Sunday, 19 February 2017
Despite the video shop real estate given over to the actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme is not the main attraction in Black Eagle. That poisoned chalice belongs to Sho Kosugi, star of umpteen Cannon Group ninja films and one of the more detestable Bruceploitation films, Bruce Lee Fights Back from The Grave. Kosugi is an interesting character though, a Japanese karate champion turned actor who treats this film (and apparently every other one) as an extended opportunity to take his children to work.
Kosugi plays Ken Tani, a CIA super agent able to code-switch between an unassuming, hunched academic and his lithe, knife wielding super-identity The Black Eagle. Tani has completely dedicated his life to protecting the aims and ideals of the United States, asking only that he be granted an annual fortnight of peace and quiet to hang out with his two sons. Naturally Uncle Sam reneges on this promise, packing Tani and his kids off to Malta to visit art museums but also stalk nosy Russian trawlers.
Since the focus is off him, Van Damme only gets a few, brief chances for his Soviet heavy to capture our attention. As ever, the actor is happy to disrobe, performing his trademark splits in various states of undress. As the film trundles on, there's an emerging sense that director Eric Karson doesn't quite know what to do with either actor. Kosugi and Van Damme are shot at arm's length, all the better to capture the holiday destination environments.
Karson and Cinematographer George Koblasa do dream up a few fun shots, their best portraying Van Damme as a kind of muscle piston pumping through a well-oiled routine. His body is pored over and objectified; overpowering brawn glimpsed in a canted, low-angle appraisal. Karson and pals also swipe a few of the tricks Robert Clouse demonstrated on Enter the Dragon, ignoring the moments when stabbing heels meet vulnerable throats to focus on the deranged glee surging over the face of the striker.
Opportunities to delight in this destruction are few and far between though. Black Eagle moves with all the vim of a tourist nursing sunstroke. Malta's blazing Mediterranean heat has been baked into the film, dictating not only the sleepy onscreen performances but also the film's baggy, undisciplined shape. Stakes crash into the film, delivered with all the elegance of a brick being placed into a malfunctioning blender. The film is pitched like a classic 70s Euro thriller, selling adult intrigue with brief blips of adrenalised action. Instead you get an illogical bore that lurches slowly from sequence to sequence, never quite managing to work up a head of steam.
Friday, 10 February 2017
Thursday, 9 February 2017
Monday, 6 February 2017
After somehow ending up as a cog in the deathless Adam Sandler machine, it's fantastic to see Genndy Tartakovsky back doing what he does best. Posedowns. Lots and lots of posedowns. Tartakovsky's greatest creation, Samurai Jack, seething and still. A bubbling wraith framed against a series of environments, each one more exciting than the last.
Sunday, 5 February 2017
Frank Dux is a very interesting person. As well as being a super important ex-CIA agent and a noted ninja historian, Black Belt magazine favourite Mr Dux spent the late seventies fighting in hundreds of underground, full-contact martial arts matches before retiring completely undefeated. Contrary to what the Los Angeles Times would have you believe, these entirely credible events definitely happened. Dux's stories so impressed Cannon Group moguls Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan that they stumped up the cash to turn his life story into a film.
Macho fantasist Dux found his perfect big screen avatar in Jean-Claude Van Damme, both men defined by their desire to be regarded as some sort of exciting object. Dux used tall tales to attract gullible marks to his ninjustsu McDojos. Van Damme, thanks to disastrous test screenings that deemed an early assembly unwatchable, was given carte blanche to edit the rhythms and shape of Bloodsport around centrefold spreads of his muscled physique.
Schwarzenegger's frame was oversized and lightly comical, his brawn presented as the machinery required to become a human gun platform. Stallone was smaller but steely, his body a work-in-progress that seemed to be unconsciously stressing the flayed elegance of rejected messiahs. Compared to his peers, Van Damme's mission is simple. He wants to be appraised and desired, explicitly linking glimpses of his engorged figure with the the act of sex. Van Damme fucks women and he wants you to know it. Viewed in this context, Bloodsport's fights are more about the graceful slow-motion arc of a perfectly chiselled leg than any sense of genuine conflict.
Want an extended trim of that Transformers Super Bowl tease? Head on over to Michael Bay's vimeo for the goods. Hey! Turns out Prime has been communing with some spectral ancestor! Crush them all mighty Convoy.
Thursday, 2 February 2017
Whereas a film like The Karate Kid is interested in self-determination and how men at different stages in their life can have positive emotional impacts on each other, No Retreat No Surrender is literally about how cool it'd be if your Bruce Lee poster came to life and anointed you, some crummy white kid, to be his successor. Kurt McKinney plays Jason Stillwell, an LA import who spends his days in Seattle creeping around The Little Dragon's grave and rolling his eyes at his pacifist / coward father.
Director Corey Yuen, a Peking Opera School classmate of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, has fun undermining the staid drilling of Emerald City karate with the kind of fluid but punishing training regimens made famous by Shaw Brothers' The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or Seasonal Films stablemate Drunken Master. The not-too-subtle insinuation being that flexible China produces more complete fight forms than prissy old Japan. Although Yuen's raw, onscreen materials are slower and sloppier than his Hong Kong pals, the director assembles a few crisp exchanges, particularly towards the end of the film.
Predictably, Jean-Claude Van Damme is this (basically terrible) film's greatest asset, an allegedly Russian enforcer who chews up and spits out the film's irritating extended cast in a concluding martial arts tournament. Given about ten minutes of screentime, Van Damme is instantly able to communicate the defining characteristics of his star persona - an arrogance based in absolute ability. There's a real sense of pitilessness with Van Damme, you believe he loathes anyone he considers weaker than him. He's also exciting to watch, a wide-eyed lunatic with a hairstyle held with polyurethane, hurling out leg upon leg at the blubbering nothings who dare challenge him.
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Soulful bruiser Manu Bennett fills-in for David Carradine in Death Race 2050, a ramshackle sequel-cum-remake of Paul Bartel and Roger Corman's cult perennial. Perhaps mindful of the real-time collapse of civilisation we're currently churning through, GJ Echternkamp's film ditches the correctional facility cock-fighting seen in Jason Statham and Luke Goss' loose remake trilogy, returning this film's focus to pointless, tranquillising distractions and a flagrant disregard for human life.
Unfortunately, Echternkamp's film has all the satirical bite and visual pep of a porn parody. Although costumed bodies are occasionally lingered over, the rough and ready grime of a New World production is gone, leaving the kind of flat, HD sunniness usually associated with rushed productions and the aforementioned smutty replication. Actual racing is terminally safe, rendered as little more than monotonous, static head shots granted a vague sense of movement by a light camera shake.
The casual, future-shocked cruelty of the Bartel's film, perhaps no longer shocking enough, is only wheeled out as a series of gooey punchlines, any sense of horror neutralised by the weak, variety show standard mutilation. 2050 is too self-aware. It knows it's a cheap supermarket shelf-filler, so why try harder? Echternkamp and Corman's sole shots at relevance are a few click bait friendly jibes at the current political establishment - 2050 works overtime to visually connect Donald Trump's mad hairdo with the kind of polished ferns you see in The Hunger Games series.
Thursday, 19 January 2017
No matter how many sequels or spin-offs Capcom release, there will always be something special about Street Fighter II. Nintendo obviously agrees as they've commissioned a spruced up re-release for their new Switch system, a canny attempt to snag the attention of people with fond memories of expensive import copies and SNES pack-ins.
Given the decision to stick with the ugly high-definition coat of paint Udon Entertainment rustled up last-gen, Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers initially appears a bit disposable. Certainly not the kind of release that has you browsing pre-order pages for the game's home hardware. Then I discovered that you can run the game using the original CPS-2 graphics and immediately found myself desperate to play a pillarboxed reissue of a 20-odd year old game I already own about four different versions of.