For those not familiar with the TV series storyline, the movie is a loosely condensed version. Kenshiro (Gary Daniels) and Lord Shin (Costas Mandylor) are two expert, almost superhuman, martial artists living in a post apocalyptic future. When Ken's master Ryuken (Malcolm McDowell) refuses to teach Shin a secret technique he kills him and goes on a rampage brutally beating Kenshiro, leaving him for dead and kidnapping his girlfriend Julia. Several years later Shin has become the de facto ruler of the world, living in a castle and keeping his subjects in check with a gang of vicious mutants, led by Jackal (Chris Penn). However it turns out Kenshiro survived his attack and with the help of two kids, Bat and Lynn, he makes his way to Shin's castle to save Julia and kill Shin.
Having watched a good few episodes of the anime my expectations were sky high for the movie and in fairness it was never going to meet them. The film was filmed on a $7 million budget, shot entirely in a studio and directed by Tony Randel, whose most notable films were Hellbound: Hellraiser II and... erm, Amityville 1992: It's About Time. The first thing I've got to get out of the way is that this is obviously an Americanisation of a Japanese property so all the actors (bar Julia) are played by Western actors. That doesn't bother me too much, I'm not a rabid fanboy who would dismiss the film purely for this. Still it does seem wrong for Malcolm McDowell to play a character called Ryuken who is clearly meant to be Japanese.
As I said the film is very condensed version of the story (the TV series dragged on for over 150 episodes) and at times it feels a little too quick. Randel clearly got that he needed to tell an epic story but the 90 minute running time hampers it slightly. Despite it's short length there is a lot of effort that's been put in for such a low budget film. The art direction and sets in particular are visually dynamic and some of the miniature work is great. Christopher Stone's score though slightly forgettable is quite suitably baroque. The actors and costumes all look like their cartoon counterparts. The only problem is that the original anime and manga were inspired by the Mad Max films so at times the film feels a bit too indebted to George Miller's flicks.
This film was the first time I saw Gary Daniels and I've followed his films since. He's a technically very adept martial artist but his acting skills are a little rough. This was his first major film having done a series of DTV action films and he struggles with his native English accent, at times sounding a little Australian. The most frustrating thing that the fights in the film are quite short and not well filmed. The one notable exception is a long, almost uninterrupted shot, when Ken finally enters Shin's castle and takes down 20-30 men in one go. This should have been the definitive scene of the film but it's still quite scrappily shot with people on the ground disappearing between shots. According to the DVD commentary with Daniels, there was a bit of conflict between him and the director as to whether the film should focus on fighting or the science fiction/horror element. Randel didn't want the film to just be some fighting movie but unfortunately that's exactly what it should have been.
The rest of the actors do a decent job too. Chris Penn revels in his roll as the sadistic Jackal and, as annoying as he is, Dante Basco (Ruffio from Hook) does a good as Bat. It seems quite weird to include kids in such a violent film but you've got to understand they were always there in the TV series. Costas Mandylor is a little underwhelming as Shin, he's got the intimidating aura but he needed to chew a bit more scenery to make his mark. It's quite tough to make a great villain when he basically sits around in his castle for the entire movie.
One thing the film doesn't scrimp on is the violence. The most notable thing about the original anime was that in most episodes Ken would use this bizarre fighting method which looked like he was hitting people with his fingers a hundred times in a few seconds. This “pressure point” technique would go on to make the victim's heads explode and it's faithfully recreated in the film. Unfortunately, in live action, the move looks pretty laughably but I appreciate them keeping it in all the same. Another thing that doesn't work is that because they've shot everything on a set you can quite clearly see all the matte paintings on the wall. It's particularly glaring in the scene where Kenshiro does his training montage.
Really, to do a Fist of the North Star film justice, you need a budget more approaching $100 million and to be fair to the makers they haven't made a terrible film. I love that everything is practical; miniatures, matte paintings and complete sets. The mid 90s contains some the last few films to use these techniques before rampant CGI took over. The acting is quite cheesy and over the top but then again so is the story, so the two go hand in hand, and they have retained a lot of the giddy cartoonish violence of the original anime. Despite all my issues with the film, I'd still recommend it. There's enough that's good about the film to overlook the negative points. Anyone looking for a stylised post-apocalyptic flick with a dose of violence and gore should be reasonably satisfied.
Over the rest of the month I'll be looking at more live-action anime movies - City Hunter, Crying Freeman and The Guyver 1 & 2. Check them out every Wednesday.