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Dragon Fire (1993)
"I'm not gonna take another bet! No!"
7 March 2018
Some time ago, Robert King wrote a fairly standard screenplay about a martial artist who travels to a distant land seeking his brother's killer. This became BLOODFIST, the first starring vehicle of Don Wilson. A while later, Jerry Trimble made his solo debut in FULL CONTACT, a film that shared the same storyline. The same year saw the release of DRAGON FIRE, the sole vehicle of Dominic LaBanca, and wouldn't you know it, it features the exact story as the other two and is credited to the same writer. The template is conducive to a lot of action and very little acting, and I can only guess that filming it three times was easier than writing two new screenplays. Whatever the case, this most recent incarnation's a decent adventure best suited to viewers well-versed in the low-budget martial arts genre.

The story: In 2050, Laker Powers (LaBanca) arrives on a dystopian Earth from an off-world colony in search of his brother, only to find him murdered following a high-stakes street fight. Aided by the shady trainer Slick (Kisu), Laker enters the underground circuit to uncover the killer's identity.

Not unlike its predecessors, DRAGON FIRE sets much store by the athletic abilities of its performers. The cast boasts many real martial artists, several of them former world champions. I can't say this was made the most of, but overall, the fights are decent. The editing is a little bothersome - way too much slow motion and cutting - but the choreography's good enough to be noticed. LaBanca makes for a decent Van Damme stand-in, but the varied fighting styles of the other onscreen competitors are where the real excitement's at. Michael Blanks shows off some cool jump kicks, and Dennis Keiffer has a pretty decent opening brawl. Karate master Val Mijailovic and kung fu exponent Harold Hazeldine do a particularly good job of representing their real-life styles. None of this is going to blow you away, but thanks to their sheer quantity, at least a few of the 16 fights (!) ought to please every viewer.

Those who've seen the film's predecessors can have some fun comparing the three. Though some of the roles are played differently, others are almost direct copies. Kisu as the trainer was previously played by Joe Mari Avellana and Marcus Aurelius; Pamela Pond replaces Marilyn Bautista and Denise Buick as Laker's love interest; Harold Hazeldine rips off Michael Shaner and Gerry Blanck as Laker's goofball buddy; and even Charles Philip-Moore replaces Michael Jai White as the charismatic fight official. Their characters even have the same name! It's a trip, hearing Kisu quoting Avellana quoting Aurelius quoting Sun Tzu. If nothing else, you could get some enjoyment out of buying all three movies and contrasting them beat-by-beat like you could with few others.

While the production values are a little lazy, it's the acting that's really hard to redeem. Viewers will inevitably hit the fast-forward button more than once, jumping ahead to the fight scenes. Despite this, the movie still makes for a relatively fun time and is a nice flashback to a different era of martial arts filmmaking. By no means essential, it's still worth the low price for people who know what they're getting into.
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Ballistic (1995)
"Touch that gun, I'll shove it up your (butt) and pull the trigger!"
1 March 2018
BALLISTIC is unfortunate in that the parts making it a good film aren't necessarily the ones that B-movie action fans typically find appealing. The amount of time it spends on its characters will make adrenaline junkies itch for action, and when those awaited fight scenes don't blow 'em away, it's easy to be disappointed. Nevertheless, the picture's got charm beyond its means, and its obscurity makes it a rare find for an appreciative fan like me. Despite its price tag, I'm sorry I waited so long to get my hands on it.

The story: When a straight-shooting police officer (Marjean Holden) is falsely implicated in a murder, she battles time to prove a conspiracy between the department and a sleazy arms dealer (Sam Jones).

What's simultaneously infuriating and refreshing about the film is that, even though this is Marjean Holden's sole leading credit, she doesn't hog the spotlight. It's clearly her vehicle, but the amount of prominence given to costars Joel Beeson and Richard Roundtree is surprising. While it's easy to write this off as Holden being unable to carry a vehicle by herself, the story highlights the interrelationships between characters and makes what would otherwise be a bunch of stock figures seem interesting and easy to invest in. This isn't a masterpiece of drama, but if more B-movie action yarns spent this much time making you care about the people in it, the genre might have a better reputation. Also, it's one of the few films of this sort wherein Richard Roundtree actually earns his highly-placed credit, and for that it deserves praise.

There's a good amount of action here, mainly in the way of fistfights, but the quality is inconsistent. Holden is a better onscreen fighter than, say, Mimi Lesseos but she doesn't approach Cynthia Rothrock's standard. The late Joel Beeson has at least as many fights as her and is a respectable kickboxer, though nothing out of the ordinary. The brawls range from basic karate-style encounters to pro wrestling-inspired bouts and even the odd weapons-themed showdown. Holden's final opponent is bodybuilder Corinna Everson, and while their match is interesting, it's not the showstopper you're hoping for. Supplying some much-needed pizzazz is Michael Jai White in a rare indie role wherein he actually fights. White has a few matches and his acrobatic moves vastly outclass those of anyone around him, to the point that you wish he'd get an opponent who can keep up with his skill.

Production values are above average for this kind of picture, comparable to a really good PM flick. Its rolling pace and engaging tone make it a good starting point for newcomers to low budget action flicks. Again, viewers who are all about the action might not go for this, but at this point it's their loss. Among the hills of schlock and mountains of trash this genre has accumulated, this one's a diamond.
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"I can't tell you how sorry I am this keeps happening"
8 December 2017
BLIND VENGEANCE is the second and last film starring professional martial artist Rod Kei, and perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say is that it's a step up from his previous L.A. TASK FORCE. It might satisfy viewers who are just in it for the fights, but it's also a sloppy and amateurish adventure that represents the lower rungs of 90s action fare.

The story: The violent rivalry between two martial arts instructors (Rod Kei and Carl Van Meter) is aimed towards a violent end by a beautiful kickboxer (Cheryl Kalanoe).

There's a decent amount of fighting in here, and most of it's good. Kei and Van Meter are solid on screen performers, as is Cheryl Kalanoe, and there's even a nice role for the late Master Pely Ferrer. The dramatic portions are written well enough that the bad acting doesn't entirely crush them, and overall, this is a little more memorable than I expected it to be. Nevertheless, it's still bad. The story relies on tired macho tropes to keep from ending prematurely, women are collectively depicted as incredibly foolish, and there's a distasteful amount of sexism and intimate partner violence. There are also some plainly weird aesthetic decisions, like how scenes are interspersed by unexplained shots of Kei and Van Meter striking forms.

Equally as bad as all of these things is the film's technical presentation. As was the case with the aforementioned film, I got hold of a pretty bad DVD release. Maybe there's a better version out there, but this one has a terrible soundtrack, with the score and dialogue alternatively muffled to near-silence or bled together so much that you can barely understand what the characters are saying. It's not so damning once you realize that you can capture the gist of events by fast-forwarding to the fight scenes, but it makes it all the harder to appreciate a movie that already has little going for it.

Rod Kei didn't have much of a movie career, and though you see flashes of charisma here and can definitely glean why he was considered a prospect, I don't think the part of a lead star was right for him. I wish he'd hung around filmmaking longer, but as is, I think we see the cumulative best of what he had to offer here. If it's any consolation, I've seen worse.

P.S. Contrary to the film's page, neither Gerald McRaney nor Marg Helgenberger appear in this movie.
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"You eat that and you're dead tomorrow, I guarantee it"
7 December 2017
L.A TASK FORCE is an action flick from director Stephen Lieb and Gun For Hire Films. It's not very good. It's only available internationally right now, and I predict that it won't get a U.S. release anytime soon. While it's got the makings of a decent adrenaline piece in the vein of PM Entertainment movies, it's sloppy and boring beyond redemption.

The story: A Los Angeles detective (Rocky Ferera) assembles a team of three standout police officers (Rod Kei, Matt Diagostine, and Daryl Mak) to catch an elusive serial killer (Andrew Biss).

I've seen cheaper movies, but this one's pretty darn emaciated, with hollow locations and a total lack of aesthetic flair. Worse yet is the editing, which fumbles every fast-paced scene with poor cuts and unnecessary slow motion. The writing is about as weak as the acting, with the performers unable to paint with even the little bit of color their characters are given. Worst of all is how horribly this movie has aged technically: perhaps there's a better release out there somewhere, but on mine, the soundtrack is a terrible one-track thing that alternatively drowns out both the score and dialogue and bleeds them together for a really painful listen.

The only good thing this has going for it is its action content – part of it, at least. The shootouts are occasionally bloody but fall victim to the aforementioned editing problems, thus necessitating much from the fistfights. Luckily, the fight scenes end up being pretty respectable and are decent showcases for the skills of Rod Kei and Matt Diagostine, both professional martial artists. Sadly, there are only two full-length brawls to be had, so they won't keep your mind off the film's worse aspects for long.

In my book, the ultimate sin a movie can commit is to bore me, and L.A. TASK FORCE did that within 23 minutes. By the end of its 83-minute runtime, I felt as though I'd completed an unfulfilling chore. I'm disappointed that none of the stars and major production members had much of a film career, but after seeing this, I can see why they didn't.
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Game Face (2015)
"It can be a good story or it can be a bad story; I think it can be something special"
6 October 2017
"Game Face" is a documentary addressing sports participation among gay and transgender individuals in the United States. It's an insightful, relevant production that examines the intricacies of competing openly in what's largely been a conservative holdout. Its subjects are Fallon Fox and Terrence Clemens, and its arenas are professional mixed martial arts and college basketball.

It took me a while before I realized why both of these athletes are featured. The Fallon Fox controversy was so big that it could've filled the run time by itself, but the parallels and contrasts between Fox's and Clemens' experiences are intriguing. Both had their lives negatively affected by backlash to their gender/sexuality, but while Fox must battle contention and abuse after being forced to out herself, Clemens spends most of the movie torn between the success he can achieve while remaining closeted and his burning desire to reveal himself to the world. The production shows the hostility that social nonconformity in sports can generate but also the support and humanity such trials inspire. The movie is equal parts inspirational story and cautionary tale.

While the film makes a case for the transwomen's participation in sports and highlights the absurdity of shunning someone for their sexuality, it does so only fleetingly and is infinitely more concerned with ensuring that viewers recognize Fallon and Terrence as human beings. You see some of the backlash they experience, mainly in Fox's case, but it's not the most visceral stuff and is relatively easy to deal with. The film's not a platform for its subjects to get even with their detractors, though it does take a swipe at fighter Ashlee Evans-Smith for her two-facedness on the transgender issue. For a film that deals with sensationalized events, it's not very sensational in its own right and isn't out to shock you.

Well-shot and well-edited, the movie's accessible even to people who aren't familiar with these sports. Its bid to make you care about these matters is pretty strong, and I'd recommend it to just about anybody.
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My Samurai (1992)
"You fight well, little man. You have good spirit."
22 July 2017
Taekwondo champ Julian Lee has been appearing in action movies since 1990, but his earliest work readily available in North America is 1992's MY SAMURAI. This one fell into my lap by accident (my boyfriend happened to have an unopened copy on his shelf), and overall, I'm glad I saw it. What threatens to be a boring indie exercise turns into an engaging adventure with a lot of fight scenes. It doesn't fully realize its potential, but the raw fun makes for a feature worth digging your VCR out for.

The story: When a young boy (John Kallo) witnesses an underworld crime, his babysitter (Lynne Hart) and he are targeted for assassination and must rely on the protection of a martial arts instructor (Lee).

The movie starts off umpromisingly. It's really hurting for good actors, with lead villain Mako and absentee father Terry O'Quinn having relatively few scenes despite their important roles. I totally buy Julian Lee as the martial arts teacher he is, but drama seems alien to him; he makes Philip Rhee look like an Oscar nominee. Young John Kallo is, somehow, in even greater trouble. They stumble through the movie's opening third, gumming their lines and failing to impress. Then, to my surprise and delight, the screenplay wakes up. At first it's just little things that you notice – realistic touches about what three people on the run have to contend with, like how to find new clothes and needing to sleep in a cramped space – but eventually, it's like the film remembers that it can do whatever it pleases and has its three stars fighting a glam-inspired martial arts gang and buddying up with a minister played by friggin' Bubba Smith. The final 15 minutes or so lose some of that gusto when the filmmakers try to shoehorn in a whole scenario about Kallo and his dad, but overall, this is a pretty energized movie that's unlikely to bore its target audience.

There are some disappointing missteps throughout, beyond the aforementioned pacing issues. Lynne Hart – one of only two prominent female performers in here – shows a lot of promise but is somewhat wasted by playing a character whose sole arc in this otherwise bombastic film is about her love life. There seems to be some untold backstory regarding the villain, with the filmmakers trying to draw a parallel between two sets of fathers and sons, but this is left until the film's final minutes and is thus rendered confusing and pointless. Julian Lee has an embarrassing philosophical scene wherein he claims he never got rich teaching the martial arts because he didn't -want- to be rich; if all martial arts instructors who've struggled and sacrificed in pursuit of their passion watched this scene at once, their combined laughter might cause earthquakes. Lastly, take note of the movie's inappropriate title. Didn't the studio realize that neither Julian Lee nor the character he plays are Japanese?

There's no shortage of fight scenes, here – about a dozen individual brawls – and I'm happy to say that they balance out some of the film's flaws. The action doesn't start out promisingly, with some strikes clearly not making contact and a combatant dying by falling out of a five-foot window, but it picks up dutifully. Julian Lee provides his choreographers all the physical talent they need, and they exploit it by keeping the matches grounded and intimate – lots of close-quarters street fighting. There's some flashiness (the glam gang contains several acrobatic tricksters), and this makes for a satisfying adrenaline package. Disappointingly, Lee's on screen nemesis – fellow martial arts master Christoph Clark – is portrayed as so powerful as to negate any potentially cool matches between them. Clark beats the heck out of Lee, forcing the final showdown to conclude anticlimactically.

MY SAMURAI has the right attitude to be a kickboxing flick of the NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (1986) variety, but not quite the concentration to maintain its enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the mixture of unusual touches and inspired moments make it worth owning for mildly patient fight fans.
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The Atheist Delusion (2016 Video)
"All I'm doing is reasoning with you! ... It's common sense!"
21 November 2016
THE ATHEIST DELUSION promises big but delivers little. Director/evangelist Ray Comfort has built his career on arguments based on false analogies, and he remains true to form for this picture. Though the film's production is sound, its contentions are embarrassingly fallacious.

The movie is essentially a collection of Comfort's signature street interviews, interspersed with narrated sections and TV snippets. The cinematography is bright and nice to look at, and the soundtrack is occasionally pleasant. Disappointingly, these are the only good things I can say about the film. The hour-long runtime is devoted entirely to its message, and the message just isn't good. Comfort's argument is that DNA is like a book; no one would suppose that a complex book just happened, and therefore one shouldn't assume that DNA did either. This is the argument from design, and it forms the base of Comfort's entire message, but it's easy to kick the base out from underneath and topple the entire thing. In short, DNA is not actually a book – books are not self-replicating and DNA doesn't convey information in the way Comfort portrays - and the argument from design is an insubstantial assertion.

Comfort has this pointed out to him during an integrated interview with Lawrence Krauss, who illustrates the fallacy with an analogy of his own. Comfort ignores this and goes on about "specified information" – another baseless claim – before building up a snowman of bad arguments. These include appeals to authority (the Bible, Bill Gates), strawmen ("You believe nothing created everything"), circular reasoning (creation-creator), and appeals to fear and emotion. Eventually, Comfort abandons argument altogether and begins full-tilt evangelizing, telling his interviewees that they don't believe in god because they want to sin and implying that Christians don't do things like having sex outside of marriage or watching pornography.

While not intriguing, the film may yet impassion atheists – just not in the way the producers would hope. Ray's shtick is, at best, downright irritating. His blatant mixing of unsupported claims and emotional manipulation makes the man unlikable, and his message shamelessly boils down to the old threat "unless you believe as I do, something bad will happen to you after you die." It's insidious, and for that reason, the film deserves the lowest possible rating.
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"Obviously I have something to learn about old-school traditions"
15 November 2016
Family-friendly martial arts films seem to be making a slow comeback, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID among them. This isn't an action movie, but a coming-of-age drama with a martial arts backdrop. Like most intentionally "wholesome" movies, it provides plenty of opportunities for eye-rolling , but it's also charming in key moments and actually features some good fight scenes.

The story: A troubled teen (Jansen Panettiere) is sent to live with relatives in Florida, where the guidance and tutelage of his martial arts-practicing uncle (Don Wilson) and aunt (Cynthia Rothrock) help him overcome bullying and gain the confidence to turn his life around.

The film focuses on drama and character development, in which regard it's a mixed bag. Though it addresses real-world problems, this is not a very realistic movie: to keep the relationships between the good guys as healthy as possible, the producers avoid nuance and grit to the point that they make THE KARATE KID seem like a hardcore drama. Nevertheless, this is part of the movie's charm, and it's kind of refreshing to see characters embrace goodness with such gusto. Wilson and Rothrock are clearly into their mentor roles, and while some of Panettiere's scenes can be pretty cringe-worthy, most of his shortcomings are the fault of the script and he remains a likable hero.

The martial arts are afforded a lot of reverence, with the filmmakers going out of their way to present a realistic picture of the hero's development. It gets a little preachy, and MMA fans may not appreciate the portrayal of "practical" fighting as a means of bullying, but I think the movie gets its point across. (It could have managed this even without the endless parade of cameos from real-life practitioners, but oh well.) Also, while the seven full-length fight scenes aren't the centerpiece of the picture, their quality exceeded my expectations. Panettiere's a good little fighter with potential, but I was more appreciative of the comebacks staged by his costars. Rothrock has a pretty good match with taekwondo champ Inga Van Ardenn, while Wilson has arguably the best fight of his career against T.J. Storm. They're not the best fights you'll see this year, but definitely not the worst.

I'm not sure whether Wilson & Co. can get through their remaining careers doing crowd-funded family flicks, but at least in this case, the picture was worth it. While not timeless, it's a fun movie that may encourage an interest in martial arts among younger viewers. Treat it as a rental, but don't be terribly surprised if this inspires a purchase.
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Crooked (2006)
"I don't like you, I don't trust you"
25 September 2016
CROOKED (A.K.A. SOFT TARGET) is a film from late in Don Wilson's prime career – that is, from before his hiatus around the turn of the decade. Overall, it goes to show that it wasn't a bad time for him to take a break, not necessarily because he no longer had the stuff but because the DTV action circuit seemed to have left him behind. The movie is weak sauce, for despite its strong supporting cast, it's lacking in style and substance. I'll say it now: this one's for completionists, only.

The story: Two police detectives – Tyler (Wilson) and Yordan (Olivier Gruner) – are assigned to protect a witness to an underworld murder (Diana Kauffman), but their efforts are hampered by internal corruption.

The film's primary selling point is its cast, which also includes Gary Busy, Martin Kove, and Fred Williamson. However, don't get your hopes up: while Wilson and Gruner make the most of their team-up, Williamson and Kove have a combined screen time of maybe five minutes and Busey doesn't even get in on the action. Personally, I was expecting this – Martin Kove has particularly been irritating me for a long time with his reluctance to do fight scenes – but it could be very disappointing to someone who thinks they've come across a B-movie supergroup. That's not to take away from the memorable performances delivered by lead villain Michael Cavalieri and Martin Morales as a flamboyant pimp, and Gary Busy manages to be memorable, but it's not what viewers wanted to see.

Speaking of things unwanted, I'm sorry to say that the movie is ugly in more ways than one. Production-wise, the movie toes the line of an indie feature. The way it's been shot makes me think it had a very rushed schedule: endless nighttime scenes, shaky camera-work, inharmonious editing, and a lot of ADR lines. All of this amplifies the sleazy tone of the story, which really turned me off. Few of the characters are endearing, with Yordan in particular doing all he can for the viewer not to like him. Violence against female characters and sexist dialogue is recurrent. As usual, Don Wison's character is a paragon of morality, but he's on in his own in that regard, amidst all of these other slimy critters. Basically, this isn't the kind of film you watch to put you into a good mood.

The same is generally true for the action content, though it has its redeeming qualities and ends up being the one passable aspect of the film. There are four shootouts and five full-length fistfights, and while the former are overlookable, the latter can be decent. Don Wilson and Olivier Gruner don't fight each other and that's pretty disappointing (especially when the film teases it), but they do fight alongside each other and that's pretty cool. A direct comparison favors Gruner: even though both performers are former pro kickboxers and have been listed among the authentic "tough guys" of martial arts movies, Wilson plays his fights very safe with relatively slow choreography and a lot of cuts, whereas Gruner performs a more dynamic and rougher-looking style of brawl that more accurately conveys his real-life strength and ability.

CROOKED isn't a film for casual martial arts fans. It *might* pass for a slow night on cable, but that's only if you really want to see the two lead stars and are tolerant about shortcomings.
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Fugitive Rage (1996 Video)
"Are you here for a reason, or are you just here to play cute?"
21 August 2016
FUGITIVE RAGE is a disappointing little adventure with just enough of a budget to look professional but not enough talent in the right places. Its lead star, Alexander Keith (credited as Wendy Schumacher), once described themselves as hoping to become "the female Van Damme," but I'm sorry to say that this movie isn't even up to Van Damme's standards. It's an action movie with bad action, and a weak attempt at a feminist feature by people who definitely aren't feminists.

The story: Sent to prison for the attempted murder of a mobster (Jay Richardson), police officer Tara McCormick (Alexander) is offered her freedom by a shady government agent (Tim Abell) in exchange for renewing her assassination attempt.

The quality of the action is average, at best. There are a few shootouts, but they're so impersonal that you won't care about them. There's a goofy instance wherein Tara is hit by a car and hood-surfs until the vehicle inexplicably crashes, but this too is boring. This leaves us with the five fight scenes, but their quality isn't much better. While Keith is a legitimate martial artist, their fights are plagued by a variety of problems: if they're not poorly blocked or clumsily edited, they're painfully slow moving or just simply feature bad choreography. If you want to see Keith's moves utilized a little more gracefully, check out the Michael Dudikoff vehicle COUNTER MEASURES, but don't get your hopes up for this one.

Dramatically, all of the performers do a decent job, and there's even a little chemistry between Keith and Shauna O'Brien as her cellmate. The problem is that the boring screenplay demands so little of these performers that virtually anybody could have played the characters. Surprises are few and innovation is nonexistent, unless the clumsy attempts to turn this into a "girl power movie" can be called clever. Director Fred Olen Ray and producer Jim Wynorski have gone on record stating their condescending opinions on female representation in B-movies, and the things they've decided to highlight in the movie reflect these. There's gratuitous nudity and sex, violence against women, recurrent sexist (and racist) dialogue, lurid descriptions of violence, and a sadistic lesbian warden. Aside from the fact that none of this is counterbalanced by simply having a physically powerful woman as the star, such features give the film a mean-spirited edge that's really too much for it to withstand. Despite its pro-woman overtones, FUGITIVE RAGE disingenuously panders to the 18-36 male demographic and suffers for it.

Even if you're not particularly put off by what I just pointed out, I still can't recommend this one at all. Die-hard B-movie enthusiasts may find mild delight in its corniness, but even they will be likely to wonder whether it was worth digging out the old VCR for. Leave it be.
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"When you pick up a meat cleaver, you better be ready to use it"
21 April 2016
It's weird to think that there once was a time when the whole world didn't know about Jackie Chan. It's even weirder to realize that at one time, he was introduced to us but we didn't think to remember him. BATTLE CREEK BRAWL is odd for being a Hong Kong-inspired movie before Hollywood knew the value of the HK influence. But while director Robert Clouse may have been unable to capitalize on Jackie Chan like he did Bruce Lee, this is still an exciting adventure and an interesting study of one of the earlier chapters of one of the genre's top stars.

The story: A martial arts-practicing adventurer (Chan) runs afoul of a Chicago crime syndicate and is strong-armed into competing in an all-important toughman contest.

While there are plenty of criticisms to be leveled at this film, I don't accept its departure from the style of other JC movies as one of them. Director Clouse isn't Stanley Tong, and he doesn't need to be: his utilization of Jackie isn't the ideal standard, but someone as talented as Chan benefits from showing poise in alternative circumstances. Admittedly, one casualty of Clouse's style is Chan's comedy, which comes across as clumsy and childish, but his action scenes remain pretty swell. Almost none of his on screen opponents approach Chan's level of agility and they clearly aren't comfortable with the hero's rhythmic style, but Jackie's athletic abandon is matched by satisfying, stunt-heavy choreography. The filmmakers keep the camera pulled back, diminishing our boy's facial expressions but showing off the authenticity of his abilities. Given that this was the first time Chan was being captured as a lead outside of Hong Kong, I'm impressed with the results.

The production is on the modest side of respectable. Clouse works well in small, homey locations and pulls off the 1930s setting pretty smoothly. Disappointingly, the story and characters within the setting are not intriguing. The screenplay offers exactly one character and relationship that I found intriguing: dear old Mako in his surprisingly stern role as Jackie's mentor. Everyone else, from Chan's on screen girlfriend (Kristine DeBell) to the evil champion (H.B. Haggerty), are simply varying shades of boring. Even Oscar-winner Jose Ferrer is incredibly vanilla as the lead villain and doesn't enliven a story that's almost solely kept afloat by its lead star's infectious talent. Chan himself isn't at his best either, though this is mainly due to his discomfort with English at this point, and his physical expressiveness conveys a lot of what his dialogue doesn't.

BATTLE CREEK BRAWL teeters on a less enthusiastic rating, but eventually wins me over through its strengths. It's not surprising that this film didn't make Jackie Chan a household name, but it's good enough to qualify as a collector's item for the right viewer. The one thing all viewers needs to do when watching is not expect RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, and if you manage that, you'll probably have a good time.
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"Ninjas - what else?"
11 April 2016
Having just finished watching SAKURA KILLERS, I'm befuddled as to why this is not a wider-known cult favorite. Perhaps the fact that the filmmakers don't even include complete credits says something about their budget and ability to advertise, but when solely considering content, this is some high grade B-movie madness. Entertaining in its zaniness and more than competent in the action department, this is the "No Retreat, No Surrender" of ninja movies and it's worth owning a VCR for.

The story: A trio of operatives investigates a number of deadly ninja operations. To counter the threat, they themselves will need to channel the art of ninjutsu.

Directors Dusty Nelson and Wang Yu may not qualify as entities of filmmaking, but they display particular talent for merging American and Hong Kong cinema on a B scale. There are plenty of non-fighting scenes that I could have sworn were directed by Philip Ko, and for all its excesses and troubled dialogue, the script feels more accessible to audiences who are not fans of Hong Kong-style screen writing. There's nonstop energy here, with the film never sitting still, even if it means that we just get another oddball training scene of the heroes chopping straw bales.

Speaking of heroes, the film introduces us to two or three particularly promising ones. Western staple Chuck Connors is given top billing, but his role is limited. Not so those of Mike Kelly and George Nicholas. In true cult fashion, these two virtual nobodies deliver wonderfully hammy dramatic performances before displaying some breakout karate moves. Later on, they're joined by Manji Otsuki, whose character spends most of the film supplying non-physical support before inexplicably donning a jumpsuit and giving just as impressive of a martial performance.

It takes a while for the movie to hit a stride in both the quality and quantity of its fight scenes, but when it does, watch out. The Hong Kong influence shines here more than anywhere else, and while there's no shortage of goofy ninja trickery, the physicality of the performers merges harmoniously with the choreography to make for some choice fights. The quality of the fisticuffs may never reach undisputed excellence, but it's definitely good – sometimes very good, such as the awesome three-on-one swordfight finale. Everyone benefits from some doubling, but the ninja garb nullifies this detriment. Watch for the scene wherein poor John Ladalski is crotched to death on a tree.

Some unlikeable moments from the lead characters and the underutilization of Chuck Connors keep this one from a higher rating, but I can nevertheless state that SAKURA KILLERS is the most fun I've had with a low budget action flick in months. If you can't stand ninjas or their parade of decoy dummies, then this one is not for you, but if you're up for a good time with some decent fighting, you can put it on your wish list.
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"I...I feel so empty inside"
6 April 2016
Richard Norton has never had a great solo feature. That's a subjective statement, but I think it's fair, given that nobody seems to mention his starring vehicles among the great moments of his career. THE SWORD OF BUSHIDO had potential to be one of those moments, but loses it thanks to some stupid writing and a shortage of martial arts action. It may belong on the wish lists of collectors, but I don't know who else would be interested.

The story: An ex-Navy SEAL (Norton) searching for his grandfather's remains in Thailand is caught up in a fight for a historical Japanese sword stolen decades ago.

A film production can do a lot worse than director Adrian Carr, who has an eye for cinematography and does a lot with this one's rural and jungle settings. Leading man Norton is in great shape and looks every bit the star that Van Damme ever did, but disappointingly, his character is far from endearing. The movie's writer was on a machismo kick and crafted a story so blatantly worshipful of the white male hero that it's embarrassing. This is best illustrated thru the presentation of his costar Rochelle Ashana, who enters her role as an action star but devolves into a helpless love interest over the course of various tragedies. Norton's character comes across as lecherous and opportunistic in his romantic pursuits, and there's a tasteless moment wherein the script jokes about sexual harassment when that's exactly what its star is doing. Ugh.

The action content doesn't make up for much of this. Richard's one of those folks who must actively try before they make a bad fight scenes, but the four ones here merely hover around the "average" rank. The best of these is a decent swordfight with Toshihiro Obata, who shows up in the film's second half to grab the vacant role of the main villain. The rest of the adrenaline scenes – mainly shootouts – are likewise nothing special, but we get a little boost in the form of an absurd chase scene wherein Richard tails a car in a go-cart.

For my money, the best Richard Norton vehicle available now is UNDER THE GUN from 1995 – by when Richard's filmmakers had refined his style of fight scene and developed a better idea of what makes a strong character. A fan could do a lot worse than THE SWORD OF BUSHIDO, but also much better. Leave this one 'til you're really hurting for karate flicks.
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Kung Fury (2015)
"I hacked away all of your bullet wounds, Kung Fury"
31 March 2016
KUNG FURY is a triumph of the power of crowd-funded filmmaking, a passion project if ever there was one, and an absolute indie acid trip. Disappointingly, it's not a movie for me. Action comedies have always been iffy to my tastes, and martial arts parodies are a no-go. Why bother with tongue-in-cheek homages when the material inspiring them is better by default? I wish I could talk about this one's story, but there's no real way I can narrow it down. In many ways, writer/director/producer/star David Sandberg cares deeply about the tale he's telling, but in other ways, he doesn't give a damn. KUNG FURY is a maelstrom of off-the-wall ideas. It's every cool daydream that Sandberg had as a kid, but presented with the minimum of context. The main inspiration here are 80s action movies, but equally so video games and cartoons of the same era. As such, we've got the tough-talking cop with the overblown backstory, but also an anthropomorphic arcade machine, time travel via computer hacking, Viking warriors and an enormous Thor (Andreas Cahling), Nazi Germany and a kung fu Hitler (Jorma Taccone), and more dinosaurs than you can shake a stick at. I'm a fan of excess, but Sandberg is clearly an addict.

The movie doesn't take itself seriously for a second, but I never laughed at any of its gags (again, why parody goofiness when it's so much funnier with a straight face?). There's a lot of action, including explosions and fight scenes and giant critters, but because all of it's there for you to point and laugh at, none of it actually gets your adrenaline pumping. The handful of things that actually did engage me are the technical mimicry of VHS tapes (gotta love the perfectly inconvenient static) and the soundtrack, which feels 100% authentic with its keyboard openers and the glorious melodic rocker playing over the credits.

That said, I own media that does almost everything the movie attempts better. Between BLOODSPORT and an episode of TRANSFORMERS (or, even better, DINOSAUCERS), I'll have seen almost all of the film's comedy material played out with greater class and sincerity than the producers were capable of. Thanks, KUNG FURY, but no thanks – I don't need to recreate my childhood dreams; they're all still on the shelf.
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"I got a hundred bucks that say we're going down in this thing"
30 March 2016
I've said it before in other reviews: action heroes shouldn't do these military team movies. Playing one part of a regulated squad – even the leader – is bound to result in a lot less screen time and focus on the star of the movie, and Mark Dacascos' role in CRASH POINT is no exception. This is an impersonal, unoriginal little adventure with very mild highlights, populated by characters I had a hard time caring about. In a word, it's overlookable.

The story: When the leader of a murderous rebel alliance (Dick Israel) steals a new technology with which to hijack planes by remote control, a strike force led by Captain Matt Daniels (Dacascos) is dispatched to retrieve it.

I haven't watched the original THE HUNT FOR EAGLE ONE, but if any of the returning characters were established there, they don't carry over much personality. Dacascos' immediate costar is Theresa Randle, and she has barely more luck than Mark and his three teammates at establishing herself. Jeff Fahey's here in an action-free role to supply on-off narration, and Joe Mari Avellana is utterly wasted in his do-nothing part. In its final quarter, the film manages to create at least some tension, but it's too little come too late, after I've sat through so many drawn-out shootouts that only served to disengage me.

Said final quarter of the film also includes a decent fight between Mark and supporting villain Boy Roque, wherein Roque attacks with a knife and Mark counters with a computer keyboard. Beyond this, there's nothing to get excited about, though plenty of directorial weirdness to raise an eyebrow at. The movie is practically on life support through the grace of lifted footage. Some of it's stock footage, and the rest of it's clearly shots from bigger and better movies. Additionally, for some reason, almost all of the original footage has been edited to include a noticeable color contrast – giving the movie the same look that conventional flicks reserve only for flashback scenes. How odd.

Luckily, this franchise seems to have run its course long before I even got to it, and I look forward to not watching any additional sequels. I don't recommend anyone else sees this one, either, unless you're completely out of other Dacascos material.
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The Butcher (2009)
"Why did you never shoot that way for me?"
25 March 2016
While Isaac Florentine has a death grip on the title of "best direct-to-video action director," Jesse V. Johnson is definitely a runner-up. More restrained than Florentine, Johnson displays a particular aptitude for character development and storytelling, and in no instance more so than the vehicle crafted for star Eric Roberts. While not the action-packed extravaganza that I had been hoping for, it is an excellent crime-thriller that proves the cinematic experience is possible on a small budget.

The story: Double-crossed by the underworld syndicate employing him, a washed-up debt collector (Roberts) strikes back by stealing a multimillion dollar take.

With a 113-minute runtime, THE BUTCHER is a longer-than-average low budgeteer, but makes it worth it by building up its characters and allowing the actors to amply show their acting chops. This investment, in turn, is made worth it by the seriously good cast. Cult star Eric Roberts has the same natural charisma as David Carradine or Lance Henriksen, making any scene he appears in entertaining by default. Villain Robert Davi is in a similar league and for all the seems like he was gearing up for a BOARDWALK EMPIRE audition. Also in the credits are the spectacular Irina Bjoerklund, Keith David, Geoffrey Lewis, Bokeem Woodbine, and Michael Ironside – occupying roles of varying sizes but all working towards my general impression of "Wow, I forgot that movies like this could have good acting in them!" The story they perform is a slow burner, sometimes too slow for my liking, but the atmosphere it creates along the way is excellent and its avoidance of cliché is welcome.

The one bad thing about the story is that it comes at the expense of the action, which – despite the claims of the DVD case – is not evident "from start to finish." Uncharacteristically for the director's movies, there is very little hand-to-hand content, which is disappointing considering the supporting cast's inclusion of Dominquie Vandenberg, Dan Southworth, and Jerry Trimble (who gives a surprisingly wicked dramatic performance). Its focus is on gunplay, but you'll have to wait until the second half to see anything substantial. There are three big shootouts, and while most of them lack overall creativity, each features at least a couple moments of cool absurdity. Roberts shoots through a brick wall with a shotgun to dispatch an enemy, and later grabs a decorative Browning machinegun to take on a club. The final shootout in a bar makes up for a lot with its hyper-violent choreography; it's worth waiting for.

When I think of "bad" B-movies of the pre-2000s, I think of poorly-made shlock. When I think of "bad" B-movies of the 2000s and beyond, I imagine well-made but dramatically vapid shlock. It's nice to come across a movie that makes such a point of avoiding both pitfalls, and it's good to know that there are indeed filmmakers out there who take this particular tier of filmmaking seriously. While I really wish there had been more action, THE BUTCHER is worth at least the price of a rental.
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Death Train (2003 Video)
"If you think we're flying, you're wrong"
21 March 2016
I don't mean to bum anyone out right at the beginning of a review, but this is a pretty sucky movie. Sucky on the point of being dreadful. Produced during that period in the early 2000s when the Nu Image studio couldn't make a good movie for neither love nor money, it's an annoying exercise in mundanity. Nearing the end of his career as an action hero, lead star Bryan Genesse does what little he can to make this one stand out but only manages to save it from a rock-bottom rating.

The story: When a gang of arrested thieves (led by Bentley Mitchum) takes over the train transporting them to prison and makes hostages of the passengers, it's up to their captor (Genesse) to end the crisis.

The film was probably made under very limited means, as evidenced by the frequent use of stock footage. The exterior shots of the train are taken from a movie shot in British Columbia, and seeing the filmmakers try to pass off this landscape as the Mexican countryside is kinda goofy. So is the casting: like many Nu Image flicks, this one's supporting roles are predominantly played by Bulgarian performers, and if you think it's been interesting listening to East Europeans fake English dialogue, just wait 'til you hear 'em speaking Spanish. Before long, it seems too much to take for even the producers, who end up dubbing most of the Spanish. Disappointingly, they did not dub Bentley Mitchum's lines. Mitchum is a fair character actor but his performance here is atrocious. The screenplay is clearly going the "crazy dangerous" route with its villain, but this comes across as irredeemably annoying, with Mitchum spewing adolescent threats and insults while largely failing at being intimidating.

Even though the movie makes a point of focusing on various hostages who don't actually affect the story too much, one guy who doesn't get much of a personality at all is the hero. When he first appeared, I thought Bryan Genesse was a side character because of his lack of charisma, and he never gains any throughout the runtime. Genesse was apparently on board with the movie, performing his own stunts while running across and hopping about the moving train, but he's just so generic here that the role could have been played by anybody. This homogeny carries over to the action content, which is comprised mainly of shootouts and a few explosions. Genesse only has two fight scenes, and while the brawl with Mitchum came as a surprise for being anything other than dismal, they're not worth talking about.

DEATH TRAIN doesn't bear thinking about too much: I get grumpy about having wasted my money and want to rate it even lower. I can't recommend it to anyone, and hope that it only finds its way into the hands of its particular niche audience – whoever that may include.
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"You bisexual thing!"
18 March 2016
NEW YORK CHINATOWN is a throwaway crime picture from the early 80s whose inclusion on a DVD set is solely due to its obscurity. Far from being a hidden gem, it's a borderline-generic outing with only a handful of highlights. Consider buying only if you're a particular fan of the genre.

The story: A benevolent gangster (Alan Tang) is challenged for the supremacy of New York City's Chinatown by a rival boss (Yi Feng) and his treacherous subordinate (Melvin Wong).

The best thing that I can say about this movie is that it has plenty of weird things in it. Rambunctious teenagers terrorize a restaurateur with condiments. A gay gang parties by staging mock childbirth in an alley. Alan Tang punishes a cruel employer by dressing him in lingerie while he sleeps, and later is declared the noble winner of a political argument after he holds a gun to a student's head. If you're determined to watch the whole movie, it'll only be to see what other crazy nonsense the filmmakers came up with, because the actual meat of the story is very bland stuff. None of the characters are very interesting, and while completing the film was not as much of a drag as it could have been, the picture is without flair or any genuine surprises. When the movie finally does reach a moody highpoint within its final quarter, it's too little too late.

Actually, I amend my statement regarding surprises: I was surprised by what a substantial role costar Don Wilson has. Wilson, who would go on to become one of the biggest B-movie heroes of the western hemisphere, is billed as little more than an enforcer but ends up turning into a main villain – the most active of the three. It's weird to hear a dubbed voice coming out of his mouth, but even in his acting debut, he seems pretty confident. He even supplies the movie's action highlight, which comes amidst a smidgen of sloppy fighting and a smattering of shootouts. Wilson the kickboxer only has one fight, against Cheung Kwok-Wah, and while it's muddled by a degree of choreographic stiffness, the ferocity of the brawling and the length of the shots automatically make it one of the best matches he's ever had.

Of course, it's not enough to save the movie, which reaches a zenith late in its runtime but otherwise leaves no impression. The fact that Wilson himself never seems to mention it and points to other movies as his acting debut may say a lot about the inconsistent quality of this one. If you're a completionist or really, really love cheap crime flicks, go for it, but otherwise forget about this one's existence.
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Air Marshal (2003)
"Sit down, you idiot!"
17 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I first noticed Dean Cochran for his role in A DANGEROUS PLACE, and after seeing that he can perform a pretty good fight scene, I thought it'd be cool to see him headline a movie. I need to learn to specify my wishes, because even though AIR MARSHAL does indeed turn Dean into a leading man, the vehicle itself is pretty darn dreadful. With poor action scenes and a seriously flawed screenplay, this is definitely one of the worst offerings from the Nu Image / Millennium catalogue.

The story: When a trans-European flight is hijacked by extremists, an undercover air marshal (Cochran) must find a way to save the passengers before the plane is shot down by the military.

This movie was released in 2003, but might as well have been released 20 years earlier given its mindset. Hollywood never tires of vilifying Arab characters, but AIR MARSHAL is so irredeemably embarrassing in its heavy-handed Islamophobia that one would almost think it's an ironic statement against it. The whole movie actually feels like a farce on traditional action: moments of idiotic heroism (e.g. the captain's roller coaster flying) flow smoothly into the most harebrained coincidences (e.g. the friendly stowaway), while women fawn over hero Dean for no real reason and a child (Luke Leavitt) is *almost* sucked out of a sprung window…(SPOILER) an hour before he helps land the plane, putting his video game experience to good use.

Eli Danker leads the hijackers, and even though his character is a walking cliché, he's a rare example of competent acting in the film. There's also good old Tim Thomerson playing a hostaged senator, but he's mainly = there to pad the cast and doesn't do anything cool. Dean Cochran looks like he's enjoying himself but is stuck playing a completely unremarkable character. It's a relief when he can stop talking and fight, but the four cramped brawls likewise lack any shred of uniqueness (no shortage of slow motion, though). A narrow body jet is an awkward place to stage an action flick to begin with, but the characters don't care at all about wantonly firing guns – even purposely shooting the window that the aforementioned boy gets to see the outside of.

I'd see another Dean Cochran action vehicle, if such a thing ever came about, but only if it were helmed by a completely different set of filmmakers. I haven't gotten into the ridiculously transparent special effects, but only because they're the least of this one's problems. It's worth skipping.
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Counter Measures (1998 Video)
"For a conscientious objector, you sure have a talent for killing"
11 March 2016
Michael Dudikoff's popularity as an action hero is a mystery that I'll probably never understand, but his output on the direct-to-video market was pretty consistent, even as the home video slump of the late 90s began. 1998's COUNTER MEASURES may be a pretty good vehicle as far as fans are concerned but can be regarded as an average low-budget adventure for the rest of us. Full of Cold War throwbacks and an agreeable amount of decent action, this is the fare of slow Saturday nights or Dudikoff completionists.

The story: A Navy SEAL-turned-medic (Dudikoff) finds himself trapped on a nuclear submarine commandeered by the crew of a merciless idealist (James Horan) planning to recreate the Soviet Union by starting a world war.

The film is directed by cheapo connoisseur Fred Olen Ray, whose economic style is evident in the ample use of recycled footage and the unconvincing submarine set. Beyond this, the movie is competently made but registers a notable cheese factor for its laughably patriotic, anti-red overtones: an anthemic orchestra kicks in every time we catch sight of a US naval ship, while many scenes featuring Russian characters open with a foreboding bellicose score. Villain James Horan is about as evil as the script demands of him but is all the more memorable for it – at least more so than Dudikoff. Dudikoff's sidekick is played by short-lived action star Alexander Keith/Wendy Schumacher, whose conventional role was probably edited to allow for some butt-kicking when the producers found out that s/he puts on a better fight scene than Michael.

Speaking of fight scenes, they are the heart of this one's action content, which is otherwise limited to some shootouts and a ho-hum submarine battle. The eight fights are middle-of-the-road type stuff, even when considering the most exciting ones like Keith's two-on-one brawl and the unexpectedly sound encounter of Lada Boder. Dudikoff is serviceable and makes grisly use of a corkscrew in more than one brawl, but his fights are not only predictable, they sometimes go beyond general suspension of disbelief. For example, I'd buy that Dudikoff's character can defeat the one played by MMA heavyweight Oleg Taktarov, but I have a hard time believing in the ridiculously slow strikes of a fire extinguisher that he uses to do the job.

Nevertheless, the fact that the movie keeps a good pace and is never boring is enough to buy it a passing score from me. If you're a general action fan and not too disappointed by the fact that the fighter jets featured on the DVD cover don't seem to appear in the movie, you may have the same impression.
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"There is no more froth and foam for me"
7 March 2016
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a strong enough franchise to not only survive a bad incarnation, but to imbue an otherwise stinky one with a level of charm and entertainment. Their latest movie – directed by Jonathan Liebesman and produced under a storm of fan protest by professional polarizer Michael Bay – exemplifies these points by being a middle-of-the-road action movie with a few moments of inspiration. While much better than what I had expected, it's ultimately a $125 million video game lacking emotional and dramatic clout.

The story: Four ninjutsu-practicing mutants are New York City's last line of defense against the criminal Foot Clan's murderous scheme to bring both the metropolis and the world under their control.

In attempting to pander to both nostalgia nuts and the PG-13 crowd, the movie struggles to find its balance. Personalities and storytelling are blunted in regard of the latter, meshing awkwardly with the post-modern humor and "epic" touches (e.g. choir music during the fight scenes) aimed at older audiences. I enjoyed the script's take on some characters, like the adorably nerdy Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and I appreciated the relationship between the TMNTs and their poppa Splinter (voiced by, of all people, Tony Shalhoub), but I was turned off by the spectacularly unfunny Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and horrified by what a socially-subnormal weirdo the movie passes off as April O'Neil (Megan Fox). There's a handful of legitimately humorous moments to balance out the parts where you're just laughing at the weird ideas the film presents with a straight face, and when weighed together, these amount to a dramatically staid story. No surprises, not much in the way of emotion, and not even anything in the way of pulpy charm.

The action content is a combination of martial arts fight scenes and larger environmental pieces. The latter aspect is a trademark of Michael Bay, whose crew has a knack for creating computer-driven adrenaline scenes that are very fluid but too bombastic to be taken seriously – look no further than the so-cool-it's-silly chase down the snowy mountain. The fight scenes are a nuanced set, but I have to admit that there are some ones that I really liked. The best on screen performer isn't one of the Turtles but Splinter, whose choreography in his fight against the Foot soldiers feels like a combination of something out of REVENGE OF THE SITH and the work of Donnie Yen. The strength of the choreography never diminishes completely, but the pacing of the subsequent fights makes them feel less like karate encounters and more like a video game, with a ton of slow motion and other directorial gaga in place by the time we reach the showdown with the Shredder (who is played by Tohoru Masamune before becoming a CGI character).

Also, I have to say it: the Turtles are butt-ugly. Though I know of die-hards who have given approval to these abominations, I think they look like someone took their pre-production sculptures and melted their faces right before they were converted to 3D form. But I got used to the design, much like I got used to the other faults, and was surprised to come away from the movie focusing more on its strengths than its weaknesses. Though there's no shortage to how much better its characters and story could have been handled, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES makes an impression with its visuals and ability to get one's blood pumping. The team behind this has laid groundwork for itself, and while I won't get my hopes up too high, it would be great if they could build on it in with the upcoming sequel and fill in the organic gaps in this one's armor.
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Black Friday (II) (2001)
"Does the government train you guys to talk like this or do you write this (...) yourselves?"
1 March 2016
The brief alliance between action star Gary Daniels and director Darren Doane resulted in two movies, only one of which got a DVD release. Surprisingly, it was not the conventional, star-studded ULTIMATE TARGET but this oddball experiment wherein the only recognizable name is Daniels himself. BLACK Friday is among the strangest of starring flicks the British Danger Man has in his filmography, and it's far from his best. I'm not sure if I'd declare it one of his worst, but it's definitely not for everyone.

The story: When the home of a black ops agent-turned-lawyer (Daniels) is taken over by entities in possession of a devastating weapon, he must break past the government security to rescue his family.

Director Doane has not made an action movie, here – he's made an artistic thriller. This rough-around-the-edges adventure carries just enough fighting and shooting to earn the label, but rather than pumping adrenaline, its objective is to see how long it can stretch your attention before getting to its eventual twist. While this twist is pretty decent, it's not worth the wait. The film regularly takes three times as long as conventional movies to depict almost any event – whether it's an investigation scene, an assassination, or a character walking down the hallway – and there are many times when the fast-forward button was my best friend. The feature mixes stark (read: cheap) scenery with a schizophrenic soundtrack to create an uneasy mood that I never got used to, ensuring that I never connected with the story.

The DVD cover features Gary holding a sword that's nowhere to be seen in the movie. Beyond this, the sparse action in the film is less disappointing than it is odd. Daniels' initial bout with action coordinator Tsuyoshi Abe is fairly conventional, if longer than the average brawl and paced differently. The showdown with villain Ryan Kos runs even longer – it's at least three minutes long – and is pretty weird for Kos' reliance on an obvious double and an odd sequence wherein the two fighters are suddenly scrapping against a black background. The art show never ends with this movie, even when it comes to something as basic as punching and kicking.

For reasons I can't explain, I went into this movie with fairly high hopes. Maybe someone who approaches it with more even expectations will have a better time, but I am pretty disappointed at having wasted mine. This is not a movie for Gary Daniels fans – it's not even for general action lovers. Should this one fall into your hands, treat it as the experiment it was meant to be.
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G.O.D. (2001)
"You are either brilliant or completely (messed) up"
28 February 2016
While Jalal Merhi would not officially put his career in action movies on hiatus 'til later that decade, 2001's GUARANTEED ON DELIVERY marks the last action vehicle he'd star in for about 15 years. It's understandable: Merhi was never one of my favorite karate guys, but he had done way better than this in his prime and seems to be running on fumes, here. Despite its cool cast and provocative title, this is a pretty boring action flick that, at best, is a poor version of THE TRANSPORTER.

The story: When a security guard-turned-courier (Merhi) realizes that his cargo is actually a victim of human trafficking (Justine Priestly), both of them are hunted by the minions of the perpetrator (Olivier Gruner).

There's few things that the film outright does wrong, but nothing it does otherwise ever really clicks. The story is almost completely devoid of surprises. The characters move the plot from point to point, but none of them really catch your attention – even Daddy David Carradine, in his role as Merhi's ex-employer, is forgotten as soon as he's off-screen. The look of the film is flat and the acting's exactly what you'd expect from a Merhi movies.

The action's surprisingly minimal, coming from the guy whose movies used to be stuffed with adrenaline scenes. There's some shooting and some punching, but only about three scenes of gunfighting and fisticuffs, each. Carradine doesn't fight at all and neither does Olivier Gruner, leaving the brunt of the action scenes to be carried by Jalal. Though his on screen opponents include kickboxing star Luraina Undershute and the much-missed Darren Shahlavi, none of the fights are particularly good and they uniformly suffer from lax editing.

Stay away from this one. Us action fans can do a lot better.
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The Secret (2006 Video)
"The Secret was buried"
28 February 2016
I'm about ten years late in investigating THE SECRET, but I remember the intense interest surrounding its release. The biggest triumph that both the book and its movie version can claim is their marketing campaign, which nearly hooked me at the time. Though I had not officially watched it before now, it turns out that I had unwittingly already acquainted myself with the secret…and dismissed it. The "Secret" is the "law of attraction" - a component of the New Thought movement and the acceptance of which relies on a lack of skepticism and the inability to spot logical fallacies.

The movie is essentially a documentary with some loosely-dramatized inserts. It makes the point that thoughts and feelings attract experiences through a form of cosmic ordering, and that the universe "delivers" the products of our thinking. Thereby, the movie claims that we can utilize positive thinking to achieve our goals and acquire virtually anything we please.

THE SECRET boasts strong production values and is engagingly directed by Drew Heriot. It weaves together a fairly consistent narrative through the words of a diverse set of interviewees, from New Thought minister Michael Beckwith to various quantum physicists and even feng shui consultant Marie Diamond. They sound like they know what they're talking about, and the film pushes a message of hope to virtually anybody in need of change in their lives. Disappointingly, it's false hope. On a good day, I could wheedle out the kernels of factuality scattered throughout the production, but this is not a good day and I am not feeling generous. This film earns its low rating for three major reasons:

1. It does not support its premise. THE SECRET is an empty notion, buoyed by the weightless "proof" of personal testimony and the writer's invention that the heroes of history demonstrate their awareness of it thru mined quotations. I won't get even into the claims of "energy = god" and that all diseases are caused by stress, but the film fails to provide the objective evidence to prove its premise as anything other than magical thinking. 2. It encourages victim-blaming. One of the film's anecdotes describes a gay man who endured nonstop homophobic harassment, and then claims that he invited such abuse by focusing on it. By this premise, having negative emotions – even justified ones – is the same as taping a "kick me" sign to your own back, to which the conscious universe obliges. That's pretty low of you, movie. 3. Its premise is unfalsifiable. Any "law" worth considering includes some means by which it could theoretically be proved wrong, and the law of attraction has none. Should THE SECRET not work for you, you're just doing something wrong.

The movie provides very little time for contemplation: the interviewees bombard you with nonstop babble, with rare moments to reflect on what are meant to be world-changing ideas. I don't blame the filmmakers: since they're pushing people to accept mystical explanations to ordinary circumstances, it needs to lay its nonsense on very thick. It wasn't thick enough for me, though, as I remain unconvinced. Leave it be, folks.
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Fist 2 Fist (2011)
"You sound like Kung Fu"
26 February 2016
FIST 2 FIST is the second passion project of auteur Jino Kang, a man whose martial arts philosophy reflects a harmonious balance of tradition and pragmatism. However, the movie merely reflects his limited experience and resources, thereby merely scratching a rating that's disproportionate to the amount of effort that probably went into production. I can come up with plenty of action flicks worse than this, but I'm still not quick to recommend it.

The story: A former cage fighting competitor (Kang) must face his past when a vengeful mob boss (Bill Duff) is released from prison and seeks to destroy the life he's built.

Kang's theatrical presence reminds me of other martial arts masters who took up acting, like Hwang Jang Lee and Jun Chong, but he also reminds me of fellow action hero Hector Echavarria for his habit of placing his character in flattering situations while pretending like it's tortured drama. The film dwells heavily on how the relationship between his character and Bill Duff's went sour, as well as their connection to an orphaned student (Peter Woodrow), but I'm not buying either as a reason for slow motion or emotional music. The movie's decent as a simple action-thriller, and it's not above indulging in absurdity to remain entertaining (e.g. the lead villain seeks tactical advice from a "pet psychic"), it stumbles when it tries to be anything more than that.

If there's one thing that director Kang enjoys more than ham drama, it's fight scenes, and he stuffs his movie with 24 full-length ones. His strength as a choreographer shines through, as does his experience as a martial artist: intricate ground-fighting is as prevalent as karate-style brawling, and both are delivered with equal amounts of energy and ingenuity. Disappointingly, their overall quality is tarnished by a tendency to be filmed at very close quarters and to feature interchangeable fighters who the viewer hardly knows or cares about. Arch-villain Bill Duff only has a single fight – the showdown with Jino – and it's not particularly good, but at least he gets more of a chance to show off than the "top MMA fighters" mentioned on the DVD case (I can only conclude that the producers were referring to Tim Lajcik and Gene LeBell, only the latter of who gets to fight at all).

Kang seems to rely very much upon himself when it comes to making his pictures, and personally, I don't believe that he can go much further than FIST 2 FIST via this method. I can see him as the star of stronger movies were he directed by, say, John Hyams or Keoni Waxman, but as is, I can only hope that he figures to start pulling the camera back a bit while shooting his fight scenes. Don't go out of your way for this one.
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