Apr 5, 2020

Martial Arts Month: Day 5

Lady Bloodfight
Dir: Chris Nahon
This was not on the initial list for this month’s martial arts marathon, but yesterday I saw a stuntmen react video on youtube, discussing some classic fight sequences and one of the guests was Amy Johnston. There were a few clips shown from this, the first movie she had a leading acting role in, so I decided to give it a look and add it to this series.

The story is basically Bloodsport, but with women (indeed it was originally titled Lady Bloodpsort). Johnston plays Jane Jones, who comes to Hong Kong to fight in the Kumite and avenge her father. She’s taken under the wing of Shu (Muriel Hofmann), who is also seeking revenge on a rival (Kathy Wu) who has trained her own champion (Jenny Wu) for the Kumite. 

The story is clearly basic, and the screenplay (by Bey Logan, whose Hong Kong Legends commentaries got me and many others into the genre) makes few demands of anyone’s acting abilities as it knits together various threads of cliché with dialogue that makes most of the lines sound like ‘that’ll do’ placeholders that accidentally found their way to the shooting draft. The plot too, for all its simplicity, is badly told, with Jane’s character particularly poorly established, meaning it’s hard to see why she’s recruited by Shu.

Amy Johnston is the film’s standout element; an accomplished stunt performer, she steps up to the role and delivers what the film needs. It’s nobody’s idea of a deep characterisation, but she does what she can with the dialogue, and demonstrates the sort of presence a lead needs. Johnston is also clearly extremely good at her day job. Her fight sequences are excellent and there are many blows and falls that at least appear to connect painfully. The other performers, many of them also stuntwomen, match her well. If any of them are given any personality it’s a single note (for instance, Jet Tranter’s Cassidy is ‘the nice one’), but they deliver where it matters: in the ring.

The problem is that while all the actresses are showing their best moves, Chris Nahon, who is the editor as well as director here, often neglects to show them at their best. Of course there are players here who may need more doubling and cutting because they aren’t experienced martial artists, but even the Kumite fights are often overly quickly cut. This is especially acute with Johnston. The few times Nahon lets extended moments play out in her fights are easily the film’s most entertaining, so it’s disappointing when he returns to the hyperactive rhythm that is his default setting.

I’d like to see Amy Johnston do more, this role isn’t a challenge, but what little she gets to do with it shows there’s an actor as well as a stuntwoman there, it’s just unfortunate that the script and direction here appear to not quite let her show the best of either.
★★½

Apr 4, 2020

Martial Arts Month: Day 4

Red Wolf
Dir: Yuen Woo-Ping
Some movies come and go, some create a few ripples and a tiny handful manage to catch lightning in a bottle and become part of what defines a genre. Die Hard did that for action films. For years afterwards we got Die Hard rip offs, one of the most fun being Andrew Davis’ Steven Seagal starring Under Siege. Three years after Under Siege, Yuen Woo-Ping came along and made this, a hilariously slavish homage to/ripoff of both it and its most obvious influence.

Kenny Ho stars as Alan, an ex-cop, now a security guard on a cruise ship which is taken over by a mutinous first mate (Collin Chou) and a gang of mercenaries (some of whom are in the band on the ship) in order to steal some uranium which is on board for… some reason(?) Ho ends up teaming up with a waitress (Christy Chung) to save the ship.

This is a dumb movie. The story is loosely strung together from the basic elements of Under Siege and Die Hard (note a scene in which Alan is locked in a freezer and escapes in the same way as McClane does in a key scene in Die Hard) and much of the acting is poor; Ho is a bland hero and Christy Chung overplays just about every moment. All that said, this is also an insanely fun movie. It’s stupid and a bit rickety, but it also delivers in a lot of ways. Chou and Elaine Lui are great as the bad guys with Lui stealing the show; her performance as the glamorous singer who reveals herself as a gleefully smirking villain a study in being just over the top enough.

Given that this was made before The Matrix, and not a wuxia film, Yuen Woo-Ping’s action is much lighter on the use of wires. He gives everybody their moment in the plentiful fight sequences. Ho and Chou’s high kicking showdown is built up well and ends up being a hugely entertaining final setpiece, but the contrasting styles of Lui (all sharp movements) and Chung (an untrained fighter chaotically trying to stay alive) and a jaw dropping climactic fire stunt make their fight the film’s best scene. The action balances gunplay and martial arts well, finding plenty of reasonably natural excuses to put the firearms away and move to hand to hand fights. The action is brutal and the hits often clearly real. As much as Under Siege is clearly the better film overall, the action here is miles ahead.

Red Wolf is turn your brain off fare. It offers no profound insights into the philosophy of martial arts, its action sequences don’t revinvent the wheel and the story is shamelessly derivative. It is, however, a tremendous 88 minutes of entertainment.
★★★½

Apr 3, 2020

Martial Arts Month: Day 3

The Way of the Dragon
Dir: Bruce Lee
I’ve never been the biggest Bruce Lee fan. Obviously, he changed martial arts cinema for all time and arguably, more than 45 years after his sadly early passing, remains its best known name, but I’ve always enjoyed the stars who followed just in his wake more. The Way of the Dragon is a pretty good encapsulation of why.

Lee was coming off the wild and widespread success of Fist of Fury, so he had a lot of sway, and was able to cash it in to make his writing and directorial debut. The results suggest that, while a charismatic star and the most talented martial artist of his generation, he had a way to go as a filmmaker. Lee’s screenplay is basic and dull. It sees him coming to Italy to help protect a Chinese restaurant under threat of takeover from the mob. Lee never manages to establish larger stakes, nor much connection between himself and co-star Nora Miao or the staff of the restaurant, who have been training in karate. The fish out of water comedy of the first half is, to put it mildly, not Lee’s gift as an actor, and makes an already uneventful build up feel grindingly slow.

There are two great scenes in The Way of the Dragon. The fight with Lee wielding dual nunchaku and the finale, with Lee facing off against a young, clean shaven, Chuck Norris. Both sequences deliver the hard hitting action we expect of Lee and are brilliantly choreographed by the star and Unicorn Chan. The direction isn’t always as successful, for instance, Lee’s repeated cutaways to a kitten during the finale are much less funny than he may have imagined. Still, for these blessed minutes, the film delivers what we’re looking for from it. Even the rest of the action sometimes disappoints, never more so than when Hwang Jang Lee steps up, only to be so soundly beaten by Lee that he barely gets a chance to show his abilities (look at his films with Jackie Chan for a far better showcase).

On the whole, I found The Way of the Dragon disappointing. There are isolated moments that explain why Lee was and is so revered, but the film as a whole is largely tedious, not especially well made, and plods its way to those moments.
★★