Friday, 1 June 2012

Mickey Hardt

Swiss martial artist Mickey Hardt had a better chance than most at becoming the next big action hero. He’d played the lead in a short-lived German series (“Der Puma” 1999-2000) in which his fights were coordinated by Donnie Yen and he’d played a vampire villain in a Hong Kong movie called The Twins Effect (2003) which featured a cameo by Jackie Chan.

For his first English language role, the Taekwondo practitioner was cast in a leading role as Muay-Thai kickboxer turned photographer Max Havoc (I assume the initials are similar intentionally) in what ambitious producer John Laing said “may well be the one of the most exciting martial arts franchises to come along in years”. It wasn’t. The first film, Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon (2004) seemed have a curse of its own.

Directed by Albert Pyun, but with some sequences by Isaac Florentine, Curse of the Dragon had about as much credibility and production value as you can get in a low budget genre film. While not being cinema quality, it featured several marketable names in supporting roles, an exotic Pacific Island location and a very credible stunt team.

Albert Pyun has worked with a lot of famous performers (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Charlie Sheen) but his films invariably attract derision for one reason or another. Curse of the Dragon not only had a bad script and a pointless cameo by Carmen Electra, but resulted in a legal battle.

Unreleased until 2007, this film about bikini-clad girls pursued by Japanese assassins was apparently supposed to attract interest in Guam both as a resort and a filming location. It only attracted curiosity and ridicule.

Albert Pyun’s style can be plodding and self-indulgent, but when restrained his films can be enjoyably straight-forward in the same league as those of Jim Wynorski or Fred Olen Ray. Curse of the Dragon is like this. Though it looks like a TV movie at times, it’s a film that’s enjoyable even though deeply flawed.

The villains are cartoonish and the plot is threadbare and occasionally confusing but those are fairly typical characteristics. The real problem is that for every element of production value, there’s a counterpoint that demonstrates this is an exploitation film through and through.

The same piece of flashback footage used time and again, grainy stock footage (motorbikes, bustling cities, airport terminals), the fact that 85% of the film seems to take place in a hotel (the Outrigger) and that several scenes outside of it appear to have been shot on the same poorly decorated set. A bar, antique shop, the Grand Master’s lair and wherever the climax is supposed to be taking place all seem to be the same location.

Max is one of those heroes who trouble seems to follow around. He goes to Guam knowing that he’ll see his old trainer but from that point coincidences pile one on top of another. The trainer is now an antique dealer (another odd career change) who comes into possession of a stolen artifact (the jade dragon) and is killed, but not before selling it to desperate art dealer Jane Goody who needs money to put her sister through medical school.

Because of this she continually refuses to hand back the jade dragon (which looks like what it is, a cheap prop) and puts lives at risk, including Max’s. The story goes on and on making little sense, culminating in the obligatory showdown and rescue of a damsel-in-distress.

Curse of the Dragon is oddly less of a star vehicle for Hardt than one might expect. Love interest Jane (Polish-born model Joanna Krupa) seems to get as much screentime as he does and play a much more significant role in the story. She's a more important, if vapid character, that Max just helps out.

He attempts to negotiate peacefully with the villains, an order called The Black Dragons, led by David Carradine as the Grand Master (!), essentially a reprise of Bill from Kill Bill (2003/4), who we also see repeatedly in Max’s flashbacks. The Grand Master has a photograph of Max on his desk (!) which led me to wonder if he was his former manager, but this is never clear in the film.

Because of all the things that are strange, odd or infamous about the making of Curse of the Dragon, Mickey Hardt is lost in the mix. Overshadowed by the likes of Carradine and even Krupa. There’s an emphasis on his angst about taking an opponent’s life (flashback footage repeated ad nauseum) but that’s the beginning and the end of his character development. He’s clearly a skilled martial artist and has notable fight scenes with Johnny Nguyen and Arnold Chon and it's a shame this didn't lead on to better things.

Max was supposed to have a second adventure in Guam; speaking in an interview Hardt said of the sequel that “I’m going to be back in Guam” and how much he was looking forward to it. But after the legal debacle production was relocated to less exotic Canada, while the setting was changed to Washington. No bikini-clad girls this time. I can only assume that the producers were obligated to deliver the planned sequel and had to cut costs to do so.

Max Havoc: Ring of Fire (2006) was little more than a bland reworking of several plot elements from the first film. Once again Max was on a photographic assignment at a holiday resort and his camera is what leads him to meet someone who needs his help; in this case a homeless orphan who steals it ala Kickboxer 3: The Art of War (1992). He’s still haunted by the death of his opponent (we see the same footage just a couple of times though) and reluctant to deliver any fatal blows.

There are none of the interesting elements of the first film. Pyun had handed the reins over to experienced TV director Terry Ingram, the cast was starved of stars (there was only Dean Cain, Christina Cox, Rae Dawn Chong, Martin Kove and Linda Thorson) and the action sequences, while decent, are not to the same standard. The plot is more simplistic but less silly and the villains less extravagant. While there’s nothing laughable about Ring of Fire, there’s nothing engaging about it either.

While Curse of the Dragon is infamous, Ring of Fire is anonymous. Little seen and with good reason. Feeling even more like a TV movie than its predecessor. Ring of Fire had nothing distinctive about it. Even the fights, coordinated by Steve McMichael, lacked the impact of those by Jonathan Eusebio and J.J. Perry in the first. Max doesn’t have any decent opponents and Mickey Hardt fails to make much of an impression.

Hardt has had no other high profile English-language roles since the premature death of the Max Havoc “franchise”. It’s hard to find DVDs of anything besides the Twins Effect and Max Havoc films, but he has a long list of credits on the imdb. None appear to be leading roles.

Hardt will apparently be amongst the supporting cast of Til Schweiger’s upcoming self-directed action vehicle Schutzengel (Guardian Angel). But the fact that the 43-year-old is apparently credited only as False Police Officer does not sound promising.