Friday, 19 November 2010

Steve Guttenberg

The role of cheeky cop Carey Mahoney in the first four Police Academy movies made Steve Guttenberg an icon, forever associated with comical roles, he's the last person you’d expect to see in a straight action movie.

The producers of Canadian thriller Airborne obviously felt differently, choosing the actor to headline their low budget effort back in 1998.

Perhaps understandably fed up of being typecast in bland nice guy roles, Guttenberg stopped grinning and started scowling.

Having established himself in the 1980s with the extremely successful Police Academy (1984), Cocoon (1985) and 3 Men and a Baby (1987), not to mention their sequels, Guttenberg was simply unable to sustain his success into the 1990s.

While fellow funny man Tom Hanks’s star continued to rise beyond the 80s, Guttenberg’s fell and fizzled. Generally cast only in low budget family comedies, playing charming single fathers in films like It Takes Two (1995) and Zeus and Roxanne (1997).

As the big screen roles dried up he continued to find steady work in family films shown on TV and released direct-to-video, such as Casper: A Spirited Beginning (1997), and he’s become a staple of the genre.

But as his 40th birthday approached he attempted to trade those single father roles for the chance to play a tough guy. The opportunity came first with Overdrive (1997), an obscure TV thriller from Roger Corman’s stable that cast Guttenberg as a racecar driver. But it was Airborne, made soon after, that really gave the one-time joker the chance to kick some ass.

Apparently shot for less than three million dollars in Toronto, Airborne is a blatant attempt to imitate blockbuster successes such as The Rock (1996), Face Off (1997), Mission: Impossible (1996). While Guttenberg is miscast, trading in his natural warmth for a cold stare, he does a serviceable job playing gruff, unshaven, scarred special ops soldier Bill McNeill.

The plot finds Guttenberg’s elite “Mach One” team tasked with gaining possession of a stolen biological weapon, but as usual the mission goes awry and things get complicated. One of the team is killed, another barely survives and McNeill finds himself under suspicion and on the run and after 80 bland minutes Guttenberg runs around with two-guns, John Woo-style, uncovers the traitor and retrieves the weapon.

This cheap, derivative production got international distribution (the casting of Sean Bean in a villainous supporting role got it noticed here in the UK) but it’s reviews were poor and a return to family flicks and TV work was inevitable.

Guttenberg’s continued to make efforts to find roles in more mature movies, such as the German-made thriller Fatal Rescue (2008) and slasher movie Cornered (2009), but he’s destined to continue to be associated with juvenile fare such as The Gold Retrievers (aka Bosco and Me, 2010).

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Blake Bahner

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Roger Corman and collaborator Cirio H. Santiago cast every kickboxer they met in their cheap action movies shot in the Philippines. But for every Don Wilson or Jerry Trimble they discovered there was a guy like Blake Bahner, destined for obscurity.

Little is know about Bahner. Scouring the web for biographical information I could find only his birthdate (14/02/1959) and even that I'm uncertain of. What is known is that he starred in a handful of B-movies, including Lethal Pursuit (1988) and Contra Conspiracy (1990), before apparently making his final bid for stardom in 1993's Blackbelt 2: Fatal Force.

Like other Corman action stars, Bahner’s name appears on the poster and the film credits to Blackbelt 2 together with his status as a World Kickboxing Champion. This is, in my experience, a marketing strategy typical only in Corman films.

Sharing nothing in common with its 1992 predecessor, the film was titled as a sequel only to give it a better shot at making a profit and was in fact made several years earlier than that Don Wilson vehicle.

Shot and released outside the USA in 1988 as Spyder, the film was reedited with new scenes added and deceptively released as both a new film and a sequel. Original director Joe Mari Avellana shares credit with Kevin Tent on the rehash. It's interesting to note that Tent has gone on to a very successful career editing films of the caliber of Sideways (2004) and The Golden Compass (2007).

One wonders why Spyder failed to get a domestic release in its original form, surely it couldn't be any worse than the film it ultimately became? Copies of the original cut are so rare that I guess only Fred Adelman knows the answer to that question.

All this backstory is far more interesting than the film itself, which has some nice old school action (you simply don’t get motorcycle stunts and bar fights like this in action movies anymore) but is far too messy.

At it’s heart a revenge movie about a renegade cop hunting down the man who killed his partner, but while this was enough to motivate the hero writer Steve Rogers seems to have had greater aspirations for the film as a whole. Sidelining his hero for half the movie so as to develop a complex plot.

With dark hair, blue jeans and plenty of attitude, Brad Spyder is your typical less than one-dimensional hero. The only thing we know about him is that he’s a cop and when his partner dies he wants revenge, that’s it. He gets into a lot of fist and gun fights and even goes Rambo at the film’s climax, but he doesn’t make much of an impression. In fact he seems like a bit of a jerk. He actually introduces himself to one lowlife as “Brad Spyder. Your worst nightmare.” and it's these moments that remind us why Stallone is so great at these kinds of roles.

After establishing his badass credentials in a drawn out rooftop brawl, Spyder argues with his “Irish” lieutenant about his excessive methods and then sits on the sidelines for a good half an hour, waiting to be called into play. This happens a little past the half-way point in the film's 77 minute running time, when Spyder heads to Hawaii to seek justice.

Needless to say, Blackbelt 2 didn’t prove to be a breakthrough for Bahner. After several years in the business he disappeared from screens in 1996 following a film called Cyberstalker aka The Digital Prophet.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Jorgo Ognenovski

When people talk about good/bad movies they’re talking about films like Warrior of Justice (1995), the starring debut of wannabe action hero Jorgo Ognenovski.

Almost certainly in the same league as Ed Wood’s “classics” Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), it’s awesome for all the wrong reasons and it’s no surprise that Ognenovski failed in his bid to become the Macedonian Jean-Claude Van Damme.

In that most cliché of roles, he plays a Karate instructor called George Pendovsky who investigates the mysterious disappearance of one of his pupils. Of course he finds out it’s all to do with death matches organised for the amusement of wealthy and decadent spectators and he goes on a lone mission for justice.

Seeking the help of his own Sensei, called Doug, George intensifies his training (cue montage) and arms himself with a crossbow to turn vigilante and make an assault on the villain’s lair in the final act.

They don’t make them like this anymore, there’s a villain with an eye-patch, gratuitous nudity, a “love scene” played out against a cheesy ballad and a soundtrack of synthesizers and wailing guitars.

Also known as Invitation To Die and The Steel Ring, Warrior of Justice was co-written and co-directed by Ognenovski and has all the hallmarks of a vanity project. Not only does the star take his shirt off on several occasions but his pants too; his misguided sense of confidence evident as much in his “love” scenes as his fights.

From the opening credits in which Ognenovski demonstrates his moves against a black background to the training montage, Warrior of Justice sticks rigidly to the conventions of the genre. No cliché is left untouched. The fight choreography by Bill Ruysaki (the spelling on imdb is Ryusaki) and Ognenovski himself is routine at best, generally like watching rehearsal footage rather than convincing confrontations. But such an accusation can be weighed against many other low-budget action movies and it’s not Ognenovski’s lack of screen presence that makes this such a hoot.

The weakest part of the movie is not its fight choreography but it’s soundtrack. A significant amount of dialogue is inaudible and when you can hear it’s often terribly written. The score is also intrusive, with sound levels rising and falling throughout. It's formulaic, sleazy and often incoherent.

Much unintentional humour comes from the terrible script, but there’s plenty of amusement to be found elsewhere too. Richard Lynch is miscast as martial arts master Doug and villain Jorge Rivero has a two-minute “foreplay” scene that’s completely pointless.

But it’s Ognenovski who’s on screen for the best/worst moments. The most memorable being a) when he shakes his fist when a child is hurt, b) strips naked and wriths away on top of his female co-star in a dojo, c) exchanges his deadly crossbow for a garden rake during the climax and d) has a poorly staged climactic swordfight with Rivero.

Ognenovski has two other obscure credits as director and actor, Stalked (2000) and Black Hole (2002), but it’s hard to imagine that either of those titles would bring as much joy as this.

To buy a copy of this film click here.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Colin Egglesfield

Quite how model turned actor Colin Egglesfield wound up cast as the lead in a kung fu vampire flick is a mystery to me.

Though a recognized US TV star, did the producers of Vampires: The Turning (2005) think fans of soap All My Children would flock to see an action-packed horror movie?

Egglesfield looks a bit like Tom Cruise and apparently trains in martial arts, but when you watch the movie the casting choice seems unusual, but then so is the film.

Shot in Thailand, it’s the second sequel to the underwhelming John Carpenter movie Vampires (1998) but it’s hard to believe as it shares so little in common with its two predecessors.

Vampires and its sequel, Vampires: Los Muertos (2002), were about teams of Vatican-financed vampire hunters, led by James Woods and Jon Bon Jovi respectively. This threequel is completely different thematically, the slayers are little seen, there’s a different vampire mythology and wire-fu action scenes aplenty.

You get the impression that D.B. Farmer and Andy Hurst’s script was initially completely unrelated to its predecessors and lazily tailored to suit this wannabe franchise.

The slayers, similar to those that appeared in the first two films but now led by Belgian Patrick Bachau’s Raines, are relegated to supporting roles and the lead is an outsider played by Egglesfield. Fearlessly tracking down the bad guy who’s kidnapped his girlfriend, he finds himself in the middle of a war between good and evil vampires.

We first meet Egglesfield’s character Conner at a kickboxing match. He tells us, via some heavy-handed expository dialogue with his on-screen girlfriend, that he’s “studied and trained Muay-Thai since I was a kid” and before you know it she’s been kidnapped and he spends the rest of the film trying to rescue her.

Low budget but notable for production design and cinematography that’s heavy on shades of red, The Turning is an unremarkable action movie and a lame sequel. Acrobatic, bike riding vampires enliven proceedings on occasion but for the most part it’s slowly paced and takes itself far too seriously. Egglesfield spends the majority of the film looking bewildered but handles himself well during the action scenes with the villains with the claws and contact lenses, though he has some help from stunt doubles Dean Alexandrou and Kawee Sirikhanaerut, also the film’s stunt coordinator.

Egglesfield was never destined to be an action star. After starring in Marty Weiss’s film he continued to build a following on daytime TV before briefly moving to prime time in the resurrected drama Melrose Place. However his character was axed after 13 episodes.

With no other significant projects on the horizon, according to imdb, Egglesfield is likely to be keeping himself busy with auditions and the running of his clothing company Shout Out!. The T-shirt company is “based on the concept of customizable, interactive apparel and accessories that facilitate and promote creativity and self expression.” Which is a fancy way of saying T-shirts that you can stick Velcro letters on.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Ho-Sung Pak

Before attempting to become the next Asian action hero, long-haired Korean-American Wushu champion Ho-Sung Pak was stunt coordinator for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze and doubled for Raphael, the leader of the group transformed from the norm by the nuclear goop.

He made screen debut fighting non other than Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2 (aka Legend of the Drunken Master, after which he appeared in WMAC Masters (1995-1997) hosted by Shannon Lee and played a lead role in the coming-of-age/action movie Epoch of Lotus (2000).

Though that was technically his starring debut as an action star it never got an international release and has yet to become available on DVD. It was with his second feature, supernatural cop movie Book of Swords (2003), that he made his debut proper.

Certainly looking the part, Pak was more than proficient in the fight scenes, which he also choreographed, making the movie an excellent showcase while not entirely satisfactory as a whole. The film is hugely entertaining. The plot’s blend of revenge and prophecy-fulfillment fantasy is an uneasy one but the climactic 15 minutes of the movie is almost non-stop awesome action.

Donning a red headband in the climactic sequence, Pak brings to mind Robin Shou of the Mortal Kombat films. In fact both have played that game’s hero Liu Kang; Pak in the first two games and Shou in the films.

In terms of quality filmmaking, Pak fared much better in Lesser of Three Evils, made a year later. This time one of three main characters. He’s part of an ensemble this time, alongside experienced character actors Peter Greene and Roger Guenveur Smith.

Out for revenge again, though this time playing a hitman, Pak is the titular Lesser of Three Evils. A combination of action and crime drama, it’s a decent movie and the action scenes further proof that Pak is a screen force to be reckoned with.

While Pak has all the qualities to be a martial arts superstar (Ho Sung means Superstar in Korean) he has yet to become one. Despite starring roles in three independent films of increasing quality his career as a leading man has stalled, much like that of Book of Swords co-star Taimak.

This obviously wasn’t helped when Lesser of Three Evils remained unreleased because of a lengthy legal dispute; after first changing its title to Blood Money and represented by Uwe Boll’s company Boll World Sales it was released on DVD in 2009, the title amended to the more commercial Fist of the Warrior.

Pak has gone on to appear in a couple of Uwe Boll videogame adaptations (Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne, both 2005) and the directorial debuts of actors James Lew 18 Fingers of Death! (2006) and Aki Aleong (I Am Somebody: No Chance in Hell, 2008)

Click here to see The Slant's Spotlight Profile clip.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Jason Field

Maximum Cage Fighting (2006) sounds like the title for a documentary, or yet another fight scene compilation DVD made for fans of UFC and Cage Rage, but it’s a proper, albeit very low budget martial arts flick with some surprisingly well choreographed action.

Playing a former Tae Kwon Do champion forced to enter a grudge match is Virginian Jason Field. The profile on the website for his school, Inyodo Martial Arts, states Field has over 15 years of martial arts experience. “Training daily in Taekwondo, Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Jason holds a Black Belt in Taekwondo, a purple belt in Jiu-Jitsu and is a ten-year veteran of professional kickboxing.” He made his starring debut in this movie.

Field’s character in the movie is hardly a million miles from his real life persona. His character, Jimmy Garren, runs a Tae Kwon Do school (just as he does) and his co-star Jun Chong is his real life sensei. Fact and fiction are intermingled; Chong also plays a variation on his true persona, as does Brazilian Jiu-Jistsu legend Professor Renzo Gracie.

Though Field is the star, this is really Chong’s project. He came up with the story and his daughter Joanna wrote the script. Chong is no newcomer, fans may be aware that he starred in a couple of Lee-sploitation flicks under the pseudonym Bruce Lea back in the 1970s and a couple of other films in the 80s and 90s. It’s great to see that he doesn’t just stay on the sidelines, he gets in on the action and has a pretty cool one-on-one fight at the climax with Harper’s trainer, played by the film’s choreographer Chul Jin M. Kim.

According to the movie’s official site, Chong himself offered Field the lead role, clearly aware he’d been struggling to pursue an acting career himself. Maximum Cage Fighting did not lead to a fully fledged career in Hollywood and according to the Internet Movie Database it remains his sole screen credit to date.

The plot of Maximum Cage Fighting echoes the likes of Commando (1985), Kickboxer 3: The Art of War (1992) and Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006), with the hero traveling to Brazil to learn a new discipline to take on the mixed martial arts champion (Nick “The Nasty” Harper played by Chris Torres) who has kidnapped his daughter.

The “grudge match” plot is straight-forward enough but the kidnapping plot device is absurd. When Jimmy Garren gets a call from the kidnappers demanding that he train for a fight, one that will take place in several weeks, he agrees instantly!

Action heroes don’t normally call the police, but they don’t usually play along with the villain’s demands to this extent. It’s a plot device that’s all too often forgotten, with Garren traveling to Rio de Janeiro and seeming to forget about his daughter. He even makes time for sightseeing and romance! The occasional scene reminds him and us of the distress she’s in.

Though it’s a bit clumsily assembled, with heavy-handed “emotional” scenes, OTT rock song training montages and an absurd premise, Maximum Cage Fighting is actually one of the best straight martial arts flicks of recent years and well worth checking out.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Dominic La Banca

The cover for 90s fight flick Dragon Fire features several quotes of praise for the movie from the action community, one of which says "Forget Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal! Dominic La Banca would tear them to shreds!"

Quite whether they made this judgment based on what they saw in this movie is unclear, what is clear is that aside from the capability to do a decent roundhouse there was nothing unique about La Banca onscreen that led him to challenge either of these two Hollywood heavyweights.

In his defense, La Banca (aka Dominick LaBanca) says “The first fight scene dislocated my clavicle bone and crushed my shoulder joint, I was only at 10% of my ability! I finished the entire shoot even though I needed immediate surgery. I promise you the pain was excruciating.”

La Banca and his mullet burst onto video store shelves in 1993, in what fans soon discovered was nothing more than a sci-fi reworking of Don Wilson’s Bloodfist (1989). Actually one of two remakes (the other was Full Contact) of that film in the same year by director Rick Jacobson! Even more absurdly, Dragon Fire would ultimately be remade as an official remake (titled Bloodfist 2050) in 2005. The man behind all these films is B-movie king Roger Corman!

In all versions of the story a guy comes looking for his brother, discovers he’s been murdered, goes in search of the killer, enters world of underground fighting to do this, falls in love with a stripper and faces the killer at the climax. The simplistic narrative enlivened by alternating fight sequences and gratuitous strip club sequences. In the Dragon Fire version La Banca is the hero and Jim Wynorski makes a cameo as master of ceremonies at the stripclub. Not much is notable.

Of course it's not hard to see why Corman's New Concorde outfit would be keen to put LaBanca in a lead role. Like Don Wilson, he could have been the lead in a huge number of Corman cheapies. With his youth, kicking skills and Italian-American good looks he could have been the next big thing. Or at least the next Ken Wahl or Michael Dudikoff. He wasn’t either and Dragon Fire was not only his sole leading role but his only acting credit for many years.

Over a decade passed before La Banca returned to movies, playing supporting roles in a handful of action movies with even lower budgets than Corman’s films. These include Street Survival (2006) and Director (2008), on which he was also Stunt Coordinator. There have also been TV projects such as Kings of South Beach (2007).

“I was out of the movie industry for nearly 10 years after Dragon Fire because of personal reasons." says La Banca. "I'm 40, I'm back, and move better than ever. I'm versed in many styles of martial arts and waiting for the opportunity to be seen in future films.”

La Banca can also be found on Myspace, Facebook and YouTube.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Masa Funaki

Masa Funaki (aka Masakatsu Funaki aka Masaharu Okada) is a big name in Japan and the world of MMA and Japanese pro-wrestling.

Together with Minoru Suzuki he created the Mixed martial arts organization Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling around the same time as America’s UFC.

After his last match in 2000, he began to take on a number of acting roles, most significant was his international film debut in a low-budget, high-concept martial arts flick called Shadow Fury.

A unintentionally hilarious genre hybrid from 2002, Makoto Yokoyama’s wild near future “cowboy vs. ninja” tale is the kind of absurd movie that could have been made by Cannon in the 1980s. If it had it would almost certainly have starred Chuck Norris and Sho Kosugi.

East meets West is a popular theme in action movies, often based on squabbling and culture clashes, few are as curiously inventive as this movie. Not even the frankly bizarre pairing of Roddy Piper and Sonny Chiba in Immortal Combat (1994) in match the straight-faced lunacy of Shadow Fury.

Yokoyama’s movie stars Sam Bottoms (imitating Clint Eastwood rather than Chuck Norris) as a hard-drinking mercenary hired to track down a rogue Japanese assassin. Motivated not by money but by his need for a new liver! A liver that he can get from the sword-wielding assassin Takeru! Making a liver a plot device is part of what makes this film so much fun.

With a couple of mad scientists and a couple of guest appearances by none other than Fred Williamson, Shadow Fury a deliriously fun B-movie. Character actor Bottoms growls his dialogue and seems to be taking the whole thing very seriously. The plot is borderline camp but the execution is totally straight. There are pauses for drama and a sombre ending. It’s an extremely curious film.

Boasting incredible choreography and stuntwork by the much respected Alpha Stunts team, Shadow Fury casts Funaki in what is apparently a villainous role. He plays Takeru, a clone warrior ninja programmed to kill. At the command of a wild-haired scientist played by Pat Morita Takeru embarks on a mission of vengeance. But all is not straightforward. He’s a sympathetic monster, a Frankenstein-like creation that discovers his humanity when he forges an unlikely relationship with a young prostitute. Think Leon meets Danny the Dog.

It’s no surprise that another villain is introduced the duo then unite to face. In the tradition of Drive and Robocop 3, Kismet is next generation opponent. A killer engineered with none of the capacity for compassion that Takura has.

A hastily matured clone, Kismet is played by three fine fighters, the youngest is Twilight saga’s Taylor Lautner in his screen debut, the second is John Stork, whose only other imdb credit is as a contestant in the Stan Lee "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" reality TV show (his superhero name was Hyper-Strike) and finally by UFC icon Bas Rutten. Funaki and Rutten had faced each other more than once in the ring prior, so fans would no doubt have been thrilled with this casting.

Aside from a small role in David Worth's Honor (2006), Funaki hasn’t appeared in an American action film since. He’s had plenty of supporting roles in Japanese projects, most notably Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) alongside fellow fighter Don Frye, but Shadow Fury stands as his sole leading role to date. It’s really hard to see why.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Jason Yee

If Bruce Lee had ever made a blaxploitation movie the results may not have been a lot different to Dark Assassin, the writing, producing and directing and starring debut of ambitious Chinese-American kung fu and kickboxing champion Jason “Ming” Yee. Although it would certainly have had a lot more action.

Inspired as much by Clint Eastwood and Robert Rodriquez as Lee, Yee wanted to direct his own star vehicle and made Dark Assassin independently for only $80 thousand. Over three years! According to the IMDB, 80% of the movie was shot in 2001 with the other 20% shot in 2002 and 2003, but post-production was not completed until 2005.

The results are unremarkable, the plot finds yet another tough guy released from prison and unable to stay out of trouble,
and it’s difficult to stay interested.

That is until we reach the 42 minute point of this 75 minute movie, when Yee does a Bruce Lee impression and kicks serious ass in a warehouse action sequence. This scene jolts the viewer out of boredom and raises expectations. Sadly it lasts less than two minutes and the rest of the movie is more bland. When Yee faces off with MMA favourite Cung Le at the climax it’s nowhere near as exciting as you want it to be.

When Yee embraces his uncanny resemblance to Bruce Lee (and Brandon Lee) and pays homage to the master it’s great fun to watch but this brief scene is the movie’s only real redemptive feature. Sure it’s good to see indiscriminate actor Tony Todd make a few brief appearances and note some pre-24 use of the split-screen device, but the negatives far outweigh the positives.

Dark Assassin is more Game of Death 2 than Game of Death; a poor sound mix buries much of the dialogue from the inexperienced cast under a cheesy score and Yee doesn’t make much of an impression as an action hero.

Generally you never get a second chance to make a first impression, well he did, in the equally retro The Girl from the Naked Eye (David Ren, 2011).

Several years after Dark Assassin, The Girl from the Naked Eye purports to be Yee’s first movie. The credits say “Introducing Jason Yee” as though he’d never made a film before. The latter has certainly been far better received and gives Yee a better chance at breaking out as an action star.

Similarly independent but boasting much stronger production values, a better supporting cast (including Gary Stretch and Dominique Swain) and many great action sequences, The Girl from the Naked Eye is a Neo-noir revenge movie and everything Dark Assassin wasn’t. Highly stylized and slow burning, Yee was once again instrumental in the film’s production, not only as star, but co-writer, a producer, a second unit director and action choreographer.

Once again cast as an anti-hero, Yee plays Jake, an underworld heavy escorting prostitutes around the city. He's the strong silent type and cares deeply for one of these women. When he finds her dead sets he off on a quest for truth and vengeance with no concern for his own welfare.

Yee has significant skills as a screen fighter and any disappointment fight fans experienced watching his showdown with Cung Le is more than compensated for by the one he has with Capoeira fighter Lateef Crowder from Tom Yum Goong (aka Warrior King, Prachya Pinkaew, 2005).

Co-star and experienced fight coordinator Ron Yuan deserves a great deal of credit. His action scenes, which include a side-on single take corridor fight scene inspired by Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003), complement the storyline making this one of the most satisfying action films of in recent years.

Time will tell whether The Girl with the Naked Eye will propel Yee on to better things. Even if it doesn’t, and it takes several more years, I’m sure Yee will be back.