Friday Fisticuffs: A Force Of One (1979)

a force of one poster As a 30 year old dude, I have a unique relationship with Chuck Norris (boy, that sounds weird). I actually didn’t see many of his movies growing up, but as a personality and character he was unavoidable. I mean, he had his own cartoon and action figure line in Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos, how rad is that? Long before he was a meme orwhatevertheheck, he was training Jonathan Brandis, and hundreds, thousands, millions(?) of kids how to defend themselves. It probably wasn’t until Way Of The Dragon that I got a real, good look at what he could do, but before then I’d seen a few episodes of Walker, so there’s that.

In more recent days, or as I like to call them the Blog Era of my life, I’ve had some pretty bad luck when it comes to picking movies from Norris’ filmography. I’ve seen The Octagon and Code Of Silence which were bad and okay respectively and Hellbound which didn’t do nearly enough with its Chuck Norris vs. The Devil concept. And the less said about 2005’s The Cutter, the better. Yet, burned as I might have felt, I still got excited when I saw that his 1979 film A Force Of One was on Netflix Instant, I got excited. And, thankfully, it’s a pretty good movie, though not one exactly packed with breakneck martial arts action.

In this one, Norris plays a former military guy/current karate champ and teacher who gets recruited by the cops to help them figure out what martial arts master is attacking and killing the members of their undercover narcotics team. While there are definitely some martial arts scenes, this movie actually felt and looked a lot more like a Dirty Harry/70s revenge film than the kind of action-packed spectacle I wanted from a Chuck Norris movie (or maybe I have a completely off-base concept of what his movies are like).

And yet, between a few fights that take place inside a ring and an ultimate one between Norris and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace (who also happened to be John Belushi’s body guard) there’s enough to qualify this as a proper Friday Fisticuffs entry (as you can see by the above compilation of fight scenes from the flick). The problem is that, even though you might know these guys are legit fighters, they look like they’re pulling punches and not going all-out on screen. Maybe it’s time I focus and watch Lone Wolf McQuade, the Missing In Action movies, Invasion U.S.A. and the Delta Force flicks already.

Friday Fisticuffs: Lionheart (1990)

lionheart I’ve watched a lot of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, to the point where I’ve given him his own category, something I’ll be doing for actors and actresses I find myself watching over and over again. While I’ve made my way through a good deal of his filmography, there are still plenty of movies I either haven’t seen or haven’t written about here on UM. Lionheart actually falls into both categories, so I was pretty excited when I saw it added to Netflix Instant recently.

This time around, JCVD’s brother gets in some trouble in the States. He tries to leave the French Foreign Legion by the books, but they’re jerks and don’t let him, so he kicks his way out. Once he gets to America he’s disheartened to learn the boat he’s on is going to New York and not California, where his brother lives. After wondering around awhile he finds his way to a street fight run by a guy named Joshua Eldridge (Harrison Page). JCVD wins handily and eventually decides to team up with Eldridge who knows where all the highest paid fights are. With each fight he wins, our hero gets a few dollars closer to being able to afford transport to LA.

Or at least that’s the set-up your given. You expect him to go through a series of fights across the country or something, but instead Eldridge sets up one fight for an uber-80s business lady who takes a liking to JCVD. Soon enough they’re in LA and doing awesome trying-on-clothes montages. But the goodness doesn’t last forever as Jean-Claude eventually has to throw down with a guy who’s considered one of the best around. Will he win? Well, yeah, of course he does. He’s gotta help his brother’s wife and kid after all.

As far as fight scenes go, these definitely aren’t some of JCVD’s best. It’s not really his fault though. You can see he’s got the moves, but it looks like his adversaries aren’t nearly as good as him. Also, the choreography and editing are a little iffy in the beginning. But, the street fights were all pretty convincing, so that’s a plus.

It’s interesting to note that JCVD has worked with writer/director Sheldon Lettich on several occasions. Lettich wrote JCVD’s breakout hit Bloodsport. He then wrote Rambo III and then got the chance to write and direct this film. Lerrich then went on to direct Van Damme again in The Order, but also wrote the scripts for Double Impact, Legionnaire and The Hard Corps (apparently he specializes in JCVD movies I haven’t reviewed). However, he also directed Dolph Lundgren in The Last Patrol (haven’t seen it, but want to) and the Marc Dacascos high school capoeira fight film Only The Strong which I have seen and even wrote about!

All in all I’d say this is a pretty good entry in the JCVD’s filmography. It’s kind of a small little story that pits him against some interesting characters along the lines. It’s not the ultra-slick fight film you might want, but it delivers on what it is. I also like the time capsule aspect. Even though this movie came out in 1990, it certainly feels like it shares the sentiment of Gordon Gecko 80s NYC.

Friday Fisticuffs: Safe (2012)

safe poster I think I just fell in love with a movie and it’s called Safe. Of course, being a huge Jason Statham fan, I wanted to check this flick out with a quickness after seeing it had been added to Netflix Instant. And, as it turns out, it might actually be the quintessential Statham movie. Not only does it include the kind of ass-kickery you’ve come to expect from franchises like Crank and The Transporter, but it’s also got some pretty sick driving, gun play and the dramatic gravitas I think Statham brings to every role, but is more well-featured in films like The Bank Job, War and even Blitz. I fully believe that Statham is a really fantastic actor who also happens to be awesome at kicking dudes in the face, so the latter wins out over the former. Safe happens to be the the kind of film that lets him show off his many facets.

This time around, Statham plays a one-time cop turned cage fighter who doesn’t take a fall when he’s supposed to and winds up peeving off the Russian mob. They kill his wife and tell him he better go on the run, but add that they’ll be watching and will kill anyone who’s even remotely nice to him, a threat they make good on. Meanwhile, there’s a young girl named Mei in China who’s super good at math and winds up getting kidnapped by the mob. The mob boss, played of course by James Hong, sent her over to the States because her memory doesn’t leave a trace like a computer would. She gets thrown into this crazy gangster world which is not easy on her. The Russian mob finds out about her and starts a war with the Chinese to get her and whatever secrets her brain holds. As it happens, Statham meets Wei in the subway and decides to keep her safe.

When I heard that Safe was about Statham protecting a kid, I worried that it would be pretty boring, like one of those awful levels in a video game where you have to constantly watch out for some useless person, but it was actually a lot more interesting than that. When he tells her to hide, she actually does! When he tells her to run, she runs. It felt like a much more realistic take on the idea than you tend to see in these kinds of things.

And the story’s pretty solid. In addition to all the players I’ve mentioned, you’ve also got a group of dirty cops in play. Statham used to work with them, but didn’t want to be dirty himself so he tried to do the right thing which only lost him his job. As we discover from the mayor, though, Statham was brought in in the wake of 9-11 to be a kind of under the radar super cop who would take care of NYC’s more nefarious elements. I thought that was a cool little touch, something I didn’t expect. While all this is going on and Statham does his best to take down the various mob factions, he runs into a guy who had, basically, the same super cop job as him. I’ll be honest, I was hoping for a real drop down drag out fight between them, but what wound up happening felt a lot more real.

Like I said above, this movie lets Statham do everything he’s good at while still keeping everything grounded. This isn’t Commando or something where emotions rarely come into play. Take the scene where he comes home to find his wife dead, other filmmakers would have had him immediately get into a fight, but instead he’s devastated by what he just discovered and basically gives them the opportunity to kill him. By bobbing when you expect it to weave, Safe offers a good deal of surprises for action movies fans while still offering plenty in the way of hand to hand combat, shoot outs and chase scenes.

I did a little looking into director Boaz Yakin’s filmography and saw a couple interesting bits. First off, he also directed Remember The Titans, which is a pretty great movie if memory serves. Before that he was a writer though, penning the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, the Charlie Sheen/Clint Eastwood joint The Rookie and also From Dusk Til Dawn 2, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and Prince Of Persia, a pretty ecclectic group to say the least!

Friday Fisticuffs: Dragon (2011)

kinopoisk.ruLeft to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have ever watched Dragon (Wu Xia in the native Chinese) and that would have been a shame. I tend not to like period piece martial arts films and I generally shy away from foreign films that only offer subtitled viewing experiences instead of dubbed ones (for reasons I wrote about here). So, how did I end up watching it? Well, I was sent a PR email asking if I’d be interested in checking out the recently release Bluray and figured I’d give it a shot because I’m familiar with star Donnie Yen and love martial arts films.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did so. This movie was a revelation. It mixes so many different elements that it not only captivated me throughout but also kept me from doing just about anything else while it was on (a rare feat when it comes to my movie viewing habits these days). The movie felt like something that would result from a weird genetic experiment involving Darren Aronofsky, Brian De Palma, Ang Lee and David Lynch, but also something wholly unique to director Peter Chan.

The actual story revolves around a man named Liu Jin-xi (Yen) fighting off a pair of thugs who were trying to extort protection money from a butcher in a small Chinese village in 1917. In the skirmish, which looks innocent enough, Jin-xi accidentally kills one of the men. The attack brings in the regional police force including a unique inspector named Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who believes there’s something fishy about this story, that a common man would not know the very specific places on an enemy’s body to hit in order to subdue and kill them. Basically, he thinks he’s dealing with a person with a much different past than he’s letting on, which proves to be the case.

So, not only do you have some fantastic action scenes, but there’s also a solid dramatic mystery going on as well and those two elements combine to form a fantastically original movie. For his part, Bai-jiu not only has forensic skills on his side, but also knows the ways of chi, how it can flow and how it can be manipulated, a talent he puts to use on himself and when looking at others. There are some fantastic scenes where he’s explaining what he thinks happened in the opening fight scene where he’s actually standing there watching even though he wasn’t actually present, it’s like something out of that show Cold Case or how Willem Dafoe sees things in Boondock Saints, but instead of taking place during a simple moment, this is during a wildly complicated and slick fight scene. Here’s a clip:

The movie initially won me over by way of a very simple, very normal conversation between Yen’s character, his wife and their children in the opening of the movie. This just felt like such a real and genuine moment without all the pomp you tend to see in these kinds of things and just got into real family life. Not long after that you get a hilariously awkward fight scene that proves to be much more as the movie rolls on. These unique and different aspects — not the kinds of things you expect from a Hong Kong action flick — got me in. From there I was seated in, buckled and ready to go on a ride that goes from that to wild police investigation, then swerves into an identity mystery before hitting some recurring horror elements, existential craziness (real Lynchian stuff) and back to some killer fight scenes before a final conflict that had me flinching, worried and nervous throughout the entire thing.

Basically, Dragon sucked me in by showing me a family man trying to do what’s right, revealing that he might not be as simple a character as I originally suspected, pitting him against several foes, having him deal with that past and eventually face off against his own father for the protection of his family. I can get behind that and I highly recommend you guys do the same.

Friday Fisticuffs: The Man With The Iron Fists (2012)

man-with-the-iron-fists-poster-2

I love The Man With The Iron Fists on two related levels. First and foremost, this is a capital A awesome movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and revels in the grime and grit of old school Hong Kong action movies but upgrades everything from the fight scenes and weapons to the quality of the actors and shooting. The second level that I dig about this movie is that it’s clearly RZA (who directed, co-wrote with Cabin Fever and Hostel’s Eli Roth and also starred in) making one of his dreams come true.  I don’t know much about him, but I do know that the Wu-Tang member loved these kinds of movies as a kid and eventually proved to people with money that he could do one himself. I think anyone who has a creative streak in them or a longtime fandom for a particular genre can relate to that idea.

For what it’s worth, I watched this movie on Blu-ray which looked awesome and went with the extended cut. I’m not sure what made it different from the theatrical one, but figured I should put that out there.

The story itself revolves around a town called Jungle Village that’s got all kinds of misfits and killers hanging around. RZA is the blacksmith in town and helps build some wild weapons for all the different animal-themed factions. There’s a lot of gold coming into town, plenty of betrayal and backstabbing and a war is brewing between the different groups. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe’s Jack Knife has rolled into town and seems to be a good guy. He teams up with RZA as well as Rick Yune’s Zen Yi who sports a knife suit.

I should note that most of the story details of this film are pretty rote. Raise your hand when you read something unique. RZA is in love with a prostitute who says she wants to run away with him. He believes her and sacrifices his moral integrity by making weapons for terrible people to further his own agenda. That doesn’t go so well, he gets attacked and winds up developing iron hands for himself that he can control thanks to his chi. That last part probably raised some hands which exemplifies an interesting aspect of the film, as cool as it looks and as rad as the fight scenes come off, the most unique aspects of this film revolve around the weapons. Just about everyone wields (or is) a weapon that I haven’t really seen on screen before (or at least not done in such a way) that they make already engrossing fights all the more interesting. I was working on something while watching this movie and found myself transfixed every time a fight scene kicked off.

And that’s what this movie’s all about at it’s core: cool fight scenes with rad weapons. If you’re looking for something with a little more depth, this isn’t your movie, but if you want to see Russell Crowe shoot a guy in the head with a knife gun or two fighters use ice skater-like moves to kill dudes, give The Man With The Iron Fists a watch.

Friday Fisticuffs: Universal Soldier (1992)

Universal Soldier I’m making my way through the Universal Soldier franchise in a very non-chronological way. After being completely blown away by the latest installment in the franchise, the amazing Day of Reckoning, I looked at the second film The Return which was just kind of whatever. I’ve been a little lax in getting to my Netflix discs lately, but I did my best to get to the 1992 original directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) in a timely manner which meant it took me three or four days to get through. Again, it has nothing to do with the film and more my inability to stay up past 11:30PM anymore.

The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as Vietnam soldiers who killed each other only to be rejuvenated in modern times by the Universal Soldier program which is supposed to create ultimate killing machines from dead soldiers. JCVD’s going along alright until a reporter stumbles upon the truth behind the program and is about to get executed by Dolph. At that point, Jean-Claude remembers some of his protective past and runs off with the woman to rescue her. From there, it’s a series of chase and fight scenes as Dolph and the other UniSols are sent to get their brother in arms back. While watching the film, I realized it was a combination of RoboCop and the Terminator movies, but with guys who can actually fight.

This movie definitely delivers on the action promise you expect from looking at the above poster. You’ve got two of the greatest action actors of their day not only teaming up, but facing off. You’ve also got a pretty epic assault on the Hoover Dam, a bonkers truck chase and all kinds of cool looking sci-fi military tech. The movie’s packed with action fun and Emmerich did a pretty stellar job making a great looking movie for what was reportedly a fairly modest budget. On the acting side of things, both of the leads do a great job. JCVD does a pretty good job playing the conflicted solider while Dolph just jumps full-on into his role as the psychotic vet.

I watched the Blu-ray of this film and was impressed with how good it looked. As I mentioned, Emmerich did a great job the first time around and the LionsGate presentation looked pretty great. There were also a few special features that I checked out and really enjoyed, one is a small behind-the-scenes type featurette featuring JCVD, Dolph, Emmerich and his writing partner Dean Devlin. The real bonus jewel for me, though, was a piece where JCVD and Dolph each talk about how they came up in the business juxtaposed against each other. I realized I didn’t actually know anything about either actor, so it was an education, but it also proved something I’ve kind of half-known for a long time: Dolph Lundgren is one of the most fascinating action actors around and deserves a documentary about his life. Anyone working on that?

Friday Fisticuffs: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) & Sudden Death (1995)

universal soldier the return After being so impressed with Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, I wanted to go back and check out the other movies in the Soldier franchise, just to remind myself of what had happened. I didn’t expect them to be as good as the latest installment, but I was curious to see what had been done in those other films and how the mythology had been handled. The first movie isn’t on Netflix Instant and neither is the third, but The Return was, so naturally, that became the next one I watched. Turns out it wasn’t terrible, but definitely has a very 90s vibe to it.

What was so 90s about it? Well, one of the central figures in the film is a computer called Seth (or more likely S.E.T.H., though I don’t feel like looking up the reason) who spends the first part of the movie existing as a cube in a ball at the end of some kind of robot construct. He basically looks like a Trapper Keeper from the same year, but sounds like Michael Jai White. There’s also a character named Squid who plays the hacker in the movie. He has blue hair, fancies himself some kind of cyber anarchist and makes every character in Hackers look GQ. Oh the 90s.

Anyway, the film follows Jean-Claude Van Damme’s character from the first film, Luc Deveraux. For some reason he’s not a UniSol anymore, though I don’t know if they every explain how or why. I remember almost nothing from my first viewing of that movie, so this was a curious development. He does hang out with and train UniSols, though, with a few pals. Everything’s going okay until one day — a day when a news crew is in the building, of course — SETH figures out that the program is going to be shut down. He then unleashes all of the Soldiers from the military’s command and sets them against Deveraux and company. The local General wants to just blow the building up, but Luc can’t allow that because,  yup, you probably guessed it, Seth kidnapped his daughter. SPOILER WARNER, the following video is the final battle from the movie, so watch at your own discretion:

Hokey, contrived and over-used plot lines aside (what do you really expect from a 90s action movie?), I had a pretty good time with USTR. In his prime, Van Damme was one of the best action guys around, not the greatest actor in the world, but able to play concerned father while kicking ass at the same time. I was also impressed with both White and Bill Goldberg’s performances. Why didn’t either of these guys really hit in the film industry? They both cut imposing figures — Goldberg is like sculpted meat in this thing — and can handle themselves in a fight scene, so what happened there? Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a mostly fun action romp, give this movie a look, but don’t expect the greatness seen in Day Of Judgement which gets better and better in my memory the more “just alright” and downright-bad action movies I watch.

sudden death

For me, JCVD’s movies are like potato chips or whiskey and sodas, I can’t have just one. While clicking through Netflix Instant I saw that Sudden Death had been added to the list of flicks. I have trouble remembering which of these movies is which and it doesn’t help when Netflix claims the film takes place in a baseball stadium (it’s a hockey game).

Van Damme stars as the difficult to kill Darren McCord, a firefighter in Pittsburgh who had some bad luck with a blaze. After that, he’s having a hard time of things and has taken a safer job as the fire marshall of the Civic Arena. Or something. There’s a lot of details in this movie that seem way too complicated, but we’ll get to that more in a bit. McCord takes his son and daughter to the last game of the Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, game that the Vice President is also attending. Powers Boothe takes this opportunity to kidnap the VP and hold him for ransom. That’s the simple version. There’s more about unfreezing bank account numbers and setting the time table of the caper to the game itself, but all you really need to know is that Powers Boothe is the bad guy, something that becomes eminently clear the moment you look at this guy. Have you seen him on Nashville? He’s gotten more evil looking as he ages. I think he’d make Hannibal Lecter uncomfortable at this point.

Because he’s awesome and because his daughter gets dragged into things — what is it with JCVD’s kids movie getting involved with villains? — McCord has to face his fears and fight…ahem…fire with fire (ie violence with violence, sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). This leads to a series of fights with individuals in various parts of the arena including my personal favorite, one with a woman in the penguin mascot costume. It sounds goofy, but it actually makes sense given the plot.

What I really liked about this movie is that it took full advantage of the setting, one that you almost never see in films. Even the above penguin-lady fight is unique even though it takes place in a kitchen. I like that kind of ingenuity used in designing the fight scenes. There’s also a nice flow from confined to dangerously huge as not one but two battles take place on the dome of the Civic Arena. It’s nowhere near a perfect film because there are some goofy moments and the occasional bad effect (the showcase one at the end of the film looks 15 kinds of bad), but overall I had a really fun time with the movie and think you will too if you’re jonesing for some vintage Van Damme.