The Bodyguard (1973 / 1976)

bodyguard_1976_poster_01Country: Japan
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi, Aaron Banks, Judy Lee, Bill Louie
Director: Tatsuichi Takamori (1973)
Director: Simon Nuchtern (1976)
Cinematographer: Joel Shapiro
Music: Maurice Sarli
Producer: Susumu Yoshikawa (1973)
Producer: Terry Levene (1976)
AKA: Chiba The Bodyguard, Viva Chiba
Original Title: Karate Kiba

Sometimes in this day and age it is easy to forget how videotapes, DVD and Blu-ray have changed the way we watch movies, especially coupled with the search and buying options available through the internet. As a young boy growing up in rural Australia, I had no inkling of the films of Sonny Chiba. The were certainly not given a drive-in release in my home town, and were never going to turn up on commercial television at that time.

The interesting thing here, is that if Chiba had been available to me, it most likely would not be in the format I am used to today. Now this is not intended as a product endorsement — more to illustrate the way I am used to seeing Chiba film — down under there is a company called Madman, that has an off-shoot called Eastern Eye which specialises in Asian cinema. There films are gorgeously presented in widescreen and they often plum for the original language audio, with English subtitles for their releases. There are exceptions, such as the Godzilla films where they give you the option of subs or dub. But generally they serve up pretty authentic releases, served up the way the films were originally meant to be seen. Some of their Chiba releases have included Bullet Train, Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge and two of the Yakuza Deka films. All these films look great; are hip and funky in a ’70s kind of way, and suggested a certain style in a Chiba movie — that being tough crime films with a serve of high impact martial arts.

Bodyguard8Of course there is more to the story of Chiba, and these films only whetted my appetite for more of Chiba’s unique kind of thrills. Next I tracked down a film called Satomi Hakken Den (Legend of the Eight Samurai) directed by the chameleon Kinji Fukasaku. As much as I enjoyed Satomi Hakken Den – especially the giant Muppet centipede – what intrigued me more on the disk were the trailers for other Chiba features. One of these features was G.I. Samurai and the trailer suggests it is the story of a band of modern combat soldiers, led by Chiba, who slip through a crack in time and land in the middle of a turf war between two warring clans in feudal times. My jaw dropped, and I audibly exclaimed “Hell, yeah!” This is a film I need in my life.

Next, independently, Keith at Teleport City reviewed Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope. Once again, that little voice in my head shouted “Hell, yeah — this is a film that I need in my life.” And at that point, I sadly realised I knew nothing about Chiba, and I had to dig deeper. Those pristine, widescreen prints were going to be a thing of the past. All I knew was my viewing was going to consist of murky second generation dupes, and it was going to get bloody. First stop…The Bodyguard (well almost!)

Bodyguard7Before I started watching The Bodyguard there was a not-so-subtle hint that my world of Chiba was going to change. Firstly I went to ‘special features’ on the disk and there was a teaser for Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. As I alluded to earlier, Street Fighter’s Last Revenge was a film that I had already seen on an Eastern Eye disk. I thought that it was a great little action film with an impossibly funky score. But I chose to watch the teaser, and the first thing that struck me was that it was a dub (rather than subbed, as I know the film). The smooth, modulated dialogue was no longer there. Instead Chiba was angry and shouting “Don’t anybody move or I’ll rip this motherf*cker’s head off!” I knew Terry, The Streetfighter as a tough, man-of-action, but here, he was presented as one crazy, wild-eyed, bad-ass motherf*cker. This was a man who makes Maurizio Merli, Steven Segal and Michael Dudikoff or anyone who specialised in ‘revenge flicks’ look like boy scouts.

Next I moved on to The Bodyguard and it appears to be a film released in Japan in 1973, and then reissued in America in 1976 with some extra footage and atrocious dubbing. But first things first. I know it’s no longer cool to like Quentin Tarrantino any more. I know his films are a bunch of stolen moments from other films. But I like his films – I thought Inglourious Basterds was brilliant – and I must admit it still gives me a thrill when I discover the source of another of his in-jokes. The Bodyguard provides a clue to a moment in Pulp Fiction, when Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) explains to Tim Roth, that his is the wallet that says ‘Bad Mother F*cker’. But now I see that maybe Jules wasn’t the aforementioned ‘Bad Mother F*cker’, but Sonny Chiba is. How so? The speech that Jules says to scare his intended victims, Ezekiel 17:25, is presented in the opening credits of The Bodyguard, however where Jules quotes it correctly, The Bodyguard has the cheek to modify the words.

The path of the righteous man and defender is beset on all sides by the iniquity of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper, and the father of lost children. And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious anger, who poison and destroy my brothers; and they shall know that I am Chiba the Bodyguard when I shall lay my vengeance upon them!

So Jules’ speech in Pulp Fiction is a homage to the Baddest Mother F*cker of them all — Sonny Chiba! Can ya dig it!

BodyguardTCThe film opens in New York, with a scene that could be ripped off from The Godfather. An underworld Don, Salvatore Rocco and his family are gunned down on the steps outside a large church. The newspaper reports suggest the police are now searching for the Rocco’s Japanese mistress who is said to have disappeared.

Then we cut to a far to obvious, new scene that has been shoehorned into the film. It features two martial artists,Aaron Banks and Bill Louie, two real life martial arts champions, who are debating the strengths and weaknesses of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba’s fighting styles, including a demonstration of Bruce’s double nung-chuck technique. They round out the conversation by informing the audience that Chiba is on his way back to Tokyo.

The movie skips forward to the flight and a bunch of badasses hijack the flight. They hijack it for one reason, and that’s because Sonny Chiba is on the flight. Sonny, not only is the world’s number one martial artist, but he is also a fierce opponent of drugs and drug trafficking. These goons who have taken control of the flight, want to kill Chiba because of his interference with their drug trade. But even though there are five hijackers with guns, Chiba still kills each one of them with a series of power punches that have the bad guys spitting blood and teeth – that is before they die.

Upon arrival in Japan, Chiba appears on television vowing to stop the flow of drugs into the country, and furthermore offers himself up as a bodyguard to anybody who has information that can put the drug cartels out of action. One girl, Ricoh comes forward and asks for Chiba’s assistance. Before he will help her, he needs to see some proof. She says she has some evidence in the glove box of her car. Chiba sends his sister, Maggie down stairs to collect it, but the bad guys are waiting for her. As Chiba’s sister, Maggie has some fight skills of her own, but up against four men, she is outmatched. They knock her unconscious and strip her naked and lay her out. The shadow from the cross at the top of a church steeple covers her body. It’s actually quite a good visual moment – possibly better than this film deserves. After a while, when Maggie hasn’t returned, Chiba heads down to investigate. He finds her with the words ‘Cosa Nostra’ carved into her arm. Chiba now knows for sure he is up against the mafia.

Bodyguard4Convinced that Ricoh is in danger, Chiba agrees to protect her. They go back to her apartment, and Chiba does a sweep to check that everything is okay. The apartment appears clean and free from danger. Later that night, however, a gang of assassins cut their way out of the furniture (couches and armchairs) where they have been hiding. I guess when you think about it, it is pretty goofy, but this scene represents one of the highlights of the whole movie, so I recommend basking in the ‘goofiness’. Chiba, of course, then fights with the bad guys in his usual rib shattering and arm snapping way.

Of course, as most people would have guessed, Ricoh is the ‘missing’ mistress of Salvatore Rocco (the underworld figure shot down at the start of the film). Therefore she is not really interested in stemming the flow of narcotics into Japan. She simply wants Chiba to protect her form the various gangs — the Mafia and the Yakuza — who are after her and the drug shipment she has arranged to be brought into the country.

Essentially this makes Chiba a stupid dupe and he follows her around Tokyo while she makes arrangements to unload the drugs. When he finally wakes up to what is going on, for some strange reason he still agrees to help her. It is all very silly, sloppy and contrived. Some of this may be due to the American re-editing and dubbing of the film, but I think even the original Japanese version of the film would be low hanging fruit.

Bodyguard3The amazing thing about Chiba, is no matter where he hits an opponent, you can be sure that the guy spits blood. He could punch a Yakuza gang member in the knee cap, and sure enough, the Yakuza would keel over and a bubble of thick, bright red blood would dribble over his lips. It is a unique talent that Chiba has, and a talent that generally makes his films so entertaining. Not so, The Bodyguard. Sure there’s plenty of blood spitting, even a few teeth flying, but on the whole this film is pretty muddled and uninspiring.

Visually, the camera shots are tightly focused and there is an over abundance of hand held cinematography.Some of the fight scenes are so dimly lit and jerkily edited, it is hard to tell if they are well choreographed or not. Which is what you really watch a Chiba picture for – the stylised fight scenes. But when they are stylised and filmed in such a fashioned, it renders the film physically impotent.
Co-starring with Chiba is Etsuko Shihomi, who also starred with Chiba in a whole swag of films including; The Legend of the Eight Samurai, Shogun Ninja, Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment, Bullet Train, The Streetfighter, The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge, Sister Streetfighter and many others.

The Bodyguard is not great Chiba, and I think I’ll keep searching for a copy of G.I. Samurai to slake my thirst for Chiba’s unique style of mayhem, and I’d suggest that other Chibafiles look elsewhere too.

The Bodyguard (1973 / 1976)

The Killing Machine (1975)

TKM8

Country: Japan
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Yutaka Nakajima, Makoto Sato, Naoya Makoto, Sanae Kitabayashi, Akiko Mori, Hosei Komatsu, Tetsuro Tanba
Director: Norifumi Suzuki
Writer: Isao Matsumoto
Cinematographer: Yoshio Nakajima
Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi
Original Title: Shôrinji kenpô

Minor warning. This review contains adult themes.

As a teenager at school, out in the yard, talk would often drift to the ‘forbidden knowledge’ – essentially R-rated violence and pornography. Not that any of us were really exposed to it. One of the most revered topics under discussion was Caligula. Now I don’t know how many of my peers had actually seen Caligula; I am guessing that one or two may have, however it would not surprise me if none of them had. The story always retold was always the same one, so I get the impression that the story was almost a hand-me-down for those who wanted to project an image of being more extreme (and experienced) than their friends. I must admit I never saw Caligula until quite recently. I think I have told the story before — that when I watched it, I was suffering from a rather virulent dose of the flu and running a high fever. I had also promised to take my son to see the Revenge of the Sith on that weekend too. So I was hopped up on every medicine known to man fading in an out of coherency. To this day I am not too sure where Caligula ends and Sith begins. It lives in my mind as some violent porno mashup.

But back to the halcyon days of youth and the legend of Caligula. By legend, I of course mean the story that was told time and time again; and that story related to the sequence where Caligula cuts off the guys cock and then feeds it to the dogs. As you can imagine to a hormonal teenage boy — with optimistic dreams of many, many years of fine swordsmanship in front of him — the thought of having your cock cut off was just too abhorrent to contemplate. And furthermore, how dare the film-makers put such a sequence in a movie!

Of course, as bright-eyed and bushy tailed youngsters, we didn’t know who Sonny Chiba was, and therefore were certainly unaware of the existence of The Killing Machine, which was made in 1975 — or if you prefer 5 B.C. (Before Caligula). In The Killing Machine, Sonny Chiba plays Japanese Kenpo Karate master Doshin Soh, who, when he tangles with a local gangster who thinks with his little head, takes to cutting the man’s cock off and throwing it to the dogs.

TKM2

However, despite my long-winded intro and talk of penile severance; and despite the film’s title The Killing Machine; and despite that this is a Chiba film made at the height of his violent, rib-shattering fame, this film is actually quite a moving and emotionally charged drama — but with, y’know, Chiba hitting and kicking people.

The film is the slightly fictionalized story of real life kenpo master Doshin Soh, and spans the years from 1945, at the end of the second World War, until what I’d guess is 1950, but it is never really specified. The thing with Soh is that he was trained in Shaolin Kung-Fu in China and is presented as having far superior martial arts skills than his fellow Japanese who have only studied karate or judo.

The film starts in 1945. The war is still raging, and Soh is a Japanese spy who has infiltrated a Chinese garrison. A mission briefing reveals to Soh that the Chinese are planning a big attack on a Japanese force arriving from Manchuria. However, before Soh can make off with the information, he is discovered and a fight breaks out. Soh’s solution is a simple one, and that is to kill everybody in the room. Forget the AK47 — ‘when you absolutely, positively have to kill every motherf*cker in the room’ — the perfect weapon is Sonny Chiba. After the carnage, Soh reports back to his superiors only to be told that Japan has unconditionally surrendered. The war is over. At that point Soh declares that ‘Japan may have lost the war, but he’ll never be defeated. Never!’

It’s a tough time for the Japanese after the war. They are victimised by the Chinese, the Koreans, the Russians and American occupational forces. It is almost like they are beggars in their own country. But Soh isn’t one to give in — and he does everything in his power to see that other Japanese citizens are able to survive, with a modicum of dignity. That’s actually one of the core themes of the film — national pride and standing by each other. Of course, there are Yakuza gangs who don’t live by Soh’s code and are more concerned with making a profit out of the hardship that most people face. They do this by peddling black-market food and medicine.

TKM3

In Osaka, Soh becomes a surrogate father for many of the orphaned and homeless children in the area, passing on his wisdom as they struggle to survive. At the same time, he spends a large portion of his time getting into street brawls with the black marketeers who are exploiting the situation. After crippling two American G.I.s who almost killed a young Japanese boy, Soh is sent to prison, and it is looking likely that he will be executed. But the prison warden, a patriotic Japanese (a cameo by Tetsuro Tamba) turns a blind eye and allows Soh to escape, so long as Soh promises to leave the city.

The film skips forward to 1947, and Soh is in Tadotsu, on the island of Shikoku, and he has started a martial arts school, teaching those who are willing to learn the ways of Shaolin. His timing is fortuitous, because a gang of Yakuza are determined to not only control illegal activity, but generally do whatever they please — which happens to mean take and rape any girl that they want.

When the a group of Yakuza members gang-rape a young girl named Noriko and the police refuse to do anything about it, Soh steps in. And out come the scissors — and after my long-winded intro, you should know what comes next. The film rounds out its story with a final message which is that ‘Fighting without justice is just violence.’ Obviously that’s a great little message, but I guess if you were looking at the body of Sonny Chiba’s work at this time, I think it is fair to say that maybe, just maybe, he was miscast in this film.

If The Killing Machine was solely another violent exploitation flick in the same style as many other films that Chiba was making during this period, then it would leer and revel in the torridness it was depicting. Instead it treats its subject matter with sensitivity and honour. Sure the film has a few unpleasant moments, but they are not in the film to excite the audience. They are there as obstacles that the characters (and one assumes Doshin Soh in real life) had to overcome. Each obstacle makes them stronger people. All in all, this is a surprisingly enjoyable movie.

The Killing Machine (1975)

The Spy Next Door (2010)

TSND

Country: United States
Director: Brian Levant
Starring: Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley, Magnús Scheving, Billy Ray Cyrus
Music: David Newman

I blame Arnold Schwarzenegger and the film Kindergarten Cop for all the ‘tough-guys with kids’ films. Since then we’ve had Vin Diesel as The Pacifier, The Rock as The Tooth Fairy, and many, many more – now we have Jackie Chan as The Spy Next Door. The problem though, is that Jackie was never really a tough guy, and many of his films are family friendly, so dumbing down even further seems almost redundant.

The biggest problem with the film is Jackie, himself. Look, I love Jackie’s movies, but he is pushing sixty years old, and for him to be playing this particular role at this stage of his life is ill-advised. The central conceit of the movie, is that Jackie falls in love with his neighbour, Gillian (Amber Valletta) and has to win over her kids. But just the age difference between Jackie, and the love of his life, makes the whole relationship seem rather stilted, and at times, verging on downright creepy! It probably doesn’t help matters either that the opening title sequence, features a montage of clips from Jackie’s previous spy film roles, some dating back to the 1980s.

Having said all that, The Spy Next Door is probably a better film than The Tuxedo or The Medallion, – but that isn’t saying much – and as a family film, it hits all the notes that it should, complete with an over-wrought misty-eyed ending.

Ultimately, if your a fan of Jackie, you can do better than this one. Unless you’ve got kids, I’d give it a miss.

The Spy Next Door (2010)

The Man From Nowhere (2010)

Country: South Korea
Director: Jeong-beom Lee
Starring: Bin Won, Sae-ron Kim, Tae-hoon Kim, Hee-won Kim, Seong-oh Kim, Jong-pil Lee
Writer: Jeong-beom Lee
Music: Hyun-jung Shim

There’s a tough little sub genre of spy films, I like to call the ‘messed with the wrong guy’ spy film. It usually features a band of villains picking on a person or group of civilians (often a family), and it just so happens that these people have been befriended by or related to a retired bad-ass spy. To the villains, the spy just seems like an old codger (or a nobody), but we know, despite the wrinkles or low-key personality, this guy is a lethal weapon.

Generally these films tends to play more like a revenge flick and have a tendency to be rather violent. And that’s the perfect lead-in to The Man From Nowhere, which I think is one the best of these violent revenge flicks to come out in the last few years. Some people say that these films aren’t actually spy films, and in a way they are right, however, it is the skill set that these characters have learned through their spy training that allow them to perform the deeds that they do. And often these offensives against the bad guys, are planned and carried out, just like an espionage mission.

Here the ex-agent in question is CHA Tae-shik (Won Bin), and he used to be a highly effective deep cover agent. However, his life is shattered, when some evil doers retaliate against him, by killing his pregnant wife and of course, attempting to kill him. But after the death of his wife, CHA leaves the service and becomes an unkempt recluse, running a pawn shop in a poor area of town. His only connection to the outside world is his neighbour’s daughter, So-mi (Kim Sae-ron). Her mother, is a junky, and when she steals a shipment of heroine from an underworld syndicate, the mobsters come after her, killing her, and taking away So-mi, and simply housing her until she comes of age, where she her organs can be harvested and sold on the black market. Naturally, CHA steps up, and goes searching for So-mi.

As you can imagine, so of the themes in this film are pretty bleak, but it is a wild, emotional ride over the duration of its running time. And I hate to admit this, but I was crying like a girl at the end. So the film has a certain emotional content that resonated with me, but the real reason to watch this film is for the amazing fight scenes. They are tough, brutal and realistic, and almost hurt to watch. If you haven’t caught up with The Man From Nowhere, it’s worth tracking down.

The Man From Nowhere (2010)

The Executioner II: Karate Inferno (1974)

Country: Japan
Director: Teruo Ishii
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Eiji Gô, Yutaka Nakajima, Etsuko Shihomi, Kanjûrô Arashi, Ryô Ikebe, Tetsurô Tanba, Makoto Satô
Music: Hajime Kaburagi
Original Title: Chokugeki jigoku-ken: Dai-gyakuten

The Executioner II: Karate Inferno is a broad comedic caper film, with a pinch of extreme violence added at the end (which may be somewhat jarring to Western audiences). As for the ‘Karate Inferno’ promised in the title, it is more of a ‘Karate Camp Fire’. There is very little fistic mayhem in this film compared to many other Chiba films. However, if you ignore the title, and enjoy caper movies, then you’ll find this film is very entertaining.

As the film opens, Lady Sabine, a rich heiress, is preparing to exhibit her jewel collection in Tokyo. The price piece is a necklace called The Star of the Pharaoh, which is valued at one million yen. However, before the exhibition, the necklace is stolen, and Sabine’s young daughter is kidnapped. The criminals want one million yen for the necklace, and the girl.

The insurance company – through a shady intermediary named The Commissioner (Ryo Ikebe) – recruit three super crooks to steal the money back from the criminals once the exchange has been made. The super crooks are Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba), Takeshi Hayabusa (Makoto Sato), and Ichiro Sakura (Eiji Go).

The exchange goes wrong. Sabine’s daughter is rescued, however, the money and necklace remain in the hands of the criminals. As a result, the super crooks don’t get paid. Further more, Sabine deals directly with the criminals, paying an extra million yen to have the necklace returned.

Koga is not happy about being stiffed his fee, and decides to steal the necklace from Sabine. He scales the side of high-rise building, cuts through the window and steals the necklace, but only to find it is a fake. The real necklace is in a vault on the nineteenth floor, of a high-security building. The super crook team re-assembles to break into the vault – with the usual, caper film tropes in place.

As I mentioned at the top, the film, which is so light in tone for most of its running time has an extremely violent ending – with eyeballs popping from their sockets, and a liver being torn from a body.

The sexual content is playful, but puerile (in an Animal House kind of way). There are upskirt shots and leering in high-rise windows scenes. It would also appear only half of Japanese women wear panties. It should be noted that Japanese movies and television have a different concept of what is offensive and/or adult. I remember when I was a teenager, visiting Japan in the mid 1980s, and flicking on late afternoon children’s television – and discovering a delightful little animated show, where a cheeky little bird would swoop down on young ladies, and rip the girls top off with its beak – thereby exposing the lady’s breasts.

I found The Executioner II: Karate Inferno to be a great deal of fun – if somewhat uneven. Now having said all that, I must point out that I have not watched the previous film, The Executioner – which is said to be almost the reverse of this feature. It is full of violence and nudity – and light on for comedy capers. So, if you were to come to this film from The Executioner, and were expecting more of the same, I could see how this film may disappoint. After all, Chiba does have a reputation for in-your-face actioners, and Karate Inferno never really delivers on that score.

The Executioner II: Karate Inferno (1974)

Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess (1976)

Country: Japan
Director: Yutaka Kohira
Starring: Etsuko Shihomi, Sonny Chiba, Yasuaki Kurata, Masashi Ishibashi, Jirô Chiba, Bin Amatsu
Original Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi
AKA: Which is Stronger, Karate or Tiger?
Original Title: Hissatsu onna kenshi

In some parts of the world, this film was known as Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess, which would imply that this is a Sonny Chiba film. Yes, he’s in it. Don’t you worry about that – for a full twenty minutes. Then he hands the reigns over to his frequent co-star Etsuko Shihomi. But it must be said, Shihomi is no slouch herself, and for the most part, Dragon Princess is a fairly entertaining – however I will add this caveat. Seek out a decent quality print. The print I watched was pretty ragged pan & scan version – taken from a worn VHS dupe. The fight scenes often appeared clunky – not because they were badly choreographed – but because one of the fighters was cropped off the screen. The film was also dubbed quite atrociously. So while I enjoyed it, I doubt many viewers have the tolerance for crap that I do.

At the risk of making the film sound like a work-place drama, as the film opens, a job position has opened up to become Tokyo’s leading karate instructor. The front runner to get the job is Kazuma Higaki (Sonny Chiba). The second favourite is a fellow named Nikaido, and in an old run down church, on a cold and dark stormy night, he challenges Kazuma to a fight. Kazuma arrives with his daughter Yumi in tow. However, Kazuma does not believe there is a reason to fight. Surely they can work it out, without having to resort to violence.

Nikaido doesn’t see it that way and bullies Kazuma into the fight. It’s a bad move, as Kazuma is a superior martial artist, and is winning the battle. But Nikaido is not the type of guy to accept defeat magnanimously. He has three other fighters hidden in the church – and they appear from the shadows armed with knives, poles, swords, etc.

Despite the weight of numbers being against him, Kazuma still acquits himself well, that is until one of Nikaido’s goons grabs Yumi. Kazuma grabs a rope, and swings to her aid, kicking off the aggressor. The as he moves to drag her to safety, one of the fiends throws a knife at her. Kazuma leaps into the knife’s path. It hits him in the left eye.

Now Kazuma is impeded, the other goons swoop in for the kill. They stab him with a sword. Kazuma is defeated. However, Nikaido agrees to spare Kazuma’s life, if he leaves Tokyo for good. Kazuma agrees.

The film cuts to New York. Actually the subtitle says New York, but later in the dubbed dialogue, it suggests it is San Francisco. Either way, Kazuma and Yumi have settled somewhere in America. Kazuma, with an eye-patch, is bitter about the betrayal in the church, and sets about claiming his revenge. Yumi is to be his instrument of vengeance, and he subjects her to a brutal training regime.

After she grows to adulthood, Kazuma dies, and Yumi (now grown into Etsuko Shihomi) returns to Tokyo. First thing she does, is head to Nikaido ‘s dojo and lay down a challenge. As she is a woman, she is ridiculed and scorned, but, oh, that’ll do. You know where this is headed, right?

Throw in a pack of killer dogs, loads of fight scenes, dizzying camera work, a bad guy who is really good guy, the promise of a martial arts tournament (that never really takes place), and all the requisite elements are in place for this type of film.

As I mentioned at the top, despite the title, this isn’t really a Sonny Chiba film. It is a Etsuko Shihomi film, and it is thanks to her, that it works. She is charismatic, convincing in her fight scenes, and carries the film on her slight, but undeniably powerful shoulders.

Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess (1976)

The Bod Squad (1974)

Country: Hong Kong / Germany
Director: Ernst Hofbauer, Chih-Hung Kuei
Starring: Hua Yueh, Hui-Ling Liu, Sonja Jeannine, Diane Drube, Gillian Bray, Tamara Elliot, Deborah Ralls, Hsieh Wang
Music: Fu-ling Wang
Original Title: Yang chi
AKA: Enter the Seven Virgins, Virgins of the Seven Seas, Karate, Küsse, blonde Katzen

Do you like Shaw Brothers swordplay movies? Do you like German nudie movies from the early 1970s? Have you ever wondered what type of film you’d get if you crossed those two styles of film? Well wonder no more, because The Bod Squad is just such a picture.

The plot is wafer thin. As the movie starts, seven women – and as it matters to the plot – five of them being virgins (the two oldest girls have already been deflowered) have been captured by pirates. They were traveling on a ship from England to Australia, because Australia has a shortage of attractive women, and the seven beauties on the boat were to address this imbalance. I can assure you, I am not making this up – that was the reason stated for their journey. I can also assure you Australia does not have a shortage of attractive women – but I digress.

The women are brought to a coastal village where the pirates live when they are not pirating, pillaging, and raping. At this point, you’re probably wondering if the pirates are such rapists, why haven’t they raped their prisoners? Believe me, they want to. And a few even attempt it, only to be cut down by their superiors. You see, the head pirate wants to sell the ‘pure’ girls for a healthy profit. But first they must be cleaned up, which means gratuitous scenes of the girls bathing and being washed. Then they are to be trained in the art of making love – the various techniques, and positions required to please a man. And they are taught to dance.

But unbeknown to the pirates, the girls are also taught Kung-Fu, which of course is a pretty handy skill to have when you are being held prisoner by a band of ruffians. Despite the films story-line, this film is pretty much played as a comedy (at least towards the end), where the scantily-clad girls start to kick the bad guys asses.

In some ways, The Bod Squad could be considered a cinematic template or antecedent for last years Suckerpunch, which has a remarkably similar story – although stylistically miles apart. Both are stories of women imprisoned, subjugated, and trained to be sexual playthings for men, but while the women are surviving the abuse, they are secretly plotting to escape. The big difference between the films being, The Bod Squad has no CGI, but more nudity and Kung Fu.Depending on your personal taste, take that as a plus or a minus.

Here’s the German trailer – NSFW.

The Bod Squad (1974)

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

Country: United States
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Michelle Botes, Larry Poindexter, Gary Conway, Jeff Celentano, Jonathan Pienaar, Bill Curry, Dennis Folbigge, Ralph Draper
Music: Michael Bishop & George S. Clinton

American Ninja 2 is a huge improvement over the first film in the series. It is fast, furious and funny. Yes, that is right, it is funny. The series developed a sense of humour, which considering the silliness of the story, is very welcome. Also Dudikoff and James are much more relaxed and confident in front of the camera. Particularly Dudikoff, who displayed the acting skills of a plank of wood in the first film.

The story starts on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, and three US Marines who are stationed there to protect the US Embassy are racing along a coast road on motorcycles. Before I go any further, let me explain that being stationed at St. Thomas is not like the usual military posting . It is pretty cruisy, with the Marines not required to wear uniform, and seem to spend much of their time, surfing and seducing the female population (the bulk of which, it would appear, spend their whole life clad in bikinis).

The motorcycling Marines stop at a bar for a drink, only to to accosted by some burly locals. Naturally enough a fight ensues, and two of the Marines are knocked out. From the back door a team of black clad Ninja (what is the plural of Ninja? Is it ‘Ninjas’ or is it still just Ninja?) enter the bar and hoist the unconscious men over their shoulders. Then they carry them out the back.

The remaining Marine, Tommy Taylor (Jonathan Pienaar) had been a part of the setup. It appears that he is being blackmailed, as the as yet unknown bad guys are holding his wife hostage. Of course, Taylor reports to his commanding officer (a man known as Wild Bill) that he was knocked out, and does not know what happened to his fellow Marines. However, at the bar, a young boy named Toto was hiding behind a pinball machine, and he witnessed the whole abduction and also reports it to Wild Bill.

The two abducted Marines brings the total of missing Marines to four, and two others disappeared of a motorboat, and Wild Bill makes his report to Washington, telling the tale of the strange black clad Ninja. He asks for help. And what does he receive? A squad of Marines to take control of the situation? No. Two Army Rangers, Sergeant Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) and Sergeant Curtis Jackson (Steve James). On a Marine base, Army Rangers aren’t exactly welcome, and immediately the two men are treated as interfering interlopers. However, as anyone who has seen American Ninja 1 would know, these two men have had experience at fighting teams of Ninja before.

For those not familiar with the characters, let me explain. Joe Armstrong was brought up by a Japanese man, who passed on the skills of Ninjitsu. Now he is the only American who knows the secrets of the Ninja. He is the American Ninja. Curtis Jackson is the enthusiastic amateur. Don’t get me wrong, he is a good martial artist, but good martial arts are nothing compared to the skills of a Master Ninja.

Of course, it isn’t long until turncoat Taylor tries to set Armstrong and Jackson up, and on a beach, a team of Ninja come for them. Naturally our boys fight them off, but of course, their resistance marks them as a threat, and the villains of the piece target them for extermination.

As for the villain, well he’s Leo Bourke (Gary Conway) – known to all and sundry as The Lion. The Lion is the world’s biggest drug dealer, and to stay Number One, he has a plan to create a SuperNinja Army. Utilising misguided bio-geneticist, Professor Sanbourne the Lion’s plan for world domination is close to coming to fruition. On Blackbeard Island, Sanbourne is close to completing a bio-engineered army of SuperNinja, all of them with ultimate fighting skills encoded into their DNA. That’s where the kidnapped Marines come in – they provide DNA for the SuperNinja. Of course, Armstrong and Jackson have to stop them and spend the climax of the movie beating up a whole swag of Ninja. The Marines get involved too, and lots of things blow up.

I cannot stress how much fun this movie is. Sure it has it limitations in budget, and some of that shows on the screen – for example when the Lion is addressing his team of SuperNinja, and outlining his plot for world domination, his corporate logo (half lion/half shuriken) looks to be drawn on a blackboard with chalk. But generally the film acknowledges its limitations and finds ways to work around them. Dudikoff is not a naturally gifted martial artist, so many of his action sequences are more of a typically American action film style; such as bar-room brawls and car chases, or more traditional fisticuffs. It is only at the end that he has to go Ninja, and use swords and knives.

As I mentioned at the top, Dudikoff and James were much more relaxed this time around and work off each other well. James gets the best of the comedy routines, and as the titled American Ninja, Dudikoff is front and centre during most of the action scenes.

Of course, a movie made in 1987 will have dated somewhat in its style. The haircuts and music in particular have an ’80s cringe factor, but you have to expect that sort of thing, and allow it to wash over you. If you can do that, and if you’re in the mood for some low budget Cannon Film (the sign of quality!) hijinx, then American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, dishes out all that could be expected from a film of its kind, and in fact, probably surpasses all expectations.

I cannot argue that this is a spy film, as our heroes are Army Rangers, rather than spies. However there are many familiar espionage tropes – particularly when our heroes storm the villains lair. The glass booths used by the Lion to create his new army of genetic SuperNinja could come out of any ’60s Eurospy flick (particularly Lightning Bolt).

Michael Dudikoff also starred in Avenging Force as a retired secret service operative.

Composer, George S. Clinton did the incidental music for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and its sequels.

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

Out for Justice (1991)

Out For JusticeCountry: United States
Director: John Flynn
Starring: Steven Seagal, William Forsythe, Jerry Orbach, Jo Champa
Music: David Michael Frank

Even as somewhat of a fan, it is hard to explain the rise of Steven Seagal as an action hero. Let’s face it the guy could never act – something that is verified over his long forty plus film career. All of them are shit. But there was a brief moment in the late eighties where he seemed like the real deal – the latest and greatest action hero. He launched himself on the action movie scene in nineteen eighty-seven with Nico: Above the Law – directed by Andrew Davis. I already respected Davis due to his assured direction of Chuck Norris’ Code of Silence. It was a good tough crime film (possibly Chuck’s best) featuring Henry Silva as a villain. Likewise, Nico – yep, Henry Silva was the villain – imbuing the role with his trademark menace.

Next for Seagal came Hard to Kill, which too was also an entertaining cop thriller – with the added bonus of Kelly LeBrock as the female lead. Kelly LeBrock may hardly be worthy of a footnote in cinema history today, but in the eighties, after appearing in the Woman in Red (and Weird Science) she became something of a cultural icon. Furthermore, Seagal had married her. Hard to Kill was directed by Bruce Malmuth, another director that I respected as he had helmed Night Hawks with Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer (a film that I think is still sadly under-rated). So that was two for two. Could Seagal keep knocking them out off the park? Was it genius at work or had he just lucked out wit a couple of directors who knew what they were doing?

His next film was Marked For Death – which I managed to miss – which at the time was fortuitous, because it was crap. So when I first saw Out or Justice I had this impression that Seagal could do no wrong. My first impression of Out For Justice was that it was the toughest cop film since the original Dirty Harry. I may have had a little too much to drink at the time when making that assessment, but none-the-less it ticked all the boxes for a genre flick in that style, and with the added bonus of Seagal’s forceful limb snapping fight scenes. But time and place is such a strange thing. Loading Out for Justice into the DVD player, all these years later, was a strange and disappointing experience.

Sure, the toughness is there. But Seagal as an actor is painful to watch. Some of his line delivery, where he wobbles his head, attempting to mimic some bad ass character from the Godfather movies is dreadful, to the point that there it is distracting and harmful to the movie.

The story itself is wafer thin – however the crucial piece of evidence is not revealed till the end, making the story seem more complex and convoluted than it really is. It starts in Brooklyn (the whole film takes place in Brooklyn) and a cop named Bobby being gunned down in the street in front of his family and kids. The killer is a local thug named Richie (William Forsythe) – who may or may not have mob connections. And Richie is not done yet. He intends to turn the borough into a bloody war-zone.

Now Bobby, just so happened to be the partner of Gino Felino (Steven Seagal) – partner, as in, on the police force. Which immediately means that Gino wants revenge. The film delivers the requisite ‘Back off, you’re too close’ spiel from Gino’s superiors, but our mad as hell hero, shrugs that off with an icy stare. It appears that everybody is aware the Gino will not be stopped in his quest to stop Richie.

Adding another layer of plot convolution, it is revealed that Bobby, Richie and Gino were all boyhood friends – almost like brothers, so there is a twisted low-rent Shakespearean element that Gino must kill his brother, because he killed his brother – if that makes sense.

And finally, just to throw another hoary old chestnut into the fire, as I alluded to earlier, it is suggested that Richie has mob connections. But when he guns down a cop on the street, the full weight of the police force comes down on illegal activity in the area, particularly the mob rackets. So Richie’s rampage is bad for business, and the mob leaders also want Richie’s head on a pike. So it’s a race. Who will get to Richie first – Gino or the mob?

One of the most incongruous parts of the movie – and don’t get me wrong, in some ways one of the best pieces – is when Gino inherits a puppy that has been tossed from the window of a moving vehicle. Despite the fact that Gino has a family, and as such, as viewers we should identify with the peril that we find them in – and how Gino responds to that predicament, it is strange that an empathy for the puppy is stronger than for Gino’s familial unit. However, ultimately the puppy appears to be shoehorned into the story, simply for a comedic tagline at the conclusion of the movie. After all the bloodletting and violence, the puppy pisses on the person who discarded him in the first place. A kind of urinal retribution. As I said, such a slight and light sequence appears as a clumsy attempt to provide a hint of humanity to a film which until this moment has displayed a single-minded and relentless presentation of the most macho and bullshit heroics ever portrayed on the screen.

Recently, as I have been revisiting a lot of my childhood favourite films, I have found time to be a very cruel experience. Maybe my memory is going. Or I have simply grown up. I admit there was an occasion when watching films from the late ’70s and early ’80s where I used to get worked up about bad hairstyles and dated music scores. These days I am not so worried by them. Sure, I will remark upon them, as I think they are funny. But I don’t let them get under my skin and accept them for what they are – part and parcel of the times that the films were made in. But the truly disappointing aspect has been the acting and the action. Maybe I am more worldly now and have watched a substantial amount of Hong Kong cinema from the same era. As much as I appreciated Out For Justice for its fight scenes when it was released, compare it to some early Jet Li films. Not only are Jet’s film is superior on an action level, as an actor (even if the Western viewer has to read his dialogue through subtitles) he is far more convincing and emotive.

At the top of this review, I waxed lyrically about how I had once considered this one of the best of Steven Seagal’s films. My appreciation of the film may have changed, but unfortunately it still remains one of Seagals highlights – his best is undoubtedly Under Siege (also directed by Andrew Davis), and maybe Nico runs a close second. Since the early 1990s Seagal’s career has been on a steady and persistently painful downward spiral. I hate to do this but compare Seagal to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and while both actors have consistently made crap since their halcyon action star days, Jean-Claude for most part, it almost seems like the budget, script, happenstance and downright bad luck have played a factor in the lack of quality in his productions. I will exclude JCVD from this equation because it appears to be an anomaly. But Jean-Claude appears to try, but for whatever reason falls short. My perception – and that is just what that is, my own personal opinion – is that Steven Seagal doesn’t give a shit. If you look at is recent output, you can clearly see stuntmen who look nothing like the man they are doubling for, and hear other actors audio dubbing Seagal’s lines. If Seagal himself can’t be bothered to work on and improve any film that he appears in an why should we as fans, actually care at all. I almost see it as an insult.

I guess, at least I have my memories of when Seagal first burst onto the action movie circuit – he was young, slim and full of energy and even if his acting didn’t pass muster at least he appeared to care and so the flaws in the movie could be overlooked. That certainly applies to Out for Justice – it’s a very flawed movie but despite its shortcomings it can still be watched and enjoyed for what it is which cannot be said for the bulk of Seagal’s work.

Out for Justice (1991)

Out of Reach (2004)

Out of ReachCountry: United States / Poland
Director: Po-Chih Leong
Starring: Steven Seagal, Ida Nowakowska, Agnieszka Wagner, Matt Schulze, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Nick Brimble
Music: Alex Heffes

Posted on Permission To Kill over the last few days, you will find quite a few reviews for (spy) films starring Steven Seagal. All of them are light years away from Under Siege, undeniably Seagal’s most popular film, and biggest box office success. But if I had to pick one of the films, Out Of Reach would have to be the best. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that this is a good film, it is simply the best of a bad bunch. What lifts this film above the others is the story about child trafficking. Seagal’s relationship with the children in the movie give it a humanity that is lacking in the other films. Having said that, it is also one of the film’s weaknesses. The films focus on the child actors almost steer it towards being a family film, but the films villains are too repugnant and the violence is far too graphic for younger viewers.

Here’s the synopsis: Seagal plays native American William Lancing. It appears that Lancing used to be a C.S.A. agent and had participated is some morally dubious missions. Since then he has gone into a self imposed retirement. Agencies like the C.S.A. don’t let their agents simply walk away, so in effect Lancing is in hiding. He does his penance in the Rockies where he lives a quiet life helping injured animals. His only real contact with the outside world is a young girl, Irena Morawska (Ida Nowakowska) who lives in an orphanage in Poland. Through an outreach program, Lancing and Irena are pen-pals. Each month he writes to her, sending puzzles, codes and ciphers for her to solve. She thinks the puzzles are fun and has no idea that they the remnants of Lancing’s former life.

As Irena reaches her fifteenth birthday, she has to leave the orphanage. To help her, and some of the other girls that have to leave, the Director of the orphanage has arranged for a gentleman named Faisal (Matt Schulze – Blade 2, The Transporter) to collect the girls. He comes to the orphanage, presents each girl with a rose, then whisks them off to a better life. Well, not quite. In fact, Faisal deals in human trafficking, and is about to auction off the girls to the highest bidder.

Before leaving, Irena hands her next letter to Lansing, to the Director of the orphanage to forward on. The letter does get sent forward, but without Irena’s message. Instead a new note has been inserted in the envelope. It says that Irena will no longer be able to correspond with Lancing. Naturally he wants to know why. Even if she has left the orphanage, there should be nothing to stop her from writing. Right?

Lancing boards the next plane to Poland and starts his own investigation into Irena’s whereabouts. Along the way, he teams up with a Polish policewoman, Kasia (Agnieszka Wagner), and unwittingly adopts a boy from the orphanage,Nikki (Jan Plazalski). You can see that the film-makers almost got the family unit happening, with Lancing and Kasia as the surrogate parents, and Irena and Nikki as the children. But as I said at the top, this isn’t a family film. It has a full scale shoot out at a whorehouse, and the film culminates in a vicious sword fight.

If you are a fan of Steven Segal (there must be one or two of you out there), then you may find Out Of Reach an entertaining diversion for an hour and a half, but beyond that, there’s not enough espionage for it to be a good spy flick, it’s too violent for a family film, and there’s not enough mayhem for it to stand up as a good action movie. What you are left with is a film that looks quite okay, in a moody European way, and has a few good set pieces, but as a whole never really satisfies. And the most annoying aspect of this film, is that some of the dialogue appears to be overdubbed later, and that Seagal (who was an executive producer on this flick), didn’t even dub his own lines. When the star / producer can not even be bothered to fix up the films mistakes, then you know his heart isn’t in the project. If he doesn’t care, why should we?

Out of Reach (2004)