A Great Wall

March 19, 2013

greatwallThe selling point for A Great Wall has been its unusual pedigree: It’s an American independent feature made mostly in China. At the very least, that ought to provoke some curiosity.

But it would be too bad if geography were the only reason for seeing this film. It’s quite lovely in its own, unassuming right.

A Great Wall comes from director Peter Wang and producer Shirley Sun (who also collaborated on the script). The story is simple enough: A Chinese-American family decides they will finally make that long-promised trip back to the homeland, and stay with the relatives in Peking. The collision of cultures that follows forms the basis of the film’s low-key observational humor.

Contradictions abound. Leo (played by Wang himself), the father of the Chinese-American family, finds Peking so Westernized and skycrapered as to be almost unrecognizable as the city of his youth. But behind the steel buildings are customs and habits that he has forgotten about, which are distinctly Chinese.

Thus, Leo will surrender his yuppie jogging routine for a more intense program of silent—well, near-silent—calisthenics, as demonstrated by his brother-in-law. And his incorrigibly All-American son (Kelvin Han Yee) takes some tips on ping pong, in a game that recalls the Nixon-era China-America thaw, during which the simple game of ping pong seemed an important turning point.

Wang’s main concern, about the importance of cultural identity in a world that’s becoming increasingly homogenized, is all the better suggested because he refuses to beat his breast about any of this. The story unfolds in terms that are primarily humorous, but the culture shock he portrays doesn’t descend to the level of cute East-meets-West comparisons. It’s got subtle bite.

And Wang won’t go in for tired characterizations—the Chinese people are not all-knowing and wise, the Americans are not all vulgarians. Wang knows better than that.

It’s a splendidly structured script, and Wang himself is a relaxed and natural performer (as he previously proved in Ah Ying). As a director, he seems reluctant to assert himself, and the film rarely slips into really memorable working motion.

But there is a lot to like. Even if Wang had just achieved this single image, he would have gotten planet: the family playing touch football on the spine of the serpentine Great Wall. That scene is surprising and natural, bold and common, crude and elevated. That’s a heady mix, and difficult to capture.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

IMDb insists this movie is called The Great Wall Is a Great Wall, picking up on the classic Nixon line, even as it notes that A Great Wall is the “original title.” Whatever dude. A fairly nice film that did pretty well in Seattle, as did the aforementioned Ah Ying, directed by Allen Fong. Wang’s last credit dates from 1989.

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Road House

August 24, 2012

Let’s get the official tsk-tsking out of the way: Road House is a violent, tasteless, unbelievable movie that has no redeeming social value whatsoever. With that said, we can talk about how much fun it is.

Road House is shameless, but it’s also irresistible. Patrick Swayze, who hasn’t had a film released to theaters since he struck gold with Dirty Dancing two summers ago, stars as “the best cooler in the business.” Translation: he’s a glorified bouncer who gets hired at bad clubs and bars and turns them around. He weeds out the deadbeats, throws out the drunks, chases the dope dealers.

But this fellow is a bit odd. As he’s fond of pointing out, he has a degree in philosophy. He instructs his burly crew of bouncers to be nice to troublemakers, “until it’s time to not be nice.” And when he’s insulted, he simply comments, “Opinions vary.”

After an opening sequence in which we see his brand of Zen pugilism (he sews up his own wounds), Swayze is hired to manage a rundown roadhouse in a small town outside Kansas City. After he arrives and begins to clean the place up, he comes to realize that the town is run by an evil landowner (Ben Gazzara), who has his hands in everybody’s pockets and his goons on everybody’s backs. Inevitably, Swayze is going to have to teach this guy a lesson and make the town safe.

Does this sound a little bit like a Western? It should, because Road House is unabashedly a Western in modern dress, with plenty of elements of Shane and High Noon. As if we couldn’t tell, Swayze’s new girlfriend, a blond gorgeous doctor, greets him with, “So you’re the new marshal in town.”

Swayze receives a bit of help from his mentor, the now-graying king of the bouncers (Sam Elliott, who has played a few cowboys over the years, in a sly performance). The movie skillfully mixes Swayze’s martial arts, his philosophizing (“Pain doesn’t hurt,” “Nobody wins a fight”), some kissy face, good roadhouse music, as well as at least one fistfight every six minutes. It doesn’t come close to being respectable, but Road House is a brawling good time.

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

I know what you’re thinking: I underrated it. True. Some movies hit the sweet spot where the ridiculous becomes sublime; Road House, you are it.


16 Days of Glory

August 6, 2012

One of the surprises among the Oscar nominations was the absence of 16 Days of Glory in the best documentary feature category.

Even among those who hadn’t seen it, the film sounded like a natural choice; after all, the documentary category is usually filled with moves few people have heard of and fewer have seen. 16 Days, on the other hand, was the official record of the ultra-ballyhooed 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Surely that gave it shoo-in status?

Well, ask Cher and Steven Spielberg about shoo-in status. 16 Days of Glory didn’t make it, and now that the film is going into wide release, it’s more obvious why. Competent, well-photographed, and shrewdly constructed, 16 Days is nevertheless a perfectly ordinary sports documentary, no better or worse than the average Super Bowl highlights film.

The segments, focusing on individual performers, are only as beguiling as the particular subjects. There are some interesting omissions: Carl Lewis, for example, and the fall of Mary Decker.

The opening scenes are rather good—the stadium erupting in a mosaic of flags, created by the cards held by spectators, and the torch passing from Jesse Owens’ granddaughter to gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who slaps the steep stairs in front of him as he hikes the last leg to the top.

The first segment is a twist: Dave Moorcroft, British world-record holder in the 5,000 meters, suffers from a chronic pelvic injury that strikes him on the day of the final heat. He gamefully finishes the race, however, in pain and lagging far behind the leaders.

The next segment is a heart-tugger. The Japanese Judo master Yamashita is injured during a semi-final match, and visibly limps from the bout. He can’t rest, however, because all the matches take place on the same day. So we see him dragging his bad leg behind him and, somehow, keeping opponents away from it, until he achieves a stirring victory.

The triumphs are real, and a tribute to the athletes. Producer-director-writer Bud Greenspan can’t resist the temptation to heighten each contest by emphasizing the odds against the athletes who will win.

It’s the oldest sports cliché in the world, of course, much beloved by columnists and broadcasters, and Greenspan is pretty brazen about exploiting it; athletes are portrayed as too old, too slow, or too unheralded to win, but they come through in the final reel.

Greenspan has been careful (except, perhaps, at the grand finale) not to turn the film into a bloody show of nationalism, which is no small feat considering what was done to the Olympics by politicians (of every stripe) eager to cash in on the flag-waving.

Greenspan makes no attempt to make the film into the kind of visual poetry of, for instance, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of the 1936 games. It’s sheer reportage, with only the occasional stray detail catching the marvelous poetry possible in athletic competition: the reluctance of Rowdy Gaines, expecting the worst, to turn around and look at the results after he has won a gold medal in swimming; the wife of hurdler Edwin Moses doing some hurdling of her own as she jumps onto the track to hug the winner; an unidentified American woman raising her hand to her mouth while on the awards platform, revealing fingernails of wild hue and length.

Two more cavils: not enough women (Joan Benoit and the inevitable Mary Lou Retton are the only women who have segments); and the narration, spoken by Daniel Perry, is exactly the kind of overblown hooey that’s been a sports staple for years. How many times do we need to hear, “The athletes entered the stadium like the gladiators of old,” before it can be retired?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1986

The slights to Cher and Spielberg were for Mask and The Color Purple. The L.A. Olympics are remembered as Reagan-era patriot games, and indeed everything was wrapped in red, white and blue. You may not recognize some of these names, but most of them were very familiar at the time. Mary Lou Retton was, of course, the Gabby Douglas of those Games, but multiplied by the number of stars in the flag.


American Ninja

April 20, 2012

It had to happen eventually. Oh, the Ninja pictures lighting up movie screens in recent years were popular enough; but think what would happen if, as the ads put it, “The deadliest art of the Orient” fell into the hands of an American.

Apparently Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the two wizards of schlocky, profitable Cannon Films (home stable for Chuck Norris), thought about it for a couple of seconds and decided that the idea would be a box-office bonanza. You put your hero (played by Michael Dudikoff) in front of a big American flag, put a Japanese sword in his hands, and the cash registers start beeping. How about American Ninja as a title?

Here’s a Ninja to identify with. He’s young, he’s clean cut, he’s one of our boys. He’s also a sociopathic psycho, of course, but it’s all in a good cause.

The protagonist establishes his credentials early. As a U.S. soldier in a Latin American country, he’s helping escort the general’s daughter across some tricky country when they’re stopped on the road by kidnappers. The other soldiers surrender quickly, but our man knows that surrender is for sissies—so he grabs a tool box and starts throwing wrenches and screwdrivers, with a Ninja spin, at the attackers. Their machine guns are no match for this, and they quickly disperse.

But some heavy-duty Ninja are watching. They’re the henchmen of an evil landowner who is aiding the right-wing rebellion in the country (and, as it turns out, is also in cahoots with the American military—interesting political stance, for an exploitation movie). The Ninja leader looks at Dudikoff’s martial-arts antics and proclaims, “He possess great skills.” He sense, or senses, a Ninjaness about this young man.

But, as everyone knows, it is impossible for a white man to understand the ways of the Ninja. Ah, but Dudikoff was taught the ways by an aging Japanese master on a remote Pacific Island, when the two were stranded there (don’t ask how, it’s much too complicated).

Funny thing is, Dudikoff doesn’t remember his training sessions. He was found unconscious and amnesiac, and he knows nothing of his past. But put a box of screwdrivers in front of him, and he goes into Ninja action immediately.

The film is a series of action sequences, as Dudikoff finds himself put upon by most of the factions in the country. That Japanese master pops up again, doing some gardening for the evil landowner, but he’s really just waiting for the return of his pupil so they can overthrow the bad forces and make things right for the country. “Your karma and mine—they are connected,” he tells Dudikoff.

Pretty silly stuff, although there is a plot in the movie. That’s more than could be said for Ninja Mission or Ninja III: The Domination. Before we declare a winner, however, we’ll have to wait for Sylvester Stallone to make his Ninja movie—not to mention its inevitable sequels.

First published in the Herald, August 1985

I’ll take Dudikoff and a box of spare parts over a machine gun any day; nothing beats a connected karma. Well, such are the ways of the Ninja. Or is it ninja? I didn’t know then, and still don’t now. Sam Firstenberg directed this one.


Ninja Mission

April 10, 2012

Even those people (whoever they are) that flock regularly to every new Ninja movie that karate-chops its way onto our screens have a right to be mad about Ninja Mission.

If you’re going to put a Ninja in your title, at least you ought to deliver some fist-in-your-face martial arts action. This movie doesn’t deliver; the Ninja, in fact, look suspiciously like an afterthought.

So much for the consumer report for martial arts fans. For the rest of us, Ninja Mission has even less to offer, unless your idea of fun is counting the number of extras who get wasted in one 90-minute period.

The body count in Ninja Mission, I believe, tops the count in Rambo. But, since most of the dead are Russian Communist pigs, that’s okay.

You see, this film is not a Ninja film set in the Orient, or even transported to America (as in that memorable opus, Ninja III: The Domination). No, this is an Eastern European spy movie, with a few Ninja thrown in to spice things up.

It’s your basic Cold War scenario: bigshot nuclear scientist wants to defect to the West, but he’s intercepted by the KGB, who disguised themselves as Swedes and pretend to take the scientist to Sweden.

But he’s actually still in Russia, see; the KGB want him to think he’s free so he’ll spill the beans about his new improved nuclear formula (and thus, as one character puts it, “the balance of power between East and West will be destroyed”).

This is where the Ninja—they’re on our side—come in. A crack team (led by Christopher Kohlberg) races to the seemingly impenetrable castle (they’re always seemingly impenetrable) where the Nobel Prize-winner is being kept, and promptly tears the roof off that sucker.

This brings about a lot of machine-gunning, as well as weird claw things that the Ninja attach to their hands so they can disfigure people (nasty, but remember, they’re on our side). These Ninja also have a weapon that will inject the victim with a fluid that explodes when it hits the brain. Not very tidy, but effective.

Thrown into the mix is the scientist’s sexy daughter (Hanna Pola), who performs in a German nightclub wearing a see-through fishnet blouse.

It’s a Swedish-made film, although why the Swedes would want to make a movie about Ninja is beyond me. The oddest thing is, although the movie is dubbed into English, everybody speaks with a fat German accent. If they’re going to go to the trouble of dubbing, why not just get non-accented voices? That doesn’t make much sense—but then what in this film does?

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1985

The film appears to have been released as The Ninja Mission, so I’m missing a word. I remember nothing about this film, not even an image. Director Mats Helge made a series of action pictures during this era, and appears to be a subject for further research, perhaps the Uwe Boll of his time.


The Unholy and Bloodsport

February 6, 2012

As if the pseudo-religious nonsense of The Seventh Sign weren’t enough, along comes The Unholy to further hasten the apocalypse.

In this one, an average New Orleans priest (played by English actor Ben Cross, from Chariots of Fire) discovers that he is not average at all—not after he survives a fall from a 17-story building without so much as a scratch.

This miraculous occurrence brings him to the attention of some church elders (Hal Holbrook and the late Trevor Howard) who walk around muttering things like, “He is the one.” Cross is the one, it seems, to do battle with the antichrist, who emerges every year in the form of a beautiful woman in a diaphanous gown.

Most of the movie is taken up with Cross unraveling this mystery, which is somehow connected to a gang of Satan-worshippers down at the local S&M nightclub. The big finish is a special-effects extravaganza in the church, during which director Camilo Vila dabbles in a few Ken Russellesque images, with shaking walls and dry ice smoke, which means the church begins to resemble your basic heavy metal concert.

There are a few good lines of dialogue, the wackiest of which may be the stripper telling the priest, “I got a phone call from hell.” She means it literally. He gets a call from hell himself, and it turns out the line is of full of interference. You might have guessed.

Bloodsport is an unabashed excuse to string together a bunch of shots of guys beating each other up. It’s a vehicle for that “martial arts sensation” Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is participating in something called the Kumite, a secret competition in Hong Kong in which the world’s best fighters come together and do some serious head-cracking. It’s dangerous, and occasionally a fighter is killed on the mat, which leads one character to describe the event as being “Like a cockfight, but with people.”

But the dialogue scenes are relatively brief, and the hits just keep on comin’. Which should be a boon to martial-arts enthusiasts, since the movie is full of chops and shouts and men kicking like the Rockettes.

This fellow Van Damme has a fairly uncomplicated screen presence, and physically he’s an incredible specimen. He’s so concentrated he seems to be from Mars, although he has a French accent. (Same difference.) He’s fond of doing the 180-degree splits, the sight of which prompts his Neanderthal-American buddy to exclaim, “That hurts me just to look at it.” Interestingly enough, he’s just described the movie.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

Belgian accent. Belgian accent. Sorry, JCVD, but who knew at the time? The Unholy is a blank at this point, but one of the credited writers is Oscar-winner Philip Yordan, who has a whole lot of credits, including Johnny Guitar and The Big Combo.


American Ninja II and Creepshow 2

November 21, 2011

If you recall American Ninja, you’ll remember that our hero (Michael Dudikoff) is an American Army man, trained in the ways of the mysterious, black-hooded ninja. This makes him all but indestructible. If you think about it, this removes a considerable amount of suspense, since the guy can’t possibly be threatened by any conventional opposition.

Nevertheless, he’s back in American Ninja II, again victorious over insurmountable odds. Joined by his Ranger buddy (Steve James, who has become a kind of black Chuck Norris), Dudikoff travels to a tropical island to solve the mystery of disappearing Marines. As the plot unreels—or, rather, unravels—it turns out that a batch of the ninja are carting away American military men to be cloned in experiments to produce a race of “SuperNinjas.”

In other words, “Karate Theatre” meets The Island of Dr. Moreau. Very strange story. However, director Sam Firstenberg, who has made a lot of weird stuff for Cannon Films, keeps this one lively for at least its first two thirds (there’s a barroom brawl about every five minutes). Then the SuperNinja business gets out of hand, and the movie grinds down.

Creepshow 2 is another sequel, but this time spun off from an original film that was quite watchable. The first Creepshow had the indefatigable Stephen King writing a screenplay, directed by George Romero, that paid affectionate homage to pulpy horror comic books. It wasn’t too scary, but it was stylish and fun.

For the sequel, Romero has adapted a trio of King short stories, but the directing reins are held by Michael Gorlick. King’s actual participation is limited to an acting cameo, as a dimwitted truck driver, that is actually one of the sharpest performances in the movie.

The first story is called “Old Chief Wood’n Head,” and it’s a snoozer that wastes Dorothy Lamour and George Kennedy in a tale of Native American justice. The second, “The Raft,” is somewhat better, if only because King’s idea is basically scary. It’s about a quartet of teens trapped on a raft, in the middle of a lake, by a huge gloppy thing that slides across the surface of the water.

The film is rounded off by “The Hitchhiker,” about a woman (Lois Chiles) who runs over and kills a hitcher, only to have him disconcertingly return. It’s the best of the lot, directed and acted with some intensity and black humor, with some of the creepiness inherent in spooky stories about hitchhikers. But it’s not quite enough to justify sitting through the previous tales, brief though they are.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

Creepshow 2 was a bum deal, even if “The Raft” sticks in the mind as one of King’s effective stories. I have forgotten AN II, but the plot sounds agreeably deranged. Firstenberg (I don’t need to tell you) managed a few outrageous Cannon titles, including the stupefying Ninja III: The Domination. The real title of this Firstenberg effort is apparently American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, but I guess I didn’t know that at the time.