Thursday, December 10, 2009

Death Wish (The Series)

Death Wish (1974) * * * *

Cast:Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Jeff Goldbulm

Directed by Michael Winner

Fascinating effort still remains the greatest vigilante movie ever made, not because of the action element and dramatic moments, but also because of the black humor, Bronson’s excellent acting and the factor that Bronson isn’t really looking for those responsible for the murder of his family but just on the muggers in general. While the sequels are one man army bodycount action flicks, this one stands above them all as a true classic. Bronson is as expected, sharp and his presence overall sells the concept. However what makes Death Wish so special is in fact that Winner balances out the serious moments as well as the brutal vengeance with a sense of humor. For instance the sequence where the news interviews others inspired by Bronson’s vigilante actions are in fact genuinely funny. Another factor is the fascinating elements that Death Wish has. The movie sees vigilante justice as in fact the only way to deal with muggers and the crime rate, indeed no scene is stronger than when Bronson asks what kind of a person just lets people get away with such things, and of course the angle that finds the police sort of torn on the vigilante and his justice, as the news reports that mugging is down and Bronson’s antics made New York that much safer. Death Wish then represents a time capsule of the 70s, when movies like Dirty Harry and The French Connection gave the impression that what is needed is a death sentence for muggers. Also the action is well staged,  indeed it’s impressive that while the subsequent entries got more violently graphic, this still remains the most suspenseful and overall has the most impact. Death Wish then is, rightfully so, a heavyweight in the genre.

Death Wish II (1982) *

Cast:Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Vincent Gardenia, Laurence Fishbourne, Thomas F. Duffy

Directed by Michael Winner

This pointless rehash has Bronson and Gardenia, and the same director but overall it completely lacks the elements that made Death Wish 1 so great. For one there is no sense of humor, the action is badly put together and the story is just the same as the first, with this time Bronson getting vengeance on those that attack his catatonic daughter and housekeeper. Actually the whole thing starts as the muggers grab his wallet, he chases them, catches one and beats him up, so then they come to his house for reasons fairly vague. What happens this time is so boring, as the film takes way too much time of Bronson stalking his prey, setting up his ruse to fool his girlfriend (Ireland) and then shooting his often unarmed enemies. Also I guess Bronson does get into a few fights and breaks up a drug deal but these scenes are boring and not at all that enjoyable. However what puts Death Wish II in ugly territory is the long and drawn out rape of Bronson’s maid and daughter, these sequences are fairly graphic (and edited one inch of its life) and it leaves the film feeling rather distasteful. What’s ultimately more surprising is that despite the graphic rape, we are still indifferent to Bronson’s call to arms. Death Wish II is a very weak movie, it remains one of the worst vigilante movies ever made (Only The Exterminator is worse) and it doesn’t work on any level. Death Wish II then is just an ugly, ungainly disaster of a film. Ultimately Death Wish II is one of Bronson’s very worst movies.

Death Wish 3 (1985) * * *

Cast:Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Gavan O’Herlihy, Ed Lauter, Deborah Raffin

Directed by Michael Winner

This time Bronson is hired by police captain Lauter to single handedly wipe out the gang bangers that have terrorized New York since the Vigilante’s departure, of course Bronson doesn’t need much convincing since the creeps murdered his old war buddy and so with vengeance in heart and 30 caliber machine gun in hand vengeance is served C-O-L-D. Death Wish 3 is one of the most guilty of guilty pleasures as it basically has hardly a vengeance angle, no attempt at even trying to be realistic and of course over the top violence that you ultimately cave in and enjoy the film as an action flick. Of course there’s no real plot, just Bronson shooting muggers, the muggers retaliating and then Bronson pushing back to a big orgy of gunfire that is the finale. Bronson of course seems more into it then he does in Death Wish II, and while Death Wish II collapsed into seriousness, Death Wish 3 seems to be almost a black comedy. One imagines that some of this is in fact intentional, especially since there are many sequences seen as comedy, mainly the housewife who shoves a mugger out of the house with a broom, and Bronson’s running joke of Wildey, a gun that is used to hunt elephant. Death Wish 3 is the type of vigilante movie that Cannon films (the producers of this) would use for their template of other ridiculous action flicks. However while Death Wish 3 is an excellent guilty pleasure, it is also a signature Bronson movie and is actually fairly well made as far as things go. The action is cut pretty well, the pacing is good and the film isn’t too badly acted, it’s just that this goes to the extreme so much, that you can’t take it seriously. While I can’t say Death Wish 3 is a bona-fide classic, I can say it’s a lot of fun to watch and no wonder it became a cult favorite. Death Wish 3 is probably the best movie Bronson made in the 80s and from a fan of his 80s work, this says a lot.

Death Wish 4:The Crackdown (1987) * *

Cast: Charles Bronson, Kay Lenz, John P. Ryan, Perry Lopez ,Dana Barron, George Dickerson, Soon-Tek Oh

Directed by J.Lee Thompson

Bronson’s back in L.A, this time dealing out vigilante justice to the drug lords responsible for the overdose of his girlfriend’s daughter at the hands of crack, Bronson is actually sponsored by a millionaire who provides him with the necessary ammo and explosives but there’s a double-cross and once again Bronson gets the old machine guns out from behind his fridge (Obviously the ones from Death Wish 3) What can I say about Death Wish 4, it’s ultimately even campier than the Death Wish 3, and while you could admire Winner’s intentional humor (as well as unintentional) and overall quality to the action, this time this is all across the board incompetently made. For instance the gunfight in the fish factory as well as the oil rig shoot out are in particular badly staged, mainly because Bronson just stands with a machine gun mowing down bad guys, indeed Bronson doesn’t even really break a sweat this time until the finale, where his girlfriend (Lenz) is taken hostage. Glass shatters before people are thrown into it, sounds of gunfire is heard before we see the fire on the end of the barrels and hilariously the climax takes place at a roller-skating rink where numerous laughs come just from watching people fall down and panic when the shooting commences. There’s also really, really bad acting from everyone (Even Bronson, Lenz and Ryan are bored with the movie) and this cheapjack sequel while very entertaining fails on pretty much all angles. Indeed this is one bad movie, I mean to explain how cheap the movie is, just know that the score steals the tracks from Invasion USA and 10 To Midnight. Both movies are much better than this, though Death Wish 4 is far funnier.

Death Wish V: The Face Of Death (1994) * * *

Cast:Charles Bronson, Lesley Anne-Down, Michael Parks, Robert Joy, Chuck Shamata

Directed by Allan A. Goldstein

The best sequel (in terms of quality and intentional results that is, though I still like 3 more) finds Bronson this time more in Jason Voorhies mode, as instead of using a machine gun, turns to cyanide sprinkled treats, C-4 laced soccer balls and acid pools to finish off mobsters who attack his finance and then kill her, Bronson keeps wrestling with the idea of going back to his old ways but when he sees the law fail again for the 5th time, Bronson becomes judge, jury and executioner, despite being 72 years old… Bronson as usual is effective in the role, in fact he seems very into the movie, as he personally taunts his prey before sending them plummeting to their deaths. The vengeance angle feels justified this time, as Parks makes an appropriately smarmy villain, in fact Parks gives a great performance one that makes Death Wish 5 more fun than one would expect. The film is also technically well made, as the action is cut relatively well, the production values are big improvement over the three entries and the serious nature is ultimately effective. That said the film takes a tad too long to get to Bronson’s vengeance and it is somewhat disappointing to see Bronson abandon the machine guns in favor of explosives and poison, but the film’s body count is decent, the gore level is high and the factory climax is ultimately pretty satisfying. An underrated sequel to be sure, Death Wish 5 then ends the series on a high note.

The Street Fighter (Series)

The Street Fighter (1974) * * * *

Cast: Sonny Chiba, Goichi Yamada, Yutaka Nakajima

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa

Bad ass Sonny Chiba stars as the greatest anti-hero ever captured on film, Chiba is Terry, an A-moral karate expert/mercenary that kills non-paying customers and sells their sisters to pimps, ends up becoming the good guy by default when he butts heads with the Yakuza, who look to muscle in on an Heiress’ oil company fortune. Chiba helps her, not out of principle but because they wouldn’t pay him enough and because they tried to kill him. The novelty of The Street Fighter is that this hero is just so mean spirited. This is the cynic’s kung fu movie hands down, as Chiba’s charisma and martial artistry sell the character who is clearly one of the meanest characters ever captured on film. (He makes Harry Callahan seem like sensitivity guru by comparison) Meanwhile the story is unexpectedly good, the story is paced well and the film has some excellent fight sequences. The martial arts film buff can’t go wrong here, mainly because Chiba’s character is so endearingly mean spirited, and although Chiba isn’t at all ponderous or indeed finds his good side, the film keeps an interesting edge throughout. Meanwhile the action is just as well staged. Sonny Chiba no doubt inspired Steven Seagal’s presence because you clearly see Chiba made the template. The Street Fighter then is ultimately one of the best movies in the martial arts genre, up there with Master Of The Flying Guillotine, Five Fingers Of Death, Enter The Dragon, Crippled Avengers and The Big Boss. Indeed if I had to make a list of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, you can bet I’d reserve a place for The Street Fighter. It’s a classic Period.

Return Of The Street Fighter (1975) * *1/2

Cast:Sonny Chiba,Yoko Ichiji

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa

Chiba returns with the same swagger but unfortunately the series doesn’t rise to Chiba’s effortless charisma. The kung fu scenes are there as is Chiba’s dependable presence but the story feels padded, uninspired and needlessly convoluted. Indeed this movie is pretty disappointing stuff after considering the fun factor of the first. Still not all is bad, for instance the brutal edge is still there, the Return Of The Street Fighter is just as action packed and there is a thrilling motorcycle chase that makes the film supremely watchable, it’s just that it’s not up to the first one’s standards. Though Return is better than the lackluster sequels that followed, this one is worth it only for die-hard fans who don’t mind seeing the same story and generally same results done here on with less success. Personally one should check out Chiba’s stellar work in G.I Samurai, Karate Bullfighter, Karate Bearfighter and The Executioner as those films are depicted with far more ambition and verve than this fairly uninspired sequel. Still it's pretty decent when compared to most in the genre and I don't know if I said this already, but Sonny Chiba is cool and ergo amything the man is in can't be too bad.

The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge (1975) * *

Cast:Sonny Chiba, Sue Shiomi

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa

This time Chiba does more spy work as he tangles with drug smugglers who want to get their hands on some tapes that have a formula for making Heroin, however since the drug smugglers double-cross our P.O’d hero Chiba takes vengeance in the typically mean spirited way. A passable though ultimately tired sequel, Even Chiba this time seems bored with the plot surrounding him and the film makes Chiba more into a good guy than the other two efforts which ultimately takes away what little novelty this entry would have. Some of the chop socky is fun and as usual Chiba’s charisma always makes a movie somewhat worth watching but this film is pretty pedestrian in all levels and isn’t all that exciting on any level. This would be the worst of the series if not for the subsequent entry.

Sister Street Fighter (1976) *1/2

Cast:Sue Shiomi, Sonny Chiba

Dull entry in this worn down series finds Chiba playing second fiddle to Shiomi, as a karate expert who helps Shiomi battle the drug smugglers who have taken her brother hostage. Shiomi works pretty well, and once again Chiba is fine (though he’s playing a different character) What really sinks this movie is the pacing, in that there are too many long intervals where there is no action. What action there is adequately staged but overall this feels more like a bad spy movie than a Street Fighter series, of course part of this is due to the fact that it wasn’t intended to be a Street Fighter sequel. However even as a stand-alone film this has problems, mainly in that this film is just too boring. Not to mention that the drug smugglers are unexciting villains, and that Shiomi pretty much makes short work of them. Only the fists of fury of the climax, as well as Shiomi and Chiba’s sturdy screen presence save the film from being completely without merit.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kosugi Ninja series

Enter The Ninja (1981)
* * *

Cast: Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George

Directed by Menahem Golan

Nero stars as a ninja who after an opening action sequence graduates to lethal ninja, right after the ceremony he visits a friend in the Philippines and protects said friend and fetching wife (George) from land developers, who then employ Nero’s main rival Kosugi. Enter The Ninja is one of the essential kung fu theater classics that rival the classics in the Bruce Li cannon (Though this is clearly not up to Bruce Lee standards.) indeed all of Enter The Ninja is goofy, including a ridiculous climax in which Franco Nero (looking utterly sloppy in the otherwise solid action choreography) employs his kitana, ninja stars and all type of goodies to waste the bad guys before going one on one with Kosugi in the film’s inarguably the most enjoyable movie. As campy and fun as Enter The Ninja is, one finds most of the fun moments come from villains Christopher George and Sho Kosugi. Franco Nero a decent Italian actor looks hopelessly lost in the role as does Susan George who make the least convincing actors to ever be in a ninja flick, although that’s because they try to employ their acting chops to roles that require little talent. This is the film that started the ninja craze and hands down this is well worth a look as a curiosity piece.

Revenge Of The Ninja (1983) * * *

Cast: Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali, Arthur Roberts, Virgil Frye, Ashley Ferrere, Kane Kosugi, Professor Toru Tanaka

Directed by Sam Firstenberg

Sho Kosugi emigrates to the U.S after a rival ninja clan wipes out his family, leaving only his son and mother as survivors, however his best friend Braden (Roberts, also a ninja) is now a drug lord and has been witnessed by Kosugi’s surviving son , Kosugi puts on the pajamas again, gets the old kitana out and fights Braden in a fight to the death in one of the best ninja movies made in the 80s. Revenge Of The Ninja along with American Ninja 1-2, is ultimately one of the most enjoyable martial arts films of the 80s. The action sequences are staged extremely well, by having Kosugi the lead of the movie makes this a significant improvement over Enter The Ninja, as Kosugi is far more convincing of a ninja and a far better martial artist than Franco Nero. The main flaw with the movie is that Kane Kosugi (real life son of Sho) is utterly annoying, also the film doesn’t have enough ninja versus ninja action, sure there’s tons of action involving ninja versus mobsters and gunners but one would’ve liked to see more ninjas getting their asses kicked. Everything though is made up for by the climax where talented martial artists (though not talented actors, excepting Kosugi) fight in a climax that is surreal in the energetic chaos that finds Kosugi scaling a building and fighting Roberts decked out in ninja gear that includes flamethrowers, ninja spikes and marbles which are used to trip someone into said spikes. While martial arts are known to be pretty short on plot and bad acting, Revenge Of The Ninja is much better than most and in doing so , Revenge Of The Ninja is a classic of the genre and is well worth picking up on DVD. In fact, Revenge Of The Ninja is one of Sho’s better movies and one of the signature flicks from the Cannon studios. In other words, a must see for a martial arts fanatic.

Ninja III: The Domination (1984) *

Cast: Lucinda Dickey, Sho Kosugi

Directed by Sam Firstenberg

Breakin meets Enter The Ninja, in a movie that should meet the trashcan. Real life break dancer Dickey stars as a dancer who is possessed by a dead ninja, a dead ninja that tries to strike back at those that killed him, however only Kosugi knows that only a ninja can kill a ninja, and so an exorcism is in place and then a fight to the death, which staying awake throughout this mess is in fact. Lucinda Dickey is of course no martial artist, so she looks utterly silly, as do the action sequences. The film’s supernatural elements are ridiculous and poorly done. Indeed had this film got out the break dancing and had just non-stop ninja fights this could’ve been half way decent, instead the film is utterly tedious. Kosugi is wasted in a brief supporting role but worst of all, this film takes up too much time trying to showcase Lucinda Dickey and her boyfriend cop’s relationship, a fatal flaw that makes this film utterly unwatchable. In fact at least the Bruce Li flicks in question knew what they wanted to be and didn’t take up time trying to combine really lame elements such as break-dancing and ninjas. In fact this film is one of the worst ninja movies ever made, and don’t let anyone say any different. Thankfully Firstenberg would later redeem himself next year with the vastly superior American Ninja. Ninja III is strictly for die hard martial arts fans that think Bruce Li In New Guinea is just too complicated for the brain. A truly dreadful sequel, do not see it.

9 Deaths Of The Ninja (1985) *1/2

Cast: Sho Kosugi, Brent Huff

Directed by Emmett Altson

Kosugi and Huff star as commandos/martial arts experts who band together to lead the rescue of American children in the Philippines taken hostage by terrorists with a midget army (!) who I think are supposed to be ninjas but probably not. Actually 9 Deaths is for the most part fairly hard to follow, the film is more along the lines of a James Bond flick than a ninja flick, in fact there aren’t even any ninjas in the film, indeed this is more of a Delta Force styled movie than a ninja flick. That said there are some campy laughs to be had. The film’s completely cheap and dime-store quality is hard not to mock, the shoddy action sequences are almost surreal in their ineptitude and the film is just completely insane. The bad guys’ plans don’t make any sense and for some reason the film just jumps around sans explanation. Fans of kung fu camp may find something to enjoy as this is truly as hilarious as bad ninja movies get, seriously how can one not chuckle at seeing ninja comandos fight a midget army but anyone else that asks for quality with their ninja flicks (fun-bad as opposed to so bad it's good) are well advised to steer clear, as this remains one of the shoodiest in the genre and certainly remains one of Kosugi’s worst efforts.