Monday, 19 December 2016

Total Cults Presents: The 2016 Culties!

Welcome to the first in our soon to become annual awards. The stage is lit, the red carpet rolled out and the 'Culties', a statue sculpted from still wet clay that this year resembles Godzilla's son Minilla, ready to post (concerns have been raised that when fed through the recipient's letterbox it may appear as if someone is taking a massive dump as some kind of dirty prank. These concerns have been ignored). With everything set the Total Cults team have cast our eyes back on all the films we've written about this year and pulled out some of the key moments that impressed us.

Action Scene of the Year

This year we've seen a lot of organised carnage but the picks below represent some of the most ambitious and exciting battles we've ever seen. They also feature superheroes, nudity, aeroplanes and cult actors going-ape shit with katanas.

The Nominations are:

High Altitude Finale (Robot Overlords)
Playing Chicken with Aeroplanes (Wicked City)
Superhero Showdown (Super Inframan)
Mountaintop Ninja Battle (G.I.Joe: Retaliation)
Naked Slo-mo Sword Fight (Sex and Fury)
Tomisaburo Wakayama Sword Frenzy (Samurai Reincarnation)

Winner - Superhero Showdown (Super Inframan)!

This may not be the most ambitious action scene (that goes to Robot Overlords), nor the most well realised (G.I.Joe). It doesn't even have a naked person in it (Sex and Fury) but what has in abundance is colour, kinetics and exploding water. This fight is a glorious mix of '66 Batman-esque garishness and Shaw Brothers arse-kickery. The multi-stage fight begins in a nightmarish external landscape, makes its way into a high tech lair before finishing in a crystalline cavern. The sheer number and variety of bad guys our hero makes his way through is insane. Utterly joyous.

Kill of the Year

Nothing can be more satisfying than a well executed and ingenious death. Normally these are the meat and potatoes of slasher movies but the films below featured bonkers and unexpected terminations all of their own.

The Nominations are:

Ollie Reed - Arrow to eye (Gor)
Commander Makara - Smashed by giant robot fist (Starfleet)
Imperial Soldiers - Girder triple-decap (The Humanoid)
Poor Wife - Picnic explosion (Darkdrive)
A Very Unfortunate Man - "The Eye Waterer" (Bone Tomahawk)
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa - Catherine wheel darts (Showdown in Little Tokyo)

Winner - Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa - Catherine Wheel Darts (Showdown in Little Tokyo)

There are some good ones on the list. Richard Kiel lobbing a girder that knocks three stormtrooper's heads off is brilliant, Darkdrive's exploding picnic basket is hilarious and Bone Tomahawk features a kill that wouldn't look out of place in a Fulci movie. For a while this was going to go to Commander Makara's brutal demise purely because it was such a shocking kill for a kids TV series but in the end nothing can really beat Showdown's wonderful moment of absurdity. Lundgren and Tagawa ruin a parade with a sword fight before one is impaled on a giant firework. Children watch in horror while adults are confused as to whether to recoil in horror or "oooo" and "ahhh" in delight.

Sex Scene of the Year

This category is not about the most sexually gratifying scene nor the most graphic but actually the most bizarre sequence involving skin-on-skin action seen this year. We only have three but Jesus they are weird.

The Nominations are:

Wanking Ghost (Ninja Diamond Force)
Man Fucks Pinball Machine (Wicked City)
Poisonous Cunnilingus (Sex and Fury)

Winner - Man Fucks Pinball Machine (Wicked City)

Y'know, if I was about to put my dick in an arcade machine I'd ask for some alone time as well. Look, all of these are winners in their own way. Female ghost rubbing one out while watching a couple go at it? WINNER. A woman coating her vagina in poison to kill a man? WINNER. A man having sex with a living pinball machine, on the other hand, is in a different league altogether.

Henchmen of the Year

Henchmen are not only the unsung heroes (um, villains) of the criminal fraternity but of the cinema as well. Often as dim-witted as they are physically formidable these hard working and loyal employees are often required to suffer the indignities of constant defeat and wearing whatever absurd outfit their employer insists on. You may argue that some of the people on this list don't constitute henchmen. You may also go fuck yourselves.

The Nominations are:

Fat Adidas, Indian Thriller and Bisto Dad (Diamond Ninja Force)
Demonic Toys (Dollman Vs Demonic Toys)
Skull Soldiers (Super Inframan)
Neon Maniacs (Neon Maniacs)

Winner - Skull Soldiers (Super Inframan

As much as the trio of unlikely ninjas from Diamond Ninja Force entertained me the prize has got to go to these awesome looking dudes. The skeletal motif, the scared stiff face from Ghost Castle on their belts, crash helmets with horns and bat symbols, spears with giant silver balls on the end... as henchmen costumes go these are pretty out there but y'know what? These guys own it.

Monster of the Year

We love monsters at Total Cults. The more imaginative, crazy and interestingly realised the monster the better. This year has seen some real crackers.

The Nominations are:

Vagina Lift (Wicked City)
Metalbeast (Project Metalbeast)
Fishmen (Screamers)
Baal (Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn)
Clockwork Cyborg (The Ghost Maker)

Winner - DRAW (Baal and Vagina Lift)

I really couldn't decide on this one. On the one hand how can I not give it to Baal? He's a discount Trapjaw (my favourite of the He-Man villains) for sure but he still looks awesome. His acid spitting robot arm in particular is a lovely touch. He's everything I want in a monster... but then you have a woman who's vagina is an elevator. This shape-shifter is the same creature that transformed into a sexually active pinball machine but if you thought that was kinky wait until you get a load of her next plan. She creates a human lift, the inner walls of which are all fleshy and sensitive. She traps two victims in her vagelevator and the erotic pleasure she derives from them being within is clear. Compared to her a mutant cyborg with an acid-launching arm is positively pedestrian. And yet I can't bring myself to not give Baal a nod. Call me a cop-out if you like but these two both go home with a prize.

Robot of the Year

If there is one thing we like more than monsters it's robots. No, we like monsters better. No, robots. Monsters! Ah crap. It's like picking between your kids right?

The Nominations are:

Train (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis)
Colossus of New York (Colossus of New York)
Pervo The Sex Bot (Ship of Monsters)

Winner - Pervo!

His name isn't actually Pervo, but in one scene he tries to get off with a jukebox. Just look at this crazy bastard. He has a look of eternal idiotic surprise, two giant googly eyes in his chest and he ruins every take by being so bloody loud and squeeky. He is just great all round. No contest.

Surprise of the Year

One of the most joyous experiences when watching cult movies is when they take you completely by surprise. It could be an insane plot twist, a bizarre choice or something incredibly inappropriate. These choices are a little more holistic in that they aren't small moments or sequences but whole works that caught me off-guard.

The Nominations are:

How mental Supergirl is
How homoerotic Tango and Cash is
Starfleet's long-form storytelling
How awesome Trevor Goddard is

Winner - Supergirl!

Supergirl is a film that makes no sense what-so-ever. In a modern cinematic landscape where canon is everything it's unsettling to see a film that flips the bird at continuity, sometimes between scenes. And then their is the weird sexuality (including an attempted rape and a gardener who picks up school girls), eclectic cast, baffling plot and... Christ the list goes on. Brilliantly bonkers.

Game of the Year

I've played a lot of boardgames this year but these four represent my favourites.

The Nominations are:

Love Letter
Game of Thrones

Winner - X-Wing!

Love Letter  is great value for money,  Pandemic is addictive as hell and GOT has layers of strategy but X-Wing is all those things and more. Great craftsmanship, easy to pick up rules, affordable starter set and infinitely expandable there are few games that have impressed me this quickly.

Hero of the Year

The movies seen this year have presented us with some truly iconic and badass heroes. Whether they are battling evil Empires in space or taking revenge on those that did them wrong in a dank alley they all exhibit unique looks and an efficient way of doing business.

The Nominations are:

Stella Star (Star Crash)
Ocho (Sex and Fury)
OSS 117 (OSS 117: Lost in Rio)
Super Inframan (Super Inframan)
Snake Eyes (G.I.Joe: Retaliation)

Winner - Ocho (Sex and Fury)

Super Inframan came close but the prize goes to Ocho. Instantly iconic, vulnerable yet utterly badass and an incredible presence she is almost Snake Plissken cool.

Movie of the Year

Speaks for itself really.

The Nominations are:

Oss 117: Lost in Rio
Super Inframan
The Perfume of the Lady in Black
Bone Tomahawk

Winner - Oss 117: Lost in Rio

No irony, no unintentional humour - this movie is honestly one of my favourite comedies. Smart and silly where it needs to be, unexpectedly epic and driven by an incredible comedy performance it is, in my opinion, the best spy-spoof ever made.

If you'd like to check out our full breakdown of the winning movies the links are as follows:

Super Inframan
Wicked City
Sex and Fury
Oss 117: Lost in Rio
Ship of Monsters
Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn
Showdown in Little Tokyo

Thanks for sticking with us for another year -  we'll be back in 2017 with more of the same old shit!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Gogol's Perfect Christmas

Much has been written about the dangers of too much nostalgia in one's cinematic diet. In recent years we have had endless remakes and reboots that, even when good, try to cack-handidly wedge groan inducing call-backs to previous movies. Even original content, such as Stranger Things, thrived on conjuring warm thoughts of distant childhoods.

I have an odd relationship with nostalgia in that I genuinely still like a lot of things I liked as a kid. I don't want to grow out of my childhood; I want to add to it. As such it is sometimes difficult to separate nostalgia from genuine appreciation.

Thankfully no one has to worry about his shit at Christmas. Once you get past all the Christian symbols and rituals Christmas is, for people that have had good ones, often an attempt to recapture the past by rolling out a number of traditions (like bread sauce, chocolate coins and painstakingly circling every movie and TV show in the Radio Times only to not bother watching or recording any of them). Christmas is as much a celebration of nostalgia as it is the birth of J-Chris.

It is also this time of year when people start going on about the Christmas movies they are going to watch (namely Home Alone and Elf) while often dismissing your movies as not traditional. And you will always get one rebellious bugger who'll say their favourite is Die Hard before filling with a warm trickle of smugness like a pissed-in trouser leg. Full disclosure, that's normally me.

Thing is my Christmas movies aren't Christmas movies at all and I am often met with weird looks when I try to explain them to norms. With the exception of Scrooged and maybe Elf no movies about Christmas tend to get me in the festive mood. Why? Because they weren't the movies I watched at Christmas. My Christmas viewing is, therefore, based around the recapturing of formative moments in my X-Mas life: a flicks of Christmas past if you will. As such I have compiled an alternative playlist of movies that invokes the spirit of Christmas without ever really touching on it.

Morning - Cliffhanger Serials 

Like most kids my normal mornings would be filled with children's TV presenters, puppets and animations based on toys. So when Christmas hit those kinds of things didn't really stand out. Then one year my Dad woke me with the information that Flash Gordon was on TV. I didn't really have a grasp of ratings but even I thought Flash Gordon was a bit much for 8:30 in the morning. I stumbled into the front room to discover a black and white Flash Gordon adventure featuring fizzing rocket ships, calamity filled action scenes and a frantic orchestral score. It looked cheap and the image was fuzzy but there was something about it that hooked me right away. And then the cliffhangers... holy shit they worked wonders on me. I had to tune in the next day to find out how Flash survived that fall into a pit or that clearly fatal rocket crash. And so every morning for the week leading up to Christmas I ran to the front room to check out the next episode of this thrilling cliffhanger serial. The next year was Buck Rogers. Then Batman! A version of Batman I didn't even know existed! A really racist one, granted, but a version fresh to my eyes. The following year I hurriedly flicked through the Christmas Radio Times to see what hero was going to greet me in the mornings this year only to be crushingly disappointed by a total absence of cliffhanger serials. And so, if I were to programme my perfect schedule of Christmas viewing I'd begin with a couple of episodes from some of my favourite serials such as the later episodes of The Phantom, the first few of Captain America or any Spy Smasher.

Afternoon - Sci-fi/Fantasy

Christmas has always been synonymous with fantasy and Science Fiction for me. Something about Christmas fires my imagination, filling it with images of vast deserts, brave warriors and alien races. Only a few years ago I sat and watched John Carter while eating leftover Pate and toast and was thrilled about how much it reminded me both Star Wars and Flash Gordon. Some odd narrative choices aside (and the fact it was clearly setting up a sequel that never happened) the movie is an absolute joy. It's design is thrilling, action stunning and has a score that you feel more than hear. As such it has become a regular Christmas movie for me and one I'd happily sit and watch while the house fills with the smell of roasting bird and a pile of freshly opened presents beg to be played with.

Early Evening - Adventure

One of my happiest and most vivid Christmas memories was sitting in my Aunt's front room after Christmas dinner, the room lit only by coloured Christmas lights, while I played with my Action Force Snowcat and Quick-Kick figure and Short-Round leapt to safety from a tumbling ladder on the TV. Temple of Doom is, for me, a quintessential Christmas movie full of the fun, colour and swashbuckling adventure that thrilled me as much as waking up that morning. It was the live action equivalent of the games I played with my newly received toys and demonstrated abstract imagination, music and image working in perfect synchronisation - as if my dreams had literally come true.

Evening - Dark Sci-Fi

One year the food had been eaten early and some leftovers, plus snacks, were being arranged into an impromptu buffet to see us through endless games of Pictionary and into the night. I'd popped upstairs to my room and had happened upon Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This is a film I'd been wary of as a small child as although I loved Trek some of the imagery had seemed a little to slow and weird for my tastes. I was about 15 at this stage and was fostering a real interest in movies and soundtracks so I thought I'd give it another whirl while I waited to be called down for food and games. I was confronted by the depths of space and, rather than a soaring white craft and hopeful strings, three dark Klingon warships slowly approached accompanied by Jerry Goldsmiths's driving yet ominous score. Then they were destroyed by a mysterious force. That musical cue; Klingon Battle, rattled in my head for years after. The juxtaposition of traditional orchestral score mixed with jarring electronic interruptions made space feel unsafe, tainted even. It was weirdly appropriate for someone just going through his teens and who was to go downstairs, not as the annoying kid who will never run out of energy, but to join the adult's table and play games into the night. The movie is slow and long but is one that mixes the vistas and adventure of earlier choices with a strange foreboding. it's a film that really plugs me into a specific moment one Christmas. Dune and Lifeforce are also entirely acceptable at this point in the day.

Late - Horror

I remember one Christmas deciding I'd leave the festivities downstairs and go up to bed. Only I didn't. I'd clocked that the Blob (the remake) was on TV and thought I'd stay up late and watch it. It was glorious: weird and gory yet enormous fun. Oddly I also associate Hammer Horror with Christmas. I think the sumptuous Victorian sets are reminiscent of A Christmas Carol only with a little more bite (no pun intended). In particular I'd go with their version of Phantom of the Opera or maybe even Plague of Zombies. Either way something schlocky or classical always fits the bill at Christmas.

Of course there are other movies that mix adventure and scares with more traditional Christmas iconography. Gremlins, for example, is a much more subversive and rebellious choice than Die Hard while I always find for room Batman Returns, a movie that is by no means a great Batman movie but quite possibly one of the best Batman adaptations.

So what is the point of all this? Why would the nostalgic ramblings of a seemingly spoilt* brat be of any interest to you? Well, this is not about recounting Christmas stories but more about redefining what a Christmas movie is. It's not about snow, or whether a film is set at Christmas or whether there is a musical number. It's about what memories of Christmas they coax out of your mind. So next time someone tells you your particular picks aren't' "proper" Christmas movies maybe this argument will help you fight your corner.

* I was neither spoilt nor lucky - my parents worked hard to provide Christmases for me and my family that were well beyond their means. Now, as a parent myself, I literally have no idea how they managed to do it.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Spectral (Nic Mathieu, 2016)

New high-tech goggles pick up ghostly images on the battlefield and their inventor is dispatched to ascertain whether these ethereal assailants are a new kind of camouflage or something more supernatural.

So much of this made for/by Netflix movie works. Although clearly not a mega-budget movie it looks incredible and the visual effects are faultless. The action is well handled, the story is pretty fresh. It essentially riffs on the soldier versus monsters action formula made popular by Aliens but this particular combination of army and ghosts hasn't been tried before without heavily leaning on the horror. There is a texture to the movie that makes it feel like a tangible world despite some heavy CGI while the scale of the whole thing is tremendous.

Although it tries to ground the whole affair in reality it isn't afraid to exercise a little imagination. The factory setting in the finale looks like it was drawn by Katsuhiro Otomo, the ghosts are interesting when moving and a wonderfully silly A-Team moment leads to a bunch of super weapons including robot dogs. If fact so much of this movie is great am actually trying to pinpoint why it didn't blow my socks off.

Part of the problem, for me, was the lack of interesting characters. I'm not looking for anything too deep in a robot dogs against war ghosts flick but the military team we spend the majority of the movie with are all the same kind of person. Every single one of them is tough, gruff and no-nonsense. Even the science guy is a gravelly voiced blue-steeler. There is no paranoia, no mania, no quips or no overly macho posturing. No Plisskens, no Blaines, no Hudsons - just the same squint and rasp performance. So much so I can't think of a single defining trait between any of them, nor any character names.

The ghosts are also a mixed bag. In motion these things are a sight to behold. They leap and twist leaving a smokey blur trail that creates some beautiful imagery. When stationary, however, they look like a CGI ghost and as such never quiet feel like a real physical threat. They are also pretty boring and samey. The film does explain what they are and why they all look the same but Christ this movie would have been so much more fun if there had been a variety of ghosts. I'm not necessarily suggesting they go as far as The Frighteners but a happy medium would have made for a much more interesting set of fiends. A punchier score and a little bit of gore would have also helped.

So despite all the interesting visuals it fell a little flat for me. And yet this movie has me very excited. In the 90s there was a steady stream of mid-budgeted straight-to-home genre movies that matched bonkers ideas with half decent production values. In more recent years these kinds of movies have either need a real star to get made with any money behind them (Edge of Tomorrow springs to mind) or end up being made with super-cheapo CGI a la The Asylum. This is the first time in a long time I've been drawn in by a high concept and seen it driven by a budget big enough to do the story justice while not having to neuter the ideas to appeal to a mass audience. The positive buzz around this flick makes me hopeful that modest yet crazy genre movies like this might start getting made again.

So although it didn't quite do it for me there is plenty going on to please most genre fans and rather than it being a missed opportunity this feels like it might be the start of something wonderful.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Frankenstein's Bloody Terror AKA Mark of the Werewolf (Enrique L. Eguiluz, 1968)

I think I have made my love for Paul Naschy clear (here and here) and since I believe enough time has passed since I last wrote about the Spanish horror master I'm going to spend some time on his first turn as the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in the cracking Frankenstein's Bloody Terror.

I think it's a good idea to get the fact that Frankenstein does not appear in this film out of the way early. Originally produced as werewolf movie Mark of the Werewolf American distributers bought it at a time when they needed a Frankenstein movie to fill out a double-bill or two.

As such a short voice over, accompanied by a barely animated monster, tells us that at some point the Frankenstein family became infected with werewolf blood to become Wolfstein. At this point I'd like to recognise how helpful it was of the Frankenstein family to announce their lycanthropy via Deed Pole. With that out of the way the movie proceeds pretty much as originally intended.

Two childhood friends have grown up and fallen in love with each other. As the children of two respected aristocrats their lives seem destined for wealth and happiness, at least they would be if swarthy cad Daninsky wasn't a distraction. Not only is he financially compromised his family name is riddled with infamy predominantly due to a story about his father receiving a werewolf bite on an expedition and going on a murderous rampage. The story turns out to be true and Daninsky himself is bitten and transforms into a savage wolfman. In a desperate attempt to cure himself he brings in a Doctor and his assistant who turn out to be vampires and who pit Daninsky against his Father in a werewolf on werewolf smack down. The fucking luck of this guy, jeez.

Bloody Terror is bloody marvellous. Like all of Naschy's gothic creature features they are sumptuous productions giving Hammer a run for their money. Nasty reproductions give these movies a cheap feel but this movie was shot in 70mm and it's initial cinema run, in 3D no less, was meant to be something to behold. Despite a weak transfer you can still see why. The use of depth and colour in this movie is staggering at times looking like Argento had directed a Universal Monsters picture. The locations are a mix of authentic gothic ruins and dungeon sets and are all wonderfully evocative.

As the first of Naschy's werewolf flicks out the gate it isn't quite as gory as his later efforts (although a fair bit of crimson is dribbled out his fanged mouth) and sex and nudity is non-existent. There is a lot of cleavage on display but compared to the movies he was making in the mid-to-late seventies (which were in danger of becoming nudey flicks dressed as horrors) Bloody Terror is positively chaste.

It is also clear from this movie why Naschy got to make so many more. From the first frame he appears in, dressed in a bright red masquerade outfit, to being chained against a wall he commands the screen. Daninsky is an interesting character; driven by a moral compass of sorts yet very much a womaniser. He's like the James Bond of the monster world.

Bloody Terror also doesn't bugger about with one monster, instead chucking in Vampires and another Werewolf for Daninsky to bash. With lavish sets, monster-on-monster action and a star-making turn Frankenstein's Bloody Terror is a must see for anyone who loves classic monsters and gothic horror.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Total Cults Total Tabletop: Love Letter


Pass a secret letter between those that live and work in the Palace in an attempt to get it as close to the Princess as possible! A simple yet thrilling game of bluff and chance.

Table Play

The deck is formed of eight characters each with a value from one to eight and there are specific numbers of each character in the deck (five guards, two diplomats, etc). Each player is dealt one card and the rest placed in the centre face down. On a player's turn they pick a card, then play one face up. This not only shows the team which of the characters are no longer in play but allows the player to use the character's ability. These abilities can allow you to peek at another player's hand, force a player to discard and re-draw cards or even compare hands with another player with the player holding the lowest rated card being knocked out of the round. Play continues with each player trying to work out where the highest rated card has ended up. Once the deck is empty the round ends and those left playing compare their hands, the person with the highest rated card wins.

Above the Table

Love Letter uses much of the same strategies as poker. It not only requires you to keep an eye on which cards are no longer in play but also bluffing others to play effects that will benefit you. Since the primary game mechanic of "pick one play one" is so simple this game is all about what is happening above the table. 


The deck is relatively small but the cards robust and the artwork beautiful. The cards come in a cloth bag and the wooden cubes, used to denote who has one a round, are simple but effective. A handy reference card that lists all of the characters, their ratings, the number of them in the deck and their abilities helps play move even quicker. It is a minimal game, and intentionally so, but what you get is well put together. Multiple different versions are available including licensed versions such as Batman and The Hobbit.

Experience Level

I play this most often with a less experienced gamer, a teenager and a nine-year old giving you some indication of its accessibility. It's like poker for beginners but with enough strategic complexity to engage regular gamers. It really is a great introductory game.


Love Letter is a great game and at only £10 it's a great addition to a collection even if the most complex games you play are Uno and Monopoly.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Samurai Reincarnation (Kinji Fukasaka, 1981)

As the camera cranes up from a knotted nettle bush a dense forest of spikes is revealed. This network of spears, each topped with a grey-fleshed human head, is layered between a carpet of thick fog and a hot pink sky. It is the aftermath of the slaughter of an army of Christian rebels and their leader, dressed in ceremonial armour, wanders through this phantasmagorical diorama, swearing vengeance to the skies as they turn from pink to blood red and summoning demons to aid him in his mission of retribution.

Kinji Fukasaka knows how to open a movie. Samurai Reincarnation is a visually arresting movie, showing image after image that are at once fantastical and nightmarish. Unfortunately the narrative, especially in the first half of the movie, doesn't quite match the aesthetic.

The revenge hungry Christian lord spends a good hour of the movie recruiting his army of demons. He summons a betrayed wife from the dead, prolongs the life of  master swordsman, gives a serial killer the promise of fresh victims and turns family members on each other. His band of undead warriors burn across feudal Japan; their ultimate goal to seduce their enemy, curse his people and bring everything he rules over crashing down in flames. At least that is my best guess because the plot isn't entirely clear (though this is as much to do with the weak dubbing as it is the visual storytelling). The recruitment part of this movie is a little sluggish and even when their are spurts of incident they are often not as thrilling as they need to be.

And yet it is difficult to pull ones eyes away even when the movie runs slow. The visuals are stunning and the design, from intricate samurai armour to set dressing, is iconic and stylised. Even costumes that would appear, on paper, to be fairly simplistic are rendered in memorable shapes and textures. Sonny Chiba (yes, Sonny Chiba is the main dude) is instantly iconic in with his wild hair, crazy eye patch and black robes.

There comes a point, about 70 minutes into the movie, where the action on screen catches up with the wild imagery. A sword dual on the beach is thrilling, efficient and brutal while a running battle against an army of warriors in a flaming Tenchu, captured in a series of ambitiously blocked long takes, is worthy of being the climax. Especially considering one of the fighters is played by the Lone Wolf himself, Tomisaburo Wakayama. Wearing a grey wig and playing a slightly frailer swordsman than we are used to he still gets to let rip with a blade, cutting down assailant after assailant. How this will play for those not familiar with the Lone Wolf and Cub series isn't clear, but for a diehard fan like me I was close to cheering.

It isn't the climax though. Oh no. Following this battle we get to see a showdown between Chiba and Wakayama in the burnt out husk of the collapsing Tenchu. The battle doesn't quite live up to the promise, but seeing those two titans of Japanese action cinema clash swords in such an epic surrounding thrills none-the-less.

This movie isn't a home run, but it comes close. The languid pace of the first half, no real characters to root for, the lack of fierce blood sprays synonymous with samurai movies and a bewilderingly abrupt ending makes this a frustratingly difficult movie to go crazy over. It is, however, full of imagery and iconography that are unforgettable. Anyone even attempting another Mortal Kombat movie should watch this movie. Samurai Reincarnation doesn't provide much for the brain or emotions, but feeds your eyes and nerves until they are fit to burst.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Blue Tigers, American Dragons and Terrible Cops.

The conservative crime and action movies of the 70's and 80's would often see the lives of everyday (white, middle class) americans being intruded upon by some outside force be that a gang, a terrorist, a psychopath, or some other undesirable element. The invasion of this alien element would require violence and right wing ideologies to return the world to the status quo. As the 80s ended these marginalised groups, and their capacity to buy cinema tickets, were being recognised as legitimate subcultures by hollywood in addition to mainstream audiences becoming more interested in their unfamiliar ways. As cultures began to diversify action movies broadened their subject matter and rather than treat these new cultures as an alien interruption they sought to immerse the protagonists, and audience, in their worlds.

One of the worlds that mid-budget action movies seemed to become obsessed with is that of the Yakuza. Clearly obsessed with the strict codes of honour, martial arts intrigue, exotic full body tattoos and the excuse to have those naked women having sushi eaten off them there was an explosion of movies featuring the clash between good old American crime stories and the mysterious rituals and textures of the East. Movies such as American Yakuza and Rising Sun (both 1993) and Blue Tiger (1994) revelled in exploring these fascinating new cultures.

Of course that was part of the problem. Although this was indeed an attempt to engage with cultural shifts beyond "weird ethnic thug" these movies treated these new worlds as if they were mythological realms found in a Tolkien book. The main reason is that ultimately these films presented a white guy's interpretation of these other cultures and as such everyone not white and American were treated as strange, mystical and "the other'.

What is most interesting about revisiting some of these movies is what we actually learn about the American characters, especially when looking at the fusion of Yakuza thriller and buddy cop movie. Part of this cultural broadening often saw the conservative cop partnered with someone from the same cultural origin as the bad guys but what was particularly noticeable about the cops in some of the Yakuza movies I watched is that they were all fucking awful at their job. Either flat out incompetent or criminally negligible.

That's not to say that any action movie featuring cops presents an ethically idealised image of how policing should be (check out an earlier article on this) but all three of the movies I watched prior to writing this featured such shockingly bad policework I became enthralled by their negligence; way more than the crazy devotion it takes to lop a pinky off by way of apology.

Take Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989): We are introduced to Nick Conklin, or Michael Douglas dressed in his best 80's cop halloween outfit (or it might be Faith era George Michael, I can't quite tell) as he is under investigation by internal affairs for his involvement with another cop who might be on the take. In addition we are shown up front that he likes to illegally street race for money. He hates his superiors, despises the very nerve of I.A. investigating crooked cops and generally acts like a massively petulant bellend. It's like someone has stuck a wig, aviators and fake stubble on a two-year old in the middle of gargantuan strop.

Conklin witnesses a Yakuza execution and is sent to Japan to retrieve the fleeing perp. His character goes through the checklist of trying out Japanese food, telling them about American sayings, getting pissy with the Japanese Police for not letting him run the streets with a gun and being partnered with a Japanese Detective who, despite clearly being a good cop, he berates for getting in his way for most of the film. While in Japan the only bit of real policing he does is that he steals money from a crime scene because he reckons it is counterfeit. Despite this clearly being against regulations and getting his new partner proper in the shit his hunch turns out to be right and so the Japanese police have to re-think their entire methodology. Of course they do.

Oh, and it turns out not only was Conklin's partner on the take, so was he. He was skimming money out of the evidence locker to pay for his divorce because he is clearly a shitty husband as well as a shitty cop.

His final act of bringing ruination to the good Japanese cop's career is to convince him to tool up and join him on a mega off-the-books assassination of the Yakuza boss he's been trying to track. Conklin is corrupt, arrogant and only succeeds at his job though breaking the rules and relying on sheer bloody luck.

Nearly ten years later American Dragons (Ralph Hemecker, 1998) pulls a switcheroo. This time it is Korean cop Kim, played by Jooong-Hoon Park, who travels to the US to be teamed up with Michael Biehn's Tony Luca to track down a Yakuza hitman. They begin by investigating the CEO of a respectable Japanese company only for Kim to start wailing on one of his assistants. He literally starts a brawl in this guy's office, complete with hard rock soundtrack. This happens quite a lot and the two even have a They Live style punch-up in an alley because they won't share information with each other. Luca, by comparison, is actually a pretty good cop who seems to play by the rules (mostly) and who seems to get on with the other cops, even his captain.

Both American Dragons and Black Rain share similar stylistic problems. Despite Black Rain being of a higher pedigree it is still a run of the mill police action movie. Scott's visual edge means the film looks gorgeous and has all the grit and texture of a French Connection-style procedural. The subject matter, though, is more fitting for your average Stallone blast 'em up and this means it is never serious enough to feel like a real cop drama and a couple of exciting motorcycle chases aside it is never exciting enough to be a full-on action film. Likewise American Dragons' arty lighting and slow-motion make it look far more evocative than most straight to video cop movies and although the action fares better (slow motion and squibby shoot-outs are rarely boring to watch) it plods along when it should rocket through its running time. It does, however, kill its bad guys in a really awesome way. It would be my favourite moment of all these movies if it hadn't been almost immediately trumped by...

Showdown in Little Tokyo (Mark L. Lester, 1991) has the same Director, heart and wanton disregard for integrity as action masterpiece Commando. It has, by the looks of things, only a fraction of the budget. What it lacks in overblown absurdity it more than makes up for with terrible policework.
The nice twist here is that that the US cop, played by Dolph Lundgren in what appears to be perpetual
forced perspective (he looks as tall as Gandalf does to the Hobbits), is the one with all the cultural know-how relating to Japan and the Yakuza while his partner, Brandon Lee playing Japanese, has grown up in the US and knows nothing of his ancestry. Of course this nice little switch serves little to no purpose and is soon dispensed to get on with some really objectionable law enforcement.

Lundgren has an axe to grind with the big bad Yakuza (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa - who appears in so many of these films it's unreal) and despite giving Lee's character a proper talking to about respect tries to shoot him the moment his giant's eyes spot him. Later they bust into a public bath house to hassle Tagawa and his henchmen while they bathe in tiny thongs. This turns into a fist fight ending with a sumo-like thug getting knifed to death by one of our "heroes". Lundgren and Lee of course have to flee the scene when cops arrive because it is absolutely clear to everyone that what they are doing is completely illegal.

Lundgren's cop just lumbers his way through every scene like Frankenstein in denim. At one point he has to rescue Tia Carrere's showgirl from Tagawa's mansion. He just walks in shooting every bodyguard dead, grabs Carrere and casually walks through a patio window, tips a car over and blows it up. He then takes her back to his place to sleep with her despite the fact Tagawa's crime boss had sexually abused her the night before to the extent she was willing to commit sepeku moments before Lundgren showed up.

Despite this clear lack of poise, skill and ethics Lundgren's Chris Kenner is depicted as the perfect human. Not only is he a giant of a man with a perfectly sculpted body we are told he has access to an endless well of abilities. In the opening scene he drops from the skylight of a warehouse into the ring of an illegal kickboxing tournament and announces that he is arresting everyone. The two expert kickboxers decide to take him on but, you guessed it, Kenner can out-kickbox two kickboxers at once. When he takes Carrere back to his icky sex den - a beautiful japanese hut with an outside hot tub and shit - she asks him where he found such a lovely place. "I built it" is his reply, sounding like something Statham's Spy character would say. And of course there in the infamous compliment from Lee's character, who tells Kenner he has "the biggest dick I've ever seen on a man". The dude can even wear this outfit...

...for the whole finale and not reduce his enemies to fits of laughter. And yet every time we are told he is amazing he just demonstrates more and more awful policing. This culminates in the American Dragons-trumping final moments where Lundgren tracks down Tagawa in a nearby parade and engages him in one on one combat. After a bloody blade duel Tagawa is impaled and flung like a dart onto a giant Catherine wheel that lights up and spins around. It is a beautiful moment and one that lead to me to lose my drink through my nostrils.

As Tagawa spins in the background Lundgren, Lee and Carrere high-five and walk off into the distance seemingly oblivious to the fact they have just ruined a fucking parade and cut a man to death with a samurai sword in front of children. What a trio of massive bastards.

After watching these movies I don't feel I've learned anything I didn't know about Japan or their organised crime but I did learn that the kind of cops normally sent to tackle them are sloppy, corrupt, incompetent, unnecessarily brutal, petty and oblivious to the collateral damage, emotional or otherwise, they cause.