjoyed these sections of back story because they are informative and welcomed. They may not be completely necessary, but they are not superfluous either. They add to the characters and don’t take up too much of the film’s run time, so I say leave them in and pay attention. Emotional investment and believability are not in all films of this genre, so enjoy it in this one.

The film did have its weak elements and some unintentional funny moments. I’ll leave the individual viewer to judge whether these take away from the movie or add to it. It’s all about taste.

The first thing is the ADR. The dialogue replaced after the film is shot, usually in a sound studio. It’s very bad, particularly in the beginning of the film as all the philosophy is begin discussed between Lee and his elder. Once the action kicks in at an hour and 20 minutes, some of the funniest moments pop up. The stomping neck break Lee performs is a medium shot from his hips and up at 1 hour, 21 minutes and 36 seconds. It is slow motion and priceless. His high-pitched howl is mighty. This began one of Bruce Lee’s iconic moves, soon to become a stereotype. Again at 1 hour, 23 minutes and 2 seconds, he swings his chucks around like Michelangelo from the original TMNT movie of the early 90s (in April O’Neil’s apartment before the floor collapses). At 1 hour, 29 minutes and 4 seconds, Lee is kicking a guy three times in the face before he drops out of frame. Once he does, and the line of men behind him watch in a serious awe, there is one extra, probably about 19 years old, that is smiling like a doofus, probably unsure of how he ended up on the set of a film where his idol was kicking someone’s teeth in. The juxtaposition of the serious faces with his goofy-ass gaping mouth made me laugh, rewind, and watch a second time!

Finally, there’s the dummy kick. At 1hour, 24 minutes and 32 seconds, Lee lands an earth-shattering round house kick to the side of the villain Han’s head. The kick initially rises off the ground from a medium wide shot, from the side (profile) and it’s a two-shot of both fighters. There’s a sudden medium-close cut from over Han’s shoulder, which is clearly a dummy replacement, and the kick lands, launching this dummy in just two frames completely out of view. The dummy, or Han, would have his neck snapped after such a blow. Guess they forgot to add weight to the mannequin, because Han seemingly weighs 20 lbs!

The mirror sequence at the end was superbly disorienting. Very well done, though perhaps a minute too long. Over all, Enter the Dragon was film about a plot first and the martial arts second. That is something to be respected. These actors had to be able to act to a moderate degree, not just fight. Most films would do the opposite. His iconic whoops and “yaws!” were unlike anything heard at the time, and when people do these impressions today—you know it’s goddamn-Bruce-mother-fucking-Lee!

This epic, undercover, action film is more than the sum of its parts. It has that international feel of a Bond film while being its own entity; melding and meshing beautiful sets, locations, costuming, caves, nudity, blood, and underground tunnels with scaffolding and radio centers. What more could you ask for? I’m glad they seemed to have a comfortable budget and avoided B-movie stigma.

Even then, Enter the Dragon does have its slow parts and is not for all audiences today. People and critics, especially over at rotten tomatoes, get a little to wound up about how awesome this is and gives them too much praise in my opinion. This film is not a 9/10. They are getting their pleasure of Bruce Lee and this specific film’s global popularity confused with actual quality. While greatly respected for what it would begin in the film industry (setting paths for films stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Tony Ja) as a 38-year-old film, the grade must come at 7.5/10. I enjoy it more than this, but this is the fair rating. Though I love the hyper-reality of massive punch-and-kick sound effects, perhaps with better dialogue quality and more action, this respected classic would be an eight. Even then—it must be owned by fanatics of the fighting/action genre.

MH

IMDB site for this movie HERE.

BuyDVD  movie on Amazon HERE.

On Netflix.

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Kung Fu Hustle: a film review

Kung Fu Hustle is one of the most original, genre-blending films martial arts films to come from China in our time. It is ambitious, fun, creatively shot, and backed by an emotional story which is right between “too melodramatic” and “too thin.” Some things may be lost in translation if you don’t know about being a kid in Hong Kong or folklore of the culture; but even then, this adds a magic and mysticism in a way that may peak your curiosity or at least kindly request the audience’s respect and suspension of disbelief. The American Gangster film hommage in the opening sequence circa 1940s is great, but also blends Hong Kong culture and make it something unique. That’s the best word for the whole movie: Unique.

This film was released in 2004 and given an R-rating: somewhat silly considering the cartoon nature of the film, the total absence of sex, and the limited blood. Though implied, you never see someone murdered and there is almost no undesirable language. The rating is not totally insulting and irrational; it came down to violence, which there is a lot of, but I’m glad they released it how they did and didn’t go for the PG-13 rating. It would have negatively affected the film in the way of story and content, though perhaps they hurt themselves to begin with—by releasing a cartoony, action movie clearly pointed at teenagers while developing it as an “R”. It would be the equivalent of releasing a Pooh Bear movie, clearly for little kids, then being surprised it doesn’t do well because you got a PG-13 from the MPAA instead of a PG rating because you had Christopher Robin cursing at Pooh for getting lost in the woods and gives Pooh a bloody nose. Don’t forget this though: we’re stricter in the USA with ratings, and surely other countries didn’t give it a “must be seventeen without guardian” rating. Take it with a grain of salt.

Let’s get back on point now. Kung Fu Hustle was a weird film to most Americans and, frankly, we didn’t respond well to it at the start. Maybe that was because it only opened on seven screens nationwide on its opening weekend. That’s right. Seven. It was only with the success of the first Kill Bill movie by Quentin Tarantino that Kung Fu Hustle got some viewership. Though the rest of the world had this movie in December of 2004 and January of 2005, the USA wouldn’t get its opening weekend until the Spring of 2005. Sometimes, smaller films take more time to flourish. Eventually, however, the film did get to over 2,000 theaters nationwide and made 17 million dollars by the summer in the USA alone; but it was a long shaky road, and like all films, had no guarantees. Any foreign films, especially niche, cult-like ones like these, are lucky to have done as well as they did. Again, thank Tarantino, and I don’t think that is an unfair statement. At the time, people were going “gaga” for that sword-wielding revenge flick starring Uma Thurman.

Directed by, written by, and starring Stephen Chow, this man accomplished greatness with this big budget picture, but only in the sense of personal accomplishment. It earned just over $200,000 in its opening weekend in the USA, but made a much better amount in the Philippines, the UK, Germany, and the rest of the world.

Kung Fu Hustle is original as hell and is, indeed, a cult film. Stephen Chow paid homage to Bruce Lee serials and does what few films can do that try to blend genres: do it right. There is love, genuine comedy, beautiful slow-motion action that fits perfectly here where other action films force it, and the colors, props, and environments are detailed and expressive.

If you’re over 50, you’re not going to like this film. If you’re in your 30s or 40s and remember the 70s and 80s martial arts wave, you just might dig it and “get it”. This isn’t a film you watch every month, but it’s worth having in your collection because there is nothing else like it. Even the cover of the DVD release calls it “Kill Bill meets Looney Tunes” which, while accurate at parts, undersells the film in my opinion and simplifies it too much. Then again, short blurbs from someone you don’t care about quoted on the cover box are often far too brief to encapsulate any film’s tone or premise.

The film is packed with sweeping wide angle lens shots. The camera rarely stops moving and allows the film and the audience to flow together. This phonetic energy creates a mood that most of the best directors use: frequent cameras in motion, however slight. Even the smallest, faintest tracking shots add something interesting, even if you are not consciously aware of it. They do this a lot in big 90s action fiulms when people are talking in an important meeting. Just think about the opening breakfast scene in Resevoir Dogs, but not so obvious. The action is choreographed masterfully and when the camera does stop moving or is a static shot, it is almost always done in the name of art. The whole film was well-thought out and nothing you will see in this film is just randomly thrown in. They wanted to tell a story and entertain, and every shot was clearly weighed for its pros and cons during pre-production storyboarding – even before a single frame was shot.

You have to go into this movie anticipating a certain type or irreverence; a certain tongue-in-cheek, slapstick kind of vibe. This is not a brutal rated-R action film. This is not Die Hard or Chinese Connection. This film doesn’t take itself too seriously. But at parts, when it is time to be serious, it seems to really work, is sincere and balances out the film – giving it that very original feel that, culturally, Americans don’t see in most films today.

From the back story flashbacks, to the tenants, to the landlord and landlady, this film’s cast goes over the top in what characters it presents and what martial arts make physical sense. But again, it’s a movie. Anything Stephen Chow hadn’t seen yet in a movie, he went for it. Things that had been done, he got his team to do even bigger. The excellent fight choreography by legendary Yuen Woo-Ping is also responsible for the fight scenes of Kill Bill vol. 1, Fearless, The Matrix, Hero. No wonder it’s great. But the editing team deserves a pat on the back as well; with a bad editor that chops action sequences too frantically, you’ll get a choppy blur of un-rhythmic garbage and unintelligible shit, like most of the confusing action scenes in the Transformers franchise.

On a final note, some of the Computer Graphic Imaging (CGI) has not aged well, but given that this is not supposed to be a serious Matrix movie or Lord of the Rings film, somehow the weakness in the CGI is not only forgivable, but charming. It reminds me of a time where they still couldn’t do everything with a computer and still had to use some kind of ingenuity and creativity.

The film is part Tarantino, part Dragonball Z, part Looney Tunes, part Matrix, and part Bruce Lee. Enjoy the quirky humor of this underrated cult gem.

(8/10)

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MH

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Revenge of the Ninja: a film review

Revenge of the Ninja is one of those films that you either understand or you hate. If you can grasp the decade in which it was made and understand what martial arts had become, you will actually enjoy the campy nature, funny one-liners, and bad post-production dialogue editing. The fact MGM rolled the dice and funded such a film was a surprise, but made sense giving that no major production houses were getting involved in what are essentially exploitation films. They just wanted a fair grab at some money in a niche market, and who can blame them for that? The other companies were staying out of it for the most part, perhaps even for good reason.

After the seventies, people wanted more and more, and these kind of kung-fu, bloody, rated-R films were going to small theaters, matinees in the cities, and drive-ins. These were never critically acclaimed films, but were tons of fun. You go to see films like these to enjoy insanity, and basically say “No way!” or “What was that?” to your friends every five minutes. This is one of those films that is so bad, it’s good. It’s also truly violent and gritty in a way we don’t really get anymore in modern action films.

First of all, you need to have a certain kind of humor when watching this film. Made in 1983, Revenge of the Ninja stars Sho Kosugi who was in over 15 martial arts films, hilariously, most of them have “death”, “ninja”, or “kill” in the title. Go figure. Are you surprised? This film was shot on the West Coast, under Philippine influence, about the way of the Chinese. Besides this film, which he is known best for, he also starred in 1985’s Pray for Death and more recently, 2009’s Ninja Assassin.

If you enjoy ridiculous murders and fights which are actually very well choreographed, these films are must sees if you’re looking for a 90-minute romp of entertainment. These movies are not total crap. All these movies are meant to be exactly what they are: envelope-pushing entertainment. Rarely will you get creative camera angles, original stories, or good special effects. That’s not what these kinds of films are about. They are about shock, awe, fighting, and over-the-top deaths.

Produced by Canon Films in 1983, Revenge of the Ninja ran 90 minutes in length and made a pathetic $509,000 on just 93 screens in its opening weekend. It’s scattered run that year — jumping from venue to venue — collected just over $13,100,000. It’s available in DVD and as of this writing (August 2011) is available on Netflix’s instant view and streaming service.

I’m going to know run through a list of what is featured in this movie and I will leave it up to you whether or not you see it. But you have to admit, no other movie on the planet has all of these things. Trust me:

  1. Stereotypes Italians, gays, blacks, Chinese.
  2. Breasts. Through wet t-shirts and just completely out. All fake, btw.
  3. Random rip-off of first-person slasher scene from Halloween for no reason.
  4. Old, balding men with mustaches in very short gym shorts wrestling in a hall where there is definitely not enough room by a brick wall.
  5. Forced, out-of-place conversations after a sparring match to keep the plot moving with exposition.
  6. A Native American hired thug dressed in Indian attire with braided hair. He wields axes and tries to scalp our protagonist.
  7. Huge 9-foot jumps over walls – clearly off of trampolines.
  8. Rich, white guy is the antagonist, trained as super ninja.
  9. Grandmother who can kick some serious ass. Impossible considering her age. But funny to watch.
  10. A fight scene that immediately has you laughing as Sho Kosugi approaches a make-shift, rip-off of the Village People for information. Stereotypes include a gay cowboy with a mustache and cowboy hat. A Spanish biker with a jean jacket, a black dude with short shorts wearing a headphone radio with antennae and mustache wearing roller skates, yes, roller skates, and a Japanese, fat skinhead wearing a leather jacket with a huge red and white rising star on his t-shirt, just in case you didn’t understand his stereotype. This group of four men are met for the first time by the protagonist and the audience at a children’s playground where they are all sitting on a picnic table laughing and drinking beer. Real hardcore.
  11. Characters, many of them, having no common sense or lapses in judgment due to a poorly written script.
  12. A pint-sized child fighting a full-grown woman and winning.
  13. People’s hands getting cut off. Great effects.
  14. Ninja’s spitting out spikes and blades into baddie’s faces. Actually kind of sick thanks to the gratuitous zoom ins.
  15. The bad ninja apparently carries around two, yes, two mannequins of himself in case he needs a diversion on a roof. Where he keeps these is anyone’s guess. Maybe his ass.
  16. Kid distracting a bad guy by pointing up and saying “Hey! Look! Superman!” and that shit actually works.
  17. Holding breath in hot tub for two minutes in full ninja hear and knowing exactly when to pop out.
  18. Joe Pesci wannabe.
  19. Actually good stunt work, especially when Sho is chasing down the van!
  20. Streams of blood spraying 15-feet in final kill scene.

So there you have it. Without a doubt, boys may enjoy this more than girls and you really gotta watch it in groups. DVD is here.

MH

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