Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bloodfist 3: Forced to Fight (1992)

Someone done woke The Dragon

Those hoping to see the continuing adventures of Jake Raye may be disappointed to discover that Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight has absolutely nothing to do with the first two movies apart from Don "The Dragon" Wilson (World Kickboxing Assocation World Light Heavyweight Champion). It was originally intended to be released under the title Forced to Fight but the first two movies did well enough at the box office that this movie was shoehorned into the series.

Given it's origin, it's not surprising that this movie is a bit of an anomaly in the Bloodfist series. For instance, I believe it's the first and only film in the series that begins with a prison rape. The perpetrator is cell block kingpin Luther and, unfortunately for him, the victim is friends with Jimmy Boland (Wilson). Jimmy interrupts Luther's crazy rape face by dramatically throwing open the door while some squealing guitars let you know it's ass-kicking time. Luther stabs Jimmy's friend right in front of him (who is not enough of a friend to get a name) so Jimmy does some punching and Luther catches a shiv to the kidneys.

Unfortunately this incident is captured on closed circuit camera just as the warden is giving a guided tour to the press. As punishment, Jimmy is sent to Cell Block C, which is apparently even worse. From here I expected this film to turn into an underground prison fighting movie, like the Undisputed series, but it's a little more serious minded than that. In fact there's only two other names in the credits with martial arts bonafides, Stan Longinidis (K.I.C.K. World Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion) and Pete "Sugarfoot" Cunningham (World Kickboxing Association World Super Lightweight Champion) and both have fairly minor henchmen roles despite their top billing. It actually has actors and seems like it took longer to write than it did to watch. Like I said, it's an anomaly.

Apparently killing Luther cut off drug supplies for the cell block, so Jimmy doesn't exactly get a warm welcome. A friend of Luther named Blue (Gregory McKinney) is out for revenge and Jimmy earns the ire of a white power gang when he rejects an offer of friendship from their leader Wheelhead (Rick Dean). The only person who gives Jimmy the time of day is a creepy sex-offender called Diddler, whom Jimmy casually calls by his nickname as if he has no idea what it means. Under the protection of the warden, Luther and Blue join forces against Jimmy. Consequently Jimmy is coerced to skirmish and we all learn a few lessons about race. For instance, I learned that black people think that white people "smell like dogs after they get out of the shower". And also that dogs shower.

What I liked about this film is that the bad guys are little more nuanced out than usual. I liked the part where Wheelhead relates a childhood story of his mother making him grilled-cheese sandwiches, and even though Diddler is an unabashed pedophile (there's even a scene where he ogles a little girl in the visiting room while creepy music plays) he's treated with an unusual amount of sympathy and even allowed a little redemption arc. How often does that happen in a genre film, let alone in a Bloodfist film?

Jimmy kinda lucks out in that his cellmate is Stark, a Malcom-X-loving, self-taught lawyer who is greatly respected by the other prisoners. He's played by Richard Roundtree, which is awesome, and he gives what is maybe the best performance in the whole Bloodfist series. Stark introduces Jimmy to a multi-racial group of peaceful prisoners who hang out in a rooftop garden utopia. Somehow they have access to gardening equipment, deckchairs, televisions and enough cooking materials for the goofy Italian stereotype to make them baked ziti every day. It makes prison life look pretty cool. They even get to watch Corman's own TNT Jackson on movie night.

I don't think this movie is a particularly realistic depiction of prison life, to be honest. It seems to be some sort of "Free Range" prison, where inmates are free to roam anywhere they please. They have unfettered access to gasoline and sharpened tools and they are even allowed to start small fires in their cells. Everyone seems to be armed with a shiv, sometimes two. There's maybe two prison guards in the whole complex and although the warden claims that the place is automated to the point that "one man does the job of a dozen" it all seems pretty low tech and more like two men doing the job of nobody.

Like all protagonists of prison movies, Jimmy is innocent of his crime. Apparently he was involved in a bar-room brawl that got out of hand, and the police blamed him because of his mixed-race heritage. You know those half-Japanese guys, always stirring up trouble. When Jimmy complains to Stark about being a victim of racial prejudice I think Stark displays surprising restraint in not telling Jimmy to go cry him a fucking river.

Even though it's full of prison movie cliches (is there a riot at the end? Maybe. Okay, yes) I kind of liked this one. The fighting is infrequent and not particularly well choreographed, but it didn't bother me too much since that clearly wasn't the priority. That makes it pretty unusual as a Bloodfist film, and so unfortunately Roger Corman's cunning ruse to slip this film in under the Bloodfist banner backfired. The film did poorly and Don "The Dragon" Wilson was sentenced to Direct-to-Video prison for a minimum of five Bloodfist sequels. A harsh sentence, but fair. The Bloodfist movies never really belonged in the cinema.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Bloodfist II (1990)

No shotguns allowed, Don! You're destroying
the sanctity of this brutal deathmatch!

Apparently after winning the Red Fist tournament Jake (Don "The Dragon" Wilson, World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight World Champion) returned to America and became a professional kickboxer. I guess he got over that whole missing kidney thing. During his championship bout he accidentally kills his opponent so he vows to never fight again, complete with a cry of "NEVER!" and the ceremonial tossing of his championship belt into the crowd. Two years later he's living in a crappy apartment and sleeping with convincing-looking skeezy prostitutes. He gets a phone call from his old friend Vinny Petrello (Maurice Smith, World Kickboxing Association World Heavyweight Champion) who has gotten himself into a few money problems in the Phillipines. Naturally it's up to Jake to pack his bags and head off to Manila. Again.

In typical Don "The Dragon" Wilson fashion, Jake heads straight from the airport to an attempted mugging. I do like that the thugs attempt a surprise attack by kicking a soccer ball at his head. That's some weak-ass shit, muggers. Jake shows them up in the next scene, at the gym where Vinny was last spotted. One of the guys there says to Jake that he "only talks with fighters, you dig?", so Jake kicks the punching ball so hard that it breaks off it's chain and hits a guy in the boxing ring in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. He was wearing headgear too. That's a move both baller and off the chain.

Afterwards Jake confronts the owner of the gym, a weasely German nerd named Dieter. It's pretty clear where this movie's sympathies lie on the jocks vs nerds continuum, because everybody, including the other bad guys, treat Dieter with open contempt. At one point Jake even shouts "Fuck you, geek!" with the same venom you'd reserve for child molesting racists. Dieter calls in his goons and Jake fights and runs and fights and runs, but eventually finds himself drugged and put on a boat with the rest of the gym rats to compete in a high-stakes baking competition where only the most skilled with a piping bag will survive. Nah, just kidding. It's a secret underground fighting tournament.

While the first film was a Bloodsport rip-off, the second does a low-budget riff on Enter the Dragon. The tournament takes place on a secret island which is ironically named Paradise, although thanks to Black Dynamite I can't think think of it as anything other than Kung Fu Island. Joe Mari Avellana returns as the main villain, although he's playing a different character, a Bond-like villain named Su. Cris Aguilar also returns as one of Su's henchmen. If Jake notices all these villainous doppelgangers running around he doesn't say anything.

The other competitors are mostly real-life martial artists, including Timothy Baker (International Karate Champion World Karate Champ), James Warring (World Kickboxing Association World Cruiserweight Champion) and Richard Hill (International Sport Karate Association World Welterweight Champion). I really liked these guys. They aren't actors or pretty-boys but they're likable and there's a cheerful, ramshackle charm to their performances.

Jake manages to escape pretty early on, busting his way out of the most pathetic shackles ever, and spends a good chunk of the movie Die Harding his way around Su's mansion. He's helped out by a hot girl named Mariella (Rina Reyes), who is in league with Su at first but eventually falls for Jake's wooden charms. When he first meets her she is demonstrating her flexibility in a shiny leotard, just like his love interest in the first film. He's got a type, I guess. She turns out to be Su's daughter, which dumps all sorts of subtext onto an earlier whipping scene that I don't want to think about.

There are some pretty funny cartoonish touches to this film. Jake is able to get the drop on the guards over and over again, usually by tiptoeing a couple of steps behind them like Wile E. Coyote. My favourite part is where Vinny, who is working for Su as it turns out, comes up with an ingenious "plan" to stop Jake. He lures Jake down a hallway and around a blind corner and then, hidden off-screen, swings out with a plank of wood and knocks Jake unconscious. Ah, the old plank-to-the-face trick.

It turns out that Su and Dieter have developed a super-steroid which turns his fighters into grunting, indestructable death machines. Su intends to force the fighters into death matches with his 'roid-monkeys, providing entertainment for the standard assortment of rich fucks as well as giving a demonstration of the super-steroid to his investors. Su is very traditional about his deathmatches, with uniformed, spear-wielding guards and the whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down death signal. Of course it's the black guy who gets the thumbs down.

I always like watching the crowd in these death arena fight movies. It's mostly businessmen in suits, as you'd expect, but there's always a few old women and middle aged tourists mixed in among them. It's always funny watching some middle-aged accountant-looking dude screaming insanely as a muscleman dispatches his opponent with a Bolo-style neck stomp. I'd like to think it's a commentary on exploitative tourist culture, but really I think it comes down to whatever extras they could rustle up on the day.

Jake's final showdown with Vinny seems to mirror the kickboxing match that opens the film, with Vinny ultimately badly beaten and barely on his feet. You might assume that the residual guilt would make Jake pull his punch or otherwise hesitate in killing his friend, but instead he executes a lethal flying kick that snaps Vinny's neck. It's pretty weird. I suppose he assumed that Vinny was going to do that whole "you showed me mercy and now I shall reward you by stabbing you in the back" thing.

Afterwards Jake has a fight with Su that goes through his laboratory, right through his house and onto the balcony. There's a pretty funny part where Jake goes apeshit and tosses aside a table that is clearly made of rubber. Su actually does do the whole "you showed me mercy and now I shall reward you by stabbing you in the back" thing, so Jake kicks him over the balcony ledge. If only he had some rubber lawn furniture down there he might have survived. I did like how all the good guys silently stand over Su's dead body for about three seconds before leaving. These Bloodfist films are less than 85 minutes long, so there's no time for dénouement.

Actually there's barely time for anything in this film except for fighting. From start to finish I don't think the film goes more than ten minutes without a fight. I like the way they separate Jake and the other fighters so they can cut to one of the deathmatches after each chunk of exposition or embarrassing romance scene. Usually in these films they have one long string of fights at the end, which gets dull quickly. The choreography is much improved over the first film too, with some cool techniques and a nice sense of rhythm.

I liked this movie better than the first, mostly because it had a similar setup but ditched everything non-fight related. No more boring crime-solving where Jake tries to solve a mystery that we already know the answer to. No more boring training montages where we watch Jake spend five minutes running up a hill in high-waisted pants. Just more of what we came to see 1) blood and 2) fists. If you like both of these things and you've got a high-tolerance for direct-to-video crappiness, then check out Bloodfist II.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Bloodfist (1989)

Blood? Check. Fists? Check.

Roger Corman isn't one to sit idly by while a popular cinematic fad runs it's course, and Bloodfist was his attempt to cash-in on the recent success of kickboxing movies, Van Damme's Bloodsport being the most obvious influence. I would have liked to be in on the meeting where they decided on the title. "Blood... fist?" "Sure, why not? Let's go get hammered." Bloodsport, Kickboxer and even Shootfighter make some semblence of sense in context, but Bloodfist just hastily throws together two fight-related words and calls it a day. This half-assed approach extends to most aspects of the film.

During the opening credits, each of the principal actors are listed by name and martial arts credentials, a trend that would continue throughout most of the series. I like it. The filmmakers are letting you know up-front where their priorities are. Don "The Dragon" Wilson (World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight World Champion) plays Jake Raye, part-owner of a small boxing gym. He is a boxing coach, having retired from professional fighting after donating a kidney to his half-brother. He says that fighting with one kidney is suicide, but that hasn't stopped his brother from competing in underground fighting tournaments. I can only assume that Jake's brother had two perfectly healthy kidneys and Jake donated a third to make him an unstoppable fighting machine. Then again, this whole kidney thing is never mentioned again, so who knows?

Jake gets a phone call from Manila stating that his brother has been found beaten to death in an alley and could he please come and collect the body because it's stinking up the joint. Within a few minutes of arrival, Jake (looking completely inconspicuous in his Hard Rock Cafe LA t-shirt) is witness to several acts of street crime, including an attempted theft of own his suitcase which he foils by kicking. When he gets to the police station the police chief nonchalantly hands him an urn of his brother's ashes and tells him to be on his way. Seems a little premature for cremation, but at least Jake can take him back as carry-on luggage. The police seem spectacularly uninterested in solving the murder, so Jake does some investigating and finds out his brother was involved with the Red Fist Fighting Club, a organisation that stages one of those high-stakes underground fighting tournaments for the super rich.

Jake meets a wise martial arts master named Kwong (Joe Mari Avellana) who offers to train him for the tournament so he can find his brother's killer. Jake also meets another American fighter named Baby (Michael Shaner), who is ostensibly comic relief but mainly an annoying asshole. Baby is followed around by this mute Filipino girl who sleeps with him and makes him breakfast before leaping out the window, so I guess she's pretty much the perfect woman. Jake also finds a love interest, Baby's sister Nancy (Riley Bowman). She's a dancer (read: stripper) and when he first meets her she's dancing on the roof in a purple leotard to a terribly synthesised Asian pan flute. She's trying to get a job as a translator and she's always listening to language tapes on a walkman, even when they are on dates and during Jake's death matches, which strikes me as pretty rude.

All of the cliches are present and accounted for. Kwong puts Jake through several gruelling training montages while the competition is whittled down to a few final contenders. Rob Kaman (World Kickboxing Association Junior Light Heavyweight World Champion) plays Raton, a self-obsessed Dutch fighter who "uses music as inspiration". Billy Blanks (Professional Karate League World Champion) is great as a fighter named Black Rose. I've always liked Billy Blanks so it's a shame his scenes are pretty short.

Like in Bloodsport there's also an indestructable Asian muscleman who communicates solely in grunts, a genre trope that's always struck me as pretty racist. Here it's fulfilled by Kris Aguilar (Southeast Asia Kickboxing Champion) playing Chin Woo. He's so hardcore that he eats cockroaches instead of squashing them and routinely kills his opponents, which doesn't seem to bother anyone, least of all the police. By the end of the film he has murdered most of the other opponents and beaten Baby into a coma, making him a prime target for Jake's bloodfist.

There's actually a pretty decent twist at the end. Turns out that Kwong has a bizarre scam going where he trains up world-class fighters and then sabotages the final match and bets against them. Seems to me that there would be a lot more money to be made by actually training up world champion fighters, but who am I to question a wise Asian master? There's a really funny part where Jake is suffering the effects of a poisoned mango in his final match with Chin Woo, and Jake's partner tips him off to Kwong's treachery with a hilarious slow motion cookie monster voice. Jake's final fight with Kwong isn't particularly good since Avanella is clearly not a fighter, but that's cool because the rest of the cast are clearly not actors. Acting skills and ass-kicking skills tend to be inversely proportional, so in a movie like this you need to seed the cast with a few actual actors.

Of course a movie like this comes down to the fight scenes and unfortunately they are not that great. The choreography is mediocre and the frequent slow motion only highlights how much the punches and kicks miss their mark. Many of the fights are badly paced, with the two competitors simply trading blows without any sense of momentum. It's a pity, because in several of the fights it's clear that the competitors have the skills to pay the proverbial bills (Wilson vs Blanks is a particular highlight). I guess Bloodfist is a fairly average secret-underground-fighting-tournament movie, but it's watchable and at just a shade over 80 minutes it doesn't waste too much of your time.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Sabat 1: The Graveyard Vultures

I haven't read any Guy N. Smith novels in a while, so you know what that means. Time for me to go on Sabatical...

In the Sabat novels Guy N. Smith attempted to create a memorable lead character that could sustain an ongoing adventure series. Let's face it, Professor Cliff Davenport may be the world's sexiest megacarcinologist, but even the giant crabs tend to outshine him in the personality department. Enter Mark Sabat. Ex-priest. SAS-trained killer. Exorcist. Pipe enthusiast. I don't know if it's a coincidence that he bears a striking resemblance to Guy N. Smith himself, but if he's some sort of wish-fulfillment Mary Sue character it reveals far more about the author than I ever wanted to know.

When the story begins Sabat is tracking down his evil brother Quentin, who is engaging in some sort of apocalyptic black magic ritual. Sabat blows his brother's brains all over the walls but because Sabat's spiritual faith wavered Quentin's black soul still remains, trapped inside him forever. Throughout the rest of the book Quentin telepathically insults and belittles Sabat, trying to break his faith and goad him into suicide, like the worst life coach ever. Quentin is supposed to be the ultimate incarnation of evil, although if that makes Sabat the ultimate incarnation of good then it paints a pretty bleak portrait of humanity.

Sabat has a pretty interesting resume. A mysterious teenage homosexual encounter drove him into the priesthood (I can't wait to read more about that particuar plot point) until he lost his faith and quit. Then he joined the SAS and became an expert killer, until he was dishonourably discharged for having kinky sex with his CO's wife (i.e. being too awesome). Now he's a freelance exorcist, using his powers of astral projection to spy on people doing it and occasionally stop an evil cult from bringing about armaggedon, assuming the local clergy can pony up the cash.

For all his awesomeness, Sabat has one weakness: boners. Any stray sexy thoughts and he enters the bone-zone, even when he's on the astral plane. Just meeting a pretty woman is all but guaranteed to have an erection "straining against the fabric of his pants". Must make for some pretty awkward first dates. Often he's forced to take matters into his own hands, so to speak, and a couple of times it's implied that he spent all night jerking off in bed. It's pretty weird. Is this Smith's idea of an awesome dude? Sabat should really see a doctor. Priapism is a serious condition.

Another thing about Sabat is that he's alarmingly callous about death. There's a strange bit where Sabat plows his car into a random motorcyclist while he is speeding to the rescue. The guy is eviscerated in the crash, spilling his guts all over the road, and Sabat doesn't even slow down. He chalks it up to an act of God and leaves it to some other motorist to call in the authorities. Who do you think you are Sabat, Halle Berry? Motorcycle Guy's connection to the plot is extremely tangential, so the only point of that chapter seems to be to illustrate that Sabat is a complete sociopath. Mission accomplished!

In this adventure the Archbishop calls in Sabat to investigate a small village where a pesky Satanic cult are involved in virgin sacrifices and necrophilic orgies. Sabat snoops about on both the physical and astral planes, and there's a pretty cool bit where he has a psychic battle with zombies in the graveyard, cutting them up with a giant crucifix. He psychically-rapes the lead zombie into submission, recognising her as Miranda, a prostitute he met in the pub. Afterwards he shows up at her doorstep and when she tries to kill him he rapes her for real. It's cool though, he was just doing it to break the spell the cult leader had put over her. You know how it is.

At first this book seemed to be straight up Judeo-Christian good versus evil, but partway through they start casually throwing Voodoo into the mix. I liked the way Sabat interacted with the various Voodoo gods and played them off against eachother, but when the bad guy turned out to be some sort of Satan-worshipping Voodoo priest it all got a bit confusing. There are a couple of gory human sacrifices and a botched demon resurrection. By the end of it all the cult members are dead with hoof prints on their heads, like Satan appeared and delivered unto them roundhouse kicks to the head, Steven Seagal style.

You know, I really liked this book. It's basically everything that makes Guy N. Smith so enjoyably trashy, turned up to eleven. Gory deaths? Check. Strained metaphors? Check. Bizarre sex scenes? Check. Inappropriate boners? Hella checks. All condensed into 160 pages. Mark Sabat makes for a pretty entertaining and memorable lead character, although if you find yourself relating to him on any level then you should probably seek professional help.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Born to Raise Hell (2010)

It's a high-octane, white knuckle thrill ride!
It was clear from the prologue that I was going to have a few problems with this movie. The opening scene features a subtitle that reads "Bucharest, Romania", which is rarely a good sign, followed by a nonsensical voiceover that is clearly not Seagal. Then there is a gunfight with Tony-Scott-on-PCP editing that goes way beyond any hope of visual comprehension. At this point the film was giving me flashbacks to early DTV Seagal like Shadow Man or The Foreigner. Not a good start.

Seagal plays Bobby Samuels, a cop working for the International Drug Task Force (IDTF). He used to be a soldier if Afghanistan, but when he learned how most terrorism is (apparently) funded by drugs he joined the IDTF so he could make the world safe for freedom etc. He also explains that his partner was killed and now he's out for revenge, although if they followed up on that plot thread I guess I missed it.

The main plot reminds me a little of Out for Justice. There's a big shot crime boss, but the main villain is a guy lower down the food chain who is out of control. The guy's name is Costel, and he likes to do home invasions on young rich couples, raping the women and murdering entire families. Costel works for a Spetznaz-trained Russian crime boss named Dimitri (Dan Badarau), but when Dimitri finds out what Costel is up to he is disgusted and wants him dead. At first Seagal is content to arrest Dimitri, but when he gets into a war with Costel Seagal forms an alliance with him. The grudging-respect-between-foes thing. I like that.

This movie was written by Seagal himself and seems to be pretty heavily influenced by his experiences on Steven Seagal: Lawman. There's a lot of cop lingo and gunpoint standoffs with criminals where Seagal shouts things like "lemme see yo' hands, bitch". At one point he shouts "I'm speaking English, it's easy" which seems condescending since he's in Romania. There are several scenes of him chewing out a junior officer for not properly securing suspects or clearing rooms because he was distracted by a woman with awesome tits. It's nothing we haven't seen before in other cop shows, but it's a little more attention to detail than you usually get for this kind of thing. Stuff like that caused the movie to grow on me.

One bit I liked was early in the film where Seagal's team bust into a house to arrest a greasy-haired drug dealer. The guy tries to drive away on his dirtbike (which is parked in his lounge room for some reason) but Seagal rips him from the seat at the last minute, sending the bike careening through a glass window. It's a nice sequence and normally that would be the last we'd see of the criminal, but here Seagal actually arrests him and takes him to the police station for questioning. Seagal gets information out of him not by busting his skull but by calmly explaining the situation. You catch more flies with honey than by breaking their wrists and throwing them through a window, I guess.

I also liked that the bad guys have a bunch of hot women who cook and smuggle their drugs and go on assassination missions. They are like sexy Terminators. There's a really funny bit where the team encounter one while on a covert survellaince mission. She appears right next to their police van like a movie monster and presses her face up against the window while the crew sit there in dead silence like she's the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. I know it's just a way to get a few more hot girls into the movie, but I really like this idea of using supermodels as henchmen. More movie villains should exploit the fact that hot woman can basically do anything they want without consequence.

Seagal has a much younger girlfriend in this one too, and there's even a subplot about how he neglects her and spends too much time with his police work. The film also continues the worrying trend of awkward sex scenes where the girl is bare-ass naked and Seagal is fully clothed. He's wearing a giant kimono/bathrobe/hoodie thing with a dragon stitched on the back. It looks ridiculous but I guess I should be grateful for it. The whole situation is pretty creepy because the girl is tiny compared to him. When he gets on top of her and starts pawing at her with his giant mitts it looks like she's being attacked by bigfoot.

I mentioned it ealier, but there is some shocking editing in this film. Whenever Costel and his men do a home invasion the film turns into an Abode After-Effects disaster, with random skipped frames, slow motion effects, freeze frames and double exposures. There's a lot of superfluous slow motion too. A scene where Costel's crew walk through a nightclub goes on for about three minutes. Gunfights are similarly over-edited, making them unbearable to watch for the most part, although I liked the bit where Seagal blasts the section of wall around a door with a shotgun so he can kick the whole wall in. He even has to pause halfway through so he can reload. I would have just blown the lock out, but I'll concede to Seagal's superior wisdom and police experience.

It's interesting how as Seagal gets older and stiffer they are trying to compensate by making the fights more brutal and violent, and Seagal's fights were always pretty brutal and violent. There are a lot of broken bones and every punch to the face sends a gallon of blood spraying out of the victim's mouth. The fist fights are pretty well directed for the most part. Costel is played by Darren Shahlavi, the guy who played Twister in Ip Man 2, so it would have been cool to see him in an actual fight, but the final showdown makes copious use of stunt doubles and is embarrassingly one-sided. More shades of Out for Justice.

The director is a French stuntman by the name of Lauro Chartrand, who also did some episodes of Seagal's new TV show/DTV movie series True Justice. I can't say I really liked his style, but I appreciate that Seagal seemed to be putting in slightly more effort than usual. Maybe he pounded a few cans of Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt Energy Drink before every take, or maybe the fact that he wrote it himself gave him a little more vigour. Either way it's nice to see him only semi-sleepwalking through a movie. Even if half his lines were dubbed.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Dangerous Man (2009)

Seagal will fuck you up ugly

In a strange coincidence I received DVDs for both A Dangerous Man and A Serious Man in the mail on the same day, which left me with a difficult decision to make. One Coen brothers' black comedy about a Jewish physics professor struggling with his faith. One DTV action film where Steven Seagal kicks Chinese dudes in the junk. A difficult choice for any cinephile, but I think I made the right one.

In the prologue we learn why Seagal is the titular Man. His girlfriend Holly is waiting in her car when she gets attacked by a rapist. Seagal shows up to rescue her and chases him away, but the next day the would-be rapist shows up dead in an alley. Although Seagal swears he is innocent the cops accuse him of being an uncontrollable killing machine (understandable) and lock him up. Cut to six years later and Holly sends Seagal a "Dear John" letter. He must have known this was coming too, because he reads it outside alone in the prison yard at night in the pouring rain. That sort of heavy-handed dramatic context doesn't happen by accident.

It's not all bad news though. The very next day Seagal is released thanks to some exonerating DNA evidence, although it's never revealed who actually killed the rapist or why. He's also offered $300k by Uncle Sam but Seagal refuses, saying he only wants his life back. This is all thanks to the Innocence Project, although if they'd known what he'd get up to afterwards they probably would have reconsidered.

All Seagal wants to do now is drown his sorrows with a bottle of generic bourbon, but you can probably guess how that goes. Liquor store, muggers etc. I did like that Seagal tells the punks that he's going to "fuck [them] up ugly". I especially like that one of the muggers asks him what it means, like he couldn't have discerned its meaning from context. In this case it means that Seagal's going to steal his gun, take the slide off the barrel, repeatedly stab him in the face with the pointy end and then kick him through a window. Which is pretty ugly. Then Seagal calls him a "bitch" and steals his car.

While drinking alone in a parking lot, Seagal somehow gets caught up in a confusingly-edited gunfight between the son of a Russian crime boss, a cop and some Chinese gangsters with a kidnapped girl in their trunk. The girl is named Tia, and she's the niece of a big-shot accountant in China who has the dirt on some high-ranking officials. He was being smuggled to America until the gangsters realised how important he was and held him hostage. Seagal agrees to help the girl save her uncle, but interestingly the reason he helps her is because she says she'll help him leave the country. I don't think I've seen a movie hero with that particular motivation before.

The main bad guy is called Chen and somehow he owns all the local cops. Not just one either, the whole lot. Chen is also involved with a corrupt Chinese military official called The Colonel (played by Byron Mann from Belly of the Beast). I thought it was pretty funny how Chen acts like a bigshot with his nice suits, huge cigars, dancing with hookers etc, but he does it all out of his shitty wood-panelled dockside office. There's a bit where he tries to lure a disinterested Colonel into partying with a hooker by saying she has an "ass like a 10 year old boy", a line which I've heard before but always sticks out to me as unappealing and kind of gross. Anyway, eventually the Colonel turns on Chen and takes over his business.

For a while it seems like they're trying to set up a buddy relationship between Seagal and Sergey, but Sergey is not the most compelling character so they forget about it about halfway through. At one point I thought Sergey was shot by The Colonel's men while he was hanging out with a topless hooker in a pool, but I guess it was some other guy. Seagal is eventually helped out by Sergey's dad, who lives in one of those huge mansions where there's a party full of young, hip people going on 24 hours a day. Seems like it would get pretty annoying after a while, especially since it looks like Vlad is sitting in his office trying to work. By the end of the film Seagal and Vlad take on The Colonel I think, but by this point I was pretty confused. In my defence it was pretty boring.

I liked that The Keeper didn't indulge in the embarrassing DTV tradition of giving Seagal a much younger, hotter girlfriend, even though they had several opportunities to do so. They show no such restraint here. There's a part early in the film where Seagal sits in his stolen car and fondly reminisces about the time his girlfriend stripped butt naked and gave him a lap dance while he sat there fully clothed and fumbled with her boobs. By the epilogue it's implied that he's sleeping with Tia as well, but thankfully their on-screen shenanigans are limited to an awkward hug. Kind of a dick move though, because Sergey saved her life and it seemed like he was sweet on her.

One interesting point is that I think Seagal is supposed to be a Native American. At one point he calls Sergey "white boy", which I thought was just Seagal randomly breaking out into ebonics like he does sometimes. Later on, however, one of the bad guys refers to him as "that Native American". After all the fringed leather jackets he's worn and ancient mysticism he's spouted in his other films, it's weird that this is the one where they decided to go full on Billy Jack. Not that it figures into anything else in the film or is ever mentioned again.

There are a lot of lines that sound really strange and I can't tell if it's because they were poorly written or badly delivered or both. “I will leave you here to get eaten by the fuckin jackals, who are coming soon." Stuff like that. Seagal's delivery is generally pretty mumbly and incoherent, but it must have been particularly bad here because they dub his voice about half the time. At least the guy almost sounds like Seagal. Usually they'll get any old guy to whisper all the lines and call it a day, even though Seagal hasn't done that whispery thing in years.

The gun fights aren't particularly well shot, but they're okay. It's just alternating shots of two guys firing from behind cover until one of them falls over dead. The fight scenes are a little better and are really brutal. Seagal feeds one guy into industrial shredder, kicks another guy face-first into circular saw and pounds a chopstick into a guy's neck. Throughout the whole thing he's invincible like Jason Voorhees. Stunt doubles are used frequently and sometimes it gets a little distracting. One fight is shot through the gap in some shelving so that they don't have to go to trouble of obscuring the double's head through editing. No stunt double for the lap dance scene though. Sometimes you've just got to get your hands dirty.

This one comes courtesy of Leoni Waxman, the same guy who did The Keeper. I still haven't decided which one I like better. This film is superior in terms of quantity and brutality of action, but Seagal only wears his Half Past Dead do-rag. In The Keeper he wears a huge cowboy hat. Clearly further analysis is required.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Keeper (2009)


I've fallen a few movies behind in my On-Deadly-Ground-style spiritual odyssey through the DTV ouvre of Mr Steven Seagal. This one had been sitting on my DVD queue for some time, but I hadn't felt compelled to review it since the two subsequent films (A Dangerous Man and Born to Raise Hell) were still MIA. A year or two later and the Region 4 DVDs have lazily flopped onto Australian shores with all the energy and vigour of DTV-era Seagal himself, so I guess I've got some catching up to do.

In this one he plays Roland Sallinger, Super Cop. As the movie begins, he and his partner raid a drug dealing operation to discover a couple of million dollars in cash. His partner suggests that they help themselves and Seagal refuses, so his partner shoots him in the chest and leaves him for dead. Seagal fakes a coma and steals a gun from his niece, so I figured this film was a Hard to Kill type deal and that his revenge would play out over the course of the film. Instead his partner returns to finish the job that night, so Seagal shoots him and frees up the next 70 minutes of screentime for a completely unrelated plot.

Seagal is forced into retirement as a result of his injuries, sending him into a depression, so he is visited by his niece who says ridiculous yet no doubt confidence-bolstering things like "You're an inspiration to everyone on the SWAT team" and "I've seen you do shit that's beyond belief." It's not quite R. Lee Ermey's "million dollar smile and a fistful of pesos" speech from On Deadly Ground, but it's enough to get Seagal montaging his way back to full health. His state of recovery is symbolised by his knife-throwing abilities, which was neat but I suspect it was because it required as little physicality from Seagal as possible.

The plot starts proper when he gets a call from an old friend in Texas. He wants Seagal to be a personal bodyguard for his daughter, who was recently the target of an attempted kidnapping by some criminals disguised as papparazzi. The bad guy behind the kidnapping attempt is a crooked real estate developer named Jason Cross, who is also a racial separatist although it never comes up as a plot point or is even mentioned again. When Seagal asks why he can't just go to the police, he replies "There are some people who think a man's race should determine his worth. These people control everything. Except me". This apparently explains everything, even though the police seem more eager to nail Cross than Seagal does.

The girl Seagal is looking after is a spoiled heiress, but I liked that they didn't push the Paris Hilton angle too hard. She's reasonably intelligent and acquits herself pretty well during the attempted kidnapping. They could have easily made her into an annoying bimbo, but instead she's sympathetic and even kind of sentimental. At one point she tells Seagal how she kept a gift he gave her when she was a little girl. She tells him that right after drunkenly barfing in an alley, but it was still kind of a sweet moment. I was worried for a moment there because it seems like she was hitting on him, but luckily Seagal Keeps it in his pants.

Her boyfriend is a showboating obnoxious asshole named Mason Silver, who is apparently a professional boxer although he sure doesn't look like one and you never see him do any fighting aside from a brief training scene at the beginning. Seems like a missed opportunity not to have him fight Seagal or at least one of the bad guys. He is a massive douchebag, so much so that you wonder if he's a red herring, but it turns out that he had some dealings with Cross in the past and now he's willing to sell out his girlfriend rather than have his hands crushed by Cross's goons. What a prick.

Actually, Seagal is kind of a prick in this one too. He's a massive dick to a limo driver, flat-out ignoring him when he tries to make conversation and then sarcastically berating him for whistling. It's okay though, because Seagal gains his respect when he stops to help the limo driver's cousin from being harrassed by a couple of thugs. Probably the most dickish moment is when Seagal breaks into Mason's house to question him and kills three of his bodyguards. At first I figured they were Cross' henchmen, but apparently not. Seagal just straight up murdered three dudes for no reason. And the cops don't even care.

The plot is some nonsense about a crooked real estate deal and a hidden uranium deposit, but it's pretty straight forward and I won't bother talking about it. The action is what's important, and it's alright I guess. The film tries it's best to convince us of Seagal's lightning fast aikido moves, but sound design and editing can do only so much. Plus the main bad guy is an old man, so it doesn't really lend itself to a thrilling final confrontation. The gunfights have lots of bloody, overfilled squibs, which is good, but they are over-edited with a general lack of geography. There's also decent car chase, even though it's clear that Seagal was being greenscreened on a soundstage somewhere.

I don't know if it's because I haven't watched these types of films in a while, but Seagal's acting seemed distractingly bad here. He wears a big cowboy hat, uses words like "pod'ner" and speaks a little Spanish, but I think those efforts used up the bulk of his acting abilities. He's never been good, but here he's struggling just to even articulate himself. A lot of his lines are awkwardly phrased, as if he only just glanced at the script and refused to do a second take. His shirts are increasingly oversized and baggy to disguise his weight and his hair is becoming more creepily fake and Dracula-like. It's rough.

That aside though, the quality level isn't among his worst. It gets off to a shabby start, with some obvious dubbing in the opening scene, plus halfway through the film Seagal's character's name changes from "Sallinger" to "Ballinger" for no reason, but at least it mostly makes sense. The plot holes are just plot holes rather than supermassive black holes that threaten to suck the whole movie into oblivion. I guess that makes it less interesting than something completely batshit like Out of Reach, but at least I felt like someone gave a shit. Someone was at least half-assing it, rather than the one eighth of an ass normally given to this kind of thing. Adequate job, guy. You did it.