Saturday, July 25, 2015

Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

Thanks to El Rey Network on Sling TV, I've been watching a ton of Kung-Fu movies lately. And in doing so, realized I haven't really reviewed one here.

This classic Shaw Brothers film includes some of the most important elements of any great kung-fu movie. Sure, you expect great fight choreography. Maybe you also expect a bit of comedy (like the many great Jackie Chan films, you know...before they weren't so great anymore). Well, this one has all the right elements of entertainment, without going full-on comedy throughout. Though, you WILL laugh...

To hit all the appropriate notes of a great kung-fu film, this one features:

Super-shiny metal weapons!

The elaborately choreographed intro is a given.

...the use of Chi!

...and students sacrificing themselves needlessly!

Yes, that guy suicided by ripping out his own crotch.

Sadly, though, the movie does not include a White-Haired Evil Dude.

What I'm getting at is this kung-fu flick is all kinds of the awesome type of weird. It's got Gordon Liu making his students invincible to everything (except bullets).

He puts paper on their wounds to...heal them, I guess?

Anyway. The premise finds members of a secret society competing to kill a traitor to keep him from exposing their big bad secret: the society's magic and supernatural kung-fu arts can't, in fact, stop bullets. The inclusion of this magic stuff adds some of the best, weirdest elements of the film.

Voodoo Kung Fu, anyone?

But there's also little nuggets of strange translation, like how they say "pugilism" instead of "kung-fu" quite a lot throughout the film.

My Shoulder-Blade Pugilism Style is STRONG!

Or where two people spit on Gordon Liu's hat to simulate rain.

What I'm getting at is: this movie has it all. Great fight choreography. Absurdity galore. Gordon Liu. And all the "legendary weapons."

Seriously, the last thirty minutes are insane kung-fu awesomeness. So many weapons, with such a mixture of choreography. Everything prior is just a build-up to the last two fights, and because of that, this is a Shaw Brothers gem.

Legendary Weapons of China can be seen regularly on El Rey Network's rotation of Thursday's "Flying Five Finger One Armed Exploding Death Touch" line-up. Or purchased cheaply on Amazon.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Blood of Heroes AKA Salute of the Jugger (1989)

Have you ever wondered whether there'll be sports after the apocalypse? Do you worry atomic wars that mostly eradicate mankind might disrupt the football season?

Well, take heart, post-apocalyptic sports fans, because Rutger Hauer has come to answer your question with a resounding..."SPORTS WILL STILL SPORT AFTER SOCIETY CRUMBLES!"

Yes, Rutger Hauer (most notably of Blade Runner and Hobo with a Shotgun) plays in a competitive sport where five people work together to place a dog's skull on a spike to score. The timekeeper chucks stones at a metal plate until someone wins, or until 100 stones are tossed. There are two blockers. One guy swinging a chain. And the "quick" whose job is to grab the skull and place it on the spike.


It's not unlike football. For example, violence is encouraged, but the players generally have enough respect for one another to avoid gratuitous injury where possible. But, honestly, it's not exactly like football either, since most of them are wielding weapons of some sort.

Swinging a chain...swinging a chain.

So, first let's talk about the pieces, then we'll talk about the whole pie.

Rutger Hauer is the grizzled veteran of the sport. He's seen some shit, man. And he's got a vendetta to boot. Regardless of his motivation in this particular film, the man can do no wrong in my book. He is on the level of a Peter Cushing. No matter how bad the film, the script, or the directing, these are actors that elevate every single frame of the film they are in. They have a presence that is unparalleled.

Just like Peter Cushing can hold a screen presence doing this...

So too can Rutger Hauer wear a tire wrapped around his face and still look like a badass...

Number of people who can look cool wearing tires as a helmet? One.

And he can go one-eyed in the same movie and look twice as awesome.
The other big name here is Vincent D'Onofrio. This guy has been awesome as far back as Full Metal Jacket (1987). But more recently, he made Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin) something more than a one-note villain in the Netflix series, Daredevil (2015).

Two of the greats, just hanging out post-apocalypse

Those are the pieces. The big pie is a Mad Max version of Major League (which, coincidentally, came out the same year as the latter), with Rutger Hauer as the Tom Berenger veteran and Joan Chen playing the Charlie Sheen rookie part. It's any underdog sports story (Rocky, Bad News Bears, Karate Kid, Hoosiers), but it takes place after the apocalypse.

You can't just throw these things together and hope they work...

With that concept at its heart, this movie does a few magical things. First, it completely sells this sports and its structure so well that, by the end, you understand how the game works (there's even a training montage!) and what the stakes are. That's no small task for a throwaway late-80s movie. Secondly, it actually makes you care for these characters enough to root for them by the end.

It's a bit tough to find on DVD, but easy enough in the usual digital places. So, if you get the chance and the inkling, find this little-known gem. It's a strange mixture of a lot of cool things that work well together in this case.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

When your post-apocalyptic movie opens with credits set to a pop song, it's not really post-apocalyptic anymore. It's a James Bond film. And when you put a pop star into that post-apocalyptic movie, you're stunt-casting (and getting a hit soundtrack to boot).

The film opens with a few key call-backs to Mad Max 2, but almost no reference to the original.

This dude is quite SAXY, but not as saxy as Max's former wife.

Because, let's face it, the sequel had overshadowed the original by this point, and still does. Max is robbed by his gyro-copter buddy from The Road Warrior. Only, it's not his gyro-copter buddy. It's the same actor, but not the same character. Keeping up?

He's surprised you noticed him at all...let alone in two movies...
Max also does a call-back to the more successful, previous film by finding a little musical-thingy that comes in handy, similar to the one he found at the beginning of The Road Warrior that helped him win over the feral kid.

When a movie tries this hard to remind you of other movies, you should be worried.

Apparently, as the 80s really set in, everything became a parody of itself. Like a comic-book version of reality where the audience needed less subtlety and more...well, just zero subtlety at all.

Nope, not comically over-the-top...
With each of the films in this series, one gets a sense that George Miller is re-writing and re-shooting his previous effort. Recursively moving forward while still re-hashing a bit of the previous effort. This is most clear in the third effort. Max is, again, established as a badass who can handle himself. A man who can fight, but who also adheres to an interior code. A guy who is good with a gun, but who's smart enough to be formidable without one.

Good with a gun...

...and, um, better with a gun.

And then things get weird. And not in a good way. Because Max is rescued by a tribe of children. Yep, children living the Ewok-lifestyle save the most badass of badass men to exist after the apocalypse. And the children have a prophecy that predicted Mad Max would come to them. But really, it's not a's movies! The movie is getting all meta. Even with the movie-screen-staff, called "the tell"...ugh...

That aspect ratio sure does look familiar...

So, does that make us, the film-watchers, the children in this meta-metaphor? Hey filmmakers, probably not the best idea to relate your audience to children. Just saying.

It's like someone else took over directing and scripting duties after the first part of the film in order to infuse "heart." Things start off with a bunch of badass Mad Maxing going on for the first hour, and then George Miller said, "Yah, so-and-so's got it from here. I'm off for a nap. I'll pick up at the end for the chase scene."

And we end up with "Mad Max and the Lost Boys" for the sagging middle of the movie as a result.

Just what I want in my post-apocalypse...a sea of children.
After the plot gets its wheels rolling again, Mad Max and the kids end up back at Tina Turner-Town where they proceed to liberate a key component of Tina Turner's methane production from her Ike-like grip. After a road-pursuit that is remarkably reminiscent of The Road Warrior, the kids escape in an airplane and Mad Max is left to roam the post-apocalyptic country-side he now calls home.

Max sleeps best on the radioactive sand of a deserted wasteland.

Clearly, this movie is a mixed-bag. A sprinkle of good, with the after-taste of bad. It doesn't come close to living up to The Road Warrior, but it's more post-apocalyptic than the original Mad Max. Ultimately, there's about twenty-five minutes of the film that really sink it. On top of that, the effort to make it an "up" ending while keeping Max out in the apocalypse strides an awkward line. It's worth watching. But not more than once.

We'll see what Fury Road brings on May 15th...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Now that the world has actually ended, we get into the world that these films are most known for...the actual post-apocalypse. While the first film presented a psuedo-end-of-the-world with news broadcasts, green grass, night club singers, and general civilization, the sequel jumps straight into life after the nukes have blown.

Some have theorized that this is because the first film shows life during an energy crisis, where law and order organizations such as the police and lawyers are still grappling to maintain a hold on the last bastions of civil order even as society circles the drain. And then this film shows us how things have progressed after a nuclear war that resulted from that energy crisis.

My theory is much simpler. Now that "Max's World" has ended (when his family was killed), so has the actual world. The outer-world is a reflection of his inner-world. All those ideals of establishments and order mean nothing to the man whose family they couldn't save. Max has nothing left to live for, so he must find his own way. In existential terms, he is left to construct his own establishment from the rubble around him, according to his own set of rules. These rules will guide the anti-hero from this point forward...he, like so many noir heroes, is a bad man doing some good.

But this film is the beginning of Max feeling out those rules and figuring out what good deeds are worth doing, and how bad he can allow himself to be...

...or how "Mad"

The films begins by setting the stage on which everything will play out with stock footage mixed with some scenes from the first film. Basically, gasoline is rare after two superpowers have gone to war with one another. The film takes place in this aftermath...

Immediately after this establishing exposition, we get a face-full of awesome as Max wordlessly takes down some punk biker's dune-buggy friend.

This new Max has a dog, one half-sleeve, and a lot more grizzle than we last saw him with.

And now that the apocalypse has taken full-hold on the film, there's a need for a bit of levity. Thankfully, the dog has it.

Max stumbles on a gasoline refinery plant thanks to some dumb luck, and then must figure out how to get some of their gasoline, even as a group of thugs, led by Lord Humungus, attempts to do the same by force.

Pictured: Apocalyptic Karaoke

Simple. Straight-forward. Good guys and bad guys. With Mad Max somewhere in the middle of all of it.

There's inexplicable outfits.

With headbands!

And a feral child with a boomerang.

Because Australia, I guess?

Basically, Max is the master-less Yojimbo protecting a group of people like the Seven Samurai. But not out of the good of his heart. That's in there somewhere, deep down. But more importantly, he has a vested interest in helping them. In exchange, he gets fuel. Sure, literal gasoline for his car. But more importantly a goal, some connection to humanity that gives him a purpose other than making it another mile down the road.

If you haven't seen this film, you should. It's genre-defining, expertly directed, visual story-telling, post-apocalyptic goodness. There's a reason why, like Conan the Barbarian the following year, it had many imitators. This is peak Mad Max. And it goes downhill from here...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987)

"In the latter days of the 20th Century, there arose a difference of opinion. The leading experts of the time believed a nuclear war would only involve the exchange of a few bombs. And then the suitably horrified combatants would sit down at the peace table. They were wrong. In just 10 days, 10,000 years of human progress was virtually blown to dust. 10 years later, they tried again."

And so begins, the best Roddy Piper movie short of They Live. And in the first five seconds of the film, someone busts a bottle over his head and threatens to cut off his balls with the jagged glass. Turns out, Sam Hell (Piper's clever name in the film) is saved by his sperm. You see, Sam Hell is one of the few remaining non-sterile men in the world. So the People-In-Charge immediately decide to put a bomb on his crotch and make him a freedom fighter.

Makes sense?

Our Sam Hell is placed on Official Impregnating Duty and trekked out to hostile mutant territory where some fertile ladies have been kidnapped by....well, frog men. Frog men living in Frogtown. It sells itself, really.

This "Sam Sperm" character travels (to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") to Frogtown, a place where real men drink pints of industrial waste and a mush made from ground-up lizards. Because...frog men.

Frog Men!

It's like a Pollock pastiche. A little bit of Han Solo mixed with Planet of the Apes swirled into Deathsport. The movie comes together like those squirts of paint splashed on a Rowdy Roddy Piper canvas that is mostly shirtless and living in a Road Warrior world. This isn't Mad Max though. Instead it's Mad Max through the lens of Rhonda Shear's USA Up All Night.

Coincidentally, where I saw this movie for the first time.

So, it's a post-apocalyptic T/A movie. Plenty of those out there. But it's a T/A movie that knows exactly what it is. No one writing this film ever thought they were making anything other than a B-movie. The self-awareness is the only thing that makes it watchable.

Take the "dance of the three snakes" sequence for example:

That's probably the best way to sum up how ridiculously this movie focuses everything on sex. A girl's attempt to seduce a frog man. Not all of it works. But Roddy Piper seems to be having a good time at least.

The "resolution" of this film is that Rowdy Roddy Piper becomes the prostitute for his lady-pimp. I'm fairly certain the filmmakers worked backwards from there.

This one might be worth it late on a Tuesday when you're reminiscing about how fun late night movies used to be back when there was such a thing. Unfortunately, unless you've had a few to drink and you enjoy making fun of the movie as you go along, you'll remember that they were a bit silly and boring too.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mad Max (1979)

I'll be taking a look at the first in the Mad Max series in anticipation of next months bonkers-looking sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy as the title character. Parts 2 and 3 for the sequels coming soon...

Max Rockatansky (Yep.) began the existing trilogy as a member of the Main Force Patrol. Basically, they are the police in an apocalyptic wasteland.

Although, the apocalypse is pretty toned-down in this first film of the series. While there are clearly some bad people (the first call the MFP gets is for a cop killer and his moll), we also see a family with an RV trailer, a diner, a tow truck ready when the pursuit gets messy, a news broadcast, and a nightclub at one point. It's almost as if no one's really heard that the world has ended...or it hasn't ended completely.

Oh, and Max has a family. Specifically, a saxophone-playing wife and an infant...who plays with a gun?

She's soooo damn SAXY.

Clearly, Max and his wife are responsible parents.

Max's home life is idyllic, but the Halls of Justice are a crumbling heap of the former establishment.

Who put that Stop Sign there?

It doesn't take much work to figure out what to expect. After Max kills the cop killer and his moll (though he doesn't so much kill them as chase them into having an, not exactly the best police work, but still...foreshadowing!!), a motorcycle gang swears revenge on him. You know, like motorcycle gangs do.

After the apocalypse, psychopaths have really strong friendships with other psychopaths.

After a scene where the motorcycle gang gets to show us how mean they are, Max and his partner capture one of the gang, but the guy gets off on a legal technicality (the legal system still exists after the end of the world, also on its last legs). In retaliation for all this, the motorcycle gang burns Max's partner. And Max guessed "Mad" didn't you? Well, not yet. Instead, he gets...insomnia.

To cure this insomnia, Max quits the Main Force Patrol to live a safe life with his wife and baby. They take a vacation in a station wagon, buy a dog, and lay in wheat fields. The perfect post-apocalypse vacation for any lawman.


...station wagoning...

...and field-lying.

Then, the motorcycle gang kills Max's family and he gets...Mad (finally).

"Can I outrun these motorcycles?" Nope.

Mad Max steals the Pursuit Special car and pursues the motorcycle gang to (special) death.

Max was "driven" Mad...get it??
Overall, Mad Max is a barely-post-apocalyptic movie of the car-mageddon variety. It's a solid start to the series, but only hints at the potential to come. Like so many revenge films, it takes a while to get going. Max is given some scenes of motivation and characterization, but ultimately, if you've seen the others in the series, you're tapping your fingers waiting for the action to start. Things don't really get going until the last 15 minutes of the film. It's a significant film due to its place in Mel Gibson's career and as the precursor to many later Ozploitation films, but may not hold up to the expectations of a modern audience.