Thursday, June 30, 2011

Completist Guide to The Crow series (1993-2005) (Part 1)

The Crow (1994)

There's little to write about
The Crow that hasn't been written before. So much focus has been placed on the tragic death of lead actor Brandon Lee, shot by a faulty blank bullet, that the actual film is rarely viewed without putting it in this context. At times, it feels like the film is just a whirlpool of tragedy both real and fictitious. The original comic book was written by James O'Barr following the death of his fiancee at the hands of a drunk driver, it's oft quoted that this was his motivation for writing the book – an aching need to see justice performed.

I think everyone knows the plot of The Crow by now. Brandon Lee plays Eric Draven a rock musician who is murdered along with his fiancee by a gang of utterly vile ruthless thugs with absolutely no redeeming features. One year later he is brought back to life to take down the thugs for good being guided by a large black crow. Essentially, it's Death Wish played out on a stylish Gothic version of Detroit.

The look of this film is stunning. Everything is just so rich without ever coming across as cartoonish. There's a lot of great miniature work as well, with shots of the crow flying over the city. I like that director Alex Proyas didn't just use real aerial shots of Detroit at night, he wanted the city to be a character itself. Also, much like Tim Burton's Batman the film strives for a sort of timeless look and feel.

Brandon Lee is great in the lead role. It's a shame that we didn't get more films from him because this, and his earlier work, show that he had a genuine charisma that would have propelled him to a-list status had he lived. Michael Wincott is also brilliant as Top Dollar, the lead villain. Both actors really get to cut loose playing their respective roles.

The story only vaguely follows the plot of the original comic. A fair bit was changed. The comic is, if you can picture it, even more graphic and dark than the film. I think it's nice that film interprets the mood and puts its own spin on things. Eric isn't a rock star in the comic and he doesn't duel a top a cathedral with Top Dollar.

Reportedly the script had to be reworked following Lee's death but I don't think all that much was changed from the shooting script. The most obvious bit where he's missing
is when he returns to his apartment after rises from the grave, everything's shot in first person POV.

All in all, The Crow is a so
lid film and deserves to be remembered a seminal film.

Score by Graeme Revell

I'm not going to talk about the soundtracks for each of these films just the scores. The soundtracks always seemed like a bit of random afterthought, collecting
some popular rock/grunge songs of the time and sticking them on a CD. The Score though, by Graeme Revell, I do want to talk about. It's a brilliant almost iconic score, perfectly capturing the melancholic tone of the film and without it the film wouldn't be the same.

Classic quote:

Eric Draven: Can't rain all the time...

The Crow: City of Angels (1996)

Where to go when your lead actor (and the fictional character he played) are dead? “There is another.” That was the tag line they put on the poster for City of Angels. I've sort of got a soft spot for this film because it came out around the time I was really getting into comic books. Every time I went to my local comic shop the place was plastered with posters and merchandise for this film.

Proyas didn't come back for the sequel and the reins were passed to Tim Pope, a british music video director. The story picks up w
ith Sarah, Eric's teenage friend, several years later now living in an almost desolated Los Angeles as a tattoo artist. The city is run by Judah Earl, a vicious drug king who orders the execution of an innocent man and his son. Again, one year later the man, Ashe, comes back to kill the gang who killed him. Sarah helps him along the way being somewhat psychically linked.

Once again, and this becomes a recurring theme in all the Crow films, the production was troubled somewhat. The original script by David Goyer (who would go on to script the Blade series and Batman Begins) had a oddly downbeat ending that was filmed but the producers looking to end the film on a more upbeat note and fit the same structure as the original re-edited it. This in turn backfired when fans and critics called the film a shallow rehash of the original.

Now this film is a failure (and it showed at the box office) but at the same time it's a very interesting failure. There's a lot it does right. Pope gives the film a great visual. Again, he uses miniatures for the city and blankets all his sets in a claustrophobic yellow haze. French actor Vincent Perez does an over the top performance as Ashe that sort of works in a baroque way. You can tell at time he's struggling with the dialogue.

Iggy Pop plays one of the gang members and, as should be expected, gives a cra
zed performance. There's a great scene where he's sitting on a motorcycle and sees Ashe at the other end and starts yelling “You think I'm afraid” over and over until it almost sounds like he's singing it.

The real problem lies in the attempt to tie it in with the sequel. Sarah really has no reason to be in the film. I appreciate when they carry over characters between films but in this case there's no more story to tell. No one left the original film thinking “Man, I wonder what happens to that teenage girl.”

Also, as is often the case with the Weinsteins, this film suffered from studio interference and it seems as though the funding on the special effects were cut short. The final sequence particularly has some appalling CGI. It seems this happened with a lot of the Crow films, the funding was cut suddenly the editor had to put out a rough cut rather than a polished movie.

One thing a lot of people have a problem with how perverse this fil
m is. But when comparing it back to the original comic it isn't a massive leap. Pope has a great style and it's a shame he retreated back to music videos after this. He really knows how to create compelling images such as when Ashe first rises from the water and the twisted Day of the Dead parade. This is a bleak and strange film that deserves viewing at least once.

by Graeme Revell

Revell returned to do the score for City of Angels an
d he keeps a lot of the motifs of the original film. In general though the score is filled more with an earthy tribal sound that fits pretty well with the oppressive tone of the film. He also does a nice reworking of the central Crow theme as a song called 'Believe in Angels' with Heather Nova doing vocals which isn't as bad as it sounds on paper.

Classic quote:

Ashe Corven: Do you know what they call a gathering of crows? Curve? A murder. A murder of crows. Think about it.

The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (TV series 1998)

Stairway to Heaven
is a real curio in the Crow canon. Following the disappointing box office of City of Angels the decisi
on was made to take try and turn the Crow myth into a weekly TV series. Stairway only lasted one season before it was cancelled, though not due to lack of audience, apparently it was down to Universal television buying out Polygram productions and not having faith in the show.

The series, created by Bryce Zabel who also did the X-Files rip-off Dark Skies, retells the story of Eric Draven from the original movie but makes a number of changes in both story and tone to fit the TV audience. Eric is still murdered along with his fiancee but rather than return to murder his killers, he comes back just to “see them brought to justice” (ie. arrested) and then continues to hang around solving other peoples' problems until he can be let into heaven or whatever. The plot of the episodes mostly play out along the lines of The Incredible Hulk or Highway to Heaven.

I've got to admit it's quite strange that they chose such a dark violent film to base th
is TV series off, but then again, it's not unheard of Robocop, one of the most violent films ever was turned into a kid friend show in the early 90s, as was Highlander. But in this case they've had to make so many changes that it only superficially resembles The Crow. For example, Eric's iconic face irony clown make up is now magical thing that appears on his face when he gets angry (read: massive similarities to Incredible Hulk TV show). At all other times he just looks like a regular guy not a tortured undead vigilante. Also, his fiancee Shelly, rather than being a figure only shown in flashback, is regularly featured in the show, shown to be in Limbo waiting for Eric (in the show Limbo's represented as an ordinary looking forest, shot with a purple filter).

Mark Dacascos is given the poison chalice of taking on Brandon Lee's iconic role. He's actually not a bad fit being that he has a vague resemblance of Lee and has a similarly disarming demeanour. Strangely, the series decides to make Draven not only a rock musician but also an highly proficient martial artist. It's just one of a number of strangely off beat details that never really cohere. Dacascos is a great martial artist though (check out Drive (1997) to see his best work) and the series make a good choice of bringing back a couple of the actors from that film – John Pyper-Ferguson does a good job of channelling Michael Wincott as Top Dollar and Kadeem Hardison plays the Skull Cowboy (a figure from the original comic that was cut from the film).

As I said this isn't a mini series with a complex plot, it's a syndicated TV show so each episode basically stands alone. Frequently Draven teams up with Detective Albrecht (Marc Gomes taking over from Ernie Hudson) to solve a crime or help someone out. It's formulaic but not completely unenjoyable. The episodes are breezy and energetic but rarely memorable.
The show was shot in Canada, like a lot of shows at the time, and everything's quite flatly shot, a complete world away from the stylish original film. There's also some very bizarre episodes such as 'The People vs Eric Draven' where the undead Eric is arrested and put on trial for the suspected murder of his fiancee or 'Never Say Die' where a group of Russian mobsters unleash the spirit of Rasputin. One last thing I've got to get off my chest is why the hell did they call it Stairway to Heaven I get the Zeppelin reference but that is one of the cheesiest titles I've ever heard.

All in all, this isn't a terrible show, it's just a weird one. A hybrid of the A-Team and The Crow. It almost feels like Zabel came up with an idea for a TV show about a man who returns from the dead and then realised it sounded too similar to The Crow so bought the rights and just reworked a few bits to make it fit.

(Part 2 of the Completist Guide to The Crow series coming soon...)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Give it one more chance... Six String Samurai (1998)

Now I gottta admit I came across this movie a rather round about way. The director Lance Mungia also directed The Crow: Wicked Prayer (a terrible, terrible movie that I'll get onto when I cover all The Crow films) but I gave him a quick look on imdb and found he'd only directed one other movie called Six String Samurai. I'm not sure why I chose to give him a second chance but to be honest who in their right mind wouldn't watch a film about a Buddy Holly lookalike who fights hundreds of bad guys with a samurai sword.

So the film's set in a post-apocalyptic alternate version of America where the Russians dropped the bomb in the 1950s and people survive in isolated shanty towns. Into this world we meet a wandering swordsman (Jeffrey Falcon) who looks a lot like a beaten
up Buddy Holly and keeps his samurai sword in a guitar strapped to his back. Much like the old Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub movies, Buddy picks up a little mute kid sidekick who tags along with him as makes his way through the desert. The goal is to get to a place called 'Lost Vegas' so that Buddy can claim the throne of rock 'n' roll. Hot on their heels is Death, a mysterious dreadlocked guitarist who dresses just like Slash from Guns 'n' Roses with a massive top hat.

On paper this film sounds great and in a lot of ways it is. It's got such a fantastic pr
emise it'd be very hard to do it wrong. If I had any complaints about the film it's that it's just too sluggish. With about 10-15 minutes cut off it this film would be perfect, as it stands it's just too padded. There's some brilliantly surreal moments in the film though and the director clearly knows how to stretch a tiny budget. One highlight is where Buddy and the Kid drop hundreds of gumballs to make their pursuers slip up.
Jeffrey Falcon does a very good job as Buddy, according to his biog he had done a series of bit parts in Hong Kong martial arts flicks prior to this but Six String Samurai was his first lead role, and he handled the fight sequences like a pro. One problem though is that the character isn't made very likeable, for the majority of the film he's trying to abandon the Kid. I know it's done to give their relationship some dynamic and have a heart warming moment towards the end where Buddy decides to finally rescue him but it's hard to like film where the central character is such an a--hole. Another problem is that the story just goes from A to B, there's just not enough plot, characters just move from one location to another (something Wicked Prayer also suffers from). The film seems content to drift along aimlessly.

Now all this sounds like I'm being pretty harsh on the film but really there is a good film underneath, you just need to be prepared that's it's not quite as awesome as it sounds. When the film came out in 1998 I think a lot of websites hyped it up a bit as being the ultimate cult film but it didn't manage to even make back its tiny $2 million budget and Jeffrey Falcon quit acting soon after. It's kind of sad because the film shows the cast and
crew had so much potential.
Being a film that revolves around music - I don't think it's ruining the ending to say that Buddy and Death (looking like Slash) go toe to toe in a sword fight that serves as a metaphorical battle of old and new rock 'n' roll - it goes without saying that the soundtrack is excellent. Brian Tyler, one of the few people to have his career take off after this, did the score mixing an old school rockabilly sound with epic fairytale-esque orchestral pieces that really adds to the scope of the film.

Lance Mungia is clearly one of those directors who has the ability to capture some great images and has great ideas for his films but struggles to tell a compelling narrative. Six String Samurai just manages to coast along on it's awesome Mad Max meets Shaw Brothers premise and if you're in the mood for a relaxed paced artily directed flick you could do much worse. If nothing else you'll never find a film with a similar premise again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Completist Guide to... The Maniac Cop series (1988-1993)

Maniac Cop (1988)
Maniac Cop is such a great b-movie title. First, it's provocative as hell and second it tells you everything you need to know about the plot. There's a maniac and he's a cop. I think what also attracts a lot of people to this film though is Bruce Campbell's name. Now if you don't know who Bruce Campbell is you obviously haven't watched any Evil Dead films. 

Campbell's no great actor but the Evil Dead films (particularly the second and third) were tailor made for his hammy but fun acting style.
In Maniac Cop he isn't given a lot of leeway and those expecting another out there semi-comic performance are going to be disappointed as he plays it very straight and he isn't the main character, at least not until about the halfway mark.

The story is your usual slasher horror with the same old back story. Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar) a decorated cop is murdered when he wrongly gets sent to jail, somehow he survived and now prowls the street in his police uniform killing innocent people left, right and centre. Campbell plays Jack, a rookie cop who happens to get blamed for the murders and must fight to clear his name and take down Cordell along with fellow cop Teresa (Laurene Landon).
It's a pretty barmy plot and it's soaked in that grubby 80s atmosphere. Z'Dar, a sometime stuntman and very intimidating figure, is great as Cordell – he doesn't say any lines but like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator he cuts an terrifying figure.
Great also to see Tom Atkins, a mainstay of a lot of early John Carpenter films, who sort of leads the film as a cop looking into Cordell's background. There's also a cameo by Sam Raimi, who directed Evil Dead, which is obviously a nice favour to Campbell.
The direction by William Lustig is competent but a little dull and muted and the action never really kicks in until the end of the film. Speaking of which, the film just sort of runs out of the steam towards the end and while I can see they were trying for a cliffhanger ending it just feels a little empty.
The script, co-written by Lustig and Larry Cohen, isn't too shabby but it seems like they could have had made the scenes of Cordell stalking his victims a bit more suspenseful and creepy. It's a cracking concept, usually in slasher movies, the victim will try and find a cop or authority figre to help only this time the cop is the killer leaving the victim with no one to turn to. And there's a great bit where one woman shoots an innocent cop because she thinks he might be the Maniac Cop.
There's also a little bit of Jaws-esque plot point where it's St Patrick's Day (not enough films are set during St Patrick's Day) and the mayor has to weigh up whether to cancel it in the wake of the maniac cop murders.
All in all, great premise but slightly lousy execution and Campbell's straightjacketed by being forced to play his role straight. Really his forte is comedy and he just doesn't cut the mustard as a straight forward lead.
Classic quote:
Frank McCrae: Whole city's goin' to hell. You can't take a pee anywhere anymore. 

Maniac Cop 2 (1990)
Maniac Cop 2 is where the series really hits a peak. Lustig returns and addresses the major problem of the original film by embracing the silliness of the premise. On the one hand it's a shame because I think you could do a really interesting serious film about someone killing people dressed as a cop. But on the other half you could do what this film does, and ramp up the action to extreme levels.
Campbell bows out of the film pretty early on making way for the new lead Det. Sean McKinney played by Robert Davi (most famous for playing the main villain in Licence to Kill and one half of the Fratelli brothers in The Goonies) and he does a pretty good job. I always like it when actors who usually play bad guy change tack and play a good guy for a change.
Laurene Landon also returns as Teresa to provide some good continuity between the two films. I've got to say this a pretty rare thing in b-movie sequels, usually previous leading characters are given off-screen deaths or just ignored. Again, the film nicely transitions from Laurene to our new female heroine Susan Riley, played by Claudia Christian (Cmd Ivanova from Babylon 5).
The centre piece of the film is massive shootout in a police station which again draws comparisons to The Terminator but here Lustig arguably creates an even better sequence by including a lot of wild stuntwork. This film is much more of a stunt filled action film than the comparatively sombre original. There's fights with chainsaws, people getting handcuffed to runaway cars and a finale that involves a helluva lot of people getting set on fire.

The film nicely doesn't just try to retread the original, a fellow serial killer Turkell (who isn't a zombie) teams up with Cordell. It's an interesting development but doesn't really go aware. The only downside is the ending is kind of weak compared to the rest of the film. Strangely, the hero and heroine don't really battle the maniac cop at the end, they are sort of just not involved which makes for an aloof ending.
That said this film is awesome for the majority of its short running time (about 80ish minute, perfect b-movie run time) and I'm not alone in thinking it. Quentin Tarantino once cited it as one of his favourite b-movies. Also, director Lustig said in an interview about the film: "It was the film [where] I felt as though myself and my crew were really firing on all cylinders. And I think we made a terrific B-movie".
Classic quote:
Sean McKinney: There's a piece of Cordell in every cop. Every time arresting some mutt isn't enough, because we know they'll be back on the streets before we even do the paperwork. Every time we pull a trigger and it feels good, because no lawyers can reverse that. It all comes down to justice and pressure. There's only that much difference between a cop and
a maniac cop. 
Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993)
Now Maniac Cop 3 had a bit of bad production history. You'll notice on some credits William Lustig and Joel Soisson are credited as co-directing the film. Soisson's an interesting figure in film, he's carved out quite a niche for himself making horror sequels for a lot of Dimension Films franchises; everything from The Prophecy to Hellraiser to Mimic to Children of the Corn to Pulse to Highlander. I've got to say he's not bad at crafting interesting DTV sequels; there's a lot worse producers out there. Anyway, the story is that at some point Lustig walked off the picture and Soisson, who was the producer, took over directing. I'm not sure how much is his and how much Lustig's.
Right down to the film, honestly it's a bit of a mess but not an uninteresting one. Sadly, Claudia Christian doesn't come back but Robert Davi's Sean McKinney does. I'm guessing the Dr Susan Fowler character is probably meant to have been Christian's Susan Riley character. 
The story doesn't really force a whole lot of Cordell but rather a hot-headed female cop Kate Sullivan who is shot during a convenience store hold-up and put in a coma. Cordell gets resurrected once more, this time by a random Voodoo priest (trust me there's very little explanation). Then in a bizarro left-field plot line Cordell goes to the hospital, kills everyone in his path and then kidnaps Kate with the implication that he is going to make her his bride(!).

I get what writer Larry Cohen was aiming for, a sort of homage to
Bride of Frankenstein, but so much of the plot is just random and disjointed. Also the film flits back and forth between the horror of the original film and the action of the second when really you want it to pick one genre and stick with it. There's some very creepy bits with Cordell stalking victims around the hospital and an inventive (if sort of daft) bit where he uses an x-ray machine on a victim until they die.
There's also some sledgehammer satire/criticism of news reporters too; in a sub plot a news reporter deliberately re-edits some footage they captured of Kate during the hold-up that makes it look like she shot innocent people to boost ratings. It's a nice little sub plot that likely ties in to the Rodney King beating of 1991 and the debate on excessive police force and how it's reported by the news. I love that about Larry Cohen, like Roger Corman, he knows he's making trashy b-movies but he's not above trying to stick in a little bit of thought for the audience.
Even though Davi's character takes the lead again, he's given little for his character to do and much like the finale of MC 2, his role is pretty superfluous. Also like second film, there's a finale that involves the titular character being set on fire. However, I know I've got to be respectful that this is low budget, but the effects were horrible – the stuntman was clearly wearing a giant fire retardant suit and it sort of killed the illusion. I think they should have tried to rewrite the ending to something within their budget.
All in all, it isn't a terrible film, and at least they tried again to make an original film rather than rehash the same formula, but once again the film comes unstuck with the ending.

Classic quote:
Det. Sean McKinney: I can't imagine the kind of pain you feel Matt. I'm not gonna pretend to. But don't condemn her to the same fate. She deserves better. You cleared her. She's at peace. Let her go, Matt. Let her go.
Matt Cordell: *talking to the voo-doo man* "Finish it! 

Final word
So that's it for another Completist Guide. Final note is that rumour were around a while back that Lustig and Cohen were interested in a sequel or a remake (the latter sounding more likely) but things have gone quiet. In the meantime, in case you wanna see one last bit of Maniac Cop action check out this short film by Chris Notarile (an amateur filmmaker who does a lot of semi-pro shorts based on franchises).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Completist Guide to... The American Ninja series (1985-1993)

Welcome to the first of my completist guides in which I take an obscure franchise and discuss everything associated with it. This week we take on...
American Ninja (1985)
American Ninja was Michael Dudikoff's first leading role. If you check his imdb list he'd been acting since the early 80s appearing in little background roles in Tron and Bachelor Party. He'd also been a model at one time but this was his first opportunity at leading man status and what a part.
American Ninja was made by Cannon Films, a low budget studio run by two Israeli movie moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Throughout the 80s these guys made a whole load of ridiculously cheap but fun action movies before biting off more than they could chew by mis-handling Superman IV and trying to develop a series of films based on Marvel Comics characters.
Anyway, Cannon did a lot of the 80s Chuck Norris movies including Missing in Action and Invasion USA (all of which I hope to cover one day). American Ninja was supposed to be another Norris picture before filming he dropped out and Dudikoff was signed. Nowadays when actors drop out of the films it's a big deal because people talk endlessly about it on the internet and it sort of tarnishes the film but back then it could be quietly hidden and didn't make much difference.
Now I've dealt with the backstory let's get into the film. Dudikoff plays Joe Armstrong, an American soldier stationed at a base in the Phillipines who just so happens to be trained in the “Way of the Ninja (TM)” when he was younger which comes in handy when a evil drug dealer and his army of ninjas try to steal a bunch of weapons from the military and later kidnap the general's daughter.
Now being born in 1983 I'm sort of unaware of the whole Ninja craze that came about in the early 80s. Growing up with stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I just always assumed ninjas have been around for ages but, in terms of ninjas being on film, they hadn't really been seen in the West until films like The Octagon and Enter the Ninja came out.
The film's direction by Sam Firstenberg is cheap but never dull It's littered with a multitude of errors which I don't have space to mention here (check out the imdb goofs page), the funniest being towards the beginning where a group of soldiers who are meant to dead on the ground are clearly seen beginning to get up in the background. The story keeps moving at a fast pace and there's a lot of well choreographed action to go around. This was Firstenberg's third ninja film for Cannon following Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja and at times it feels like a live action version of one of those 8-bit Master System games like Shinobi. Firstenberg went on to direct a lot of stuff for Nu Image, another studio that put out similar stuff to Cannon in the late 90s/early 00s, including Operation Delta Force and Cyborg Cop 1 and 2 but none of those films compare to his 80s output.
Dudikoff plays the character of Joe very soft spoken and it makes a nice change from what Norris would have done with the role. I'd be completely stupid not to mention the late great Steve James who plays Joe's sidekick in the film as he's quite an important character and adds a lot of comic relief. James probably has the most 'acting' to do in the film as his character starts off picking on Joe before becoming his friend (trust me in terms of characterisation this is huge).
Anyway, as ninja films go this one is very near the top if not the top. The story is simple and the action is crisp. If I haven't sold you yet, I've got three words for you NINJA WITH A LASER. Ah crap, that's four.
Classic quote:
Jackson: Have you ever heard of ninjutsu sir?
Colonel Hickock: What's that?
Jackson: The secret art of assassin
Colonel Hickock: Yeah of course I have!
American Ninja 2 The Confrontation (1987)
Both Dudikoff and James returned two years later with American Ninja 2 where they are assigned to another military base this time on a Caribbean island where they investigate the disappearance of several soldiers and guess who's behind it all.... yeah ninjas! In the words of John McClane “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
There's an air of just not giving a damn about this film that stretches from little bits of plot (the commander and all the soldier don't wear fatigues they wear shorts and t-shirts) to goofs in the film (one bits where Dudikoff and James leave the commander's office, it's only a tiny shot but you see it's not Dudikoff but his stand-in... where the hell was the Dudikoff?)
All of this doesn't really matter though because the film keeps the same fast paced comic book action of the first movie and the second half of the film introduces a bit of science fiction ridiculousness with genetically enhanced ninjas.
What's good about this film is that there's a genuine rapport between Dudikoff and James, they genuinely feel like good friends. James particularly shines during this film and has some great scenes where he tears off his shirt and throws bad guys around like paper planes.
Sadly nothing tops the NINJA WITH A LASER from the first film but there is a very cool sequence where a ninja tries using a grappling hook on Dudikoff's pickup truck and gets dragged and dragged and dragged. And also a brilliant bit where Dudikoff and James jump off a 200 ft cliff and land in little rowing boat. If that doesn't sell it to you nothing will.
Classic quote:
Wild Bill Woodward: Well, gentlemen, I don't think the U.S. armed forces ever let a lady down yet.
Curtis Jackson: Yes, sir, we should kick some ass.
Wild Bill Woodward: Take my car. 

American Ninja 3 Blood Hunt (1988)
American Ninja 3 is where the series started to falter. Firstly the film really suffers from the loss of Dudikoff who decided he wanted to move from cheap action films. I'm not sure what the entire story was but I can't help but feel he was tired with Cannon. Here's a link to Dudikoff doing an introduction to some obscure film called The Bronx Executioner. It was done by Cannon who bought some cheap Italian exploitation films and decided to try and flog them by slapping Dudikoff's name on the cover. You can see the boredom in his eyes as he's reading his introduction off a card just off screen.
The third entry was where Cannon tried to cut corners and moved production to South Africa which a lot of low budget films did during the late 80s. Cedric Sundstrom takes over the directing reins from Firstenberg and unfortunately fails to give us a very exciting film. The action is very sparse and when does come is shot in very uninspired broad angles and at a very sluggish pace, as if he's trying to disguise how short the fights are by having the fighters stop every other minute.
The biggest change-up is David Bradley who steps into the lead role. At least Cannon had the sense not just to recast Dudikoff's role. Bradley plays Sean Davidson a martial arts champion who joins up with James, returning in his signature role as Jackson.
It's nice to have James keep a little continuity with the earlier film but here he really seems a little dead behind the eyes and really only gets to go berserk towards the end of the film. Essentially, everything in the film is very workman-like and sub-par. Once again we have genetically engineered ninjas like AM 2 and despite the new location and big time villian, The Cobra, there's little to separate it and give the film an identity of its own.
This was David Bradley's first role and unlike Dudikoff who only had a little martial arts knowledge Bradley is very good at martial arts unfortunately his talent isn't showcased and even in his later film he never really developed a competent acting style but he is an above average fighter.
Interestingly, Bradley did do a couple of films with Sam Firstenberg including Cyborg Cop 1 and 2 which are both better, more action packed movies than this.
Classic quote:
The Cobra: But I am glad that I can tell you that there will be no more inefficient hijackings, no more bungled kidnappings or mistimed bombin
gs, because you see now terrorism can be scientifically focused to be totally effective! 
American Ninja 4 The Annihilation (1989)
American Ninja 4 from a distance looks like a return to form because Dudikoff's back. True he is, he takes over the lead in the back half of the film but Steve James is missing and it really shows. I'm not sure why James didn't come back. Bradley's character does have a black sidekick and it's possible this was meant to be James.
The plot revolves around a bunch soldiers who have been kidnapped by an sadistic English general played by James Booth, who also scripted AM2, Avenging Force (which I'll come on to later) and Pray For Death. Sean is sent in to rescue them and tries to convince Joe, who's now a school teacher, to come along with him but he refuses. When Sean gets captured Joe decides to don the ninja costume once more and save everyone's ass.
Again, Sundstrom returns to the director's chair but the action is slightly better this time around; a little less sluggish than before. Bradley also returns as Sean, this time with a little more charisma. James is sadly left out but Dudikoff is back.
Really this is a film of two halves. The first half is Sean's movie and it's only marginally more kinetic than AM 3. Then Sean gets captured and Joe takes over as lead for the last 30 minutes. Here the film really gets going and we almost see a little magic of the earlier movies. There's a great bit where a ninja tries to fire an arrow at Dudikoff and he catches it in his teeth. This is what we're talking about – ludicrous ninja action. Sadly, it's a little too late and the film ends on a perfunctory fight scene.
One thing that really annoyed me, when Joe finds out Sean's been captured there's a bit of montage as he trains and we see him building this awesome samurai sword but then on the final assault on the ninja compound HE NEVER USES IT. As far as I can see, he doesn't even take it with him. What the Hell!
Anyway, the film does at least have the courtesy to finish on a cheesy power ballad called 'Fight Fire with Fire' so I guess I can give it some points.
Classic quote:
Sean Davidson: This isn't a game, Gavin, those were ninja! 

American Ninja V (1993)
Sort of don't want to cover this film as it isn't really a true American Ninja flick. Apparently it was meant to be called American Dragons but, possibly due to it's suckiness, the execs decided to slap American Ninja on the front to make a quick buck off a crappy movie.

Bradley returns, almost unrecognisable from his earlier roles, as Joe (not Dudikoff's Joe though) a random guy who happens to be a ninja. He teams up with Lee Reyes as Hiro a little ninja wannabe and together they try and track down
a scientist's daughter and go up against evil ninjas.

Honestly, this is film is pretty bad. Very little ninja action, and when it does happen it's usually bizarro stuff like ninjas wearing pantomime capes disappearing in clouds of smoke. Also, to say that Reyes character is ten times as annoying as Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace is a massive understatement.

To be fair, this is a family comedy but with the title American Ninja you're tricked into watching the whole movie waiting for kick ass ninja action and it never really comes. I gotta say I fell asleep a couple of times during this movie and dutifiully rewound the film in case I missed anything. I didn't. I ended up wasting more time. Don't do what I did. Just say no.

Classic quote: (and sole funny line)
Viper: Who are you?

Hiro: You killed my father!
Viper: I kill many fathers.
Avenging Force (1986)
Now, Avenging Force isn't a part of the American Ninja series but I wanted to end this post on a high note. Filmed in between American Ninja 1 and 2 and again directed by Sam Firstenberg, stars Dudikoff and James as secret service agent Matt Hunter and politician Larry Richards.
The name Matt Hunter comes from the Chuck Norris film Invasion USA and again, I think this was another reject that Dudikoff got from the great bearded one. The two films don't really connect any more than the name but it's interesting to see that Norris turned down two great action film roles, American Ninja in particular made $35 million when it was released in the cinema which is pretty good considering it's $1 million budget.
Now Avenging Force sees Matt Hunter protecting black politician Larry Richards from the attentions of a twisted group called the Pentangle – a group of rich businessmen who wear creepy masks and want Richards dead. Later in the movie they try and recruit Hunter to join the group by kidnapping his daughter. It's a bit of weird plot development – have they thought this through, kidnapping his daughter to make him join them? Also, they've called themselves the Pentangle, and have 5 members, they'll need to change all their business cards to The Hexagon which doesn't sound nearly a creepy.
There's a twist that happens halfway through the film that I don't want to ruin but it's a real emotional punch to the gut – not something that generally happens in these sort of action b-movies. Most characters in these flicks always seem to be so invincible it was tough to take but ultimately it makes for a better film.
Again, with all of Firstenberg's films, the action is really well handled. He seems to have a penchant for bizarre villains for his heroes to fight. There's a particularly gruelling fight scene set in the swamp forest that looks like something out of Deliverance. I've got to applaud Dudikoff he gets really chucked around, it can't have been an easy thing to film.
The film ends on a slightly unsatisfactory cliffhanger and I'm disappointed they never got round to filming a follow-up because it really begs for it. But I guess when Norris and Dudikoff aren't interested in doing another Matt Hunter movie you've got to call it quits.
Classic quote:
Larry Richards: Matt, you don't have to get involved in this part, this is my fight.
Matt Hunter: Your fight is my fight. You just remember that. 

American Ninjas and Fighters CD
 It wouldn't be complete if I didn't talk about the score too. The only available CD is called American Ninjas and Fighters and features the American Ninja score by Michael Linn as well as George Clinton's work on AM2, 3 and Avenging Force. Unfortunately rather than individual track they bunch the scores together as 20 minute 'suites' which sucks a little and makes it hard to judge the album. Despite Clinton varied music background it's Linn's score to the original film that stands out, a great little trumpet-heavy, military-esque theme tune that really gets you pumped (it's pretty awesome to jog to). Clinton's track for AM3, 'The Cobra Strikes' is the album's other highlighted, a pounding synth heavy little track with ultra-cheesy lyrics.

Final word

So that's it. The American Ninja series covered top to bottom. Check back in for more epic completist guides soon.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How did these guys get DTV careers?... Wesley Snipes

CASE STUDY 2: Wesley Snipes
Where was he? Like Kilmer, Snipes had a golden run of either commercial or critical hits in the late 80s/early 90s beginning with the baseball comedy Major League. Spike Lee gave him some great roles in Mo' Better Blues and Jungle Fever. His first action hero role came in 1992 with Passenger 57, a rather uninspired spin on the Die Hard scenario set on a plane, slightly elevated by Snipes charismatic performance (but then again, anyone acting opposite Liz Hurley usually looks good). The following year, he changed tack again and played the villain Simon Phoenix opposite Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man (a part Sly wanted Jackie Chan to play). Then came the mid-90s, a bit of wilderness for Snipes with him taking high profile leading parts in a lot of flops such as Drop Zone and The Money Train.

What film killed his career? Now this is a little tricky but I'm going to say that Blade (1998) killed his career. Now I know what you're going to say, Blade was a great film. You're right it was pretty good and it did revive his fortunes, propelling him to the Hollywood A-list again. The problem I have is he relied on the success of the Blade series to carry his career. He made no effort to choose diverse roles like he did in the early years. And after Blade Trinity finished the series (mostly down to David Goyer's leaden direction) suddenly he was stuck playing the hero in action thrillers again and again. Now I'm not going to say that Snipes isn't good at action films but he's an actor first. He's not like Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren, who don't really have any actual acting credentials, he's starred in good films! Legitimate good films, not just 'crap good' films.

Where is he now? In jail. For tax evasion. Since Blade Trinity bombed at the box office he's been slumming in a series of interchangeable generic action films (The Marksman, The Detonator, The Contractor), usually shot in Eastern Europe that have all gone direct to DVD. One anomaly in his post-Blade Trinity career was Brooklyn's Finest, directed by Antoine Fuqua, which saw him take a supporting role and though the movie wasn't massively success it at least got him back in the cinema again. When he comes out of prison it's uncertain if he can put his career back on track. Stranger things have happened. Just look at Mickey Rourke. Rumours suggest though that he's going to take a role in The Expendables 2 which I think would be a mistake, again forcing people to see him only as an action star.

Fun fact: Wesley Snipes used to run a bodyguard service called the Royal Guard of Amen-Ra (Seriously, I'm not kidding).

Next time: Christian Slater

Friday, June 10, 2011

Forgotten Sylvester Stallone... Nighthawks (1981)

Nighthawks is a really interesting film for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it got a central villainous performance by the great Rutger Hauer that predates Blade Runner. Secondly, you've got Stallone finding his feet as an action leading man. Everyone thinks Stallone has just been an action movie actor for his whole career but actually in his early years he tried his hand at several types of movies. In a review for Rocky, one critic compared him to an early Marlon Brando! Lastly, the script for Nighthawks purportedly began life as The French Connection III (apparently with Hackman and Richard Pryor!), and you can definitely see some connecting tissue in there to Friedkin and Frankheimer's earlier films.
Okay, so plot-wise Stallone and Billy Dee Williams (who for most people will forever be Lando Calrissian) play two New York cops who are working an undercover beat trapping muggers. The film opens, very boldly, with a seemingly middle aged woman walking down a dangerous empty city street at night. As a couple of muggers pull out knives and attempt to mug her the woman reveals herself to be Stallone wearing a mask and stockings. I've got to say on screen it's less campy than it sounds written up. Also, I've got to say you'll need to keep a straight face during this sequence in order to enjoy the rest of the film.

So basically Hauer plays an evil Euro-terroris bomber (if anything, just as chilling as Roy Batty in Blade Runner) who moves to New York to continue his reign of terror, blowing up buildings left, right and centre. The authorities realise he's sneaked into the country but can't track him down so they decide in order to flush him out they'll train a handful of the regular NY cops in counter-terrorism tactics.

I've got to say this doesn't make a whole lot of sense and the film struggles to convince us that it would happen. Why don't they bus in some support from elsewhere? You get these rather incongruous scenes where Stallone and Lando are sitting in school desks in a darkened lecture theatre taking notes like a couple of schoolboys.
Now I guess you're thinking this sounds like I'm taking shots at this film but here's where the film succeeds, regardless of all the silly plot points, the tension in the film is awesome. As the film goes on the tension gets ramped up and up. Hauer takes people hostage and takes a personal interest in hurting Stallone and those around him. There's a brilliant foot chase with Sly and Hauer that starts in a disco and ends with Lando getting seriously cut. A great hostage scene and an awesome ending.

Reportedly Stallone had the original director fired and replaced with Bruce Malmuth (a workman director who's only other notable film is Seagal's Hard to Kill). In Hauer's recent biography he describes Stallone as a petulant actor whose ego was still too inflated by the success of Rocky. And I've got to say he definitely over shadows Dee Williams. The film's competently shot but it doesn't have the edgy realism of the earlier French Connection films. Stallone is perfect in the lead, sporting dark glasses and a shaggy beard, it makes for much more of three dimension character than many of his other roles (Cobra, I'm looking at you.)

Anyway, the final scenes are where the film truly pays off. It's a blisteringly well-edited, ultra-tense sequence that I'm not going to spoil here. Just go and watch it. 
I'm not sure how different this would have been as French Connection III, but I'm glad it is it's own entity and not a shallow sequel. I can't quite imagine Gene Hackman pulling off the cross-dressing opening scene but then again, he is less muscly than Stallone so maybe it would have worked.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Forgotten Star Wars (part 1)... The Star Wars Holiday Special

A lot of people already know about the Holiday Special. With the rise of youtube there's hundreds of copies floating around. Apparently George Lucas once said he'd like to track down every available copy and smash them with a hammer. Man, that guy is control freak – I can't think of any other director who's gone back through his past work and re-edited stuff so much. He famously updated the effects of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997 (to much fanfare) and did further changes before putting them on DVD. He also added a bunch of new effects shots to THX 1138, his underrated directorial debut too. He even re-edited the TV whole series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles by cutting out the actor who played the 93 year old Indy. Anyway, I'm getting off the point. I just think it's humorous how he'll never erase the Star Wars Holiday Special – it's pollinated throughout too many websites (now including this one) – and it'll never be forgotten however much he wishes it was.
Let's start off for those who haven't seen it. The Holiday Special was a one off TV show that was released in 1978 around Thanksgiving. It used almost all the main principle actors from A New Hope (with the exception Alec Guinness) in small roles and a few bits of stock footage. Lucas wasn't involved in its creation (he's always kept very quiet on his involvement) but he obviously, at some point, okayed the idea.

The majority of the story revolves around Chewbacca's wife, son and grandfather as they sit around their treehouse (which looks a lot like any 70s American home) waiting for Han and Chewie to arrive to celebrate that famous Wookie holiday Life Day. Now I know what you're thinking, Chewbacca only talks in growls and barks in the films, how does his family communicate? Surely the audience need to understand what's being said? Maybe they speak English or there's subtitles. 

No. They bark and growl for THE WHOLE SHOW. In fact, the first 10 minutes we don't see any human characters. It's like some obscure experimental theatre. 
Then finally we get some human actors... well, we get Han and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon, once again trying to outrun an Imperial Cruiser. The show was made almost directly after the original Star Wars and Harrison Ford was obviously still quite cheap and he's used the most of all the original cast. They use a number of shots from A New Hope of the Falcon flying and possibly a few of Vader, who's on the ship pursuing them. I guess Vader's pretty easy to dub.

Luke and Leia both appear via some kind of video phone, that Chewie's wife uses. She asks them where Chewbacca is? At least I think she does, you basically have to guess all the wookie dialogue. Mark Hamill is gloriously caked in make-up. I can understand the foundation as I think this is just after his car crash. But the eyeliner? Also, Carrie Fisher looks pretty zonked out in all her scenes. I don't want to say that she was on drugs at the time but if you've read her biography, she probably was.

So the story is basically Chewie's family sitting around there house. Yep, that's it. What a great storyline, sitting, and waiting, and watching TV (we'll holographic TV).

Yes, after watching this for the first 15 minutes you realise you've actually been tricked. The Star Wars Holiday Special isn't going to have any kind of story, it's a thinly disguised variety show! Jefferson Starship appear and play a song. Chewie's son watches a cartoon about Han Solo and Chewie (how does that work, why have they made a TV show about two random smugglers? This is getting to meta). A lot of people will tell you the cartoon is the most interesting bit, it's not. It's just mildly exciting not watching wookies growl at each other for a few minutes. 
The animation is very loose, with the faces of most characters being very droopy. It is of note that the section was animated by Nelvana – a Canadian animation studio that produced the great animated film Rock & Rule that I'll cover at some point in the future. Here though, it's obviously been quite rushed and the story isn't much but people laud it for having the first appearance of Boba Fett prior to The Empire Strikes Back.

One of the most disturbing bits is when Chewie's grandfather watches some female dancer on hologram. Obviously the actor in the suit had to show some emotion but unfortunately it's all a little exaggerated and it comes off like he's getting aroused! I can't help but feel this is disturbingly similar to the scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall watches holo porn.
But wait, just as you're about to fall asleep (this is easily the most soporific thing I watched... and I've watched a lot of DTV Steven Seagal) two stormtroopers and an Imperial Officer arrive in order to trap Chewbacca when he arrives. Yay, finally some plot momentum. Oh, wait, they decide just to sit around as well. I've got to say I'm not sure why they are going after Chewbacca, Luke was the one who shot down the Death Star, but hey, what the hell, nothing else makes sense in the show.

Okay, let's speed things up. The Officer and one of the stormtroopers are tricked into leaving the house. One stormtrooper stays behind. Han and Chewie finally arrive. The stormtrooper runs at Han, trips and falls over the edge of the treehouse. Bizarrest death ever! 
I'm guessing TV censors wouldn't let Han just shoot the stormtrooper (like he did to loads of troopers in the U-RATED A New Hope). Oh well. If you pause the video just as the stormtrooper falls you can see the look in Harrison Ford's face as he contemplates the rest of his career and thinks “Oh well, back to carpentry after this.”

Oh, Harrison don't worry. At least, you don't have sing a song about 'Life Day' to John Williams' iconic Main Star Wars Theme. Yep, the show decides that having a stormtrooper trip and fall was too much of an anti-climax so it ends with Carrie Fisher singing (talk about ending on a 'High' note). And as for the set, good knows what it's meant to be! There's stars in the background and fog on the floor. Are they floating in the clouds? Carrie Fisher's singing's pretty good – damn those drugs, she could have had an awesome solo career.
So the show finishes with a montage of shots from A New Hope. I think these were meant to be Chewie's memories. Or maybe they are a way of trying to remind everyone to forget this show and go and see the film at the cinema again.

Well, that's it. Good luck to anyone who wants to watch the show in its entirety. Here's a link to a Google Video version that has the complete thing as one file.
Really it is worth just skipping through it for curiosity. I watched it once 8 years ago and haven't watched it since (except to show friends little bits). It sort of burns into your memory like that. If you think your okay with wasting two hours of your life, go for it.

Next time... We delve into another Star Wars TV film (one that Lucas isn't so ashamed of) Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure