Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) Review

"Outlaw: Black Dagger" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Outlaw: Black Dagger" Japanese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Gangster VIP 5
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Kunie Tanaka, Sanae Kitabayashi, Kaku Takashina, Yoshiro Aoki
Running Time: 86 min.

By Kyle Warner

Outlaw: Black Dagger begins the way most the other Outlaw films end: a bloody knife fight, tragedy, and a love story interrupted. This opening sequence is actually the film’s finest moment, giving us drama and action with no shortage of style. During the sequence, Goro (Tetsuya Watari) faces off against his rival Sueo while his lady love Yuri (Chieko Matsubara) rides a train out of town… or so he thinks. Yuri comes out of the train station, sees the fight in progress, and tries to intervene. During the struggle, Sueo accidentally cuts Yuri with his blade. She dies right there on the street, leaving Goro heartbroken and making Sueo his sworn enemy.

But that’s not the end of Chieko Matsubara’s participation in this particular film. The actress, who has played a different character in all but two of the Outlaw films so far, returns to Black Dagger as yet another character after Yuri’s death. At this point in the series, the decision to give Matsubara two different parts in the same film feels something like self-parody. They’re not even twins or sisters, either. They’re both just inexplicably identical. At least the other characters notice this time, though. Matsubara’s second role is a nurse who tends to Goro after he’s injured. When Goro first sees her, he is struck by how much she resembles his lost love (I like to think that Goro’s deeply troubled by the fact that 80% of the women he meets share the same exact face). Goro’s nemesis Sueo also runs into Matsubara’s nurse, and though at first he’s haunted and confused to see the doppelganger of the woman he accidentally killed, he soon switches gears and decides to woo her. Sueo stalks the nurse everywhere, apparently thinking that’s the best way to win a woman’s heart. Later on, Goro, Seuo, and the nurse run into each other at the same time, at which point Sueo abruptly gives up the game and the nurse falls head-over-heels in love with Goro. The relationships in Black Dagger are about as forced as stuffing a triangle block through a square-shaped hole.

Black Dagger is the weakest film of the Outlaw series. The story is generic, with Goro trying to go straight (again) and getting caught up in yakuza affairs that have little to do with him. While Goro acts as Black Dagger’s hero, it’s difficult to call him the main character. I don’t even know if he cracks the Top 3 most important characters when it comes to pushing the plot where it needs to go. At the center of things is a good-natured yakuza who’s married to one of Goro’s other former romances. Sueo’s gang is muscling in on the local yakuza’s turf. In order to appease Sueo’s gang, the yakuza is ordered to give his wife to their rivals. “It’s only a woman,” explains his superior. When he refuses, it begins a series of bloody confrontations. Only then does Goro become useful to the plot, as he slices and dices better than all the rest. What’s unfortunate is that in the many scenes where Watari’s not onscreen, the rest of the cast provides generally subpar performances. The characters are overly familiar but that’s not the problem. Many actors look stiff and others frankly coming across silly. Only Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, and Kunie Tanaka (as a doctor) manage to impress, and even they don’t look as into it as they did in earlier films.

While I do think this is the weakest entry, I still thought it was rather entertaining most of the time. Black Dagger has a good deal of action and Keiichi Ozawa continues to improve as a director, filming the brawls with style and chaotic energy. This is the most violent Outlaw film, with a seemingly endless body count. Goro’s flow is interrupted in one fight scene when he’s unable to pull his dagger out of a dead man’s spine—it’s a nasty beat in the bloody action, helping the scene’s pacing in a cool way. Though Goro rarely walks away unscathed from his many brawls, his status as “the Assassin” has become legendary at this point in the series, and for good reason. He’s almost an invincible adversary. Goro could be outnumbered 50 to 1 and you’d still call those even odds. By this point, the Outlaw series has largely shrugged off the realism depicted in the first film. And I’m mostly okay with that. Similar to sequences found in action-packed samurai flicks, the Outlaw series is full of good hack ’n slash fight scenes, and Black Dagger has some of the series’ best examples of such sequences.

It’s just too bad that the film’s human elements are so lacking. Though entertaining, it’s hard to call Black Dagger a “good movie.” The story is generic, the acting is mediocre, and Chieko Matsubara playing two roles within the same film is a bit of a headscratcher. The Outlaw series has some ups and downs but I’ve enjoyed getting a chance to work my way through the films. Looking forward to the final film, Outlaw: Kill!

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6/10

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Five of the greatest gambling films

"Casino Royale" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Casino Royale" Japanese Theatrical Poster

It seems that gambling is all around us these days, whether it be placing a bet on a horse, a football game, or even the many no deposit bingo sites that always seem to be doing good trade. For film lovers though, the more popular side of the pastime is the romanticised world of the gamblers, whether it be through heists, or the darker side that has been seen through history. Here are five of the most memorable films to feature gambling:

Casino

It is fair to say that Martin Scorsese is a master of the art of making movies. Coming off Goodfellas, many wondered how he could top it. The answer was to continue the success with Robert De Niro and to bring us Casino. Teaming the actor up with Joe Pesci once more, we saw both the charismatic side of the history of Las Vegas, as well as its darker side in a movie that has stuck with us for many years.

Ocean’s Eleven

With rumours of a female remake, this would be the third version of Ocean’s Eleven. Whether it be the “Rat Pack” original, the George Clooney and Brad Pitt remake, or this rumoured new version, there is a lot of love for the Ocean’s movies. This has been through not only the choosing of a strong cast, but also the idea of pulling off one of the biggest heists in Las Vegas history, and that is a narrative you can never go wrong with.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Guy Ritchie exploded onto the film scene with this film which brought the heist movie to British cinema. Featuring the Cockney charmer characters, and even a sneaky homage to the Italian Job, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels not only raised Ritchie to the heights of Hollywood glory but also raised the profile of a certain James Statham too.

Casino Royale

You can’t have a list about gambling movies without a bit of James Bond. When Daniel Craig was given the role of the iconic secret agent, many questioned if he could make the role his. In one of the most iconic scenes of his tenure we saw him take part in a card game more dangerous that any online poker game could be as he fought off the effects of poison. Thankfully he survived and by the end of the movie Bond fans knew that the actor was up to the part.

Rounders

Rounders is an interesting film because it takes gambling outside of the glitzy world of the casino and gives it a more street feel. Starring an up and coming Matt Damon and Ed Norton, Gretchen Mol managed to steal a few of the scenes she was in. The real star in this movie though was the card games which were used as a tool by Damon’s character to win back money to pay off old debts. Featuring some of the most dramatic poker games on screen, this is one movie hard to forget.

We all have our favourite gambling movies, and these are just a few chosen to include on this list. One thing we know for sure though is the love of the pastime not only by the people who partake in it, but also the film fans who enjoy those classic moments put to screen.

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Will Snowpiercer’s Jamie Bell be the next James Bond?

"Casino Royale" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Casino Royale" Japanese Theatrical Poster

According to an LA film source, Daniel Craig is hanging up his tux and packing away his Walther PPK for good.

‘Daniel is done – pure and simple – he told top brass at MGM after Spectre. They threw huge amounts of money ($99m) at him, but it just wasn’t what he wanted,’ said the source. Another source told the Mail that ‘executives had finally agreed to let the actor go after growing tired of his criticism of the franchise.’

If this news is officially true, it’s not exactly shocking, considering Craig has openly stated that he’d rather ‘slash his wrists’ than play Bond for a fifth time.

From both a critical and financial point of view, Craig is leaving the franchise on a high note: 2012’s Skyfall has gone on to become the most successful James Bond film of all time, grossing over $1 billion worldwide. Last year’s Spectre, which drew in a lesser audience, plus mixed reviews, took in $879.2 million worldwide. Even though Spectre wasn’t a massive success, it was still a success.

The big question is: Who’ll be playing Bond? Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Damian Lewis (Homeland), James Norton (War and Peace) and Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers) remain firm favorites.

The next big question is: Who’ll direct the next Bond film? Considering Sam Mendes (Skyfall) reluctantly returned for Spectre, a new director is most likely on the radar. Endless names including Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Ava DuVernay (Selma), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and David Fincher (Gone Girl) have been making rounds on internet rumor sites. Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) is also a favorite fans are hoping to see return to the director’s chair, but he says: “I’ve had enough of Bond. [laughs] I’ve done it twice.”

Personally, I’d still like to see Quentin Tarantino take a stab at directing a Bond movie. Not only would he do something totally out of the ordinary, he also knows how to film great pieces, as proved in films like Inglorious Basterds and Django. In fact, very few people know that Tarantino was so close – yet so far – to directing Casino Royale. In 2004, the he went public with a desire to make Casino Royale as a period piece, set in the 1960’s, filmed in black and white, with Pierce Brosnan in the lead role. After being shot down as a directorial prospect by EON, it is now revealed that Tarantino tried to secure the rights to the book himself. “It would have been my James Bond film and not a Cubby Broccoli Bond film and I would have done it with Pierce Brosnan,” said Tarantino. (via mi6-hq.com).

As for Craig: He’s wrapping up a 20-part TV series called Purity. Mirror reported that MGM was even willing to push Bond 25 back, which would allow Craig to complete the series. “Daniel leaving the franchise at this moment is something MGM cannot stomach,” a source told The Sun newspaper last February.

So, does this mean MGM’s hunt for a new Bond official? Stay tuned.

Updates: According to Deadline, Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer) has met with 007 producer Barbara Broccoli about the possiblity of taking over the role of James Bond. Additionally, Tom Hiddleston is also in “serious talks” about filling Craig’s shoes. Craig himself, has yet to confirm his official departure from the franchise.

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Visual cast of Xiao Feng’s Mel Gibson-backed ‘The Bombing’

"The Bombing" Promotional Image

"The Bombing" Promotional Image

An upcoming Chinese-language World War II film, titled The Bombing, is currently in production by director Xiao Feng (Hushed Roar). According to Variety, the $65M movie, which is being shot in 3D, is a dramatic recreation of the Chinese population’s abiding endurance during the more than five years that Japan bombed the city of Chongqing, beginning in 1938.

The Bombing features an all-star, international cast that includes Bruce Willis (Last Man Standing), Nicholas Tse (The Viral Factor), Song Seung-Heon (A Better Tomorrow), William Chen (Triad), Liu Ye (Curse of the Golden Flower), Adrien Brody (Dragon Blade), Fan Bing Bing (The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) and Simon Yam (Cross).

Additionally, Mel Gibson (Edge of Darkness) will be working behind the scenes as the film’s art director and executive producer.

Update: Check out a promotional image, which gives a visual run-down of the enormous cast The Bombing (via AFS). The film is scheduled to be released at the end of 2016.

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Five Bingo Scenes in Movies

"Inglourious Basterds" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Inglourious Basterds" Japanese Theatrical Poster

At the heart of the game of bingo is a fairly basic game, this is what can make it so fun. Whether you play it at your favourite bingo hall or choose to do it online, you’ll know the rules of the game and how it works, and even recognised its use in movies. Here are some films that have used the game of bingo, with some in fairly unusual ways:

Inglorious Basterds

While not literally a game of Bingo, the interrogation by Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is memorable because of the way he incorporates the phrase into the scene by uttering the words ‘that’s a bingo’. His aim of course is to get the truth out of Brad Pitt’s character and to put all the jigsaw pieces together to work out the assassination plot. His “bingo” moment is when he believes he has confirmed everything (even if he is incorrect in his usage).

Hotel Transylvania

While being a film that is perfect for all the family, the tale of a hotel made for monster has its fill of jokes that are more aimed at adults. One of the more memorable scenes from the film is the attempt at a game of bingo that includes skulls and beasts that are more intent on eating their bingo cards than actually playing the game. This is a funny scene that works well with both adults and children alike.

Bad Grandpa

Johnny Knoxville’s Irving Zisman is a character so popular that he managed to make his way out of the Jackass show and films themselves and made it to his own movie. In one of his most memorable scenes he goes on a trip to a bingo hall to create as much chaos as possible. In his attempt to not only drink some of the pen ink, but also chat up some of the patrons of the game, it was not only funny but quite charming to see the people around him take more enjoyment than offense in his weird actions.

Rampage

This may be a movie with a darker edge, but Rampage still has an interesting use for Bingo. Featuring a hitman walking through the bingo hall picking off participants in a game, the scene is memorable for the fact that players are too engrossed in their game to care about what is going on around them. Surely there is some kind of social commentary about gaming in this, but that is for the audience to decide.

Bingo – The Documentary

We’ve included this documentary by John Jeffcoat in the list because, for fans of the game this is surely going to be the most interesting look at the pastime. Featuring interviews with players it looks into the experiences on a personal level and why people are so in love with it. No doubt it would be just as interesting to see why players look to play bingo, and if the experience in the halls, and on the Internet are the same, or different.

There are many films that use various of the bingo game to provide their entertainment. What the ones we have listed here show is that the use of bingo doesn’t have to be so literal, but can be used in a more abstract sense, while still being interesting for fans of the game.

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American Ninja Saga | Blu-ray (Olive Films)

American Ninja 1-4 | Blu-ray & DVD (Olive Films)

RELEASE DATE: August 16, 2016

Ready for an American Ninja overdose? On August 16, 2016, Olive Films will be releasing 1985’s American Ninja, 1987’s American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, 1989’s American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt and 1990’s American Ninja 4: The Annihilation on Blu-ray and DVD.

Join Michael Dudikoff (Avenging Force), David Bradley (American Samurai) and Steve James (The Delta Force) as they take on an army of evil ninja and other baddies in this popular action/martial arts series made famous by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s Cannon Films company.

Here’s a glimpse of each title’s special features:

American Ninja (pre-order)

  • Audio Commentary with director Sam Firstenberg
  • “A Rumble in The Jungle” – The Making of American Ninja: Featuring interviews with director Sam Firstenberg, actors Michael Dudikoff and Judie Aronson, Screenwriter Paul De Mielche and Stunt Co-ordinator Steve Lambert
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (pre-order)

  • Audio Commentary with director Sam Firstenberg
  • “An American Ninja in Cape Town” – The Making of American Ninja 2: Featuring interviews with Director Sam Firstenberg, actors Michael Dudikoff and Gary Conway, Executive Producer Avi Lerner and Stunt Co-ordinator BJ Davis
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles

American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (pre-order)

  • “Strike Me Deadly” – The making of American Ninja 3: Featuring interviews with Director Cedric Sundstrom, Executive Producer Avi Lerner, and actor Gary Conway
  • David Bradley Audition Tape
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles

American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (pre-order)

  • “Last Tango in Lesotho” – The making of American Ninja 4: Featuring interviews with Director Cedric Sundstrom, Executive Producer Avi Lerner, and actor Michael Dudikoff
  • “The Cobra Strikes” Music Video
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles

*In case you’re wondering, American Ninja 5 is not part of this release wave.

Posted in DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, Martial Arts Titles, News | 2 Comments

Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung (1992) Review

"Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung" VHS Cover

"Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung" VHS Cover

AKA: Great Hero from China
Director: Lee Chiu
Producer: Cheung Sin-Gung
Cast: Chin Kar Lok, Lam Ching Ying, Jacqueline Ng Suet Man, Suen Kwok Ming, Kwan Hoi San, Chan Siu Pang
Running Time: 93 min.

By Paul Bramhall

The name of Chin Kar Lok should be one that needs no introduction to anyone who considers themselves a fan of Hong Kong action cinema. The current president of the Hong Kong Stuntman Association and respected action director, back in the golden era of HK action cinema that was the 1980’s, Kar Lok was one the most fearless stuntmen working in the industry. As a member of Sammo Hung’s Stuntman Association, chances are if you were watching a Jackie or Sammo movie and saw a thug go crashing out of a third floor window / get mowed down by a speeding car / take a painful looking fall on the receiving end of a kick or punch, it would be Kar Lok.

As well as the stunt work, his physical dexterity saw him doubling for moves that even someone like Jackie Chan couldn’t pull off. In Dragons Forever, both the head over heels kick performed on the steps of the boat, and the finishing 360 helicopter kick to Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez are performed by Kar Lok, a fact that once known becomes blatantly apparent upon watching. So understandably, by the beginning of the 90’s, while Kar Lok’s older brother Chin Siu Ho was already an established leading man in the kung fu movie world, the decision was made to also thrust the younger Chin sibling into starring status.

Kar Lok’s most well remembered leading role remains as the hero in Operation Scorpio, were he famously took on Korean super kicker Won Jin using the unorthodox method of eel kung fu. Outside of Operation Scorpio though, he must also be the only actor to have played three legendary characters in the space of 4 short years – in 1991 he assumed the mantle of Wisely in Bury Me High, then a year later he stepped into the shoes of Wong Fei Hung in Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung, before donning the mask of Kato in 1994’s The Green Hornet. Out of the three productions, I always found his take on Wong Fei Hung to be the most curious.

Released the same year as Once Upon a Time in China II, whoever made the decision to go up against Jet Li’s take on the historical figure most likely never worked again. That’s not to say that Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung doesn’t come with its own pedigree of talent.  Once Upon a Time in China II may have had Donnie Yen as the villain (all be it before Donnie Yen became ‘Donnie Yen!’), but Kar Lok had a foe in the form of kung fu cinema legend Lam Ching Ying. Made just a couple of years before his untimely death, Ching Ying was well known for wanting to get away from the Mr. Vampire styled Taoist priest roles that he’d found himself typecast in, since taking the lead in the 1985 seminal classic.

Here he plays a wandering Japanese samurai, who’s only wish is to take on the most famous Chinese martial artists in order to prove that he’s the best. Indeed in many ways his character is reminiscent of Frankie Chan’s role in The Prodigal Son, however his musings feel straight out of a Chor Yuen directed Shaw Brothers wuxia, as he dwells on how it’s lonely at the top, and that whoever eventually beats him will be destined to the same loneliness. Deep stuff, however beyond his words he’s very much a 2-dimensional antagonist, one who arrives on the scene via landing on top of a flying coffin and announcing that he wants to challenge Fei Hung’s father. If nothing else, it’s certainly an arrival that serves as a reminder that we’re watching an early 90’s new wave movie.

The pairing of Kar Lok and Ching Ying must have worked well together, as it would be Ching Ying who’d step into the director’s chair for The Green Hornet, giving the lead role to Kar Lok. Beyond having two of the most physically gifted martial artists in the same movie though, much of Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung falls flat. It would be easy to blame it on the patchy storyline, one that fails to really build any significant threat or serious villain to propel it forward. There are times when you can almost imagine director Lee Chiu, the man behind such old school efforts as Crippled Kung Fu Boxer and Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave, trying to figure out which way to take the plot.

A perfect example is the fact that Ching Ying actually turns out to be an honourable opponent, however when he first bursts onto the screen he ends up driving a spear through one of Fei Hung’s classmates chest, sending him to his death. It’s a scene which screams your usual Japanese villain, however it turns out that the killing is literally only there as a plot device, so that Fei Hung has an excuse to fight him in the finale. Despite these strained moments, Kar Lok’s budding relationship with Ching Ying’s sister, played by Ng Suet Man, is charming enough, and pre-dates the same Chinese-Japanese romantic relationship theme that would be used in Fist of Legend by a couple of years.

As I mentioned, it would be easy to blame the movie falling short of being a complete success on the ropey storytelling, however that’s really only half the story. The other half is Kar Lok himself. From the mid-90’s his lack of leading roles becomes glaringly conspicuous, as he fell back into supporting parts and TV work, and the reason why becomes immediately apparent whenever watching one of his movies. He has amazing physical talents, but what he doesn’t have is any real charisma or screen presence. The truth is that, whenever he’s onscreen for more than a couple of minutes with no action to perform, things get boring and dull very fast. The same spark that he has whenever his fist or feet are called into action, just wasn’t there when it came to acting, which is essential if you want to carry a whole movie on your shoulders.

Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung suffers from this issue like his other movies do, and it’s perhaps telling that for some scenes he disappears all together, instead having the focus turned to inconsequential supporting characters, ones that at least have some energy and character to them. That being said though, the moment Kar Lok does spring into action, your eyes are immediately glued to the screen. The fight choreography here was done by Lau Kar Leung regular Hsaio Hou, and Deadful Melody director Ng Min Kan. Expectedly, the pairing results in a perfect combination of old school meets new wave action. There’s occasional use of wirework, both for jumps and power hits, sending the recipients flying into breakable walls and tables with a satisfying level of impact. However there’s also plenty of grounded action, featuring some fantastic kicking and hand to hand exchanges, thanks not only to Kar Lok, but also the likes of co-stars Suen Kwok Ming and Kong Miu Deng.

While Kar Lok gets to let loose on several occasions during the runtime, I was left with the impression that Ching Ying was somewhat underused. He does get a few fight scenes, however his role as a samurai has all of his fights being performed katana in hand, so we never get to see any of that blistering Wing Chun handwork that was witnessed in the likes of The Prodigal Son. His fights also rely on wirework more than others, and I was unable to decide if the reason why his character is wearing a wide straw hat is because he was being doubled in some shots. That being said, if you can put aside your memory of knowing what Ching Ying is capable of, his character is still an entertaining one, and fans of new wave action will definitely have little to complain about.

The promise of a Chin Kar Lok versus Lam Ching Ying match-up in a period kung-fu movie is of course the reason most fans will be checking out Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung, and the said match-up is indeed delivered. It pits an umbrella wielding Kar Lok against Ching Ying armed with a katana, in the confines of a relatively cramped barn (most likely inspired by the Jet Li versus Yen Shi Kwan fight in Once Upon a Time in China, only minus the ladders), and again the choreography goes for a mix of both grounded exchanges and high flying clashes. Surprisingly, the most effective part of the fight is the music. We learn earlier on that Ching Ying trains to the rhythm of his sisters flute playing, and in the finale, as she’s left to watch on as her potential suitor and brother battle each other, she begins to play a melancholy tune. The intensity of the choreography, set to the sombre flute playing, elevated the scene to carry a certain level of feeling and emotion, despite it being admittedly undeserved.

All things considered, Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung is a difficult movie to rate. It has plenty of kung fu action, and it’s of a high quality, but it may not be the type of kung fu action audiences are expecting, and in a way that kind of summarises the whole movie. It delivers on what you’re expecting, most likely it just doesn’t deliver how you were expecting it. For those willing to look past Chin Kar Lok’s flat performance, and an occasionally nonsensical plot, then it could well be worth a look, but one thing it definitely isn’t, is Once Upon a Time in China II.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5.5/10

Notes: (i) It’s probably a fair warning to mention that for those who don’t enjoy animal cruelty, the final fight in the barn involves a couple of pigeons being caught in the crossfire of Lam Ching Ying’s blade, although it’s nothing on the scale of the chickens in the finale of Outlaw Brothers.

(ii) I watched the Dragon DVD version of the movie, a sub-label of the now defunct UK based Soulblade distributors, and on the DVD cover it states ‘A FILM BY JANG LEE HWANG’. As in Hwang Jang Lee – so just to confirm – everyone’s favorite Korean boot master had nothing to do with Martial Arts Master Wong Fei Hung.

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Donnie Yen to return for a 4th ‘Ip Man’ film?

"Ip Man 3" Chinese Teaser Poster

"Ip Man 3" Chinese Teaser Poster

Despite publicly stating that Ip Man 3 was his last Ip Man film, martial arts superstar Donnie Yen (Ip Man 3, Kung Fu Jungle) isn’t ruling out the idea of revisiting the Ip Man character for a fourth time.

In a recent round table discussion (read it here) by our very own Zach Nix, here’s what Donnie had to say: “There’s a potential for a fourth… I don’t know. So far, in Asia, we have broken a lot of records. Never say never.”

Additionally, Donnie vaguely hinted that he may be working on a sequel to his 2007 hit, Flash Point as well. “Yes. I will be producing Flash Point 2,” Yen told MAAC. We assume that he’ll be in front of the camera as well – at least we hope so.

Updates: Looks like a Ip Man 4 may happen. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, a promotional poster for Ip Man 4 was unveiled. According to Pegasus Motion Pictures’ booth (via NA/DiP), Ip Man 4 is at early conceptual stages and “not to the extent of the script and given actor,” which means that Donnie Yen is not officially tied to the 4th Ip Man film – at least not yet. The article also suggests that Wilson Yip and Raymond Wong – director and producer of the series, respectively – are soon to be in talks for Ip Man 4.

In case you missed it, be sure to read about Max Zhang’s unofficial Ip Man 3 spin-off, which is currently in-development.

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Shepherd, The: Border Patrol (2008) Review‏

"The Shepherd: Border Patrol" Japanese DVD Cover

"The Shepherd: Border Patrol" Japanese DVD Cover

Director: Isaac Florentine
Writer: Joe Gayton, Cade Courtley
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stephen Lord, Natalie J. Robb, Gary McDonald, Daniel Perrone, Scott Adkins, Andrée Bernard, Dan Davies, Miles Anderson, Luis Algar
Running Time: 95 min.

By Kyle Warner

Who needs a giant wall that costs upwards of $18 billion when you could just hire JCVD to man the border between the US and Mexico? Hey folks, that was me trying to make an eight year old film seem topical in a crazy election year. It’s a reach (but only just a bit) to try to make the film feel relevant to the conversations happening today (and, for that matter, relevant to the discussions we’ve been having over the past couple decades). For while The Shepherd: Border Patrol is an action movie dealing with drug smugglers at war with Border Patrol on the US/Mexico border, it manages to say as little as possible about the desperate illegal immigrants or the failing War on Drugs. It’s an action movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a bunny-toting badass sorting out justice on the border—no more, and a little bit less.

Quiet guy Jack Robideux (Van Damme) arrives in a small New Mexico town carrying a rabbit. He’s not in town for more than a day before he’s breaking limbs in a bar fight and getting chewed out by his Border Patrol boss for being a loose cannon. If that sounds like the setup to an awesome action comedy to you, you’re not alone. Alas, the film flirts with comedy from time to time, but it’s clear that the script and the performers aren’t up to the job as most attempts at humor fall flat on their face. Robideux joins the Border Patrol agents at a time when they’re feeling outmatched against a new influx of drug shipments and violent action from across the border. But this isn’t just any cartel they’re dealing with. A group of ex-Army Special Forces has joined together with a Mexican drug cartel, bringing with them dangerous military tactics and a few lessons learned from the terrorists they previously fought in Afghanistan. Though most Border Patrol agents are more than willing to accept a payoff if it means avoiding conflict with ex-Special Forces, Jack Robideux is a standup guy that never backs down from a fight.

In the early goings, the Special Forces guys strap explosive C4 vests to the coyotes smuggling drugs and illegals across the border. The concept is both disturbing and also really effective. If the Border Patrol knows that the guys they’re trying to tackle to the ground are strapped to a bomb, maybe they’ll turn a blind eye. The tactic works… and then it’s immediately abandoned as the Special Forces go into their next phase, which includes turning a bus into a heavily armed mobile fortress. They cruise this thing across the border and end up in a firefight with Robideux, which sets off a series of violent shootouts as the fight heads back to Mexico.

The film features plenty of strong action sequences, mixing shoot ’em up gunplay with well-choreographed hand-to-hand martial arts. Van Damme’s fight scenes in The Shepherd are some of the best you’ll see from him in recent years. The big fight comes at the end when he must square off against Scott Adkins (Wolf Warrior), which allows both stars to pull off some good moves. The action of The Shepherd showcases brutal realism, sometimes bordering on becoming unsettling as we watch helpless innocents get gunned down in the crossfire between heroes and villains. The film is directed by Isaac Florentine (Close Range) and was made as the filmmaker was transitioning from low-budget action movies nobody talked about to the low-budget action movies that seemingly everybody talked about. Florentine’s done far superior work as a director in other films but there are a few flashes of style here that I enjoyed. He employs extreme close-ups and makes good use of every corner of the screen, reminding one of Sergio Leone’s trademark style at times, which fits the film’s Western themes. Florentine also uses zooms here more than most directors today would, which lends it the look of a 1970’s action film.

The story is a bit of a mess, though. Why did the Special Forces soldiers turn their backs on their country and become drug smugglers? Well, it’s a little vague, but I think they were upset that they weren’t celebrated as heroes for their time in Afghanistan… which seems like an unconvincing rallying cry, especially if that’s all it took to convince multiple men to join the cartel, fight the law, and kill civilians. Jack Robideux’s motivations make more sense, even if it’s drawn-out and doesn’t fully excuse Van Damme’s overly somber performance. Turns out his daughter (played by Bianca Brigitte Van Damme) overdosed on drugs, which made the narcos Robideux’s personal nemesis. For his character, this isn’t about saving America from drugs and violence, it’s about striking out at the smugglers—any smugglers—and getting some sweet revenge. There are other inexplicable character moments. Later on, the villains kill a civilian who meant something to Robideux’s boss. When Robideux offers his condolences, we are treated to a flashback to remind us of who he’s talking about—it’s actually a smart move, because the character seemed like little more than a glorified extra before his death, and so we didn’t know we were supposed to care that he died. It’s the sort of addition that feels like a last minute rewrite to add more drama, but they forgot to add that drama earlier on so they just threw it all on the tail end of the story.

There’s some entertainment to be had watching The Shepherd, though it doesn’t make up for the rest of the time when the film is dead on its feet thanks to poor writing and lame acting. A repeated joke has someone spilling coffee on Van Damme’s uniform. In the second instance, everyone’s laughing while he grumbles and walks off to change. That’s comedy! The Special Forces bad guys complain about America not appreciating their sacrifices, while they kill Americans. That’s… I’m not sure what that is. Irony? Credited to Hell on Wheels co-creator Joe Gayton and former Navy SEAL Cade Courtley (his only screenwriting credit to this point), the screenplay is a rambling, tone-deaf sideshow to the complex border situation. If there’s anything it’s actually trying to say about the War on Drugs or the US/Mexico border, the message is lost underneath the stupid tough guy dialogue, caricatures of slimy politicians, and set pieces that test your suspension of disbelief.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5/10

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Corpse Party | DVD (Section 23)

"Corpse Party" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Corpse Party" Japanese Theatrical Poster

RELEASE DATE: September 27, 2016

Section 23 presents the DVD for Masafumi Yamada’s Corpse Party, a live action movie adaptation of a survival horror video game series originally created by Makoto Kedoin and developed by Team GrisGris.

On the last day of a high school festival, students are locked up at Tenjin Elementary School, where a horrific murder once took place.

Corpse Party stars Rina Ikoma, Ryousuke Ikeoka, Nozomi Maeda, Jun, Yoko Kita, Reina Visa, Ryotaro, and Ayu Matura. | Trailer.

Pre-order Corpse Party from Amazon.com today.

Posted in Asian Titles, DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, News | Leave a comment

Coin Locker Girl | aka Chinatown (2014) Review

"Coin Locker Girl" Korean Theatrical Poster

"Coin Locker Girl" Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: Han Jun-Hee
Writer: Han Jun-Hee
Cast: Kim Hye-Soo, Kim Go-Eun, Um Tae-Goo, Park Bo-Gum, Ko Gyung-Pyo, Lee Soo-Kyung, Cho Hyun-Chul, Jo Bok-Rae, Lee Dae-Yeon, Jung Suk-Yong, Baek Soo-Jang
Running Time: 110 min.

By Paul Bramhall

As anyone who’s seen any number of Korean gangster movies will know, rarely are they complete without a scene in a basement carpark, a setting which never fails to lend itself to knife wielding figures of the underworld partaking in varying degrees of bloodshed. To that end, Coin Locker Girl jumps straight into the thick of things, as proceedings open with a character already sprawled on the floor of a basement carpark, a knife wielding assailant standing over them as blood drips off the freshly used blade. Had it been any other gangster movie, the scene would probably come across as remarkably familiar, however what sets this scene apart from those that have gone before it, is that both characters are women.

The women in question are played by an almost unrecognizable Kim Hye-soo, and newcomer on the block Kim Go-eun. Hye-soo, known for her roles in the likes of Kick the Moon, and Choi Dong-hoon’s Tazza: The High Rollers and The Thieves, here has her beauty hidden under some very effective aged make-up, a shock of grey hair, and some frumpy body padding. Go-eun on the other hand effectively portrays a young adult, one whose life has been moulded and controlled by influences that are only looking out for their own interests. After being severely miscast in Memories of the Sword, made the same year, her role here shows the same level of talent that initially brought her to the attention of critics and audiences alike, in 2012’s A Muse.

The opening scene with the pair is a refreshing sight in a genre that’s overcrowded with masculinity, and is no doubt thanks to first time director Han Jun-hee, here working from her own script. The female leads aren’t the only aspect of Coin Locker Girl that gives it a distinct feel of its own. As the Korean title suggests, the setting is in Incheon’s small cluster of streets that make up what became Korea’s first Chinatown. With so many Korean movies limited to taking place either in Seoul, or in one of the provincial small towns, it makes for a welcome change to be immersed in the distinctly different streets of Chinatown. It’s immediately noticeable that the buildings have both Chinese language signage as well as Korean, and the gritty dockside location and gloomy whether set up a suitably brooding atmosphere.

The plot of Coin Locker Girl focuses on the tale of a new born baby discovered in a train station coin locker by a homeless man. Seven years later, during a routine clear up of the many homeless people residing in the station, a heavily in debt corrupt detective notices the young child amongst the sea of down and out faces, and makes the decision to sell her off to the loan shark (Hye-soo) he’s indebted to. Fast forward a decade, and the girl (Go-eun) has become part of the loan sharks ‘family’, having become suitably effective at debt collecting. However when one of the debtors she’s sent after turns out to be a kind hearted young man, saddled with his father’s debts who’s escaped to the Philippines, she finds herself unable to go through with the grim ending that most who can’t pay up meet with. When her adopted mother gets wind of the indiscretion, it sets off a trail of bloody violence and revenge.

On paper, the synopsis for Coin Locker Girl may sound like a female take of Kim Jee-woon’s seminal classic A Bittersweet Life, however this would be to dismiss Jun-hee’s debut too easily. While the similarities are undeniably there, A Bittersweet Life cast its focus mainly through the unspoken feelings between Lee Byung-hun’s enforcer and Sin Min-ah’s gangsters moll, while Coin Locker Girl chooses to focus on the dynamics of the relationship between Go-eun and Hye-soo. There’s a running theme throughout Coin Locker Girl, which has Hye-soo bringing up which of her ‘family’ members are still useful, and which have become useless. Initially, Go-eun’s only real goal in life seems to be to remain useful to her adopted Mum, however as the plot progresses, the dynamic is interestingly switched, until it gets to a point were Hye-soo directs her own question at herself.

The journey that Coin Locker Girl takes us on, while never anything less than engaging, is a decidedly dark and grim one. At the end of 110 minutes, there’s not many people left breathing, and many of them have met decidedly painful deaths. The relentlessly dark tone will definitely not appeal to everyone, and Jun-hee’s decision to play things poker faced throughout make some of the events that unfold an unforgiving experience for the viewer. While movies like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance tackle similar dark themes and grim scenarios, director Bong Joon-ho injected his production with some blacker than black humor, which popped up in the most unexpected scenes. Coin Locker Girl could probably have benefitted from a similar deft touch, to lighten proceedings just slightly, however for a directorial debut, this is a minor quibble.

If any aspect of Coin Locker Girl really sticks out like a sore thumb, it would have to be Park Bo-geom’s performance. The young actor plays the son of a businessman who is heavily in debt to Hye-soo, and is apparently working in the Philippines to pay it off. Hye-soo tracks down the address of Bo-geom, and sends Go-eun to collect. However instead of making a run for it, upon arriving at the apartment, he cheerfully invites her in, and is soon cooking up a pasta dish so that she can have something to eat. The intention is obviously to provide a contrast to the cold harsh world Go-eun usually resides in, next to the world of someone that genuinely cares and takes an interest in her life. In fairness to Bo-geom, his overly cheerful demeanour is not the only issue, as the script also goes a little too far. One scene has Go-eun desperately begging him to run away, but all he seems to care about is that her shoelace is undone, even going so far as to bend down and tie it. Scenes such as this only result in taking the viewer out of the movie.

Despite Bo-geom’s character more closely resembling a glowing ray of sunshine than an actual human, his role is integral to the plot, and the consequences of Go-eun’s brief insight into how life could be are both swift and brutal. Indeed in contrast to Bo-geom, Hye-soo’s character of Mom (a term which she’s referred to by everyone) is remarkably detached and cruel, so much so that it’s difficult to relate to what her intentions and motivations could be. Not only is she a loan shark, but she also dabbles in fake ID’s for Chinese immigrants, with an organ trafficking business on the side. The concept of debtors paying what they owe with their organs has been used before in Korean cinema, most notably in Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, however here it feels particularly nasty and cruel. While we’re given vague hints at Hye-soo’s past, the script stops short of providing us with enough to connect the dots entirely, and as a result even a last act moment of redemption seems questionable against the backdrop of cruelty which has gone before it.

While the motivations of her character remain murky, both Hye-soo and Go-eun’s performances effectively embody the nature of the roles they’re playing, and as is often the case with Korean gangster flicks, the ending doesn’t back down from showing the consequences of their actions. Far from being a bloodbath in the style of A Bittersweet Life or Man in High Heels though, the expected confrontation between the pair is surprisingly low key, a risky decision, but one which perfectly works considering the context in which it’s taking place in.

Despite the familiar plot, Coin Locker Girl marks itself as an impressive debut from Han Jun-hee, thanks in no small part to the performances of its leads. It’s been a long time since there’s been a female-centric gangster movie out of Korea, with the last installment of the My Wife is a Gangster trilogy already a decade old, so many would consider it long overdue. Jun-hee is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, and no doubt fans of the gangster genre will walk away satisfied, which in a genre that’s already overcrowded, should be considered no mean feat.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10

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Shanghai (2010) Review

"Shanghai" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Shanghai" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Mikael Håfström
Writer: Hossein Amini
Cast: John Cusack, Chow Yun-fat, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi, David Morse, Franka Potente, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Hugh Bonneville, Benedict Wong
Running Time: 105 min.

By Kyle Warner

Once upon a time, Shanghai had a considerable amount of buzz surrounding it, with some dreaming up award talk considering its stellar cast of international talent, and others more realistically just hoping for a cool WWII-period thriller. If that seems like a long time ago, that’s because it was. Shanghai took some years to get made and then took just about as long to arrive in US theatres. Despite being a US-based Weinstein Company production, Shanghai made it to international theatre screens in 2010 and was delayed and then seemingly forgotten about for domestic release. Film fans, myself included, waited and waited for the film to finally arrive. In that time, we listened for reactions from foreign audiences… and heard crickets instead. The buzz quickly died and anticipation died with it.

Unless you were paying close attention, you might’ve missed that The Weinstein Company finally gave Shanghai a US release in late 2015, unceremoniously dumping it onto 100 screens for two weeks without any noticeable attempt to promote the film. Shanghai is said to have cost fifty million dollars to make. It raked in $46,425 in domestic sales and close to ten million dollars in foreign tickets. I don’t know why it took such a frustratingly long time to make it to the US, other than to say that the Weinsteins have a history of doing similar things. Was it worth the wait? Sadly, no, but I think we had a strong feeling that it wouldn’t be by now. It’s not a complete failure of a film, and seeing some of the best dramatic stars of Asia square off in a Hollywood production should be fun for some fans. But Shanghai can’t escape the feeling that it’s not half the film it should’ve or could’ve been.

In the final weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor, Shanghai was one of the last major Chinese cities not under Japanese control. At that point, America was not directly involved in the fight in the Pacific, so Americans in Shanghai found themselves in the difficult position of acting neutral to both sides. Spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) arrives in the city looking to unravel the mystery of a murdered friend and colleague (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and a missing Japanese woman (an uncredited Rinko Kikuchi).

*Beware of possible spoilers in the following paragraph*

People make fun of Sean Bean for dying in almost all of his movies, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) has found himself time and again playing the guy that’s killed off in his first scene, with his death sparking major plot developments going forward. It’s so strange. You want a guy to play a murdered comrade? Call up Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Here Morgan plays a spy that’s suspicious of Japan’s intentions in the Pacific. Before he can figure it all out, someone cuts his throat and the mystery then becomes John Cusack’s to solve.

*End of possible spoilers*

With an impressive backdrop of a city in chaos, Cusack meets all the dangerous players of Shanghai. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) plays Japan’s top spy and military advisor in the city. Chow Yun-fat (Hard Boiled) plays a Triad kingpin who reluctantly takes orders from the Japanese in order to remain in a position of power. And Gong Li (2046) plays Chow’s wife, who is secretly a high-ranking member of the Chinese Resistance. It’s a nice collection of characters, played by actors who give it their all despite some clunky narrative choices.

It has all the pieces to make for a fine film noir but it never manages the look and feel. Director Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan) worked with Cusack before on the effectively creepy Stephen King adaptation 1408. That film had no shortage of ideas but Håfström’s work in Shanghai shows a lack of any kind of coalescing style and mood, largely bungling the good work done by some of his cast and crew. The film’s a bumpy ride and it sometimes teeters on the edge of becoming a boring one.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini (Drive) has its own issues. The mystery is never as interesting as it should be. We don’t care about Jeffrey Dean Morgan, because who was he to us? Nobody. Similarly, the missing Rinko Kikuchi doesn’t inspire much intrigue, as the stakes of who finds her first is never as clear as it should be. The worst part of the screenplay is the voiceover narration spoken by John Cusack’s character. The voiceover serves to set the film noir mood and fill in the blanks between scenes but it makes for some dull storytelling.

The constant, uninterested droning of Cusack’s spy is probably meant to remind one of a Humphrey Bogart antihero. Instead it just serves as a reminder of how disinterested Cusack can make himself seem. Cusack performs a bit better onscreen than he does when we get to hear the thoughts inside his head, but I think it’s fair to say that he’s the weak link of the headlining cast. Gong Li, who’s as luminous as ever, gives us her best English-language performance as the femme fatale, Anna. Though her forbidden romance with Cusack never smolders, she does good work as the conflicted female lead of the film. Ken Watanabe, the West’s favorite Japanese actor of modern film, manages to find a way to the marrow of his rather simplistic villain. Chow Yun-fat plays the 1940’s gun-toting playboy gangster with effortless skill. Charming, funny, and cool, Chow’s the film’s MVP and Shanghai definitely could’ve used more of him.

Shanghai is not the war-time spy thriller we’d hoped for. But it’s also not the disaster that we’ve been led to believe, either. There are pieces here that work, including its international cast and strong production values that really sell the period setting. However, poor direction and uninteresting plot twists make for a rather dull affair overall. The story within Shanghai is one worth telling… it’s just not told very well.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5/10

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Max Zhang to star in Yuen Woo-ping’s ‘Ip Man 3’ spin-off

"Ip Man 3" Character Poster

"Ip Man 3" Character Poster

Max Zhang – the rising star of The Grandmaster, S.P.L. II and Ip Man 3 – will headline an unofficial Ip Man 3 spin-off directed by legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny).

According to AFS, Zhang will reprise his role as Cheung Tin Chi from Ip Man 3. Currently, there are no details regarding plot and/or additional casting, but we’ll be sure to fill you in as news arrives.

Zhang has many other projects in the works, including The Brink and S.P.L 3: War Needs Lord. Yuen currently has Miracle Fighters and Hand Over Fist under his belt.

Stay tuned for more information.

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Deal on Fire! Red Belt | Blu-ray | Only $8.93 – Expires soon!

"Red Belt" Blu-ray Cover

"Red Belt" Blu-ray Cover

Today’s Deal on Fire is the Blu-ray for Red Belt, directed by David Mamet (Homicide) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). It’s a film that City on Fire can’t recommend enough – read our review!

A fateful event leads to a job in the film business for top mixed-martial arts instructor Mike Terry (Ejiofor).

Red Belt also stars Max Martini (Pacific Rim), Alice Braga (Predators), Randy Couture (The Expendables), Rodrigo Santoro (300), Joe Mantegna, Tim Allen and a special appearance by Dan Inosanto (Game of Death).

Order Red Belt from Amazon.com today!

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Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968) Review

"Outlaw: Goro the Assassin" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Outlaw: Goro the Assassin" Japanese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Gangster VIP 4
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Asao Koike, Jiro Okazaki, Kei Sato, Tatsuya Fuji, Shoki Fukae
Running Time: 87 min.

By Kyle Warner

The Outlaw series dabbles in many genres over the span of its six films. They’re yakuza thrillers, romantic dramas, and action movies with noirish antiheroes. Hell, director Toshio Masuda views the original Gangster VIP as a youth picture. The fourth film, Outlaw: Goro the Assassin, plays like an epic tragedy painted on a film noir’s canvas. It’s gritty and mean and hopeless, often striking out at the ones most deserving of a happy ending. It’s also the best film in the series since the first one.

In the opening, Goro and his friend take out a rival yakuza boss. His buddy is badly wounded in the fight and they’re both sent to jail. Though Goro is eventually released, his friend dies in prison and is buried in the prison cemetery because no family ever comes to claim his body. Vowing to keep his word to his friend, Goro searches for the sister who never visited her dying brother, a search that takes him far from home and into the path of the vengeful gang he’d fought those years ago.

In the search for the dead man’s sister, Goro meets many other women who are in some way impacted by the yakuza. That seems to be the theme here: the cruelty the yakuza inflict on their own men and how they hurt the women in their lives. In addition to the missing sister, there’s Chieko Matsubara’s hotel receptionist (another new character for Chieko) who is hounded by yakuza, plus a young hostess who’s viewed as an untapped “money tree” for her yakuza friend, and dozens of other women who are exploited by the yakuza and tricked into sexual slavery in the red light district.

Goro the Assassin is essentially an indictment of the yakuza and their immoral practices. These men aren’t outlaws so much as they are a cancer in human form, corrupting and/or murdering everything they touch. The victims are often innocent in this chapter, left scarred and bloody because they got too close to the yakuza world. “Why are all yakuza like this?” Goro wonders aloud at one point when the treachery becomes almost too much to bare. And at another point one of the women says something to the effect of, “All yakuza would be better off dead,” a sentiment that the film strongly suggests to be true.

It’s after watching film four where I’m forced to reanalyze the Outlaw series. Gangster VIP and Gangster VIP 2 were closely tied together but the films that followed them seem to be more like ‘episodes’ in Goro’s life. Perhaps it would be incorrect to call them prequels or sequels in the typical sense. With zero ties to the other films and a constantly reshuffling cast, every Outlaw film (with the exception of Gangster VIP 2) stands well on its own. You could watch Goro the Assassin without ever watching the three films that came before it. Same goes for Outlaw: Heartless. And I’m willing to bet the same can be said about the remaining films, Black Dagger and Kill! (But we’ll just have to wait and see.) It’s worth remembering that Outlaw is based on the written work of former yakuza Goro Fujita. This film again opens with a reminder that none of the story is based on truth and characters are all fictional, but of course we know that Goro Fujiwara was a stand-in for Goro Fujita, so fact and fiction likely blend together often in this series. I’ve never read Fujita’s books (I don’t think they’ve ever appeared in English) but I’m left to wonder if his stories were sampled from for the sequels instead of being directly adapted, thus lending to the series’ episodic nature after Gangster VIP 2.

By film four, Tetsuya Watari has settled into the role of Goro to the extent that you forget you’re watching an actor. This is the best I’ve ever seen from Watari. At first considered Nikkatsu’s new Yujiro Ishihara, Watari was now beginning to make a name for himself and step out from Ishihara’s shadow. Watching the Outlaw series, you can basically see the young leading man grow into a more formidable acting talent. Playing opposite Watari is once again Chieko Matsubara. I had some complaints about her casting in the previous film where she played an overly-familiar love interest. I have less to complain about this time around. Though I still might’ve preferred a different actress in the role, Matsubara’s new female lead at least stands out enough from the parts she’d previously played in the series. Here she’s more self-confident and less naïve about how the world works. Like Watari, Matsubara is really good here, giving us the most believable character she’s played in the series so far.

Returning to directing duties is Keiichi Ozawa, who’d previously made his directorial debut with Gangster VIP 2. In the short time since making that film, Ozawa’s apparently figured some things out and brings us a stronger directorial vision with Goro the Assassin. Though his skills filming action do not match what Toshio Masuda did with the original Outlaw film, Ozawa finds nice depth in the drama and elevates his gangster pic to a tragedy. I didn’t think much of what Ozawa did in Gangster VIP 2 but he might’ve redeemed himself with this film. From here on, the series belongs to Ozawa and I’m curious to see how he closes things out.

I thought Goro the Assassin was really solid. I’m putting it a notch below the first film, which featured better action and visual style. That being said, Outlaw: Goro the Assassin may feature some of the series’ best drama, thanks in large part to the work of the performers and a dark screenplay. A great sequel and just an all-around good film.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10

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Clones of Bruce Lee, The (1980) Review

"The Clones of Bruce Lee" Theatrical Poster

"The Clones of Bruce Lee" Theatrical Poster

AKA: Death Penalty on Three Robots
Director: Joseph Kong
Producer: Dick Randall, Chang Tsung Lung
Cast: Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Jon Benn, Bolo Yeung, Alexander Grand, Kong Do, Cheng Kei-Ying, San Kuai, Steve Mak Fei-Hung, Tam Bo
Running Time: 90 min.

By Paul Bramhall

I have a confession, and I’ll admit that it’s one that won’t be popular. Not only am I a Bruceploitaiton fan, but I usually find the Bruce Lee clone movies to be more entertaining than the Little Dragon’s own output. While I respect the man and his martial arts, who doesn’t, if you were to make me choose, then I’d say give me Dragon Lee vs. Casanova Wong in Enter the Invincible Hero, give me Bruce Le vs Hwang Jang Lee in Bruce Strikes Back, or give me Bruce Li vs Philip Ko Fei in The Gold Connection. For me all these movies serve up more entertainment and repeated viewing value than Bruce Lee’s tragically short filmography, but who knows, there could be some Bruce fans out there who disagree.

It’s fair to say that the number of ‘Bruceploitation’ movies, as the genre fondly came to be referred as, could well reach into triple figures, as almost every country in Asia spawned its very own Bruce Lee-alike. From Hong Kong, to Korea, to Thailand, to the Philippines… in the late 70’s and early 80’s productions trying to cash in on Bruce Lee’s popularity, with actors that vaguely resembled him, were everywhere. In that respect, it’s really a numbers game, if you have 100 movies but only 10% of them are worth a watch, that’s still double the amount of productions Bruce Lee starred in, so it’s important to keep things in perspective.

Despite my fondness for the genre, one of its most infamous entries had eluded my viewing for many years, the notoriously titled The Clones of Bruce Lee. I’m not sure why it managed to escape me for so long, considering that for a fan of Brueploitation, it has a dream cast. Instead of only getting one Bruce Lee-alike, you get three in the starring roles, with Koreans Dragon Lee and Bruce Lai, and Hong Kong star Bruce Le. It’s a movie which is so overloaded with Bruceploitation, that it even has Thai Bruce Lee-alike, the imaginatively titled Bruce Thai, playing a non-clone role (he plays the local contact once the action moves to Bangkok), not to mention the instantly recognizable Bolo Yeung from Enter the Dragon.

The plot for The Clones of Bruce Lee is well known, but to cover it very briefly, when Bruce Lee dies in hospital, the British Secret Service enlist a scientist, played by John Benn (the mafia boss from Way of the Dragon), to use his body and attempt to clone the departed star. Many of these productions paid little attention to being respectful or tasteful, and The Clones of Bruce Lee is no different, so we have real footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral, and shots of Bruce in the casket, mixed into the plot. Benn succeeds, and doesn’t produce just one clone, but three! In one of many bizarre moments, he ritualistically names them Bruce Lee 1 (Dragon Lee), Bruce Lee 2 (Bruce Lai), and Bruce Lee 3 (Bruce Le). The British Secret Service use them to complete missions around the world to assassinate corrupt movie directors and scientists, until Benn himself goes mad, and attempts to use the clones for his own evil means.

Such a synopsis sounds like exploitation gold, and with a three-for-the-price-of-one triple threat of Bruce Lee-alikes tearing up the screen, what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, almost everything does. Despite its outlandish premise The Clones of Bruce Lee somehow manages to succeed in being an incredibly dull affair, thanks to a severely disjointed plot (yes, I’m criticising a Bruceploitation movie for having a disjointed plot), and even more so, incredibly repetitive fight action.

To elaborate a little more on the disjointed plot, the main reason for this is that apart from the opening and closing scenes, the clones as a trio don’t appear together at all. After being brought to life by Benn, Dragon Lee is sent on a mission to kill a movie director, who’s using his production company as a front for smuggling illegal gold. This essentially leads to a third of the movie becoming a Dragon Lee flick, as he battles the director’s lackeys and a pair of hitmen (amusingly played by two gweillos). Then once he’s done, Bruce Le and Bruce Lai are told to go to Thailand and find a mad scientist, who’s concocted a formula that turns human skin to steel (cue a bunch of Thai extras in their underwear, covered in cheap gold paint). Their mission in Thailand makes up another third of the movie, with the remaining third consisting of the opening and closing scenes.

Despite not being a cut-and-paste production, the style of editing that Godfrey Ho became notorious for, which consisted of editing scenes from two movies together, and then attempting to dub them into a coherent story, there are times in The Clones of Bruce Lee when you’d swear it was. Dragon Lee’s mission is particularly dull, and the choreography frustratingly leans towards him utilising the mantis fist, rather than unleashing with the kicks that he was known for. Bruce Le and Bruce Lai don’t fare much better, with a mission that consists of almost 90% fighting. The routine goes – get closer to the bad guys lair, group of lackeys come out of nowhere and surround them, fight and proceed a little closer, until another group of lackeys appear and surround them, repeat. This is fine, it’s a kung fu movie after all, but the fight action is ridiculously simple and repetitive, with Le constantly jumping into the air to deliver mini flying kicks that look like they wouldn’t hurt a leaf.

For what consolidation it is, for the fan of exploitation cinema there’s some gloriously random female nudity in the Thailand segment. In a scene which has Bruce Thai and Bruce Lai (wearing a pair of swimming briefs that practically redefine the word ‘brief’) taking a stroll to the beach, Lai spots a man ogling at a bevy of naked women frolicking in the sand. When Lai enquires as to what they’re doing (even though it’s quite apparent – they’re rubbing sun cream on themselves in slow motion), Thai tells him that they’re “just playing around”. Sure enough, the girls are giggling away and proclaiming that they have everything they need except a man. When they spot the admirer who’s been checking them out from afar, they chase after him on the beach, before all falling into the water together. Who is the man? Why are all the girls naked? What’s the connection of the scene to the rest of the plot? Nothing.

The finale eventually brings all three clones back onscreen together, as Benn decides that he’s going to use the strongest of them to help him rule the world, so orders them to fight each other to the death. This results in the exciting prospect of a clone vs clone match, as Dragon Lee and Bruce Le get to face off against each other, but it turns out to be as dull as the rest of the action. Indeed the most energy any of the performers seem to put into the fights, is in the shapes they pull before breaking into a pose. It’s a sad day when the best fight action in a kung fu movie involves only one character being onscreen. Dragon Lee also gets to face off against Bolo, which should have been another dream match-up, especially considering that Lee did most of his work in Korea, so the Bolo showdown was a rare opportunity. But once again it fizzles out quickly.

Low budget old school kung fu movies such as this tend to live and die on the quality of their fight scenes, so to see a cast, which includes the likes of Kong Do and Cheng Kei-Ying, being involved in such sloppily executed choreography is a shame. From seeing participants hesitate before throwing a punch or kick, to bizarre choices such as when Dragon Lee breaks out his famous 1-stick nunchuck, proceeds to whirl it around for a few seconds, then inexplicably throws it away and starts fighting. Director Joseph Velasco and producer Dick Randall would go on to churn out much more entertaining movies, with the likes of the previously mentioned Bruce Strikes Back, but here there’s very little to recommend both to lovers of the kung fu genre or to fans of so bad it’s good cinema.

Having now watched The Clones of Bruce Lee from start to finish, it’s easy to understand why many consider it to be a more entertaining movie to read about than it is to actually watch. There’re many unanswered questions about the production, not least the year of release. Hkcinemagic lists 1977, while the Hong Kong Movie Database lists 1980, with the Korean Movie Database pinning it down to 1981, that’s 3 potential release date in 5 years! (Note for this review we’ll go with the Hong Kong Movie Database) Release dates aside, the disappointment of having such an amazing cast of Bruceploitation talent, and managing to make an under 90 minute runtime seem like such an endurance test, are perhaps indicative that in this case, as the expression goes – too many clones spoil the broth.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10

Posted in All, Bruceploitation, Chinese, News, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Exclusive: Interview with martial arts star Tony Jaa

I recently had the pleasure to conduct an interview with Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, Skin Trade), one of the stars of the upcoming Kill Zone 2 (also known as SPL II: A Time for Consequences), which in and of itself is a spiritual sequel to 2005’s modern martial arts classic, Kill Zone (SPL). As someone who has seen the film, I can’t say enough good things about it, as it is one of the best Hong Kong productions in years. It even matches the artistic highs of Infernal Affairs and the original SPL. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to lob some questions at Tony in order to learn more about the film as well as his experience making it. We also discussed his breakout hit Ong Bak, and the upcoming blockbuster sequel, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage.


Tony Jaa is getting ready to demolish the room in "Kill Zone 2"

ZACH NIX: Many critics and fans of martial arts cinema state that the original SPL (Kill Zone) was a response from Hong Kong cinema to Ong Bak’s breakout success in 2003. How does it feel to finally come full circle and star in the spiritual sequel to the film that was more or less a response to your breakout hit?

TONY JAA: The original SPL was great, I think it was an original expression of action and martial arts. With the quality of the cast, I don’t think it was a reaction to Ong Bak, I think it was unique in its own right.

ZN: Did you feel that there were any expectations or challenges that came with tackling the follow up to SPL?

TJ: Any time you follow in the foot-steps of a really good movie the pressure is there to live up to the standards already in place.

"Ong-Bak" International Teaser Poster

"Ong-Bak" International Teaser Poster

ZN: Through the usage of a cell phone app, your character, Chatchai, is able to over come the language barrier that prevents you from communicating as easily with other characters in the film. Was there a similar language barrier in real life on the set at all, and were you able to communicate easily with your co-stars Max Zhang and Wu Jing?

TJ: I speak English fairly well these days, as does Max. Wu Jing is still brushing up on his English, but can express himself rather well. Whatever might have been missing vocabulary was made up for in camaraderie.

ZN: Kill Zone 2 gives martial arts fans several dream match ups to drool over. How was it filming the several fight scenes that you have against Wu Jing, as well as the final three-way fight with Max Zhang?

TJ: We are all very friendly, so frankly we had a lot of fun on set. During breaks from shooting we hung out together and had a lot of laughs.

ZN: Now that you have Kill Zone 2 under your belt, could you see yourself participating in any more Hong Kong productions?

The emotional side of Tony Jaa in "Kill Zone 2"

The emotional side of Tony Jaa in "Kill Zone 2"

TJ: For me it is always about the story and whom I am working with. I am very open to another Hong Kong production.

ZN: With the release of last year’s Skin Trade and Furious 7, as well as next year’s XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, you have made quite a transition in to English language productions. How has it been moving from Thai martial arts films to big budget Hollywood productions?

TJ: I enjoyed these films and the people I worked with. I made a number of new friends who I continue to stay in regular contact with. The Hollywood budget gives a lot of flexibility in how a film is shot. I still enjoy Thai martial arts, so I hope to find a center point between both places.

ZN: You are currently filming XXX: The Return of Xander Cage with its titular star Vin Diesel, but also Donnie Yen, who was the star and orchestrator of SPL. I have to ask, since you and Donnie are two of martial arts cinemas most beloved performers. Do you two fight or thrown down with one another in the film?

Tony Jaa with Donnie Yen on the set of "XXX: The Return of Xander Cage"

Tony Jaa with Donnie Yen on the set of "XXX: The Return of Xander Cage"

TJ: You will have to watch the movie.

ZN: As a fan of action films myself, I was curious if you have any favorite action or martial arts films that you like to watch?

TJ: I really think that Enter the Dragon is unique.

ZN: I interviewed Scott Adkins (read the interview) last year, and asked him whom he would love to work with in the future. He mentioned you first, and stated he would love to develop a project with the two of you. Would you like to work with Scott as well, and have you two talked about any sort of future collaboration?

TJ: We are friends, and Scott is nothing short of amazing. I would always welcome a chance to work together.

ZN: On a final note, do you have any career goals or aspirations at the moment?

TJ: Keep doing what I am doing. Thanks for the interview Zach. Best Wishes, Jaa…

I’d like to thank Tony Jaa, Well Go USA, and Alexandra Drapac for making this interview happen. Kill Zone 2 can be seen in U.S. theaters, or on V.O.D., starting May 13th. It will also be released on Blu-ray and DVD come July 16th.

Posted in Features, Interviews, News | 6 Comments

New trailer for Mark Dacascos’ all-star ‘Showdown in Manila’!

"Showdown in Manila" Theatrical Poster

"Showdown in Manila" Theatrical Poster

Martial arts star Mark Dacascos (Drive) is getting ready to unleash Showdown in Manila, an Expendables-esque movie that he not only stars in, but also directs.

The upcoming film marks the second directorial project for Dacascos, following his unreleased, Russian-produced debut feature, Changing Lives. Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die), who worked with Dacascos in 2003’s Cradle 2 the Grave, is producing.

The film also stars Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers), Matthias Hues (No Retreat, No Surrender II), Cynthia Rothrock (Shanghai Express), Olivier Gruner (Nemesis), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Perfect Weapon), Monsour del Rosario (Bloodfist 2), Don “The Dragon” Wilson (White Tiger), Alexander Nevsky (Black Rose), Tia Carrere (Showdown in Little Tokyo), Iza Calzado and Monsour del Rosario. | First trailer.

In addition to Showdown in Manila, Dacascos has several projects in pre-production/post-production status, including Ultimate Justice, Operation Rogue, Beyond the Game and Maximum Impact.

Updates: Watch the new trailer for Showdown in Manila (via FCS).

Posted in News | 10 Comments

Office (2014) Review

"Office" Korean Theatrical Poster

"Office" Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: Hong Won-Chan
Writer: Choi Yoon-Jin, Hong Won-Chan
Producer: Lee Sung-Jin, Choi Yoon-Jin
Cast: Ko Ah-Sung, Park Sung-Woong, Bae Sung-Woo, Kim Eui-Sung, Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung, Lee Chae-Eun, Son Soo-Hyun, Park Jung-Min, Oh Dae-Hwan
Running Time: 111 min.

By Paul Bramhall

The English language poster created for Office when it was invited to Cannes came with the slogan – ‘He murdered his family, and then came back to work.’ The line effectively sets up expectations for a straight forward worker-pushed-over-the-edge slasher movie, and had it been directed by anyone other than Hong Won-chan, there’s little doubt that’s what it would have been. Won-chan is the man behind the screenplays for the likes of The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, and Confession of Murder though, and if those productions prove anything, it’s that he’s not a writer to create a straightforward tale of A to B.

It’s surprising then, that for his directorial debut he made the decision to direct not from his own script, but from a screenplay by Choi Yoon-jin. Won-chan stated himself in an interview that, while elements of the script appealed to him, it was far too much of a straight forward horror movie for his own tastes, so decided to turn it down. Thankfully the producer was on his side, and gave Won-chan free reign to rewrite it into a story he’d be happy to tell. The end result of this decision makes Office a difficult beast to categorize, and that’s not a bad thing at all. One part slasher movie, one part psychological horror, one part police procedural, one part office politics thriller, somehow all of these elements come together to deliver a gripping 110 minute debut feature.

Proceedings begin as we follow a solemn looking salary man, played by Bae Seong-woo, back home from his late finish in the office. Upon arriving home to his wife, mother, and handicapped son, after quietly eating dinner he takes a hammer out of the drawer, and proceeds to beat them to death with it. It’s a brutal scene, and one which is made more effective in the way it inter-splices images of the surrounding identical tower blocks between the blood splattered thrusts of the hammer. Soon a police investigation is underway at the office he worked at, led by a detective played by Park Seong-woong (who also featured in the excellent The Shameless, released the same year), who takes a particular interest in the young intern, played by Ko Ah-seong.

Ah-seong will most likely be recognizable to audiences for her iconic roles in two of Bong Joon-ho’s most well-known movies. She played the girl who is whisked away by the monster in 2006’s The Host, and would also re-team with Song Kang-ho for Joon-ho’s English language debut with 2013’s Snowpiercer. With Office her role as a nervous, socially awkward intern could well be considered her most mature to date. Despite being largely treated like a slave by her seniors, it’s revealed that her relationship with Seong-woo was a friendly one. However the real question is, does she know more about why he acted the way he did, and more importantly, does she know where he is?

Although largely confined to a single location – the office floor – the cinematography of Park Yong-soo successfully imbues the confined spaces with an effective level of atmosphere. Aspects like the cubicle walls of the workers, the stairwell, and even the bathroom are all lensed in such a way that, when they change from corporate surroundings that we take for granted, to areas in which death could be just around the corner, the difference in tension is palpable. It’s fair to say that if you’re someone who’s usually the last to leave your own office at night, this movie may make you think twice about being the last person to clock off.

One of the biggest strengths of Office though is not just the sense of impending doom that it conveys so well, but just as much it’s how the ensemble cast interact with each other. The office dynamics between each of the employees rank up just as much tension as the murderous intent of their hammer wielding colleague. There’s a battle of the sexes for who will get a promotion between two supervisors, an office romance between another pair, a boss who treats everyone with such a level of disdain it’s a shock he still has any staff, and most significantly, the introduction of a new intern. As a surrogate for the audience, Ah-seong is pulled back and forth between all of them, while the whole time trying to deal with her biggest concern of if and when she’ll be made permanent.

A significant differentiator that sets Office apart from being just a standard slasher flick is the psychological element that’s introduced into the script, most likely thanks to Won-chan’s input. A number of the office workers become paranoid that their former colleague is after them, which leads to a number of scenes in which the reality of what’s being witnessed is questionable. Is Seong-woo really looking to kill off those he felt did him wrong, or is it just the imagination of those that have been left behind?

Despite the other genres that have been brought in to make Office what it is, thankfully Won-chan doesn’t betray the fact that in its original form, most likely it would have made for an entertaining B-movie slasher, and the runtime is interspersed with some suitably bloody moments. One particular scene that takes place in the office bathroom succeeds at being both nail bitingly tense, and delivering a satisfyingly bloody payoff. For anyone that’s been in a situation where they wish they could make one of their co-workers just disappear, Office should provide a suitably healthy dose of wish fulfillment.

While the strained relationships between the employees of the company may seem somewhat far-fetched for some viewers, for many Koreans the scenarios presented in Office present a very real picture of the daily workplace. In a country which has the longest working hours in the world, and is ridiculously competitive while still being bound by the Confucian principles of those who are eldest should get promoted first, the Korean salary man has many a reason to be suffering from high stress levels. The way in which Office mixes the everyday interactions of working life, with the danger of knowing a killer could potentially be nearby, serves to provide an almost constant underlying tension to the events unfolding onscreen.

If Office has any criticism that could be leveled against it, then it’s the soundtrack. Made up of a kind of static like interference, the repetitive nature of the sound marks it as the productions weakest link. While effective at first, the lack of variety in its tone means that in the later parts of the movie, the initial unsettling impact that it had has entirely dissipated. However this is a small gripe in what’s overall a welcome addition to a genre that’s often overlooked, or treated as throwaway cinema fodder. Korea has made a successful habit of merging different genres together in the past, often those which seem completely at odds with each other, and seeing a horror movie merged with elements of psychological thriller and workplace politics proves to be a compelling viewing experience.

As a debut Office is remarkably assured and confident in its execution, and hopefully will result in Won-chan deciding to take on one of his own scripts for his next feature. It also can’t be denied that, in a genre that often has the female playing the hapless victim, it’s refreshing to see a production which gives us a female protagonist that, by the closing credits, turns out to be as far from being a simple damsel in distress as you can imagine. If you’re looking for a horror movie that delivers more than just blood splattered thrills, then a trip to the Office comes strongly recommended.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10

Posted in All, Korean, News, Reviews | Tagged | 5 Comments

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

RELEASE DATE: July 5, 2016

Well Go USA presents the Blu-ray & DVD for Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, starring Mark Chao (Young Detective Dee), Yao Chen (Firestorm), Rhydian Vaughan, Li Chen, Tiffany Tang, Guangjie Li and Daniel Feng.

What does a dragon corpse, a hidden palace, an exhumed mummy and some bizarre fossils have in common? They’re all part of Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, an ucpoming thriller directed by Lu Chuan (City of Life and Death).

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is based on Zhang Muye’s best-selling novel Ghosts Blows Out the Light, which revolves around a group of tomb raiders and their mysterious adventures in ancient tombs.

Pre-order Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe from Amazon.com today!

Posted in Asian Titles, DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, Martial Arts Titles | 6 Comments

Code of Honor | Blu-ray & DVD (Lionsgate)

Code of Honor | Blu-ray & DVD (Lionsgate)

Code of Honor | Blu-ray & DVD (Lionsgate)

RELEASE DATE: July 5, 2016

Lionsgate presents the Blu-ray & DVD for Steven Seagal’s Code of Honor, written and directed by Michael Winnick (Guns, Girls and Gambling).

Code of Honor also stars Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It), Helena Mattsson (Iron Man 2), James Russo (Once Upon A Time in America), Louis Mandylor (The Quest), Griff Furst (The Green Lantern) and Rafael Petardi (Freezer).

When his family is killed in a drive-by shooting, Robert Sikes (Seagal), a former special-ops operative, vows to rid his city of every last criminal. Sikes’ former protégé, FBI agent Porter (Sheffer), with help from a witness (Mattsson), tries to find his vigilante friend before the police—or the maniacal mobster Romano—are able to. | Watch the trailer.

Pre-order Code of Honor from Amazon.com today!

Posted in DVD/Blu-ray New Releases, Martial Arts Titles | Leave a comment

Aaron Kwok is having ‘A Hard Day’ in ‘Perpetrators’

"A Hard Day" Theatrical Poster

"A Hard Day" Theatrical Poster

Aaron Kwok (Monk Comes Down the Mountain) is currently hard-at-work on Perpetrators, a Chinese remake of the 2014 Korean thriller, A Hard Day. Wang Qianyuan (Brotherhood of the Blades) co-stars.

If Perpetrators is anything like the original, here’s what you can expect: In a 24 hour period, a detective (originally played by Lee Sun-Hyun) receives a divorce notice from his wife; next, his mother passes away; he then becomes the focus of a police investigation; to make matters worse, on the way to his mother’s funeral, he commits a fatal hit and run…

Updates: Here’s the first look Kwok in Perpetrators (via AFS), which is currently shooting in Malaysia.

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Outlaw: Heartless (1968) Review

"Outlaw: Heartless" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Outlaw: Heartless" Japanese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Gangster VIP 3
Director: Mio Ezaki
Producer: Kaneo Iwaib
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Ryohei Uchida, Koji Wada, Hiroshi Nawa, Isao Tamagawa, Eiji Go, Ryoji Hayama, Fumio Watanabe, Kaku Takashina, Asao Uchida
Running Time: 92 min.

Kyle Warner

For me, Outlaw: Heartless is a difficult film to figure out. Viewed purely on its own terms, it’s an entertaining crime pic with a cool antihero leading a cast of interesting characters. But viewed as the third film in the Outlaw series of gangster movies… it’s kind of odd. It also might be a prequel. Or maybe not? More on that later.

In Japanese cinema, it’s not uncommon for actors to reappear in subsequent films playing different characters. That happens here in a most peculiar way. In the first two films, Chieko Matsubara played the main character’s love interest, a naïve and rather clingy young woman named Yukiko who doesn’t want to return home. In Heartless, Chieko Matsubara plays the main character’s love interest, a naïve and rather clingy young woman named Keiko who can’t return home. Though they’re given different names and slightly different backstories, they’re basically the same character played by the same actress and given the same role in the story. It’s bizarre. I’ve seen sequels that attempt to give us ‘the new girl’ which is basically Love Interest 2.0 but they’re usually (always?) played by different actresses. And I’ve seen sequels where the actor returns in a different part, but that part is often a big changeup from the one they played last time. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before and some part of me feels like they broke an unwritten rule. I mean, when Chieko Matsubara showed up in the film, I naturally thought, ‘Oh good, Yukiko’s back! You know, I’m starting to like her.’ Only then the film makes it clear that she’s not Yukiko, she’s someone named Keiko, a girl that we’ve never met before. Now watch as she acts just like Yukiko as we reboot the romance that was finally starting to get somewhere. It’s so strange to me.

Outlaw: Heartless has a more negative view of the yakuza world than the first two films did—which is something, considering Gangster VIP and VIP 2 don’t exactly celebrate the criminal lifestyle. The yakuza of Heartless are… well, heartless. They’re bastards who attack sick women, betray close confidants, and care little for the bonds of family. Goro (Tetsuya Watari) is a different breed. In a moody opening scene, Goro is sent to collect money from a downtrodden yakuza that is holding onto a bundle of money to help his sick wife. While Goro would prefer to threaten and perhaps rough up the guy to get what he wants, the thugs with Goro have no issue stabbing the man to death. With his dying words, the yakuza asks Goro to take his wife to Yokohama. Goro agrees to do so, but not before pissing off the gang he was working for, thus making him a marked man. When he makes it to Yokohama with the sick woman in tow, Goro bumps into an old friend (Ryohei Uchida) and meets a young woman (Matsubara), and the two attempt to convince him to give up the yakuza life and go straight. (Ryohei Uchida is another notable returning actor playing a different part. But unlike Matsubara, Uchida is given a very different role to play. Uchida was the villain of Gangster VIP 2 and in Heartless he’s the friend that Goro’s trying to keep at an arm’s length so that he doesn’t get hurt. Uchida plays both villain and reliable friend quite well.)

Though Goro means well, he brings death and destruction wherever he goes. Goro begins to understand this and tries to distance himself from his friends, even going so far as offending them in hopes that they won’t want anything more to do with him. Though he makes an attempt of going straight, old enemies follow him everywhere and he has a tendency of pissing off yakuza wherever he goes.

Outlaw: Heartless could’ve lifted its story directly out of a Zatoichi film and transplanted it into 1950’s Japan without skipping a beat. Goro is essentially the modern equivalent of the wandering swordsman antihero of so many Japanese film series. That’s not to say it’s a been-there-done-that kind of story, though. With the exception of needlessly trying to reboot the love interest role, the story of Heartless feels rather fresh, especially compared to Gangster VIP 2 which sought to repeat the success of the first film by doing it all over again. There’s a small-town quality to Heartless that I liked, which is partly thanks to taking the story from Tokyo to Yokohama. And I enjoyed how one good deed leaves so many dead by the end (one of the film’s best lines refers to using a bundle of cash to pay for all the funerals). Though colorful and fast-paced, Heartless is the most downbeat Outlaw film so far.

The film also works as a standalone effort. Actually, considering my issues with the Chieko Matsubara character, perhaps Outlaw: Heartless works best as a standalone. Though it never makes it abundantly clear either way, Heartless seems to be a prequel. It makes no mention of the stories from the first two films and seems to depict Goro as a man who’s still figuring himself out. If it is indeed a prequel, then it’s a prequel in the way that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a prequel—yes, it may have happened first, but it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the overarching story either way.

Outlaw: Heartless is the only film in the series directed by Mio Ezaki. I must confess that I’m totally unfamiliar with the director. He seems to have done most of his work in TV. However, just because he’s unknown doesn’t mean he’s unskilled. Ezaki makes good use of color throughout the film, which is something I’ll always cheer for in this, the age of desaturated film. It’s no accident then that the film’s big action finale takes place in a paint warehouse, with overturned paint cans spilling everywhere, splashing the brawling men in all the colors of the rainbow. It’s a sequence reminiscent of the finale in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, a black and white film that also had its yakuza slipping through paint as they fought to the death. The effect is more striking here thanks to the color photography, though it ends up looking much the same as Kurosawa’s early classic as the colors mix together and turn into a gray muck.

I have some issues with Outlaw: Heartless. The fact that the film decided to make a spiritual clone of Yukiko and cast the same actress in the role just bugs the hell out of me. I don’t get it. But other than that it’s a pretty good film! So, I’m torn on how to rate this thing. I know that others will be more forgiving to the film’s peculiar casting decision, just as I know that others will be even more confused than I was… Ah hell, I’m throwing up my hands and giving it a 7. Far from perfect and sometimes downright baffling, Outlaw: Heartless is still an entertaining film that I’d be happy to watch again.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10

Posted in All, Japanese, News, Reviews | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Deal on Fire! Tekken | Blu-ray | Only $9.49 – Expires soon!

"Tekken" Blu-ray Cover

"Tekken" Blu-ray Cover

Today’s Deal on Fire is the Blu-ray for Tekken, a martial arts action/adventure, based on the hit video game about a young man who is driven by nothing more than vengeance to defeat the world’s most elite fighters in the greatest tournament ever known and become the “King of Iron Fist”.

Tekken directed by Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) and stars Jon Foo (Rush Hour TV series), Kelly Overton (CSI: NY), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Tekken 2: Kazuya’s Revenge), Ian Anthony Dale (The Hangover), Tamlyn Tomita (The Karate Kid, Part II), Luke Goss (Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and Gary Daniels (Zero Tolerance).

Order Tekken from Amazon.com today!

Posted in Deals on Fire!, News | Leave a comment

Amy Johnston and ‘The Raid’ stars enter ‘The Gate’!

"The Raid 2: Berandal" Poster

"The Raid 2: Berandal" Poster

Kathryn Bigelow… move over! Kellie Madison (The Tank) is directing and producing a teaser pitch for a TV series called The Gate, a supernatural saga chronicling the epic battle between good and evil starring Amy Johnston (Lady Bloodsport), Yayan Ruhian (The Raid and The Raid 2), EMC Monkeys (stunt team), Malay Choeung Kim (Die Fighting) and Xin Sarith Wuku (Death Mist).

Madison has crafted a compelling tale of an angel that comes into her power to battle against the forces of darkness. Madison has an arsenal of credits that speak powerfully to her mastery of the craft, including Project Imagination’s The Caul and Open Road Films’ The Tank. “We have assembled a world-class team dedicated to the success of this series,” says Madison.

Madison’s team includes Amy Johnston (Unlucky Stars), a professional martial artist who was a prominent stunt performer in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; George Billinger, Director of Photography/Camera Operator well known for his stunning work in War of the Worlds, Terminator and many other blockbusters; and last but not least, the amazing Indonesian martial artists, Yayan Ruhian (The Raid) and Cecep Arif Rahman (The Raid 2).

Updates: You can now watch the action packed short film for The Gate here. Fingers are crossed that this will be developed into a series or possibly even a feature film.

Posted in News | 2 Comments

Steven Seagal will NOT be doing ‘Expendables 4’…

"Expendables 4" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Expendables 4" Japanese Theatrical Poster

Despite Expendables 3’s box office belly flop two years ago – possibly due to the film’s online leakage, according to Lionsgate – Sylvester Stallone has been secretly working on the 4th installment.

After the fan backlash of Expendables 3’s PG-13 rating, Stallone stated that he’s going back to making the next installation R-Rated: “If I do another one it’s going to be a lot bloodier… hardcore R.” He added (via Crave): “I believe it was a horrible miscalculation on everyone’s part in trying to reach a wider audience, but in doing such, diminish the violence that the audience expects. I’m quite certain it won’t happen again.”

The fact that the recent release of Marvel’s Deadpool became the third R-Rated movie to cross $300 million domestically (The Passion of the Christ and American Sniper are #1 and #2, respectively), making Expendables 4 R-Rated is practically a done deal. There are rumors that suggest the 4th film will start filming in the fall of 2016.

Stallone also mentioned the possible addition of Jackie Chan, who has been linked to the franchise since the original Expendables: “We’ve always wanted to use Jackie Chan. The only reason we didn’t is because there really wasn’t a part big enough for him, because we had so many actors. But in the next one, we are going to reduce the actors, and let’s just say, expand the screen time of each star.”

In addition to Chan, other names – such as Dwayne Johnson, Hulk Hogan, Christopher Lambert, Jean Reno, Pierce Brosnan, Donnie Yen, Steven Seagal, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Hulk Hogan, and even Manny Pacquiao – have been considered for the franchise (see our updates regarding Expendables casting here).

Updates: During a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), Steven Seagal was asked if he’d be down for Expendables 4; Seagal simply replied: “I will not be doing Expendables 4.” No reason was implied or given. His answer is logical, given that he has a handful of many projects he’s currently working on, including Contract to KillEnd of a GunCypher, Four Towers and his first directorial project in 22 years, Attrition. Seagal can be seen next in one of the following, forthcoming titles: The Asian ConnectionKilling Salazar, Perfect Weapon and Code of Honor.

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Bodyguard, The (2016) Review

"My Beloved Bodyguard" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"My Beloved Bodyguard" Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: My Beloved Bodyguard
Director: Sammo Hung
Cast: Sammo Hung, Jaqueline Chan, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Zhu Yuchen, Jack Feng, Li Qin Qin, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Tsui Hark, Karl Maka, Dean Shek, James Lee Guy, Tomer Oz, Yuen Qiu, Feng Shaofeng, Hu Jun, Eddie Peng
Running Time: 99 min.

By Martin Sandison

The Bodyguard is Sammo Hung’s first directorial feature since 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America, which easily makes it one of most highly anticipated Hong Kong films of recent years. I was lucky enough to attend Udine Far East Film Festival (absolutely worth a pilgrimage), where Sammo received the Golden Mulberry Lifetime achievement award right before the audiences eyes. The ceremony was followed by The Bodyguard’s European premier on the closing night – a real treat for those who attended!

Sammo plays Ding, an ex-army officer and bodyguard who is retired and living in the suburbs. He discovers he has the early signs of dementia, which the film deals with very sensitively. His landlord, Park, (Li Qin Qin) has a romantic interest in him, and his neighbour’s (Andy Lau) daughter, Cherry, (Jaqueline Chan Pui Yin) sees him as the Grandfather she never knew. When Lau’s character gets involved with some gangsters after stealing a case of precious jewellery, Ding must rediscover his martial arts skills to deal with the gangsters.

It’s no joke to say Sammo’s performance in The Bodyguard is one of his best. But don’t be mislead by many of the film’s trailers, which pushed the action to the fore. With the exception of three standout action scenes, The Bodyguard is really a low key drama. The other film that immediately sprang to my mind in a similar vein was Heart of the Dragon (1985), wherein Sammo played a mentally disabled brother to Jackie Chan’s tough cop. That film was made at the height of Sammo’s powers, but didn’t feature him performing any action. The Bodyguard is a much more mature piece of filmmaking than Heart of the Dragon, with the nuances of Sammo’s performance plain to see; especially in comparison with the rather bad taste of Heart of the Dragon.

The Bodyguard features many touching moments that are played out subtly, without the over emphatic soundtracks that plague many Hong Kong films. In fact, Sammo says very little throughout the film, but his facial expressions and body language create a wonderful picture of a man near-broken by his past, which he is forgetting bit by bit. When his character divulges what he remembers of his past, Sammo’s reactions are on point. The result is heartrending and emotionally honest.

The limitations of age meant Sammo had to change his action style. With the realistic implications of his character’s old career, we see this change. The first fight is short and to the point; whereas the second is the centrepiece, which has his character taking on a roomful of guys. Immediately, you can see this adaptation; instead of wider shots with more than a few exchanges, most shots are very short and the camera is very close in. Some viewers may be a little disappointed by this, I certainly wasn’t: The pin sharp editing, the conviction of the attacks and the brutal bone breaking are a feast for the eyes. There are some brilliant ideas that reflect the old age of Sammo’s character: One where he elevates his legs and throws an opponent, and the next shot shows him in pain. It’s this human aspect to the film that really marks it above many other martial arts movies, and reflects Sammo’s genius.

Fans will be delighted to see cameos by Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Tsui Hark, Karl Maka and Dean Shek. Despite none of them doing any action – not to mention their limited screen time – it’s great to see them all share the screen with some good laughs to be had in their exchanges. Andy Lau, one of the producers of the film, is his usual charismatic self in a supporting role (look out for a great chase involving his character). Feng Jia Yi appears as the head gangster and does a good job of conveying his character’s evildoings.

Problems with the film are some of the supporting cast don’t match Sammo, especially Li Qin Qin. Overall, the film also takes a while to get going, however, these are minor faults that don’t detract from a very well rounded movie.

The Bodyguard really is a triumphant directorial return for one of the legends of Hong Kong cinema. Its moral compass, superb action, Sammo’s great performance and its delicately portrayed subject matter mean I will revisit it time and time again.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10

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Arch Angels | Blu-ray & DVD (Section 23)

Arch Angels | Blu-ray & DVD (Sentai Filmworks)

Arch Angels | Blu-ray & DVD (Sentai Filmworks)

RELEASE DATE: July 5, 2016

Sentai Filmworks presents the Blu-ray & DVD for Issei Oda’s Arch Angels, a 2006 action/fantasy based on 1987’s Warau Michael, a manga written by Izumi Kawahara.

Arch Angels revolves around a group of misfit high school students who become infused with super powers.

The film stars Juri Ueno (Kung Fu Kun), Megumi Seki (Sword of Desperation), Airi Taira (20th Century Boys: Chapter 1), Yusuke Iseya (13 Assassins) and Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim).

Pre-order Arch Angels from Amazon.com today!

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‘Big Bad Wolves’ drop out of Bruce Willis’ ‘Death Wish’ remake

"Death Wish 3" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Death Wish 3" Japanese Theatrical Poster

It’s official: Bruce Willis will be starring in the upcoming Death Wish remake. The film will be helmed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, the duo responsible for the 2013 cult favorite, Big Bad Wolves. Filming is said to begin this summer.

The original Death Wish (1973), directed by Michael Winner, involved a New York City architect (Charles Bronson) who becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his wife is murdered by street punks.

Director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces) was once attached to the remake, but reportedly dropped out of the project because he did not agree with Paramount-MGM’s push to cast Willis in the lead role. Gerardo Naranjo (Miss Bala) was then considered, but a deal never materialized.

Back in 2006, Sylvester Stallone expressed interest in his own remake: “Instead of the Bronson character being an architect; my version would have him as a very good cop who had incredible success without ever using his gun. So when the attack on his family happens, he’s really thrown into a moral dilemma in proceeding to carry out his revenge.”

We’ll keep you updated on this project as we hear more.

Updates: According to Deadline, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, the duo responsible for the 2013 cult favorite, Big Bad Wolves, have dropped out of the project due to creative differences. There are rumors that suggest Eli Roth (Knock Knock) will be taking over directing duties.

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Poster for Wilson Yip’s ‘Storm Riders 3’ is dark and gritty!

"The Storm Riders 3" Teaser Poster

"The Storm Riders 3" Teaser Poster

Back in 1998, Andrew Lau’s The Storm Riders took Hong Kong cinema by storm. The wuxia fantasy weaved lush cinematography with impressive special digital effects, which, for the time, were comparable to what Hollywood’s biggest studios were churning out.

Even its storyline – based on Ma Wing-shing’s comic series, Fung Wan – was intriguing enough to “check your brain at the door” without guilt.

The Storm Riders was king at the box office, edging out headline productions such as Jackie Chan’s Who Am I? and Chow Yun-fat’s U.S. debut The Replacement Killers. In 2009, a sequel, titled The Storm Warriors, was made by The Pang Brothers (The Eye), but unlike the original, it failed to impress the masses.

Now, news has surfaced that a third Storm Riders movie is in the works with Ip Man 3’s Wilson Yip at the helm. So far, the only actor attached to the film is Louis Koo (SPL II: A Time for Consequences). There’s no word if Ekin Cheng (Full Strike) and Aaron Kwok (The Monk Comes Down the Mountain), the stars of the first two films, are returning, but we’ll keep you in the loop as we hear more.

Updates: Added the new, gritty poster for The Storm Riders 3 (via AFS).

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