A blog about movies and filmmaking.

It’s a rainy and quiet day, so lets fight…

In action, b-movie, classics, cult film on August 28, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Gearing up for the weekend – one after an actually busy couple of weeks – where I usually feel no different, relief or pressure-wise because of my life as a freelancer (ooh, mysterious, personal information), led to my voyaging into the real of fight-cinema. This inspired the idea of writing about the upcoming movie GAMER, with Gerard Butler, and similar movies where someone is forced to compete in life and death competitions (like, THE RUNNING MAN and another interesting upcoming movie called THE TOURNAMENT – look it up, it looks fun). But, then in researching one movie that I thought might fit, I saw that it kind of went in another direction.

But, overall, the movies I watched all – with one main exception – has at least one scene of multiple people fighting, dying and even being maimed.

First, I want to go into my sort of mini-marathon within the larger microcosm of my subject-matter. And that’s the recent emergence of Thai-movie, fighting movies. The largest figure – and appearing in all three movies in one form or another – is Tony Jaa and his frequent collaborator/director is Prachya Pinkaew.

Interestingly, the movie I watched first was called CHOCOLATE – which only features Jaa in footage from his other movies, and is used as a visual reference and is mimicked in the movie by it’s female lead, Jeeja Yanin (no other movie credits, I could find), who is an autistic girl that uses her sharp senses to replicate fighting moves she sees. Whether it’s Jaa’s movies, or the Muay Thai fighters who are training right outside her window.

The movie starts with a sort of Mexican stand-off, where we meet Zin – a female Thai-enforcer for a local gangleader; and the man she falls in love with, Masashi, sort of her opposite in the Yakuza. We learn that Zin is an adept fighter and that Masashi was obsessed with figuring things out…Hence it makes sense that their offspring would be able to easily interpret how to fight and develop a sense of impending danger. As Zen gets older, her mother becomes sick and requires treatment, which leads to Zen and her friend Moom finding a ledger of all the people that Zin used to collect money from. You can see where this is going to go.

CHOCOLATE is interesting, as my first foray into Thai-martial arts movies, because of the formula that all of the movies I watched after – but were made before – seem to follow. There’s a lot of slapstick-like comedy, with some serious moments. Some great action scenes, which are touted as not using CG or wire-work stunts (and over the end credits, we get to see why this is not always the wisest, or safest thing) and then the last part of the movies become very dark and serious. I don’t know much about Thailand’s culture, but I found that an interesting thing. Also, the movie’s grandest set-piece, is a climatic fight that takes place on the side of the building, moving up and down four stories and across a gap to the overpass that a train passes over. It’s stunning and smooth in it’s camera movement and proves pretty fatal to a number of the bad guys. And the only reasons I could see for the movie being called CHOCOLATE, is 1. Zen likes to eat chocolates which are more like M&M’s; and 2. there’s a grand fight scene in a chocolate factory.

Next was the movie that actually brought Tony Jaa to notice in the United States (at least to the martial-arts genre’s fans, and those who weren’t paying attention when he was standing in and doing the stunts for Christopher Lambert in the MORTAL KOMBAT movie *rumored*, and other characters in the sequel *actually credited, so not a rumor*.), ONG BAK. Which is the story of a small village, who has the head of it’s Buddha stolen (the Buddha is Ong Bak, not Jaa’s character as I for whatever reason thought), and a lone villager that goes to seek it in Bangkok. Ting, played by Jaa, is shown at the very beginning of the movie to be the villages best student in the monastery/Muay Thai school, and we’re obviously given the scene where he promises not to use his deadly skills – as well as the reason why his teacher became a monk to begin with; which all leads to the end of the movie.

When he gets to the big city, he searches out a villager who has moved away a while ago, and uses this man as his guide (and comic relief) in his quest. This man, by the way – who has more names than anyone else – is called George, Hum Lae and is played pretty hilariously and in a few moments, very emotionally, by Petchtai Wongkamlao.

(Who, I have to make the detour here and mention the third movie, wrote, directed and starred in THE BODYGUARD (and it’s sequels), and only features Jaa in one scene in a grocery store – and really kind of ticked me off that he’s headlined as a starring role.)

Anyway, back to ONG BAK. There is another fantastic action scene in this movie – that actually is minimal fighting and just a lot of running and driving in three-wheeled taxis. They seem to go through all of Bangkok, drop the taxis off roads into the sides of hotels, flip dozens of them and send them sliding and even explodes about six of them – with the drivers still inside. Then there are the actual fights, which are mostly all in a bar, where gambling is done over two fighters in the middle. Obviously a misunderstanding is made, where Ting winds up in the fighting circle and in like two seconds beats his opponent. There are a number of these fights, each seemingly with a larger, Westerner, that puts Ting through the paces before being dispatched.

The only downside to Jaa’s prowess and the way the movie presents these fights, are in the speed ramping (making things move faster), which just makes the action look silly in certain moments. The slow-motion and the cross-cuts, showing the action from different angles and what-not, aren’t really bothersome, as much as just not wholly original.

And then just to step back into THE BODYGUARD for a moment. This movie is almost all comedy. From it’s lead character of Wong Kom, Wongkamlao, to the group of gangsters that feature a man that never quite seems to understand what “dressing appropriately” means, a man with Down Syndrome – who after tripping himself and falling down a flight of stairs, turns into a super-martial artist; a wire-fu fighter that is beaten by Wong Kom’s traditional Thai dance moves and a lot of references to this just being a movie. There were a number of pretty funny bits, but I was disappointed, A. the Jaa was highly billed and only shows up for a moment, and B. as the movie points out, at the end, it’s pretty indecipherable on what exactly was going on. I guess it was meant to perhaps be in the vein of Monty Python/Mr. Bean/Cartoon Network fun, but being promoted in the same league as the previous movies really set me up for disappointment.

Couldn’t find a trailer, so here’s all of Jaa’s involvement in the movie:

Whew…

Now, the classics. First up is the quintessential martial arts movie, not only known for it’s great action set pieces (hundreds of men fighting all at once, a man with claws and knives for a hand, and of course, the room of mirrors.), but also for the tragic death of its star and an icon of action movies; ENTER THE DRAGON. The downside to watching this movie – and quite a few classic movies – on Netflix Watch Instantly, is that they only provide the movie in Full Screen versions, which is really just irksome. But, from the very beginning of the movie, with the flipping Sammo Hung facing off against Bruce Lee, to the classic line, “never take your eyes off your enemy! Even when bowing”, this movie screams “awesome”. We’re quickly introduced to our three main characters, besides Lee – playing a character named, Lee – there’s John Saxon, as Roper. A man who owes people a lot of money, and enjoys his high-life. So, he sees this martial arts competition as a good business deal. Jim Kelly as Williams, a black man who just seems like he has something to prove, and has a fondness for the ladies. Then there’s Han, played by Kien Shih, the man with the hand and the host of the competition, on his private island, with his private army.

Lee is sent to the island with two goals; one is to spy for the British military to see what Han actually has going on, on the island. Weapons, drugs, human trafficking; whatever. Secondly, it’s to get vengeance for a woman, who was murdered – or lead to suicide, rather than be murdered, I guess – by Oharra, played by Robert Wall.

The interesting thing about most of the stars in this movie – Shih, being the exception – is that they were all taught martial arts by Bruce Lee, and none of them are half as impressive to watch as he is. Which, kind of makes the competition a little one sided. Gladly, there’s not much more than just a few fights and then we get the climax. The entire place erupts with men fighting, and Lee and Han facing off.

And finally, and I have to save “the best” for last, is a little movie from the 1980’s, that included all of the horrible, horrible motifs of that period. Big, crazy rainbow colored hair. Nonsensical pop songs. One named performers like Vanity and Taimak. And the Shogun of Harlem, Sho’nuff.

THE LAST DRAGON is one of those movies from my own childhood, that rank higher than any of these other movies, because it was probably my introduction to the “coolness” of the 80’s, probably the first time I actually saw Bruce Lee – although, it could have also been in the one scene from DC CAB, where he’s being shown at a drive-in and a couple of characters are talking about him still being alive – and of course, brought the phrase, “who’s the baddest? Sho’nuff” into my vocabulary.

I felt the need – especially when seeing that it too was available for watching instantly (and in widescreen! WTF!!) – to rewatch it. And beyond all the cheesy outfits, hairstyles and acting, Julius J. Carry’s performance as Sho’nuff is still frightening. But, it’s the movie from the moment that Bruce Leroy’s (Taimak’s character’s nickname) little brother break dances his way out of being tied up, that this movie turns into total awesome! From the introduction of SIDEKICKS star, Ernie Reyes, Jr., to the over the top villainy of Christopher Murney’s Eddie Arkadian (who I can’t help but wonder if he inspired the X-Men villain, Arcade (who I looked up and appeared about ten years before…but, in one of his retoolings, I can’t help but think there’s a little Eddie Arkadian in there.) And finally, the final fight between Leroy and Sho’nuff, that features them going all glowy and sparkly – not in that silly TWILIGHT way, either. And then, Leroy catching a bullet in his mouth, that Eddie shoots at him.

Which brings up an interesting series of questions; 1. It’s mentioned at the beginning of the movie that Leroy has seemingly done this before, and 2. Who aims for someone’s mouth, enabling them; if so skilled, to catch said bullet? I mean, if you’re aiming for the chest or heart, that doesn’t really give someone time to duck down and try to nip the bullet with their teeth.

Anyway, it’s not often I venture into the realm of martial arts movies. Especially in today’s environment, where anyone can spend six months preparing, get harnessed into a wire and become an instant kung fu master. Or, in the realms of a lot of Jackie Chan, Jason Statham movies where there’s meant to be more humor in the action that it’s done with a paper thin story (not that ENTER THE DRAGON is the deepest of plots, but I think Bruce Lee trumps the other guys), and especially where it seems like the same couple of guys are choreographing all the fights, and therefore everyone punches, kicks and blocks in the same way and everything is laid out so pretty. Which, is really where all of the movies I’ve mentioned stand out – except THE BODYGUARD. They all present different looks at presenting fighting. And I can appreciate that.

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