Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Memoriam: Ken Takakura

Photo Credit:

We're saddened to report that the great Ken Takakura, a legend in Japanese cinema and later on across the globe, has passed away. He was 83. Takakura actually made his transition on November 10th, but news was not released until after a private service was held.

The Yakuza, 1974 Ken Takakura was born Goichi Oda in the city of Fukuoka, Japan on February 16th, 1931. After graduating from Meiji University in 1955, he had gone to Toei Studios to look about a job in their offices. On a whim, he decided to audition while visiting a set. He caught on with audiences, with roles that placed him as the stoic and honest outsider who fought on behalf of the oppressed. This would see him sometimes appear in no less than 5 films a year. As time went on, he became a co-star in films with the iconic singer and actress Misora Hibari as well as a defining actor of the ninkyo eiga genre. Ninkyo translates to, 'chivalrous'. In these kinds of roles, the main character portrays a sense of deep honor in fighting against the powerful. Even at the expense of his chastity and his life. The hallmark of these pictures can be seen in their posters with Takakura often showing his tattooed back, his kimono ripped away due to a fierce battle. And he'd usually be shielding a woman he was honor bound to protect as well, whether he was romantically involved with or not. This was a new display of masculinity that appealed to all in these sword epics. Takakura would find super-stardom in one particular movie: Abashiri Prison, released in 1965.

Walls of Abashiri Prison, 1965

This movie's success spawned more sequels and firmly secured Takakura's place as one the nation's greats. As the ninkyo eiga genre got less popular, he wound up being in more yakuza films as well as other dramas. This saw him wind up being a main attraction in the Hollywood film The Yakuza starring Robert Mitchum. Takakura also starred in The Bullet Train with Sonny Chiba which would inspire the Keanu Reeves hit film Speed as well as become the first actor to play the iconic manga anti-hero Golgo 13. And when he was dubbed 'the Japanese Clint Eastwood' it was only right that ONE film wound up capitalizing on it, Drifting Avenger. The 1968 film stands out for Takakura being the son of a former samurai settling with his family in the West and taking on bandit gunmen. It also is notable for being the 1st Japanese film shot in Australia.

Drifting Avenger, 1968

Takakura would continue to have a storied career, even being in Antarctica, Japan's highest-ever grossing motion picture in 1983 and then Hollywood came calling once more. for his skills. He'd become a presence in the Ridley Scott directed hit Black Rain in 1989 starring Michael Douglas, and he got to take on a rare comedic role as Tom Selleck's manager in Mr. Baseball. Takakura would act sporadically from the mid 1990's onward, and was apparently preparing for another role while in the hospital. For his work, he recieved the Order of Culture, Japan's greatest arts honor. Many of Takakura's films are now available to the public via DVD. I strongly suggest you carve out a little time and snag one or two to watch. Thank you, Mr. Takakura.

Trailer for Red Peony Gambler

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Blind Fury (1989)

Hai! Karate fans, what's good?! We're back with another action-packed review for you. This go-round, we're checking out another underground classic from that bygone era where wave pants, New Coke and MC Hammer reigned supreme. That's right, the late 1980's! 1989 to be exact. On tap is 'Blind Fury', starring acting legend Rutger Hauer! Also filling out the cast is Terry O'Quinn (of later "LOST" television fame), Brandon Call, Randall "Tex" Cobb, Noble Willingham and Nick Cassavetes. Yup, real '80's vibe here. And in the director's chair is acclaimed Australian director Philip Noyce. So let's get to the gettin'...

Blind Fury starts out in the midst of a battle scene unfolding in the Vietnamese jungle. We see a helicopter crash, and a man crawling out with extensive damage to his face and eyes, obviously blinded. He is then rescued and taken to a village. This is Nick Parker(Hauer), and as he recovers, the villagers look at him with a mix of humor and curiosity to the point where one of them begins to teach him the art of swordfighting. Blind swordfighting. With a sword that looks like a full-fledged Japanese katana. Yeah. We then get a jump forward to see Nick walking along the highway somewhere in the Everglades, pausing only to avoid an alligator and then entering a roadhouse bistro where he lays down a whippin' on some thugs. Effortlessly at that with a slapstick edge.

We then get transported to Reno, Nevada and the sight of Frank Devereaux(O'Quinn)getting an upside-down view of the Reno nightlife thanks to Boss MacCready(Willingham) and his goons led by the Pike Brothers, Lyle(Cassavetes) and Tector(Rick OVerton) and the main man, Slag(Cobb). Devereaux is a degenerate gambler at this time, but he's also a chemist by trade. MacCready sets him up so that he's in over his head in debt. Which then puts him in position to pay it off one way: making high quality designer drugs. There's another bit of incentive: if Frank doesn't do it, his son Billy(McCall) and former wife will be killed. Where do they live? Florida. And so Nick, on a mission to look up his old war buddy, drops in on Billy and his mom. Riiiiiiight before the thugs come by.

Nick fights them off but it's too late to save Billy's mom. He then sets off to Reno with Billy in tow, who is NOT having any of it. During the trip, they bond and Nick has to use his uncanny skills to protect him. They get to Reno and find out where Frank is being held. It's up to Nick to take on MacCready and the whole lot to save Frank and Billy.

Blind Fury is an intriguing film to say the least. It's a great testament to how the '80's were dominated by action films like these with a solitary hero who comes to the rescue of others and/or fights for justice. Blind Fury stands out because of the way it blends humor into the entire story. I mean, when you have an exchange like THIS, c'mon: MacCready: "Dammit Ed, take care of him! Get me Bruce Lee!" Ed: "But...Bruce Lee's dead." MacCready: "Then get his brother!!!" Comedic elements aside, this was another move by Hollywood to cash in on either the interpretation or integration of classics from Asian cinema as influences. For Blind Fury, this influence came from the Japanese blind masseuse/wandering swordsman Zatoichi, who spawned a multitude of movies and a few television series. Specifically, Zatoichi Challenged, the 17th film in the series that starred Shintaro Katsu. This was thanks to an actor who wanted to get into producing films & had some clout to do so. That actor's name? Tim Matheson, best known for his starring role in the beloved Animal House. It wasn't easy; word has it that it took 7 years, going through 3 film studios and ELEVEN drafts of the script before Tri-Star gave it the green light. And Philip Noyce wasn't the first choice as the director, but he wound up giving this a great look and pace.

Rutger Hauer as Nick Parker is a GREAT role. Hauer has made a storied career out of being the cold, charismatic villain. You can tell he got a kick out of the part. He adds a wholesome effect, and a bit of goofiness in some places. Hauer has spoken about doing this role in the past, calling it one of his most difficult. And in an interesting bit of info, he learned how to be a blind fighter through training heavily for a month with Lynn Manning. Manning is an accomplished Black poet, playwright and world chapmion martial artist who lost his sight after being shot in the face during a bar brawl in his native Los Angeles when he was 23. His first words on meeting Hauer were, "I don't get confused about what I see.." The training paid off in Hauer's fight scenes. While they don't get too wild save for his showdown with the great Sho Kosugi as 'The Assassin'(like, really? he didn't rate a name?), they keep you riveted sure enough. The other actors keep true to character stock, especially Randall 'Tex' Cobb who by now had cemented his stature as a resident heavy in Hollywood action flicks. Blind Fury is one of those films that whenever you happen to catch it on air(much like I did waaayyyyy back in '91 on cable)you can't help but watch it. Grab a drink, some pizza and dig into this cult gem real quick. It's available on DVD and online.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Fist of Unicorn (Qi Lin Zhang, 1973)

Hello Hai! Karate fans! We give you the good, the bad and the ugly here and next up for your viewing experience is a film that might fall into a wasteland between the two categories. Why? Well that will be detailed in full as we take a look at Fist Of Unicorn!! This flick stars Siu Kei-Lung, who was commonly referred to as Unicorn Chan or Little Unicorn. You'll recognize him right off the bat from his role as the skeptical Jimmy from Bruce Lee's Return Of The Dragon. This film does have an appearance by Bruce, who was also the action director.(More on that later. Trust.)The film also boasts a rather noticeable ensemble of actors, mainly Yasuaki Kurata, Whang In Sik, Kitty Meng Chui, Tang Ti as well as a couple of interesting cameos. So, let's examine this kung-fu exploitation rarity...

Fist Of Unicorn starts out with Cripple Wu (Tang Ti) and another two villains basically keen to split some loot. Cripple Wu winds up killing off his boys thanks to his special cane chock full of blades. He then stumbles upon a family by the river who overheard his foul actions. He kills the father without any delay, and winds up trying to rape the mother. When she resists, he stabs her to death. The boy tries to fight, even when getting a slash on his hand. What does he get for his troubles? KICKED BODILY INTO THE RIVER.(Side note: I laughed uncontrollably at that. I realize it's foul but when you see it...yeah.) We then jump forward to see Lung(Unicorn) all grown up getting some sort of tattoo on his palm that's not exactly henna from a priest along with some Buddhist teachings. He then goes for his 'final lesson' from his martial arts teacher. And here is where it gets weird.

We wind up finding out that his unnamed 'teacher' who demonstrates the 'Heaven and Earth' fist technique is in fact, Bruce Lee. Or rather, a STAND IN. This is where the film just crashes and burns worse than Evel Knievel ever did. How? Well you never see his teacher's FACE. At this point in the film, at least the international print, we get an odd montage of jump cuts and a flash of Bruce Lee's face in the midst of it as 'the sell'. Then we go to MORE CREDITS that include an artistic effect meant to show the power of the 'Unicorn Palm' but just looks like the throbbing you get after a headache or someone slammed a car door on his hand. We then get into another series of outtakes that show Bruce more prominently behind the scenes. Can you say "WTF?!!"

We find Lung roaming the countryside, sleeping under bridges and such. He befriends Siu Fu (Meng Hoi)who gets his mom to hire him for their shop. As a bonus, he gets Lung to teach him some kung fu. At this moment, we find ourselves introduced to the Wong family. They are the local baddies for this picture. Ah Lung winds up crossing them, particularly Stuttering Wong(Gam Dai). This is no good, especially for business the Wongs have with the Japanese villains San Tin(Wei Pin-Ao) and Sun(Kurata). Ah Lung winds up teaming with an acrobat(Kitty Meng Chui) And of course, Cripple Wu lurks somewhere in the offing. Ah Lung has sworn to maintain his temper and not fight, but now he's pressed into having to protect the ones he cares for.

Let's face facts - this movie is probably one of the worst examples of exploitation you can find in the genre. The acting is barely okay at best, with a run-of-the-mill plot. Unicorn by this time was a veteran actor in Hong Kong, having started around the same time as Bruce Lee did. This was the source of their strong friendship, even as Lee went to the States. Outside of this role, he had some parts in Shaw Studios films and indie pictures. No doubt he was able to call in some favors, Lee being the absolute biggest as he was fresh off the success of The Big Boss. Other actors here of note are the always sniveling Wei Pin-Ao with a fascist moustache, Gam Dei who it seems mostly was the comic relief and the taekwondo 'leg fighter' extraordinaire Whang In Sik himself as a thug. Two other roles should stand out here: Ji Han Jae makes an appearance. He's best known for his role in Hapkido starring Angela Mao, which we covered here. Jackie Chan is here as well, in an extra role. You'll have to be quick to spot him. Outside of that though, the film is blah. You get a lot of stop-start action in the fight scenes. It's almost as if they had a set budget(not surprising since it was one of only three films by the Star Sea Production Company) and they weren't trying to surpass it. Exhibit A? Tang Ti not only directed but he wrote the cornball script. Exhibit B? The fake blood doesn't even look like blood, it looked like some old gravy. And Exhibit C? MORE GODAWFUL GRAPHICS. To that end, the graphics making up the 'Unicorn Palm'. Observe below:

Yeah. That's the extent of it. Now of course, this brings us back to the selling point of the film, Bruce Lee. His appearances, which last no more than a minute combined. The word is, the producers made the move to secretly film Bruce as he was helping to craft the fight choreography. Who was one of the producers? Unicorn Chan. Yep, he wasn't above using his buddy's stature to help sell films. Which is why when it went overseas, the film was entitled 'Bruce Lee and I'.(Not to be confused with Shaw's own version in 1976.)When Bruce got wise to what happened, word was he was outraged. Unicorn, to be honest, was trying his damnedest to be a bigger name. Never happened, as he would wind up in supporting roles until his untimely demise in a car accident in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1987. So what's the overall verdict on Fist Of Unicorn? If you are a person curious about such bad projects like these or that rabid of a fan, understand you can only really get through this once and Be GOOD. It's available on DVD, most likely in a discount bin near you.