Tag Archives: Martial arts

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: RIKI-OH: THE STORY OF RICKY (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Ngai Choi Lam

FEATURING: Siu-Wong Fan, Mei Sheng Fan, Ka-Kui Ho, Yukari Ôshima

PLOT: While in prison for murdering a gang of drug peddlers, Ricky defies the tyrannical authorities as he pursues his freedom.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: I’ll get to that; let me gather my severed thoughts first.

COMMENTS: For those hand-wringing types out there, the future will always be filled with violence, drug use, and bizarre minor-coding. Everyone else, take some comfort: this future is already past. Among the details I only gleaned after the fact, Riki-Oh takes place in 2001, in a world where prisons are privatized, and the preponderance of superhuman resilience leaves contemporary (whether now or at the film’s release) witnesses agog. The enthusiasm behind its narrative ambiguity is the very same which renders what could have been a joyless scrap of torture porn into an eminently silly (and occasionally giddy) ride through a dozen-odd stations of the cross, with Ricky as the unflappable messiah preaching justice, hope, and ultra-violence.

Wrongful imprisonment is a well-worn trope, but Riki-Oh demonstrates individuality the moment its hero is processed for triple murder. After some bureaucrats read his sentence, he passes through a metal detector, immediately setting it off. Manhandling Ricky to a nearby x-ray machine, guards discover the alarm was triggered not by weapons, but by five bullets lodged in the murderer’s chest. When asked why they remain, Ricky answers, in his petulantly bad-ass tone, “I wanted a souvenir.”

Riki-Oh has all the finely chopped ingredients for a z-grade gore-house martial arts revengeance nonsense: an evil warden and his flunky, abusive guards, shower fights, yard fights, crack-thwack sound effects, and gallons of blood. But three factors prevent this film from being tossed aside as derivative. First: the tiny oddities that gather to the point of toppling into fully fledged weird. The assistant warden is missing a hand—a cutesy touch, in its way. But in the next shot, what’s this? Why, he’s missing an eye, too. And he drinks from the cup where he stores the glass prosthetic. And, since it’s hollow, this is where he keeps his mints. Not to mention his flanking lapel scorpion cameos, or the tall shelf of pornography behind his work desk that is never mentioned. The second touch brings Riki-Oh more assuredly onto weirder ground: a twist in the final fifteen minutes reveals the evil warden’s backstory, without any hint of reason. I won’t give it away, but it does explain why the bastard is so nonchalant when staring down the prisoner who has dispatched countless prisoners and other goons.

And the third thing. Brief research clarified that Riki-Oh is closely adapted from a manga (no surprises here), and it may be simply mirroring themes from that source. However, the ardor of its twin social justice philosophies manages to outdo its over-the-top violence. Oddly for a martial arts blood piece, it has something to say about the societal evil of drug dealers (with sympathy for users), and has a whole lot to say about treating prisoners humanely. In its way, Riki-Oh advocates for penal rights as fervently as Nagisa Ôshima‘s Death By Hanging did—but instead of ratcheting up sociopolitical surreality into an absurdist climax, Riki-Oh climaxes with the warden ground up into a couple hundred pounds of hamburger. That said, perhaps they’re more alike than I had thought.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…be warned: if blood and guts are not your thing, then avoid this film like ebola – for they do not come thicker, weirder or funnier than here… While not for the squeamish, this film is a cult classic – fast, silly, jaw-droppingly outrageous, and a true original, unlike anything else you will ever have seen.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Horst,” who called it “An absolute must-see, really weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: NEW YORK NINJA (1984/2021)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: John Liu/Kurtis Spieler (re-dub)

FEATURING: John Liu, voices of Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Leon Isaac Kennedy

PLOT: When his pregnant wife is murdered by thugs, a TV reporter turns vigilante to take down the gang of abductors responsible for his misery.

COMMENTS: ‘s mega-opus, Hitler: A Film from Germany, with all its intellectual musings, puppets, and art-housery was a highly enjoyable single-sitting film throughout its seven-plus hours. ‘s three-hour epic of mumbling bleakness, Hard to be a God, felt like a breeze. Heck, even Béla Tarr‘s meandering two-hour ennui fest Damnation felt a pleasure compared to the leaden hour-and-a-half of Vinegar Syndrome’s re(ish)-release of New York Ninja. There are times when an opinion may be deemed incorrect, and I admit that what you are about to read will come across to many as woefully misguided. That proviso provised, New York Ninja is one of the most wearisome movies I’ve ever endured.

The film’s backstory and re-creation make for an interesting tale. Back in the mid 1980s, John Liu toppled his directorial career by bankrupting his film studio during the production of New York Ninja. Back in the early 2020s, Vinegar Syndrome came into possession of some eight hours-worth of footage that had been shot for the project, and recreated the story from scratch, calling in a bunch of voice-over/dubbing heavy-weights. I tip my hat to Kurtis Spieler (the re-director) for his chutzpah and enthusiasm.

However, the resulting film is a trial by tedium. The story is chock-full of silly elements (not a bad thing)—plucky reporter lady, random kid-cum-acolyte, and whimsically attired New York City goons; and eccentric elements (a better thing)—a mysterious, effete baddie collecting women, and his Plutonium-cursed ex-CIA henchman, only seen without his bitchin’ shades when dosing himself with radiation. But the (bad) dialogue timing is all off, the silliness falls in that awkward too much/not enough layer, and from the original and re-do only one actor makes it out with respectability intact. (This being Leon Isaac Kennedy, who voices the police detective played by…? Someone.)

It is never my ambition to rain on anyone’s parade, particularly if it’s a low-budget parade with its heart in the right place. However, I could not in good conscience advise that anyone waste their time with this experiment. Whether or not the original New York Ninja would have been watchable is a mystery to remain unsolved until, perhaps, the hereafter, where all unfinished whack-o gems may get their time in the Heavenly lime-light. And I respect Vinegar Syndrome, both for their mission statement (saving old, oddball films), as well as trying their hand at this great re-jigging effort. Their ultimate goal was to recreate 1980s martial arts cheese. But left to age for four decades, this cheese has gotten too moldy to consider eating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie packs in a lot of cult craziness: seemingly trying to bundle as much 80s movie madness into 90 minutes as it can…. It’s this manic energy and commitment to the absurd that makes ‘New York Ninja’ so much fun.” -Andrew Skeates, Far East Films (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE MAN WITH NO PANTS (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Matthew A. Peters

FEATURING: Stephanie Ward, Ryan Santiago, Joe Cappelli

PLOT: Trinix Spade, junior space detective, has no fear; Colt Cory, outlaw, has no pants. Together they must win a series of death matches to apprehend the Shogun.

Still from Man with no Pants (2021)

COMMENTS: Some viewers might ask of The Man With No Pants, “Why?” I’m more inclined to ask, “Why not?” I have a simple challenge I put to every movie I review: does this entertain? If yes, I can be forgiving. The Man With No Pants, as the title suggests, is intentional nonsense. It’s anti-hero, Colt Cory, channels the traditions of “The Man With No Name,” but moreso his less known counterpart, the Stranger. Trinix Spade captures the enthusiasm of the Indominatable Female Reporter archetype. And the Shogun—well, for some reason I couldn’t help but think of Vampire Burt, whose “serenade” I found simultaneously inept and amusing. Half of this brief movie is combat between unlikely goons: “Master Manchu”, a foppish black fighter with a streak-blond wig, and “El Gatito con Zapatos Azules”, a luchador, being the standouts. But alas, this simple set-up is executed with, to be blunt, imperfect technique.

Conducting a little research while watching No Pants unfold, I discovered that writer-director Matthew Peters has been at this for a while now. I was curious as to how much of a neophyte he might be, as something weighed heavily on me from the start. No Pants is very, very silly, but it was obviously made with joy. This goes a long way, but not quite far enough. I was surprised to find that it was good enough that I wished that just a little more care had been taken in its production. Peters could do with a competent sound guy. The audio was often choppy and obscured. (On the plus side, the soundtrack was pitch-perfect). He could also do with tighter fight choreography—particularly if he’s going to feature combat so prominently.

That said… I could see the foundation of a nichely famous B-movie director here. No Pants had enough zingers that I found myself laughing often, particularly with the running gag about Colt Cory lacking pants. With Ryan Santiago’s husky dead-pan, the spite-filled rejoinder, “You know damn well what happened to my pants!” carried more chuckles than could rightfully be hoped for. Seeing as he’s cranked out a dozen or so features as well as smaller projects, I’d like to challenge Matthew Peters to channel all his focus into his next film. He’s got a “vibe” going, as well as a knack for ridiculous dialogue. It remains to be seen if he can hone the good points, improve on the clunkiness, and launch his actors into the zany orbit he’s so obviously striving for.

Man with no Pants can be rented exclusively from Vimeo through links on Mad Angel Films homepage.

CAPSULE: JIU JITSU (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Dmitri Logothetis

FEATURING: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage

PLOT: Jake awakens in a secret military facility in Burma with no recollection of his past, but with much recollection of jiu jitsu.

COMMENTS: Jiu Jitsu currently rates a mere three stars on IMDb. That’s two more stars than actually appear in it. Of course, when that single star is Nicolas Cage, it suggests one of two things. The first possibility is that it’s that once-in-five-or-ten-years alignment of the cosmos during which our boy Nic does something serious and taps into his capacity for gravitas. The second, much more possible, possibility is that Nic shows up, scatters his eccentric magic during his all-too-brief screen time, and raises a “crummy B-movie” to the level of a “crummy B-movie, but with Nicolas Cage!” Even someone as slow on the uptake as myself knew that this would be the latter, but I can say that Jiu Jitsu is not the worst 2020 release I’ve seen–by a long shot1.

As any practitioner of the art can tell you, “jiu jitsu” was taught to mankind about two millennia ago by a traveling space creature desiring to hone his fighting skills by popping through a portal in a Buddhist temple which opens up every six years as augured by a cyclical comet. If this alien—let’s call it “Brax”, as per the director/writer’s advisement—does not get to jiu-jitsu his way through nine fighters when he visits, he will lay waste to all life on the planet. Bad news for mankind? Hardly. We’ve got two things Brax isn’t counting on: square-jaw superman Jake (Alain Moussi) and the wiley warrior Wylie (Nicolas Cage). With these jiu jitseleros and their team of seven interchangeable associates, Brax gets more than it’s bargained for.

Your patience for—and, conceivably, enjoyment of—Jiu Jitsu will hinge on two things. First thing: your appetite for staged martial arts ticklings. Leading man Moussi made his career as a stuntman, so he’s got the chops. And all the side-characters may not be able to act, but they do seem comfortable with the thwack-thwack-thwack element. (Though you may not quite believe it when you see Cage’s character do a leaping flip.)

Which brings me to the other thing: what is your devotion to Nicolas Cage? I cannot recall any film that I was not happy to see him on-screen in (be it wielding a chromium axe, spraying his girlfriend’s daughter with a hose, or riffing off himself during one of those “one-in-ten-year” roles). Hearing his delivery of bad dialogue as the druggy(?), crazy(!) mentor never failed to rouse at least a chuckle—particularly when he drops the bon-mot, “Just remember the one thing you always have with jiu jitsu… leverage.”

And with that bomb, I’m dropping the mic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jiu Jitsu feels like a deeply 2020 movie in that it is a barrage of WTF choices that hit without mercy until you either give in and go with the flow or just go mad. Or, hey, maybe both.”–Kristy Putchko, IGN (contemporaneous)

236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

Mo

“Any way you slice it, The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is a massive experience. For some, it’s massively unpleasant. For others, it’s massively bizarre. And for adventurous horror fans craving intensity, it’s massively entertaining.”–Stephen Gladwin, liner notes to the Image Entertainment DVD release of The Boxer’s Omen

DIRECTED BY: Chih-Hung Kuei

FEATURING: Kao Fei [AKA Phillip Ko, Phillip Kao], Bolo Yeung, Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong

PLOT: Chan Hung, a gangster, sees his brother paralyzed in a kickboxing match with a cheating Thai fighter. Later, he is rescued from a rival’s ambush by an apparition of a Buddhist monk. Chan Hung travels to Thailand to challenge the evil boxer, but while there he discovers that a local Buddhist temple has prophesied that he will defeat a black magician who has waged a longstanding war against the holy sect.

Still from The Boxer's Omen [Mo] (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio made a fortune in the 1970s with their cheaply produced, widely-distributed kung fu films, and came to dominate the local film industry. By the early 1980s the kung fu fad had died out, however, and the studio started losing ground to competitors who came to represent the “Hong Kong new wave.” The Boxer’s Omen comes from a period when the studio was searching for a new cash cow; horror films were a natural candidate. Expensive (by the Brothers’ standards) spectacles like Omen did not help stop the studio’s slide, however, and in 1986 the Shaws stopped making feature films altogether and segued into television production.
  • “Black magic” films had been a popular Shaw Brothers subgenre since 1975’s Black Magic. They were set in East Asian countries like Thailand (exotic locales to the cosmopolitan Hong Kong set) and involved evil spells that required gross-out ingredients like pubic hair, human milk, and vomit.
  • Mo (The Boxer’s Omen‘s Chinese title) is actually a sequel to Gu (1981), a film that is seldom seen in the West.
  • This was the second-to-last film in the career of director Chih-Hung Kuei, who had a “respectable” exploitation movie résumé that included “Brucesplotation” hits like Iron Dragon Strikes Back (with Bruce Li), the creature feature Killer Snakes, and the women’s prison sleaze of Bamboo House of Dolls. After retiring from directing in 1984 he immigrated to the United States and opened a pizza parlor (!)
  • This film was legendary, but almost never seen in the U.S. until Image Entertainment’s 2006 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Covered in maggots which buzz like bees, a nude woman is magically birthed from the sealed corpse of a crocodile after an elaborate and disgusting ritual involving (no joke) a regurgitated chicken rectum.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eel vomiting; flying-head strangler; nude crocodile zombie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDThe Boxer’s Omen is pure Shaw Brothers desperation and delirium, an excessive black magic oddity that holds nothing back, with gratuitous nudity, kung fu, rough sex, vulgar Buddhist mysticism, and ample viscera.


Original trailer for Mo

COMMENTS:If you’re looking to take a break from “deeper” weird Continue reading 236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

LIST CANDIDATE: MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jimmy Wang Yu

FEATURING: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kang Chin

PLOT: A blind master of the “Flying Guillotine” searches for the One-Armed Boxer, disrupting a martial arts tournament in the process.

Still from Master of the Flying Guillotine (1977)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Indian yogi warrior, whose arms extend to double length, tips this exuberantly goofy exhibition of martial mayhem into the “maybe” category. Kung Fu Hustle was Certified Weird for its postmodern comedy, while Ninja Champion made the List on a “so-bad-it’s-weird” platform, but if a” mainstream” martial arts film makes the List, this will be it.

COMMENTS: When you pop a kung fu movie into your DVD player, Master of the Flying Guillotine is what you are hoping you will see. Nonstop fighting with just enough plot to tell you who to root for; imaginative, athletic choreography that gets the adrenaline pumping; memorable characters; and perfectly-spaced WTF moments that snap you awake whenever your interest starts to wander. The kind of movie where a bizarre gizmo—the titular flying guillotine, a sort of decapitating cross between a frisbee and a beekeeper’s hat—steals the spotlight from the human characters. It’s pure entertainment, and a pure celebration of the athleticism of the performers, who dance in a deadly ballet with perfect timing. They don’t look real, but the fights are much more beautiful than the Hollywood action product, which generates spurious excitement with fast-cut editing.

Master is a series of bouts (many from the tournament which occupies a large portion of the film’s middle) between a wide variety of combatants, each distinguished by a gimmick or quirk worthy of a professional wrestler. So what better way to impart the flavor of the Flying Guillotine experience than to run down the fight card? After an opening prologue where the Master demonstrates the efficacy of his favored weapon against mannequin heads (along with showing off his incendiary grenades, his penchant for jumping through rooftops, and his ability to magnetize birds), our opening bout pits the fantastically arrogant Dancing Thai against four guards with shields and clubs. Next on the undercard is Dancing Thai vs. Eagle Claw Girl Fighter, followed by Master of the Flying Guillotine vs. One-Armed Hungry Homeless Guy (not very competitive). The tournament proper looks like this:

  • Staff Guy vs. Segmented Staff Guy
  • Belly Shirt Sword Fighter vs. “Wins-Without-a-Knife” (who actually has a knife, and uses it to win—“very smart,” observes the One-Armed Boxer from the sidelines)
  • Rope Hair vs. Mongolian Mustache (a draw)
  • Northern Daredevil vs. Iron Crotch
  • Eagle Claw Girl Fighter vs. Pantsless Monkey
  • Java vs. Flying Rope, fighting on poles over a of thicket of blades
  • Tornado of Knives vs. Extendable Arm Yogi
  • Tiger and Crane Fist vs. Thai Dancer
  • One-Armed Snake Fist (not to be confused with One-Armed Boxer or One-Armed Hungry Homeless Guy) vs. Praying Mantis
  • One-Armed Snake Fist vs. Master of the Flying Guillotine (unscheduled)
  • Master of the Flying Guillotine vs. Tournament Organizer (unscheduled)

After the tournament ends, things really kick into high gear, starting with One-Armed Boxer vs. Two Disciples (in a pink flashback); Dancing Thai vs. One-Armed Boxer Sidekick; One-Armed Boxer vs. Extendable Arm Yogi (and his pet owl); One-Armed Boxer vs. Dancing Thai (my favorite fight, in a burning house); One-Armed Boxer vs. Wins-Without-a-Knife; and of course, the grand finale, One-Armed Boxer vs. Master of the Flying Guillotine, battling in a booby-trapped coffin shop.

You’ll be exhausted by the end.

The 1977 release date listed here is actually the year the dubbed version was released in the United States (where it played screens at the same time as Star Wars, which would have made for the absolute coolest double feature possible for a twelve year old boy). The original release date is unknown, as this was an independent production and no one bothered to keep records at the Hong Kong box offices at the time, but 1975 seems like a good guess. The movie is an unsanctioned sequel to the Shaw Brothers’ 1975 hit Flying Guillotine, which also spawned two direct sequels and several other rip-offs. Confusingly, it’s also a sequel to Jimmy Wang Yu’s One Armed Boxer. Master also went under the title One Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… snags the viewer’s attention by lacing its martial-arts high jinks with a compelling weirdness.”–Nick Rutigliano, The Village Voice (2002 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard who dubbed it his “favorite weird Kung Fu pic.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BUSHIDO MAN (2013)

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles

DIRECTED BY: Takanori Tsujimoto

FEATURING: Mitsuki Koga, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi

PLOT: A martial arts master eats meals based on the diet of his next opponent so he can better understand and defeat them.

Still from Bushido Man (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The fights are good, but it’s annoying that the movie has no hunger to pursue its kung foodie premise, giving us instead six courses of contextless seriocomic battles and a meaningless final boss for desert.

COMMENTS: “Plot” is too strong a word to describe Bushido Man‘s story. The film is just a series of incidents connected by the thinnest noodle of a premise, almost an anthology of fight scenes. The bouts themselves are energetic mini-stories that should entertain fight fans. The comedy, not so much—although the campy English dubbing adds a level of humor that would not be present in the original, and I did like the gag with the Master’s obviously fake mustache. Toramaru, our putative hero, is touring Japan, battling the paragons of six different martial styles: kung fu, stick fighting, nunchaku, swordfighting, yakuza knife fighting, and pistol. According to the movie’s premise, before each battle he eats a meal to better understand his enemy, but this unsustainable idea quickly breaks down: by the second battle, the meal is already nothing but an excuse for a dumb pun (munching on cheesesticks = upcoming stick fight). Why we should care about this unofficial tournament is anyone’s guess; the movie is disinterested in exploring characters’ motivations or generating sympathy for them.

Each of the fights, on the other hand, offers an extra tidbit of interest, whether it’s an interloping turtle or a Zatoichi tribute. Things get weirder after the hero defeats the pistol master (who dresses as a Hollywood cowboy) and a side plot develops. Toramaru decides to go after a legendary weapon: wristbands rigged to fire bullets when you throw a punch. The original footage with the fist-guns, featuring a female fighter who is not one of Toramaru’s opponents, looks like it was taken from a different (unfinished?) movie. Koga wears a Van Dyke in the scenes before and after this one, but he’s mysteriously clean-shaven when he watches her dispatch a gang of generic badies. His customary facial hair returns for the rest of the movie. That’s an indication of the careless way Bushido Man is assembled from leftovers, which might strike you either as insultingly shoddy, or endearingly unpretentious, depending on your mood. The acquisition of these pugilistic firearms sets up a truly crazy, bloody finale, however, which “ends” with a closing credits gag that’s sure to catch you off guard.

Bushido Man lured me in with the promise that it would mix food porn with classic kung fu fights, sort of “Iron Chef” meets The Man with the Iron Fists. The actual experience was more like watching MMA bouts interrupted by Ramen noodle commercials.  Of course, sometimes you’re in the mood for junk food entertainment, and Bushido is heavily salted with absurdity. Just expect that you’ll be hungry for something a little more substantial a few hours after downing this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film as a whole tosses in enough ‘off the wall’ ideas that stick, producing a rousing good time. Inventiveness,  even when the concepts are at their most absurd, add a lot of character to the picture and keeps the viewers constantly guessing what might happen next.”–Edgar Chaput, Sound on Sight (festival screening)