Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Completist Guide to The Boondock Saints series (1999-2009)

The Boondock Saints (1999)
The phrase “cult movie” gets thrown around a lot nowadays and it's a difficult thing to categorise. Everyone has their own opinion of what a “cult movie” is. For me, it's a generally a niche genre film that didn't make much earnings at the box office but found an small but utterly devoted audience some time later. The Boondock Saints is one film that definitely fits that description. In fact it had such a vocal fan base raving about how great it was that I had to check it out and see what all the fuss was about. The film sounded like it was right up my street. It was a low budget film by a first time director that was overlooked at the cinema but found its audience on video and DVD. Hell, there's fans out there who have gone to the length of getting the same tattoos that the two brothers have in the film.
The Boondock Saints tells the tale of Connor and Murphy McManus, two working class Irish brothers living in Boston. When a group of Russian mobsters threaten their local pub the brothers are forced to fight back and end up killing the mobsters in self defense. The police decide not to press charges and the brothers end up walking free. However the seed of an idea has been planted in their heads. What if they turned themselves into vigilantes and took a pro-active approach to killing criminals? As the brothers head out killing any mafia guys they can find, FBI Agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) is assigned to find out exactly who is doing committing all these murders. Will the brothers get caught by Smecker or worse get killed by the mafia's top hit man Il Duce (Billy Connolly)?
That's the bare bones of the script but there's a lot more that doesn't come through in the synopsis. Firstly, the film has a lot of post-modern humour that obviously owes a massive amount of debt to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The two brothers are quite enjoyably amateurish in their attempts to take down criminals. More often than not managing to shoot people by blind luck. Secondly, the film also borrows Tarantino's time-hopping editing style so in actual fact we often see the aftermath of the brothers' adventures before witnessing the actual gunfight.
Although The Boondock Saints sounds a little like Death Wish-redux it has a very different feel, for instance the two brothers have no moral qualms about what they are doing at any point. Nor are they motivated by the death or assault of a loved one. Their adventures are cheerfully carefree for the most part. I do get annoyed when film needlessly harm and kill female characters in order to motivate their male protagonists but it somehow felt even more wrong to just let the characters have no motivations whatsoever. It took a very black and white view of the world and I can't help but feel that some of the die-hard fans of this film are the type of people who campaign for the death penalty to be re-introduced.
To be completely honest the film is a bit of mess and it's quite obvious this was Duffy's first film. The directing style is very flat and TV-esque and the writing is all over the place. The film flits back and forth between comedy and drama at a frustrating rate. The lack of motivations of almost all the characters and the eleventh hour reveal of who Il Duce really is feel particularly sloppy. I think another writer really needed to give this a rewrite to bash it into shape. Occasionally the film does spring into life. There are a couple of very stylish and clever sequences in which Dafoe reconstructs what happened from the crime scene. We see the flashback and Dafoe combing the crime scene simultaneously which was a very innovative approach.
I don't know if I could call the acting good but Willem Dafoe is a lot of fun as Smecker and he really elevates the film with his scenery chewing performance. I wouldn't be surprised if Dafoe, knowing Duffy was a first-time director, used his influence to make the character so over the top. Sean Patrick Flanery (Young Indiana Jones) and Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) are okay as the brothers. Their Irish accents are a little wobbly but I've seen far worse (Brad Pitt I'm looking at you!). David Della Rocco, a friend of Duffy's, gets quite a prominent supporting role as the brothers' sometime sidekick. Much like Jason Mewes in Kevin Smith's film, he's got a raw energy that makes him quite a good actor. Billy Connolly is the one actor that really took me out of the film. Living in the UK I've seen so much of his stand-up shows it's hard to take him seriously as an enigmatic hitman.
Overall, the film is a massive mess of ideas with a very weak storyline that culminates in a silly and very rushed ending. It's hard to call it a complete failure though because in between all the dross there are some stylish flashes and interesting ideas. This is your classic case of a good idea happening to the wrong Writer/Director.
Overnight (2003)
I've got to admit I actually watched Overnight before seeing the original Saints movie. It was on TV late one night and I love watching these kind of warts 'n' all documentaries about the process of film-making. The type of Behind the Scenes documentaries they slap on DVDs are so fake and self-congratulatory that I can't even watch them anymore. “Oh, so and so was so great to work” - please, we all know work is difficult, give me some honesty.
Overnight essentially tells the story of how The Boondock Saints got made from the point of view of two friends of the director Troy Duffy. I'm guessing originally they just wanted to capture his fairytale rags to riches story but what they ended up with (at least the way the film presents it) is a character study of a man whose ego expanded to the point that it almost completely wrecked his life.
In a nutshell, Troy Duffy was a bartender with no screenwriting experience who wrote a script about two vigilante brothers in Boston called The Boondock Saints. The script got bought by Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, for a hefty sum. Weinstein promised Duffy could also direct the film, and have his band do the soundtrack. To seal the deal he even offered to buy Duffy the bar where he worked. So Duffy began living the high life with his friends and family while his film went into pre-production. However before long Duffy started believing his own hype and burnt bridge after bridge with his arrogant, confrontational demeanour. Several years later the film finally got made on a much reduced budget and his band split up.
I've got to point out first that the film is undoubtably bias against Duffy. It was directed by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith, two of Duffy's friends that he turned on halfway through the filming of the documentary. So they obviously had no interest in portraying him in a good light. That said, it's difficult to see how else they would have edited this. You can't argue that is several sequences Duffy comes across as completely conceited and shows no humility whatsoever. As guilty as it is to admit, it's fun seeing him drop down a peg or two. 
Overnight also gives an interesting view of how a low budget movie actually gets made. We see Duffy start off by having meetings with actors like Patrick Swayze, Ewan MacGregor and Mark Wahlberg (sadly, not on camera) before having to lower his expectations. We see him set up his office and take conference calls with Harvey Weinstein. We see him going to Cannes to try and shop the picture around. This is the stuff we rarely hear about in Hollywood.
It's a sad tale but an important one. The Saints film ended up flopping at the cinema, Duffy's band sold 600 copies of their album and split up and Duffy ended up utterly defeated. But still he never admitted he did anything wrong. As good as the film is I kind of felt like Montana and Smith were a bit too close to the subject to tell the full story. By the end of the film they have less and less footage of Duffy and rely a lot of other people's soundbites and snippets of information. Despite its bias it's still a highly recommended documentary.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009)
The Boondock Saints II was released a full ten years after the original film and in the meantime the first film had grown quite a loyal cult following. The sequel was produced by Stage 6, a subsidiary of Sony that specialises in direct to DVD films which budgets of around $10 million. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from The Boondock Saints II. Having watched Overnight I was surprised that anyone would even think of hiring Troy Duffy a second time but they did.
Since the events of the first film the McManus brothers have been hiding in Ireland with their father. When a priest is murdered back in Boston using the brothers “coins-on-the-eyes” signature they decide to head back and start their two-man war again. This time they pick up an assistant in the shape of motor-mouth Mexican Romeo (Clifton Collins Jr). Once again an eccentric FBI Agent, Eunice Bloom (Julie Benz), follows their trail of destruction trying to catch them and we're also treated to some Godfather II-style flashbacks that explain the story of Il Duce.
The film sounds a little like redundant semi-remake of the original but there's a fair bit of new material and it does feel like the next chapter of a story. The directing is far more assured in this film. Duffy mixes the humour and drama far better than the original ever did and the story actually flows like a traditional movie. I will say that the set pieces are a little less memorable than the first but that's to be expected. Duffy clearly has much more of a handle on what the film should be. Rather than ape Tarantino again, he ramps up the silliness factor turning it into a much more satisfying wish-fulfilment sequel.
The acting is a bit of mixed bag again. Julie Benz attempts to play another eccentric FBI Agent but can't compete with Dafoe's wonderfully batty performance in the original. She gives it her best shot though. Flanery and Reedus again are only okay as the brothers. One new addition is Clifton Collins Jr who plays Romeo, a sort of replacement character for David Della Rocco. Usually these hyperactive supporting characters (Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 3) are quite annoying but Collins succeeds in keeping him on the right side of quirky.
There's a fair bit of fan service to fans of the original. Some of this is good, David Della Rocco for instance gets a fun little cameo. Others seem a bit unnecessary. For instance did we really need to know the backstory of Billy Connolly's character and how he made his trademark jacket? For a direct to DVD sequel Duffy also chooses some famous faces to fill the minor roles. Former Breakfast Clubber Judd Nelson is a welcome addition as a crime boss and does a good job while Peter Fonda just looks mostly bored.
Again, the action is stylishly shot. The film really benefits from the new cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak who worked on George Romero's Land of the Dead. He gives the film a much slicker, glossy look that works well in giving the film more of a larger than life comic-book feel. Whereas the original felt like a mess in terms of story and directing this film feels fairly assured.
In fact, Duffy nearly redeems the original and his reputation with this film. He's still the same old arrogant figure but he's now got enough to suggest that his future films might be worth checking out. This series is an odd case where I don't really like the original but think that the sequel's not half bad.
Anyway, with St Patrick's Day coming up on March 17th, I can think of a better series of Irish themed films (that go well with beer) to recommend. Other than Leprechaun 6: Back 2 tha Hood of course!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Live-action anime month part 4: The Guyver (1991) & Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)

The Guyver (1991)
And so to the final entry of live-action anime month – The Guyver or Mutronics as it was titled in some territories. Usually I completely object to retitling movies but I can kind of see why they did it in this case. Firstly, The Guyver doesn't give you much of a clue as to what the movie is about and secondly, it's too easy to confuse with the similarly titled Richard Dean Anderson TV show McGyver. Mutronics, though, does give you more of a clue because really it's about a bunch of guys who can mutate in to enormous monsters.
But there's a bit more to the plot than that. Here goes! Jack Armstrong plays Sean Barker, an average weedy young guy. When his girlfriend's father, Dr Sewaga, is murdered Sean goes to investigate the crime scene and discovers a mysterious alien device called The Guyver Unit. When activated the unit fuses with his body and allows him to turn into a bio-mechanically suited super hero. However the doctor stole the device from an evil company called the Chronos Corporation and now they've sent several henchmen to retrieve it. But these guys aren't your garden variety henchmen, they're Zoanoids, humans who can mutant into giant monsters. Should Sean run or stay and fight?
The film was co-directed by Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang. At first it might seem quite weird to have two directors but I guess it meant that George, a special effect expert who had worked on films like Re-Animator 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street 4, could focus on the effects shots while Wang, who directed the Mark Dacascos classic Drive, could make sure the martial arts fights were up to scratch.
One thing that I do object to is the fact that the DVD copy I got had Mark Hamill's face on the cover alongside a shot of the Guyver mask suggesting he's the hero. He's not. He plays a supporting character called Max Reed, a CIA agent on the trail of the Zoanoids. Another thing to watch out for is that fact that the only available DVD version is the “Director's Cut” which cuts a lot of the fun gore and cussing, which is a bit of shame. Anyway shouldn't it be plural - “Directors's Cut”?
Despite all the cuts, Screaming Mad George's effects work still shines through when it comes on screen. Sure, it looks a little cheap and fake in places but it really adds to the go-for-broke feel of the film. Whereas a lot of films would concentrate on one or two monsters, The Guyver unleashes a whole gang of them and this is clearly where most of the budget went. In fact George re-creates the famous cockroach death from Nightmare on Elm Street 4 here to lesser effect.
In a lot of ways, the film feels a little conflicted. Too gory for kids and too goofy for adults. On the one hand, the film is reminiscent of the Power Rangers TV show or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a suited hero beating up oversized cartoonish monsters. But on the other hand the film is produced by Brian Yuzna who directed splatter-fests like Society, Re-Animator 2 & 3 and Return of the Living Dead 3. I can't be that surprised that the film flopped at the box office on release, but I hope that the kids who did manage to trick their parents into taking them got a kick out seeing it.
The acting is pretty cheesy but it doesn't really spoil the film. Jack Armstrong is pretty lacklustre as the lead but the supporting cast goes a long way to helping out. Former Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill does a good job as the gruff CIA agent, it's just a shame his subplot melts away, quite literally. Michael Berryman also makes a great villain as Lisker and the Re-Animator himself Jeffrey Combs also pops up towards the end – humorously named Dr East. 
The film really doesn't take itself very seriously which no doubt enraged fans of the anime. Scene transitions are done with a cheesy fanfare and lightning bolt. And one pretty oddball moment comes midway through the film when, in a bit of meta-ness, one of the monsters accidentally stumbles into a horror movie set and the film crew treat him like he's their own costumed creature.
Overall, The Guyver isn't too bad an attempt to make a live-action anime. It's maybe skewed a little too much toward a kiddy audience and I wouldn't be surprised if that was a studio mandate. Still it's well worth watching for the costumes and fights just expect it all to be covered in a thick layer of cheese.
Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)
So it seems even though the first film flopped it did enough rental business to justify a direct to video sequel. Returning to the directing chair is Steve Wang but this time Screaming Mad George bows out. I can kind of see why, the film is much more skewed towards fights and I guess the budget just couldn't stretch to two directors.
Guyver: Dark Hero picks up the story of Sean Barker some time after the original film. He's ditched his girlfriend and is a full-on vigilante super hero taking down criminals in abandoned warehouses. When a group of archaeologists uncover a hidden cave full of mystical symbols Barker goes to investigate, believing that the markings explain what the Guyver unit really is. When he gets there, he teams up with a female archaeologist. But before long the Chronos Corporation sends out another group of muscle bound mutants to kill Sean and take back the Guyver unit.
Goodbye goofiness, hello violence” – is probably the best way of summarising this sequel. No more cheesy transitions or self-aware humour. The violence is really brutal, monsters get decapitated, hands gets snapped off and the fight scenes go on and on. You've got to hand it to the performers in these bulky suits, the fact that they can still pull off high energy martial arts is amazing.
The budget on Dark Hero is very, very low budget – according to the director it was about $900,000 – which is very noticeable when placed alongside the original, which had around $10 million. Still Wang does a good job for the budget. The picture is very washed out but the care involved in the fight choreography is still very visible. They've clearly saved a lot of money by having a lot of the film set in caves or forest areas too.
Instead of Jack Armstrong we get David Hayter as Sean Barker/The Guyver. Hayter is famously the voice of Solid Snake in the popular Metal Gear series and is also credited as co-writing the script for Zack Snyder's Watchmen. He does a good job as Barker and is far more like your classical action movie hero. Sadly, we don't get much of a decent supporting cast like the original film had. It really needed someone like Michael Berryman to make the bad guys more memorable.
Interestingly, despite the change in tone the film does make a few references to the previous entry. It's surprising because most of the time with these sort of DTV sequels, particularly when they change actors, they tend to treat themselves as stand alone entries. I think someone diving straight into this film will be a bit confused with all the backstory but someone who's watched the anime will easily be able to keep up. 
One negative point about the film is that the version I watched had a patience-testing running time of 115 minutes when really it needed to be more like 90. I mean after the opening warehouse scenes it's exclusively set in or around the archaeological dig site, and it's not like there's a massively complex plot.
Overall Guyver: Dark Hero is still a pretty good film though. It's hard to pick which is better, the original had a very glossy feel whereas this is very rough around the edges. But then this has more of the crazy violence levels I wanted from the original. One thing that really knocked off points is that most of the action in Dark Hero is shot during daylight which gives the film little style and makes the costumes look even more campy and unthreatening than they should.
In the end, none of the films I've reviewed can really be called a successful anime adaptation. Too often it seems that American studios have bought popular Japanese properties then neutered their violence levels and failed to give them enough budget to successfully translate the property from animation to live-action. Of all the films, The Guyver movies probably come closest so check these out first.
So that's it for live-action anime month. It's been a lot of fun but I've really only just started scratching the surface with this particularly sub-genre, so maybe I'll do some more in the future.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Live-action anime month part 3: Crying Freeman (1995)

I've always felt that Mark Dacascos should have had a slightly better career than he got. With the noted exceptions of Drive (not the Ryan Gosling movie) and Brotherhood of the Wolf, I can't help but feel he's mostly been wasted. Well, maybe wasted too strong a word, underused perhaps. The guy's is pushing 50 now and has scaled back his DTV career to make more time for less action orientated stuff like presenting Iron Chef. Much like Gary Daniels in Fist of the North Star, Dacascos was still a rising star when he was picked to play the lead in Crying Freeman and, sadly, like Daniels it failed to kick him up into the big leagues.
The film sees Dacascos play Yo, a master assassin for a Chinese Triad gang called the Sons of the Dragon. He is called the “Crying Freeman” because whenever he kills a person he sheds a tear. You see Yo is actually a simple potter who was kidnapped and hypnotised into being an assassin. When a young artist Emu (Julie Condra) witnesses one of Yo's assassinations the Sons of the Dragon order he track her down and kill her. But Yo manages to break his spell and the two are forced to go on the run together.
Crying Freeman is a manga that I really got into after watching this film (there's also a pretty sweet six part anime too). It's a much easier adaptation than City Hunter given that it's a serious film and isn't trying to carry over some goofy region-specific humour. Like Fist of the North Star some Americanization has been done to accommodate more roles for Western actors. Most significantly the story has been relocated from Japan to San Francisco for the first half of the film. But again I'm okay with that, it doesn't affect the story too much.
In fact, speaking of the story, the film is a pretty respectful to the original manga with the story close adapting “Portrait of a Killer” the first volume of the manga (bar a couple of character deaths). In some cases, whole sequences have been translated to screen in close detail which is quite surprising considering a lot of other comic book adaptations of the period only had loose connections to their source material. Dacascos is perfectly cast as Yo, essentially you need some who looks innocent when standing still but who looks deadly when fighting and he definitely fits the bill. Apparently the original choice was Jason Scott Lee, who I don't think would have worked as well, he's just a bit too bulky for the role.
The rest of the cast is pretty good as well. You can't really go wrong with Tcheky Karyo as a villain. From Goldeneye to Kiss of the Dragon to Dobermann the man has proven himself as one of the great genre villain. There's something about his slicked back hair, his permanent sneer and gravelly French accent that make him eminently hiss-able. Bizarrely, for this film he seems to be mostly re-dubbed by another actor which sucks a little bit. Bryon Mann also gets a nice little role as Yo's fellow hitman Koh. Mann's another actor who I enjoy seeing when he pops up in DTV fare like Sniper 3 and Belly of the Beast. He's not really leading material but makes a great charismatic supporting actor.
The fight scenes are very stylishly shot. But it's not really until the end of the film that they let loose and really capture the over-the-top madness of the original manga. Director Christophe Gans captures everything in crisp slow motion, really selling the arty-ness of the violence. Drive (again, not the Ryan Gosling one) may have had better choreography but Gans has a slicker eye, making each fight seem like a ballet.
Now all this praise is making Crying Freeman sound like a great film and it is... almost. Unfortunately it's got quite a sluggish pace. Not just in the story pacing but in the scene edits too. This was Gans first feature length film and really shows at times. He's clearly aiming to make something artistic and memorable and not just your run of the mill hitman on the run movie. I applaud that but he really needed to speed up some of the scenes. Also he tends to over-use the slow motion a little too much. Sometimes good slow motion can really give a fight scene an epic feel but when it's overused it makes fights really boring to watch. The final fight scene is worth watching the film to get to but I think it could have played out better with a little less slow mo.
One film I saw recently that makes a very interesting parallel with Crying Freeman is Drive (now I'm talking about the Ryan Gosling flick). Both were about emotionally blank hitmen having to go on the run from their former employers to protect the women they love. Drive worked better because you really got a sense of Carey Mulligan falling for Gosling without the need for words. In Crying Freeman, when Julie Condra falls for Dacascos it happens so suddenly you're sort of left scratching your head as to why she fell in love with him. Considering they married soon after it's a shame that Condra and Dacascos feel so unconvincing as lovers!
All in all, Crying Freeman is a nice little arty action flick that could have done with ten minutes shaved off. Like Fist of the North Star it could have also had a little more budget and tried to match the extreme violence of the manga a little better to make it truly memorable. As an adaptation it's a pretty good representation of the manga and Gans and Dacascos went on to do the superior Brotherhood of the Wolf a few years later.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Live-action anime month part 2: City Hunter (1993)

I've got to be completely honest I've never really watched or read much City Hunter anime or manga so unlike the previous review I'm coming to this film almost completely fresh. City Hunter was made in 1993 around the same time as Jackie's Supercop (aka Police Story 3) and though it's nowhere near as good as that flick there's still a lot to recommend about it. Famously, Jackie had a very public falling out with the director, Jing Wong, which led Jing to do a mean-spirited parody of Chan in Meltdown, a Jet Li movie, two years later.
The film sees Jackie Chan play Ryo Saeba (aka the City Hunter) who runs a private detective agency with Kaori, the daughter of his former partner. At the beginning of the film Ryo is hired to track down the wayward daughter of wealthy businessman. Ryo and Kaori find her about to get on a cruise liner and board it just as it is about to leave. However, though they find the daughter quickly they also discover that Colonel MacDonald (Richard Norton) and his band of mercenaries have also stuck on board and plan to take all the passengers hostage. It's up to Jackie to once again save the day.
Having watched almost all of Jackie Chan's back catalogue this isn't quite at the bottom but it's nowhere near the top either. Though there's very little stunt work there are some highly memorable fight scenes to recommend, particularly one that takes place inside a cinema that's playing Bruce Lee's fight against Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game of Death up on the big screen. In a clever bit of meta-commentary Jackie Chan is also fighting two enormous black guys and uses Lee's techniques from the film to win his fight.
Another bit that the film is famous for is a surreal five minute section in which Ryo is thrown into a Street Fighter II arcade machine which somehow magically turns him into various characters from the game from E Honda to Guile to even Chun Li. And there in lies the problem with the film, it tries desperately to translate the goofy antics of the manga comic book into live action but it just doesn't work. The problem with comic books, particularly Japanese manga, is that it's a completely different visual language to film. The only way this could have worked is if the look was stylised like a comic book a la Sin City.
Essentially the film plays out like 85% Die Hard on a Boat and 15% Goofy physics-defying slapstick. They really needed to pick one or the other. Or at least even up the balance. As it is the film feels at times like you're watching an action film but someone keeps flipping the channel to Cartoon Network. Anyway, when the action does come it's pretty good. B-movie stalwarts Richard Norton and Gary Daniels (again!) put in excellent performances. It's just a shame that Daniels one on one with Chan is mostly him dressed up as Ken from Street Fighter doing wire work. It would have been nice to see the two men go toe to toe in a proper fight.
There's also a very cool character called Kao Ta who appears about halfway into the film with absolutely no fanfare, sporting a giant bow tie and precedes to nearly steal the show from Chan by taking out bad guys left, right and centre using playing cards as shiruken. Though the character is very cool he's also emblematic of the film's schizophrenic storyline and tone.
I'm not entirely sure why Chan chose to play the lead in this film. From some cursory research I know that the character of Ryo doesn't suit his sensibilities. Ryo is too much of your classic horny, violent manga hero (see: Lupin III) which doesn't jibe with Chan's classic well-meaning everyman persona (see: Police Story).
All in all, City Hunter is a pretty unessential Jackie Chan flick but those who have seen most of his other stuff it's not a complete failure. There's a lot of great scenes and characters it's just a shame they are lost in this movie.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Live-action anime month part 1: Fist of the North Star (1995)

I've got to say it took me a while to get into anime and manga as a kid. I always found it quite difficult to find an easy entry point for either medium. Most manga collections were consisted of several hundred books and most anime was extortionately priced. My first exposure to anime was purely accidental, I'd set a video to record a late night movie and mistakenly set the timer for too long. Rewinding the video the next day I came across a dubbed episode of the spectacularly violent 80s anime Fist of the North Star and it hooked me in.
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.