Sunday, 2 August 2009

Fist of the North Star (1995)

"Gary Daniels' line delivery... it hurts!"

I have fond memories of Hokuto No Ken aka Fist of the North Star. The 1986 movie was one of my first exposures to anime, and that brief taste of mind-warping ultra-violence was all it took to hook me. It follows the exploits of Bruce-Lee-wannabe Kenshiro as he wanders a post-apocalyptic wasteland, defending the innocent from Mad Max style punks. He is also a master of Hokuto Shinken, a super powerful martial art that allows him to, among other things, punch someone in various hidden pressure points so that they explode into a fountain of gore. It combined my three favourite things: a post-apocalyptic setting, crazy martial arts battles and lots of exploding heads. It's violence-porn at it's most vapid, but it's fun.

A few years later I was in my local video store and I saw it: Fist of the North Star the live-action movie. Even at that age I knew better than to pick it up. First of all it has some goofy white guy with one hell of a mullet posing on the cover. Is that supposed to be Kenshiro? It looked like an Albert Pyun movie. Secondly it was Direct-to-Video, which is never a good sign. So I never rented it and I never saw it, but part of me always wondered "What if it was actually awesome?" All these years later, with a much higher tolerance for goofy shit, I thought I would give it a chance. I mean, I loved Ricky-Oh: Story of Ricky, which was based on a similarly ultra-violent manga, so if had the same level of cartoonish gore-soaked action it could be a hidden gem.

An abusively long opening credits sequence introduces the film's roster of B-movie regulars. The lead character Kenshiro is played by Direct-to-Video action sensation Gary Daniels (Submerged) and the villain Lord Shin is played by Costas Mandylor. I'm not too hung up on the whitewashing of the cast, it's a grand old Hollywood tradition, but it's hard to ignore the fact that you've got a bunch of whiteys (a Brit and an Australian, no less) running around called Shin and Kenshiro (ironically the only Japanese member of the cast, Isako Washio, plays a character named Julia). The racial miscasting reaches it's peak when Malcolm McDowell appears in a shiny robe as Ryuken, a Buddhist monk. I understand that it's a B-movie so you are required by law to put Malcolm McDowell in there somewhere, but wise old master of an ancient martial art is really stretching it.

Ryuken is the master of Hokuto Shinken and The Fist of the North Star (Kenshiro) and the Fist of the Southern Cross (Shin) are his two senior students. As we are reminded about fifty times, they are bound by the sacred rule that the two should never fight, but Shin breaks the oath when he falls in love with Kenshiro's girlfriend Julia. Shin uses his martial arts powers to poke a bunch of holes in Kenshiro's chest in the shape of the Big Dipper. Hokuto is the Japanese name for the Big Dipper (I guess Fist of the Big Dipper doesn't sound as cool) so I don't know if this was an intentionally themed mutilation, but it's a pretty big coincidence if it wasn't. He kidnaps Julia and leaves Kenshiro for dead.

During the next few years Lord Shin amasses a powerful and vicious army (budgetary reasons prevent them from appearing on-screen, you'll just have to take the narrator's word for it) but has no luck winning over the affections of Julia. Who would have thought that murdering her boyfriend would be such a hot-button issue? Meanwhile Kenshiro aimlessly wanders the wastelands. I don't know why he didn't track down his girlfriend right away, but eventually he is visited by the ghost of Ryuken who says "Get off your ass and fulfill your destiny, you lazy fucker" (paraphrased). Before he can do that, though, he's got to do the usual post-apocalyptic stuff like making friends with an annoying teenager and a little girl, help out some villagers in trouble etc.

The village in question is Paradise Village, a cheap-looking soundstage that represents some sort of strategic advantage to Lord Shin. They are frequently attacked by a bunch of post-apocalyptic punks including Clint Howard in a Soviet Army uniform, who laughs maniacally as he shoots women and children with a service revolver. In fact, they all do a great deal of maniacal laughing as they terrorise the villagers. You can tell these guys really love their job. They are led by Lord Shin's second-in-command Jackal (Chris Penn), a former victim of the Hokuto Shinken who now straps his throbbing head in a leather harness so it doesn't unexpectedly burst.

Shin's final battle with Kenshiro is of the typical early-90s variety. Two sweaty, muscular, long-haired men whaling on each other with lots of slow-motion kicking. There's a nice effect where Lord Shin punches Kenshiro, causing bloody squibs to erupt on his body like he'd been shot, but it's otherwise unmemorable. There's a few funny homoerotic touches (Jackal is armed with a couple of bola balls that are suspended below an extendable baton and Shin fights Kenshiro while wearing what appears to be a leather minidress) but nothing too outlandish. Actually it's kind of boring.

I'm going to say the same thing about this film that I did about The Reader: The severe lack of head explosions really hampered my enjoyment. There's only two, and one's off-screen. I know you can't expect a glossy, special-effects-laden film from Direct-to-Video, I get that. I can accept murky cinematography, factory settings, green screens and wobbly soundstages. What I won't abide by, though, is a lack of gore in a film based on Hokuto No Ken. A bucket of stage blood and a few latex heads don't cost that much. I could let it slide if the fight scenes were great, but they are unimpressive and spread way too thin. Hopefully one day someone will remake this film and take a more early-Peter-Jackson approach to the gore, but until then I would recommend that you stick with the anime.

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