Director: Dennis Ruel
Writer: Dennis Ruel
Cast: Dennis Ruel, Ken Quitugua, Sari Sabella, Vlad Rimburg, Jose Montesinos, Steven Yu, Giovannie Espiritu, Sam Hargrave, Emmanuel Manzanares, Roy Chen, Shawn Bernal, George Crayton, Ed Kahana, Troy Carbonel, Lucas Okuma, Matt Kohler, Miguel Padilla, Simon Rhee, J.J. Perry
Running Time: 100 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The journey of Unlucky Stars, from when it began filming in 2010, to its eventual release on VOD in 2016, is indicative of just how much effort it takes to get an independent martial arts movie out there. Six years is a long time to wait, especially when you consider that in the golden age of kung fu cinema, countries like Hong Kong were churning them out a dime a dozen, however that was a different era. In 2012 the filmmakers behind the production set up a crowdfunding Indiegogo campaign, to help raise the necessary funds to complete filming, and assist with the post production process. For full disclosure, I was a contributor to the campaign, so my name appears in the end credits, however I’m sure it goes without saying that I don’t make any financial gains from reviewing the movie, or by any other means (I wish I did).
The driving force behind Unlucky Stars is Dennis Ruel, a member and regular collaborator of The Stunt People, a group of independent martial arts enthusiasts who are responsible for some of the best short martial arts films on the internet. Ruel has worked with The Stunt People co-founder, Eric Jacobus, on what can easily be defined as their best work. From appearing as the villain in Jacobus’ 2006 feature length directorial debut, Contour, to the award winning Rope A Dope shorts. With Unlucky Stars Ruel himself debuts as director, writer, and star, alongside Zero Gravity member Ken Quitugua. He also brought in one of the best fight chorographers working in the independent scene, Vlad Rimburg, to handle the action, as well as having him play a supporting role, so all up there’s an impressive calibre of action talent both behind and in front of the camera.
The story is set in San Francisco, and revolves around Ruel’s character of a directionless slacker. Just fired from his waiting job in a café, we discover that his friend has recommended him to Ken Quitugua, who plays a private investigator, and is looking for a partner. Quitugua is trying to track down a Peruvian B-movie action star, played by Jose Montesinos, who owes some gangsters a significant amount of money. There’s a whole separate sub-plot of a wannabe Jordanian action star, who treats Montesinos as his idol, but simply doesn’t have the talent to perform action. When he becomes jealous of his action double, played by Vlad Rimburg, he has Rimburg fired from the set of his latest movie, claiming that he beat him up. Eventually the pair of private investigators, the gangsters, the Jordanian wannabe, and the action double all converge on the set of a reality TV show for a final showdown.
In many ways Unlucky Stars looks and feels like the spiritual follow-up to Contour. From the San Francisco setting, to various members both past and present of The Stunt People who show up – Ed Kahana, the Carbonel brothers, and Steven Yu (along with of course Ruel and Rimburg) amongst them. However it becomes clear very quickly that Unlucky Stars is a different type of movie than Contour. Jacobus’ effort covered its obvious lack of budget, and filmmaking experience from those involved, with a relentlessly frantic comic energy and a frequent flow of fight scenes. Ruel’s style also goes for comedy, however he looks to incorporate more dramatic elements into his tale, making the finale the result of a decidedly serious event.
Although working with a higher budget than Contour, the decision to include more dramatic elements into the plot is a hindrance to Unlucky Stars, and while I’m sure it wasn’t Ruel’s intention, these scenes see lengthy portions of the movie passing by without any significant action. Indeed apart from a brief scuffle in an office between Ruel and Steven Yu, the first 30 minutes are actionless. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for an experienced director, but in the case of a debut director like Ruel, he simply isn’t able to instil the non-action scenes with any sense of tension or meaning. The result is that when people aren’t hitting each other, the plot moves along at a rather dull and lifeless pace.
Of course the production has been billed as a comedy, and it is, however most of it comes in the form of self-referential winks to the audience, which raise a smile rather than a laugh. The detective agency is called Golden Harvest Private Investigators, there’s a sushi restaurant called Y Kurata Sushi, and we see a newsletter which reads action movies should be about the action, not the acting. You get the idea. The visual homages to the action genre also stretch to the performers themselves in some instances, with a couple of neat cameo appearances from Simon Rhee and J.J. Perry. While these elements add some nice touches, and remind us we’re watching a movie inspired by the 80’s and 90’s Hong Kong action flicks, they don’t always connect the way they were intended, due to the scenes they appear in being so pedestrian.
Despite these flaws though, Unlucky Stars is primarily an action showcase, and when the action does come, it delivers. Despite not being as plentiful as they arguably should be, the two main action set pieces definitely get the blood pumping. The first one takes place in a church around the half hour mark, and pits Ruel, Quitugua, and Yu against a cigar puffing bad guy (a clear nod to Yuen Wah’s villainous turn in Dragons Forever) and his crew. It’s intricate and flows fast, with the editing seamlessly cutting between each of the protagonists battling against the gangsters, and some wince worthy falls thrown in for good measure. Ruel’s mastery of Hapkido, combined with an impressive array of kicks, gives him a very distinctive fighting style, incorporating locks and throws into the mix amongst his boot work. Like in Contour a decade earlier, he still shows that he’s able to perform the take-3-people-out-in-one-flying-kick-move, and just like it did then, it still looks great.
I did feel that the camera was just a touch too close in some places, like if they’d pulled it back just a couple more inches the shot would be perfect, but considering the nature of the production, it would be nit picking to complain about such a minor detail. The final 30 minutes of Unlucky Stars is easily its best, as it’s essentially a series of fights with each one building on top of the other. This section of the movie displays a confidence that seemed to be lacking in the more story focused parts – the script suddenly becomes sharp and witty with a number of laugh out loud lines, and the action is complimented by energetic camerawork which is constantly moving but never impedes what’s going on.
Ruel, Quitugua, and Rimburg team up to take on a staff wielding security guard (Miguel Padilla), a pair of gangster henchmen (Emmanuel Manzanares and Roy Chen), the gangster boss (Sam Hargrave), and a sadistic assassin (the Young Masters Shawn Bernal). Again the editing of the multiple fights happening at the same time is a pleasure to watch, as usually in multiple fight scenarios cutting them up can lead to frustration for the viewer, however here the editing is tight and contributes to the flow of the sequence. Everyone is performing at the top of their game, and it shows, with plenty of fast exchanges and painful looking impacts. It would have been nice to see some weapons work thrown in, especially seeing how effective Hapkido is at disarming attackers in one of Ruel’s Contour fight scenes, however the focus on purely hand to hand combat never gets repetitive thanks to Rimburg’s varied choreography.
Due to the nature of almost everyone involved in the production having previously worked on action shorts, the easy avenue to summarising Unlucky Stars is to say it would have been better off as a half hour short film, however this would short change all of the effort Ruel and his crew put in. The decision to not just make a fight filled few minutes and go the feature length production route is to be admired, and nobody can expect perfection from a first time director with limited experience in the filmmaking process. What stands out the most in Unlucky Stars, is how jarring the tone is between the final 30 minutes and the rest of the movie, in terms of how assured and confident the direction feels. Just like Eric Jacobus came back with a much more assured sophomore feature in the form of Death Grip, here’s hoping Ruel also takes the lessons learnt from Unlucky Stars (apparently a sequel has already been written), and applies them to his next movie.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10