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.